Communication in Counseling

Communication is difficult to define as it can be understood from a variety of perspectives. Dominic Infante, Andrew Rancer, and Deanna Womack suggest that communication occurs between humans when the meaning of symbols is manipulated to stimulate meaning. From this perspective, communication is important for promoting cooperation. Humans are social in nature and require cooperation if they are to get along and thrive. Communication also involves acquiring and sharing information through various venues such as the 24-hour news services, newspapers, and the World Wide Web.

Models of Communication

Ronald Adler and Neil Towne and Infante, Rancer, and Womack described several models of communication. The linear model describes communication in simple unidirectional terms—how information from a sender is communicated to a receiver. In this process, a sender encodes a message (by preparing an existing ideal for transmission) and sends the message through a channel (e.g., letter) to a receiver, who decodes (interprets) the message. The linear model proposes that noise and environment are important variables that can influence communication. Noise involves factors that can undermine the process of communication (e.g., psychological stress), and environment relates to factors such as personal experiences and physical setting that can influence communication.

The transactional model suggests that communication is not simply unidirectional (a sender transmitting a message to a receiver) but also is influenced by feedback that can include the responses of the people involved. From this perspective, individuals are referred to as communicators and not senders or receivers, as they are alternately senders and receivers throughout the communication process.

Communication and Counseling

Communication can impact counseling in a variety of ways, such as through listening skills and multicultural issues.

Listening Skills

Adler and Towne noted that more people spend time listening than any other form of communication. Effective communication skills are emphasized in counseling. This is especially true in marriage and family counseling where communication problems are a central focus. In this process, family members are often taught to use listening skills to obtain a phenomenological perspective (seeing others’ point of view). Listening skills that promote the phenomenological perspective include open-ended statements, paraphrasing, minimal encouragers, clarifying, and reflection of feeling.

Communication of empathy is a particularly important listening skill. According to Carl Rogers, empathy is considered a core condition in counseling and can be defined as communicating a sense of caring and understanding. According to this definition, empathy involves not just caring but being perceived as caring. In other words, a person could care about a person but not get credit for caring, unless the caring is effectively communicated to the other person.

Multicultural Issues

In terms of multicultural communication in counseling, multiculturalism will be defined in an all-inclusive manner, including race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, disability, and more. Miscommunication can occur in multicultural counseling as a result of not considering cultural issues associated with language differences and nonverbal behavior. Language differences can include counselors using standard English with bilingual clients, resulting in inaccurate assessment of clients. Nonverbal behavior can also create challenges in multicultural counseling. For example, it might be problematic for a European American counselor to misinterpret the direct eye contact of an African American client as anger.

Derald Wing Sue and David Sue examined the subtleties of nonverbal communication through various dimensions. A counselor may benefit from noting similarities and differences with comfort and emotional reactions to personal and interpersonal space (e.g., how close the counselor and client sit), physical movement (e.g., eye contact, hand gestures), and vocal cues (e.g., loudness, silence, rate). Sue and Sue emphasize the importance of recognizing these and other contextual and process modes of communicating during counseling.

Marvin Westwood and F. Ishu Ishiyama provided guidelines that could be used to address communication issues in multicultural counseling.

  • Counselors should check with clients regarding the accuracy of their impressions associated with nonverbal communication.
  • Counselors can help clients experience catharsis by encouraging them to use their own language to express a feeling when another language cannot adequately describe how they are feeling.
  • Counselors should attempt to learn culturally appropriate responses to accurately describe clients’ experiences.
  • Counselors can use creative arts modalities, such as music and art, to overcome communication barriers.

Multicultural Model for Communication in Counseling

Westwood and Ishiyama summarized a culturally embedded model for understanding communication. Unlike previous models of communication in the counseling relationship, this model assumes that cross-cultural clients enter the session with a unique language and way to relate socially. As such, it is assumed that the primary effort of initial counseling sessions is for clients to begin to understand their unique way of seeing themselves in their world (intrapersonal communication). As clients feel they are both beginning to understand themselves and are being understood by their counselors, there will be simultaneous development in being understood verbally and nonverbally (interpersonal communication), which is the unique focus of traditional models. There are three primary assumptions included in this model:

  • Communication involves culturally constructed verbal and nonverbal behavior, which is often not conscious and varies between cultures.
  • Individuals’ perceptions of communication are at least partially determined by one’s own culture, which influences both counselors and clients.
  • Communicative processes are directly influenced by the situation and feelings of clients and counselors.

The multicultural model suggests that counselors are most effective when both counselor and client attempt to promote client self-understanding. In this process, the counselor can facilitate cross-cultural client communication by demonstrating an understanding of clients’ unique experiences and perspectives, understanding how clients uniquely express their perspective both verbally and nonverbally, and developing multicultural competencies.

Future Directions

When counselors emphasize multicultural communication in counseling, they increase the likelihood of validating the client, enhancing the counselor-client relationship, and improving the likelihood of reaching the counseling goals. Both beginning and veteran counselors demonstrate respect and better assist their clients by understanding their own communication style, understanding the communication style of the dominant cultures, and understanding the communication style of each client. Future research can explore these unique dynamics.


  1. Adler, R. B., & Towne, N. (2002). Looking out/Looking in. Orlando, FL: Harcourt.
  2. Evans, D. R., Hearn, M. T., Uhlemann, M. R., & Ivey, A. E. (2004). Essential interviewing: A programmed approach to effective communication (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson-Brooks/Cole.
  3. Infante, D. A., Rancer, A. S., & Womack, D. F. (1990). Building communication theory. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
  4. Rogers, C. (1951). Client-centered therapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  5. Sue, D. W., & Sue, D. (2008). Counseling the culturally diverse (5th ed.). New York: Wiley.
  6. Westwood, M. J., & Ishiyama, F. L. (1990). The communication process as a critical intervention for client change in cross-cultural counseling. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 18(4), 163-171.

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