Revitalize Your Style: Spring Cleaning for Counselors

By Sarah M. Backes-Diaz

Successful counselors in the 21st century must be armed with a variety of strategies, interventions and helpful "tools" in order to effectively serve our diverse clients and their diverse needs. After establishing ourselves professionally, it can be very common to fall into a counseling "rut". While it is understandable, and perhaps practical, to have these safety, default tools and interventions always at our disposal, it is even more important to challenge ourselves and to continually expand our counseling practice. Staying fresh and up-to-date is not always an easy process in our field, given the plethora of new research, theories, and modalities developed every year. However, making a commitment to on-going professional development and personal growth is a crucial goal in a field as dynamic as counseling. You should regularly ask yourself if a particular strategy, question, or homework assignment is truly the best fit for the individual sitting in front of you. Therefore, the more resources and tools you have to choose from, the more likely you will be able to facilitate a successful counseling session based on the needs and personality of your clients.

When I was a counseling graduate student I was excited, yet overwhelmed, by the multitude of unique counseling theories and interventions I was exposed to. I found myself wanting to experiment with a multitude of approaches in order to find my preferred counseling style. My challenge was that I was taking away so many fabulous insights via my class discussions and course readings, but when it came to my in-session interactions my mind would often go blank! I would think to myself, "What was that great new question or intervention I wanted to utilize with my client today?" While much of my frustration was related to being a trainee, I also felt that I was utilizing an ineffective process for collecting and synthesizing the interventions and counseling questions that appealed to me. I was simply unable to remember all of the options that lay before me, and I was allowing potentially helpful insights and resources to slip through my fingertips. How many of us can relate to reading an insightful article or attending a motivating conference session, but then never applying that new knowledge to our everyday practice?

If you can relate to this professional challenge, you may be thinking to yourself, "I agree. But how do I go about capturing innovative ideas and revitalizing my counseling approach?" My suggestion is to develop and maintain what I call a "Counseling Tool Box".

My Tool Box started out as a collection of random notes informally pieced together in a Microsoft Word file. The idea was originally suggested to me by a graduate professor who recommended that I keep a formal tally of the approaches and interventions that resonated with me. From that point on, I made a habit of highlighting and checking off new additions for my growing Tool Box as I read new material. Today I refer to this document on a regular basis in order to refresh my style and to remind myself to be creative, innovative, and flexible. My Tool Box is divided into the following sections:

  • My Objectives/Goals of Career Counseling
  • My Stages/Dimensions for a Successful Counseling Interview
  • Helpful Statements (to clarify, direct, or restructure a session)
  • Creative Counseling Interventions, Activities, and Homework Assignments
  • Sample Questions, divided into sub-categories, including:
    • assessment-related
    • career exploration
    • solution-focused/goal-setting
    • problem-solving
    • questions for career changers/new career path
    • evaluation/spot-checking
    • generalization of learning to life outside the session.

Regularly referring to this list reminds me to ask unique questions outside of my standard inventory, but also to identify new approaches that might better fit the needs, culture, or personality style of a particular client. Questions such as, "If you could have a magic wand and get to try any career for a year, what would you pick?", or "What is the worst career you can imagine having, and what is it about that career that doesn't fit with you?", and "Stop for a moment and imagine that you could wake up tomorrow and things could be perfect - what would be different in your life?" are all examples of questions that come directly from my Tool Box.

You probably have many wonderful tools already accessible to you - but likely they are tucked away in corners of your mind, hidden in your bookcase, or right next door in your colleague's existing repertoire! Here are some tips to help you:

  • As you read professional websites and articles, keep an eye out for new ideas and interventions and immediately add them to your Tool Box
  • Review old journals and conference materials to rediscover forgotten tools
  • Spend some time reflecting on your professional training and early days in the field. What tools did you use then that you'd like to reintroduce into your practice?
  • Consult with colleagues to discover unique tools you can "borrow"
  • Read Career Convergence and similar publications, always looking for new tools
  • Make a commitment to professional development. Read new books about varying counseling styles and interventions and attend conferences and workshops, collecting new tools as you go.

What I love about my Tool Box is its unique, creative flair; something that will serve me far into the future. What's in YOUR toolbox?

Sarah Backes-Diaz, M.S., is a Career Counselor for the University of California, Berkeley. Sarah works primarily with students in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, as well as students pursuing careers in the non-profit and public service sector. She is also one of pre-law advisors for Berkeley undergraduates, and greatly enjoys working with undeclared students to help them clarify and define their interests and goals.

Sarah earned her M.S. Degree in College & Career Counseling from San Francisco State University in May 2006. Prior to completing her degree, she served year-long professional internships at both UC Berkeley and Mills College in Oakland, a small, private liberal arts college for women. Prior to her career in the counseling profession, Sarah earned her B.S. Degree in Hospitality Management from SFSU, and worked in the hospitality industry as an event planner/coordinator. However, her lifelong passion for education and service lead her to pursue a career change in 2003 when she began her graduate program in counseling. She can be reached at

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