Counselling

Supporting Autonomy – Ethics in Counselling

A strong ethical foundation is an important part of any counselling work. It allows counsellors and helpers to be the best version of themselves because they are being proactive in creating a positive environment for those they support.

Although ethics are mostly regarded as a set of rules that describe what should be avoided in the counselling context (e.g., financial exploitation, inappropriate relationships), they provide important boundaries to protect the well-being of the people we support and ensure we’re working within the parameters of our role.

Consider Ethics From a Positive Perspective

What if we chose to focus on ethics for the aspirational purpose they are meant to serve? To provide us with guidance on where to go, helping us choose our questions and interventions that support broader healing and growth. This approach is often referred to as a positive perspective toward ethics.

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, justice, beneficence (prioritizing the best interests of the client), non-maleficence (do no harm), loyalty, and honesty.

To make ethics a part of our everyday work as counsellors in a way that builds our confidence and deepens the effectiveness of the work we do – we need to unpack these aspirational concepts into practical steps.

Let’s start with Autonomy.

Autonomy expresses the aspiration to protect the independence of those we support, enabling them to make their own decisions for their lives.
Autonomy

The principle of autonomy expresses the aspiration to protect the independence of those we support, enabling them to make their own decisions for their lives. It highlights respect for individual values and beliefs that can guide people to use their voice to express themselves and make choices. This is a core developmental task for any person to become more attuned to their own values, and to chart a course for their life in the broader context of also respecting the rights and values of others. Autonomy requires building capacity and skill to make one’s own rational and grounded decisions.

Case Study: Layla

Layla began coming to counselling as a young adult. She was seeking support around increasing anxiety which was causing her a lot of distress in many areas of her life. Layla had recently moved out of her parents’ home and was both excited and overwhelmed by this new chapter. Clearly autonomy was something she was actively developing as she navigated the world on her own. Often when her anxiety levels would spike, several friends and family members would encourage her to return to her parents’ home. Layla was adamant that she did not want to do this, although she did greatly value regular phone calls with her parents as they helped her manage daily challenges. However, she struggled with self- doubt about her decision-making and worried that she couldn’t make it on her own.

Initially, supporting Layla seemed straightforward. Her goal to be more confident and independent from her family was supported by her age and stage of life. However, I realized that it would also be easy for me to slip into the role of an “older sister” by giving her advice or a “best friend” who simply cheers on her every thought, encouraging her to do her own thing. To hold true to the principle of autonomy, I needed a more thoughtful approach.

Using curious, open-ended questions that don’t lead the person anywhere in particular encourages them to explore their own thoughts and feelings.
Strategies to build autonomy:
Be curious and ask lots of questions from different perspectives.

It’s common to feel pressure about decisions from many sources, including family, society, and even ourselves – whether we intend it or not. Using curious, open-ended questions that don’t lead the person anywhere in particular encourages them to explore their own thoughts and feelings. By finding their own words, they will be better equipped to navigate their own feelings around a decision and recognize which ones are guided by what they think others want to hear.

As I asked Layla what she thought about certain situations in her life, she often responded quickly with “I have no idea . . .” She became accustomed to my prompts to take a few moments to consider how she felt and say whatever came to mind. Then I’d wait.

Take your client’s thoughts and emotions seriously – and help the client do the same.

When someone feels pressured to act or think a certain way, whether self-imposed or from others, they may be hesitant to move out of the familiar. It can feel risky and awkward to try something different for those who aren’t used to voicing their own preferences.

As Layla started to describe her own experience more, she often became embarrassed, quickly apologizing for her “silly thoughts” and dismissing her own emotions as “too wild and out of control.” One of our favourite practices became asking, “What if we took that emotion or thought seriously? What does it have to tell you?” This was one way we could practice giving her thoughts and feelings centre stage while also taking the time to explore them.

Notice connections to values.

True autonomy happens when we become aware and attuned to our own values. This allows us to make choices that are rooted in our personal value system and broader sense of purpose. By listening carefully for statements or words that link to values, we can support people to not just follow surface rules or whims, but rather feel a deeper connection between themselves and their choices.

As Layla struggled with decisions, she often spoke of hearing her grandmother’s voice, giving her teachings, and telling her stories. Together we named the importance of continuing family and cultural teachings as a core value for Layla. She came to realize that as much as she wanted independence, this didn’t mean she wanted to disconnect from her heritage. She was finding her own way to live it out in her daily life.

Broaden the frame to inquire about the person’s relationships.

A simple approach to autonomy may mean asking people what they want to do and validating their choices. This can create a clearer sense of self-determination. To follow a more positive ethic approach and explore autonomy more deeply, we can also broaden the frame around our conversations. This might mean asking about the relationships that matter to the person.

With Layla, this meant exploring how she anticipated her parents and grandparents would respond to her decisions. We regularly imagined her various friends and how they would question or encourage her. This allowed Layla to more deeply think through decisions she would feel good about, and it anchored her self-determination within her relationships which were central to her values.

Consider our own feelings, beliefs, and values.

When we make space for people to explore their own ideas, emotions, and values, it inevitably stirs up our own. It’s completely normal and expected that our clients won’t always make choices we would make for ourselves. We may find ourselves holding very different values and opinions. This is when I find the ethical principles particularly helpful to keep me grounded and clear.

When we make space for people to explore their own ideas, emotions, and values, it inevitably stirs up our own.

Layla held many beliefs and preferences that differ from my own, and at times her choices seemed to me to be constraining, and perhaps limiting what she could be discovering in life and herself. However, by following the above steps, I was able to distinguish when my own doubts or pushback were really coming from my own preferences and did not belong in the conversation around Layla’s choices. A fascinating benefit of this kind of work is that I sometimes felt challenged by Layla, which allowed me to become even more clear on my own values, and how to live my life more autonomously and authentically connected. I found myself spending more time reflecting and remembering my grandmother’s teachings, and for that I am very grateful.

Ethics are more than just rules that we follow to ensure we aren’t doing anything wrong as counsellors or helpers. As a foundation to however we do our counselling work, ethical principles like autonomy can deepen our approach to ensure we are creating ethical counselling spaces.

This not only results in more ethical counselling – it can lead to much deeper growth and confidence in those we support, and in our own professional identity as ethical helpers.

Ethical principles like autonomy can deepen our approach to ensure we are creating ethical counselling spaces.

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