Counseling Fundamentals

The Leader as Counselor

2-1. To be effective, counseling must be a shared effort. Leaders assist their subordinates in identifying strengths and weaknesses and creating plans of action. Once an individual development plan is agreed upon, leaders support their Soldiers and Army Civilians throughout implementation and continued assessment. To achieve success, subordinates must be forthright in their commitment to improve and candid in their own assessments and goal setting.

2-2. Army leaders evaluate Army Civilian job performance using procedures prescribed under civilian personnel policies. Use of DA Form 4856 is appropriate to counsel Army Civilians on professional growth and career goals. The servicing civilian personnel office should be consulted when using a DA Form 4856 to counsel an Army Civilian concerning misconduct or poor performance.

2-3. Army leaders conduct counseling to help subordinates become better team members, maintain or improve performance, and prepare for the future. While it is not easy to address every possible counseling situation, leader self-awareness and an adaptable counseling style focusing on key characteristics will enhance personal effectiveness as a counselor. These key characteristics include:

  • Purpose: Clearly define the purpose of the counseling.
  • Flexibility: Adapt the counseling approach to each subordinate, situation, and relationship.
  • Respect: View subordinates as unique, complex individuals with distinct values, beliefs, and attitudes.
  • Communication: Establish open, two-way communication with subordinates using verbal and nonverbal actions (such as body language or gestures). Effective counselors listen more than they speak.
  • Support: Encourage subordinates through direction, guidance, and supportive actions.

The Qualities of the Counselor

2-4. Army leaders must demonstrate certain qualities to be effective counselors. These qualities include respect for subordinates, self-awareness, cultural awareness, empathy, and credibility.

2-5. One challenging aspect of counseling is selecting the proper approach to a specific situation. To counsel effectively, the technique used must fit the situation, leader capabilities, and subordinate expectations. Sometimes, leaders may only need to give information or listen, while in other situations a subordinate’s improvement may call for a brief word of praise. Difficult circumstances may require structured counseling followed by definite actions, such as referrals to outside agencies.

2-6. Self-aware Army leaders consistently develop and improve their own counseling abilities. They do so by studying human behavior, understanding the kinds of problems that affect their subordinates, and developing their interpersonal skills. The techniques needed to provide effective counseling vary from person to person and session to session. However, general skills that leaders will need in almost every situation include active listening, responding, and appropriate questioning.

Counseling Skills

2-7. Military leaders are trained to analyze missions, identify required tasks, and take appropriate actions. Some of these skills apply to counseling as leaders use problem-solving and decisionmaking skills to identify and apply the proper counseling techniques to specific counseling situations.

2-8. To be effective, counselors must have these basic counseling skills:

  • Active listening.
  • Responding.
  • Appropriate questioning.

Active Listening

2-9. Active listening implies listening thoughtfully and deliberately to capture the nuances of the subordinate’s language. Stay alert for common themes. A subordinate’s opening and closing statements as well as recurring references may indicate personal priorities. Inconsistencies and gaps may indicate an avoidance of the real issue. Certain inconsistencies may suggest additional questions by the counselor.

2-10. Active listening communicates that the leader values the subordinate and enables reception of the subordinate’s message. To capture and understand the message fully, leaders listen to what is said and observe the subordinate’s mannerisms. Key elements of active listening include:

  • Eye contact. Maintaining eye contact without staring helps show sincere interest. Occasional breaks of eye contact are normal and acceptable, while excessive breaks, paper shuffling, clock- watching, and repeated mobile telephone checks may indicate a lack of interest or concern.
  • Body posture. Being relaxed and comfortable will help put the subordinate at ease. However, an overly relaxed position or slouching may be interpreted as a lack of interest.
  • Head nods. Occasional nodding indicates attention and encourages the subordinate to continue.
  • Facial expressions. Keep facial expressions natural and relaxed to signal a sincere interest.
  • Verbal expressions. Refrain from talking too much and avoid interrupting. Let the subordinate do the talking, while keeping the discussion on the counseling subject.
  • Check for understanding. Paraphrase or summarize points back to the subordinate for confirmation; for example, “What I heard was…”.

