Giving Advice Versus Psychotherapy

When it comes to psychotherapy, there is a common misunderstanding that the psychologist is there to tell you what to do.  In other words, to give you advice. It’s a misunderstanding because giving advice is not what psychologists actually do. A psychologist’s role is far more complex than that.

Think about it… how could anyone arrive, give the psychologist a broad overview of the issue that is troubling them and expect to be told what to do to fix it all within a typical 50 to 60 minute consultation? It’s unrealistic. Especially when the issue is probably:

  • complicated (if it was simple they would have sorted it out already),
  • involves patterns of thinking and behaviour that have been a lifetime in the making and are probably unconscious or out of the individual’s awareness,
  • entangled in many different elements of the individual’s life and
  • wrapped up in painful and difficult emotions which the client may not want to even admit to, let alone deal with.

And that’s just the start. It’s not only the problematic issue at hand that needs to be considered. Many other factors will also need to be taken into account because they inform what is most appropriate for each individual and what each individual is capable of achieving. These factors will include things like the client’s personality, culture, religion, beliefs, values, self-esteem, sexual identity, resilience, mental and physical health, support networks, education, IQ, EQ, environmental, social and occupational circumstances…

I could go on and on, but you get the picture - it’s extremely complex.

Of course, it would be the easiest thing in the world for a psychologist to give advice. With no reflection at all, they could, like anyone else, share observations, deliver opinions and convey their beliefs. They could even do this without requiring any input from anyone else, including their client!

If advice is what you want – to be told what to do – then you don’t need to pay a psychologist’s fees to get it. You can get it for free from the person standing behind you in a supermarket queue!

So what then is the difference between being given advice and psychotherapy? Below is a table which summarises the key differences:

Giving AdvicePsychotherapy

Anyone can give advice

Only a psychotherapist can do psychotherapy

Giving advice requires no skill (anyone can give advice, anytime)

Psychotherapy requires specific, complex skills (long-term, in-depth training is required)

Can involve one-way communication (speeches, pamphlets, radio programmes etc.)

Always involves two-way communication (active listening and feedback)

No empathy (ability to put yourself into the other person’s world) is required

Empathy for and understanding of the client is required by the therapist

Is directive

Is usually non-directive

The advice-giver tells the individual what to do

The client makes their own decisions about what to do

Can lead to dependence on the advice giver

Goal is to develop the client’s independence

The implication is that the advice-giver takes responsibility for the individual’s behaviour

The implication is that the client takes responsibility for their own behaviour

Is judgmental and evaluative

Is non-judgmental and caring

The individual’s self- esteem remains low and confidence is in the advice-giver

The client’ self-esteem is boosted and confidence in the self is developed

Unlikely to lead to behaviour change

Likely to lead to deep and lasting behaviour change

Leads to intellectual insight only (no behaviour change)

Leads to emotional insight (and therefore behaviour change)

The focus is on doing the behaviour or action

The focus is on the causes and/or consequences of the behaviour or action

May arise out of the advice giver’s needs (e.g. to help, to be nice, to be right etc.)

Arises out of the client’s needs

Download the free poster: Giving Advice Versus Psychotherapy – A Summary

Let’s unpack a few of the key differences:

Anyone can Give Advice, Whereas Only a Psychotherapist can do Psychotherapy

Giving advice requires no skill. Absolutely anyone can give advice, at any time. Giving advice is easy. It requires no education, learning or even a full understanding of the issues at hand. Giving advice does not depend on any thought. Most of us are capable of dishing out advice at a moment’s notice and even a toddler could tell you what to do if you asked them.

Psychotherapy, on the other hand, requires specific, complex skills. In order to engage in psychotherapy, a psychologist must study for a minimum of 6 – 7 years of university education. The path to become a registered psychologist in South Africa looks something like this for a full-time psychology student:

  • 3-year undergraduate degree with psychology as one of the major subjects.
  • 1-year Honours degree in psychology
  • 1-2-year Master’s Degree in Psychology (length depends on the university)
  • 1-year Internship under appropriate supervision
  • Written board exam with the relevant governing body. In South Africa this is the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA)
  • Registration with the HPCSA in order to practice as a psychologist.

