Therapy provides a safe and confidential space for you to talk to a trained professional about your issues and concerns. Your therapist will help you explore your thoughts, feelings and behaviours so you can develop a better understanding of yourself and of others.

A counsellor will not give you their opinions or advice or prescribe medication. They will help you find your own solutions – whether that’s making effective changes in your life or finding ways of coping with your problems.

What happens in counselling

Counselling can take different forms depending on your needs and what type of therapy may be suitable.

Most therapy takes place in planned, regular sessions which last for around 50 minutes. How often you see your therapist and how many appointments you have will depend on your individual circumstances, and will be agreed between you and your therapist.

You might see a counsellor on your own, as a couple or family, or in a group with people who have similar issues. You might meet them face to face in their home, offices or clinic, or talk to them online or over the telephone.

During a session, your therapist may take you through specific exercises designed to help with your problem, or you might have more general discussions about how you're feeling. What you talk about will vary depend on what you want help with and the therapist’s approach. It could include:

  • your relationships
  • your childhood
  • your feelings, emotions or thoughts
  • your behaviour
  • past and present life events
  • situations you find difficult

Your therapist will be impartial but understanding. They will listen to you without judgment and help you explore your thoughts and emotions. They may offer information, but they won’t tell you what you should think or do.

For more information, see:

Introduction to counselling and psychotherapy (pdf 0.1MB)

What to expect in your first therapy session

Each counsellor has their own way of starting therapy but a first session should always cover:

  • Introductions
    Your therapist should spend a few minutes introducing themselves and explaining how they work. You can ask them about their qualifications and experience, your therapy or anything you’re not sure about. Your therapist will want to make sure you feel at ease by sorting out basic things like where you would like to sit, and whether you use first names or are more formal.

  • Assessment
    Your therapist may ask you if you would like to give a history of the problems you’re experiencing. They might want you to complete some forms, or go through information they’ve received about you, such as a letter from your GP. Or they may just ask you to ‘tell your story’. It’s important that you feel you’ve had the opportunity to tell the therapist about what’s troubling you.

  • Contracting
    Your therapist should agree the terms, or contract with you, about how they will provide their services. This may be either a verbal agreement or a printed document for you both to sign.

This first session is important for making sure that you feel comfortable with your therapist and their way of working. You don’t have to continue with a therapist if you can’t relate to them or don’t feel safe.

How to get the most out of your therapy

You’ll get the best results from your therapy if you’re open and honest with your therapist and say how you’re really feeling.

Your relationship with your therapist is very important. If you’re to work effectively together, you should feel safe and able to take risks by disclosing and discussing sensitive issues. That includes being able to give them honest feedback on how you feel about your therapy and how you’re working together.

There are many different types of therapist and therapy, so if you’re unsure about your therapist or their approach, you can look for another one.

If you feel uncomfortable, unsure or confused about anything in your therapy and you don’t feel able to talk to your therapist, see

What happens when therapy goes wrong? (pdf 0.1MB)

Our Get help with counselling concerns service also provides help, guidance and information on what to do if you have any concerns about your therapy or your therapist.