2-11. Leaders pay attention to the subordinate’s gestures to understand the complete message. By watching a subordinate’s actions, leaders identify the emotions behind the words. Not all actions are proof of feelings but they should be considered. Nonverbal indicators of leader and subordinate attitude include:

  • Interest, friendliness, and openness. Be aware that counselor actions must be context and situation specific. For example, leaning toward the subordinate may be considered as expressing interest or being aggressive—the counselor must be able to understand how the subordinate will interpret this action.
  • Self-confidence. Standing tall, leaning back with hands behind the head, and maintaining steady eye contact.
  • Anxiety. Sitting on the edge of the chair with arms uncrossed and hands open.
  • Boredom. Drumming on the table, doodling, clicking a ballpoint pen, or resting the head in the palm of the hand.
  • Defensiveness. Pushing deeply into a chair, glaring, or making sarcastic comments as well as crossing or folding arms in front of the chest.
  • Frustration. Rubbing eyes, pulling on an ear, taking short breaths, wringing the hands, or frequently changing total body position.

2-12. Leaders consider each indicator carefully. Although each may reveal something about the subordinate, do not judge too quickly. When unsure, leaders look for reinforcing indicators or check the subordinate to understand the behavior, determine what underlies it, and allow the subordinate to understand the conditions that led to the behavior and to take responsibility.


2-14. Although focused questioning is an important skill, counselors should use it with caution. During professional growth counseling, leaders should ask open-ended questions to obtain information or to get the subordinate to think deeper about a particular situation. Questions should evoke more than a yes or no answer and not lead toward a specific answer or conclusion. Well-posed questions deepen understanding, encourage further discussion, and create a constructive experience. Too many questions can aggravate the power differential between a leader and a subordinate and place the subordinate in a passive mode. The subordinate may also react to excessive questioning, especially if it resembles an interrogation, as an intrusion of privacy and become defensive.

Counseling Practices

2-15. Dominating the session by talking too much, giving unnecessary or inappropriate advice, not truly listening, and projecting biases and prejudices all interfere with effective counseling. Competent leaders avoid rash judgments, stereotyping, losing emotional control, inflexible counseling methods, or improper follow-up. Leaders should be open to new ideas and thoughts.

2-16. Leaders conduct effective counseling sessions and improve their counseling skills when they follow these general guidelines:

  • Determine the subordinate’s role in the situation and what has been done to resolve the issue.
  • Focus attention on the subordinate. Listen to what is said and how it is said to understand what the subordinate says and feels.
  • Encourage the subordinate to take the initiative and speak aloud.
  • Remain objective; avoid confirming a subordinate’s prejudices.
  • Display empathy when discussing the issue. Be receptive to the subordinate’s emotions without feeling responsible.
  • Ask open-ended questions for relevant information; avoid interrogating the subordinate.
  • Listen more and talk less; avoid interrupting.
  • Keep personal experiences out of the counseling session.
  • Draw conclusions based on all available information, not just the subordinate’s statement.
  • Enable the subordinate to help himself or herself.
  • Know what information to keep confidential and what to present to the chain of command, if necessary.

Accepting Limitations

2-17. Army leaders cannot help everyone in every situation. Army leaders should recognize their personal limitations and seek outside assistance when required. When necessary, leaders refer a subordinate to an agency more qualified to help.

2-18. Although it is generally in an individual’s best interest to begin by seeking help from his or her first- line leaders, leaders should respect an individual’s preference to contact outside support agencies.

Addressing Resistance

2-19. Resistance in counseling may stem from either the leader or subordinate and may occur in several ways. Identifying and understanding the possible forms of resistance is essential. A leader may be reluctant to counsel subordinates because the leader has not been counseled, has had no effective role modeling for what is involved in the process, or does not understand how to conduct counseling. Additionally, leaders may feel there is no time to do counseling, counseling will not be a constructive use of time, or counseling will violate a regulation or policy. They may associate counseling with only negative issues such as dispensing punishment or correcting poor performance. Further, leaders may not want to confront a subordinate. Other typical reasons for leader reluctance involve a lack of respect for the subordinate, believing the subordinate lacks potential, or encountering constant issues with the subordinate.

2-20. Subordinate resistance often occurs as a reaction to the purpose or message of the counseling session. They may be embarrassed, misunderstand the intention of the counseling session, or disagree with the leader’s assessment of the situation. Subordinates may not want to change, may blame the leader for the issue or behavior at hand, may dislike being held accountable, or may defy being disciplined. In some cases, the subordinate may not respect or trust the leader.