And it doesn’t end there. In order to maintain their professional registration the psychologist must undertake a certain amount of ongoing training and education every year and be subjected to Continuing Professional Development audits.

Besides an extensive knowledge and understanding of psychological theory, a psychologist is also required to be highly skilled in practical therapeutic techniques. For example, psychotherapy requires active listening, empathy and feedback, which are not required in giving advice.

When it comes to listening, a psychotherapist must have highly developed listening skills in order to be able to listen intently to their client. They need to listen to what is said and what is not said and be aware of the exact words the client is using. They need to listen to how things are said and pay acute attention to all of the non-verbal messages the client is giving through the sound of their voice, posture, gestures, facial expression and spatial position. They need to listen to the quality of their client’s silences because there is so much information the therapist can gain by paying attention to silence. For example, has the client just finished talking and is waiting for you to respond? Are they too embarrassed or too scared to go on? Have they forgotten what they wanted to say, or lost their train of thought? Are they struggling to find the words to say what they want to say? Why are these things happening?

When it comes to empathy, a psychotherapist must have highly developed empathic skills because empathy it is central to psychotherapy. Empathy is the ability of one person (the psychotherapist) to appreciate another person's (the client’s) thoughts and feelings from his/her (the client’s) point of view and to communicate this appreciation to the other person (the client).

In psychotherapy, the therapist offers empathy and not sympathy. Sympathy is knowing what it feels like for you; empathy is knowing what it is like for them. When a client makes a comment like: “How can you counsel me if you have never been married / raped / addicted?” etcetera, they are looking for sympathy, not empathy. Sympathy is not particularly helpful, because each person’s experiences are essentially unique and to impose your own experience on another person and assume it was/is the same for them is not helpful in trying to understand the other person’s experiences, thoughts and feelings fully.

The psychologist must also be able to reflect what they have heard back to the client in a meaningful way that conveys empathy and understanding. For many people just being truly heard and understood is a new experience and in itself can be incredibly healing.

Psychotherapy requires many more skills than the ones I have mentioned here, but I think it is clear enough that psychotherapy requires a highly trained individual, whereas in order to give advice you do not require any training, you don’t need to listen to the individual and you don’t need empathy or understanding. In fact, to give advice you don’t even need to talk - you could just hand out some literature like a pamphlet or book, or you could direct them to a video or audio recording on the topic.

Giving Advice is Directive, Whereas Psychotherapy is Usually Non-directive

In this context, the term “directive” means “serving to direct” or “directing”. In other words, deciding for someone else what they should be thinking, feeling, doing etc. and how and when they should be thinking it, feeling it and doing it, and telling them that.

When we give advice we are evaluative and judgemental – we make decisions about what someone else should or should not think, feel and do based on our own understanding, beliefs and view of the world. We often fail to take into account that other people may have very different beliefs and opinions, so what may be easy and/or appropriate for us, could in fact be difficult and/or inappropriate for someone else. The advice is then either going to be ignored, or result in even more confusion and difficulties for the individual.

By telling the individual what to do, the advice-giver takes responsibility for the individual’s behaviour and the individual never learns to trust their own thinking and decisions. As a result, the individual does not gain self-esteem or self-confidence and becomes dependent on the advice-giver telling them what to do. Very often, wanting to be told what to do, instead of taking responsibility for their choices and behaviour, is at the root of the individual’s difficulties or could even be the problem.

Psychotherapy is non-judgemental and guides and assists the client to work out the correct course of action for themselves, based on their own (the client’s) world view. Of course the psychologist brings all their knowledge and understanding of the human mind, behaviour, personality, psychopathology etcetera to bear in order to assist the client to do this. In this way the chosen course of action is appropriate and the client has the best chance of being able to follow through with it. Their self-esteem is in this way enhanced and the client is empowered to make future decisions for themselves. The aim of the psychotherapist is to ensure that their client does not become dependent on them, and by making their own decisions and taking responsibility for their choices, the client gains the skills and confidence in themselves to be independent.

