Ethical practice in counselling is built on common principles that reflect shared values in the helping professions. These are often listed as the foundational principles of autonomy, non-maleficence (do no harm), justice, beneficence (prioritizing the client’s best interests), loyalty, and honesty.
A positive perspective toward ethics shifts our focus toward the aspirational purpose they are meant to serve. This means we can use ethical principles as guides in our overall counselling work. The principles become another tool in our toolbox to help us choose questions and interventions that support broader healing and growth.
This is the second blog in a series exploring ethics as part of our everyday counselling work. It’s meant to support the growth of confidence and effectiveness for all counsellors by looking at practical steps to apply each principle.
Let’s continue with Beneficence.
Beneficence is the aspiration of counsellors to provide our services in a way that benefits the client or participant, not ourselves. This principle can seem straightforward and is clearly paramount to the work of supporting others. However, it’s important to recognize that practicing beneficence isn’t always simple.
As counsellors and helpers, we do benefit from doing this work – and that’s a good thing! For example, we get to experience the positive effects of compassion satisfaction, personal growth, and earning a living. But counselling work may also cost us our energy, and cause compassion fatigue or the feeling that we’re not doing enough when the demand is high. A second reason beneficence can be less than straightforward is that it needs to be built on a foundation of trust in the therapeutic relationship. We can’t assume this will occur naturally; rather, it comes through thoughtful and active steps.
For these reasons, it can be helpful to keep beneficence at the forefront of our counselling practice, so we can uphold the highest standard of support while also caring for ourselves and remaining resilient.
Beneficence is the aspiration of counsellors to provide our services in a way that benefits the client or participant, not ourselves.
Case Study: Ian
I first met Ian when he reached out after a breakup. He expressed sadness, loss, and anger about the way this relationship ended, and felt confused and helpless about the choice of his partner to end their connection. Ian expressed worry about connecting well in therapy as he had struggled with counselling relationships in the past. He was reticent to share too much about himself in our first session and was clear that he felt he really needed support.
In our first meeting, I wasn’t sure that I was the right person to support Ian. I could feel his hesitancy to open up with me, and, if I’m being completely honest, I found it difficult to find points of connection. We were very different in many ways, and he worriedly pointed these out: age (Ian was about 15 years older), culture (he described a strong religious affiliation and background different from my own), and gender (Ian noted that I reminded him of his ex-partner, who was also a woman with similar hair colour).
I realized that the principle of beneficence could help me in this early stage of building a trusting connection that would benefit Ian.
Strategies to cultivate beneficence:
Actively create opportunities for trust.
One of the clearest and simplest descriptions of beneficence I’ve heard is that it is active empathy. As counsellors, we rely on empathy almost as second nature. By becoming intentional about matching our empathy to the other person through tangible actions, the power of this resource deepens. One way I do this is by considering an act of care that would be particularly meaningful to the other person. This can be as simple as boiling water ahead of time for their preferred tea, or listening very carefully for what’s important to them but might not initially seem obvious.
One of the clearest and simplest descriptions of beneficence I’ve heard is that it is active empathy.
One of Ian’s ongoing stressors was money, and he was concerned that he couldn’t afford to continue living in his apartment. To me this was a priority to focus on for his overall stress. However, as I listened carefully, I realized that although he was concerned about money, he was feeling more stressed about the possible loss of other relationships at his local community centre due to the change in his relationship. When we explored and addressed his concerns about his social connections, it became clear he would be better able to address all of his other stressors as well.
Proactively learn about your client’s world.
Another part of active empathy is creating cultural safety and educating ourselves about the context and lived experience of those we are working with. Being proactive and doing some of our own legwork to learn about their culture, faith context, and community helps us be more culturally humble and nimble. It also creates more opportunities for connection, even across differences.
Ian had expressed the importance of his religious faith and how it has been a foundation for him throughout his life. As we discussed different resources Ian had tried accessing in the past, it became clear that he had often experienced a lack of fit based on values. This added to his feelings of isolation and distrust. To better understand Ian, it was helpful for me to spend some time looking at the website of the church he attended, as well as other community resources that might better fit his values. This gave us more points of connection together, enabling us to discuss what he found helpful and what he needed.
Active empathy is creating cultural safety and educating ourselves about the context and lived experience of those we are working with.
Invite feedback often.
Opportunities for our clients or participants to give us feedback on how they are experiencing our services are key for building trust, safety, and ensuring that their needs and goals are at the forefront of the work we are doing together. It can be helpful to have several methods available for people to provide feedback. To embody beneficence, it is important we regularly initiate these opportunities.
It became a routine part of our conversations to check in on Ian’s goals and how our connection was going. After about four meetings, I invited Ian to fill out a feedback form before our next session to revisit the initial goals he had when we first met. This proved very helpful in our next conversation as we noted areas that he still felt hesitant about – in particular, the fact that I reminded him of his ex. This was difficult for him to raise in session, but by writing it down, it provided an important opportunity to revisit this and continue to build our trust.
Build your own support and learning network.
Counselling work holds both benefits and costs for us as helpers, and we can protect and strengthen our own resilience by proactively and regularly tending to any fatigue, inner conflicts, or stress from the work. Beneficence holds the standard up so that we ensure we are privileging our client’s best interests, but this doesn’t mean ignoring our own needs or rights. Rather, it means we have ways to tend to ourselves and get the support we need.
Due to the differences between Ian and myself, I realized I was putting a lot of effort into being open and actively empathic. It caught me a bit by surprise during my next peer consultation group when I debriefed some of this work. I realized how much frustration I had pushed aside from the times I would disagree with Ian’s choices, or felt reminded of my past difficult experiences with others who held different cultural values than my own. Through talking this out with supportive peers, I regained clarity and compassion for Ian, as well as cultivated care for my own well-being.
Ethical principles create the foundation of solid, trauma-informed, and culturally-safe work.
Ethical principles create the foundation of solid, trauma-informed, and culturally-safe work. The principle of beneficence helps us ensure we are holding to the highest standard of ethical caring while also solidifying our own well-being.
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