This does not mean that all psychotherapy is non-directive. Or that psychotherapy is always non-directive. Sometimes psychologists need to be very directive. In my own practice, I am sometimes directive. For example, when I work with couples I will often give them “homework” such as communication exercises to do between our sessions. With depressed individuals, I may make recommendations about practical things they can do, alongside the therapy, to improve their mood. With clients who suffer from anxiety, I may teach them breathing or relaxation techniques to help them manage their anxiety. I sometimes encourage clients to visit their GP or a psychiatrist. An extreme example of being directive would be if a client has suicidal ideation (thoughts of suicide), and I help the client to make a plan about who to call and what to do to keep themselves safe if they become actively suicidal. If they are already actively suicidal, I will need to get them into hospital and will make decisions to achieve this.

These examples of being directive, however, are specific treatment approaches to specific problems and are not about telling a client what to do with major life decisions.

Giving Advice Usually Leads to Intellectual Insight Only (no Behaviour Change), Whereas Psychotherapy Leads to Emotional Insight (and Therefore Behaviour Change)

When it comes to changing our behaviour we need much more than just facts or information (intellectual insight). For example, most of us know what we should be doing to live a really healthy lifestyle. We have the information we need to make healthy choices in terms of diet, exercise, sleep etcetera and yet we still continue to make poor lifestyle choices that cause us physical, mental and emotional harm. The same can be said about many other choices we make. We have the information, but we ignore it. Why should this be so?

Because, underlying all our behaviour is a complex system of conscious and unconscious feelings and beliefs which have an impact on our behaviour. If we want to understand our behaviour (actions) and make better choices for ourselves we need to understand the feelings and beliefs that influence, drive or motivate our behaviour.

There are many different psychological theories that explain what influences, drives or motivates behaviour and different psychologists will work with different theories to help the client gain a deeper understanding of their behaviour. The focus of psychotherapy is on the causes and/or consequences of the behaviour or action, rather than on the doing of the behaviour or action, which is what advice-giving focuses on.

The aim of psychotherapy is to help the client through a process of self-discovery, to better understand their inner world and relationships. To explore their feelings and learn about themselves. Psychotherapy is not a quick fix. It takes both time and deep reflection for the client to see the themes and patterns of their life. With this deeper emotional insight the client is empowered to make real and lasting behaviour change. Sometimes, however, there are no answers and there may be no solutions. Sometimes learning to sit with the pain and confusion is the best journey the client can go on and it is the role of the psychotherapist to facilitate this in a safe and healthy way.

When it comes to comparing giving advice and psychotherapy, an important factor to be aware of is that giving advice may arise out of the advice giver’s needs, whereas, psychotherapy arises out of the client’s needs. What does that mean?

There are many reasons why people give advice, and while it may or may not benefit their audience, the giving of advice usually does benefit the advice-giver. For example, the advice-giver may have low self-esteem and so have a (usually unconscious) need to prove their worth by showing how clever or helpful they are. They may have a need for control and so tell others what to do. They may have a need to heal from a trauma they have experienced and helping others is a cathartic and healing experience for them. Whatever the reason, when it comes to giving advice it often comes out of the advice-givers own needs.

Psychotherapy on the other hand, focuses on the client’s needs. Becoming conscious of their own needs is an important part of being a psychologist and so psychologists will usually invest in many hours of their own personal psychotherapy to achieve this awareness. During a psychotherapy session with a client, the psychologist will use their awareness to set aside their own needs and focus on their client needs. Obviously this is more beneficial for the client, than the psychologist, which is the intention.

So, now that you understand the difference between them, you are empowered to make a conscious and deliberate choice about what it is you are seeking.

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