2-21. Leaders may preempt potential subordinate resistance by opening the counseling session with a discussion of the purpose of the session, expectations of the session, and how they relate to the subordinate’s short- and long-term goals. Through regular periodic counseling, leaders should understand and be aware of the subordinate’s goals. For the session to be effective, leaders must focus on the issue and adapt the counseling to the subordinate’s needs and understanding.

2-22. Once a leader understands that counseling subordinates is a significant leader responsibility in developing subordinates’ potential, leader reluctance to counsel can be overcome through preparation and improving counseling skills. Leaders successfully overcome subordinate resistance by applying positive counseling practices. After the leader identifies the source of a subordinate’s resistance, then the counseling process can be adapted to accommodate and overcome the resistance.

2-23. To overcome resistance in counseling, leaders can employ several techniques to redirect the subordinate:

  • Reconfirm the counseling session purpose—be specific and keep focused on the details (such as conditions, triggers, and outcomes) of the situation; refrain from any personal attacks on the subordinate.
  • Keep the discussion professional and balanced in tone—do not argue or place blame on any party.
  • Discuss the suspected resistance openly with the subordinate and respect his or her response.
  • Slow the tempo of the session—rely on pertinent open-ended questions to give the subordinate the appropriate time and ability to reveal information and be an active participant in the counseling session.
  • Focus on one specific behavior, its effect, and the consequences to minimize overwhelming the subordinate. It may be necessary to divide the session into multiple meetings to address each area adequately. Further, the leader should prioritize these discussions based on the needs of the individual and unit.

The Four-Stage Counseling Process

2-24. Effective Army leaders use a four-stage counseling process:

  • Identify the need for counseling.
  • Prepare for counseling.
  • Conduct the counseling session.
  • Follow-up.

Stage 1: Identify The Need For Counseling

2-25. The success of counseling depends on the preparatory steps that the counselor takes before the counseling session (formal or informal) occurs. The counselor must develop a clear purpose, have an assessment of the situation, and an idea of possible outcomes that are desired. However, counseling is an interactive and dynamic process where assessments and follow-on actions come from a trusted exchange between the counselor and individual receiving counseling. The counselor must consider desired outcomes during preparation or before conducting a counseling session. Counseling requires the leader to be informed and prepared for contingencies that may arise during the counseling session. 2-26. Army and organizational policies may direct the timing or focused elements of a counseling session, such as performance counseling associated with an evaluation or professional growth counseling. Leaders may conduct developmental counseling whenever the need arises for focused, two-way open communication aimed at a subordinate’s development. Developing subordinates consists of observing the

subordinate’s performance, comparing it to established standards, and providing feedback through counseling. For event counseling, the leader must confirm or seek new information and remain open to new assessments of the event and related goals or corrections.

Stage 2: Prepare For Counseling

2-27. Successful counseling requires preparation in the following areas:

  • Select a suitable place.
  • Schedule the time.
  • Notify the subordinate well in advance.
  • Outline the components of the counseling session.
  • Organize information and draft a plan of action.
  • Plan the counseling strategy.
  • Establish the right atmosphere.

Select a Suitable Place

2-28. Conduct the counseling session in an environment that minimizes interruptions and is free from distracting sights and sounds. The location should allow for privacy as the counseling session may cover personal issues not intended for public knowledge. In addition, the selected location needs to provide the right atmosphere appropriate for the counseling session.

Schedule the Time

2-29. When possible, leaders should formally counsel a subordinate during the duty day. Counseling after duty hours may be rushed or perceived as unfavorable. Select a time free from competition with other activities. Leaders should consider that important events occurring after the session could distract a subordinate from concentrating on the counseling session. The scheduled time for counseling should also be appropriate for the complexity of the issue at hand. Generally, counseling sessions should last less than an hour.

Notify the Subordinate Well in Advance

2-30. Counseling is a subordinate-centered, two-person effort for which the subordinate must have adequate time to prepare. The person being counseled should know why, where, and when the counseling takes place. Counseling tied to a specific event should happen as closely to the event occurrence as possible. For performance or professional development counseling, subordinates may need a week or more to prepare or review specific documents and resources, including evaluation support forms or counseling records.

Outline the Components of the Counseling Session

2-31. Using the available information, leaders determine the focus and specific topics for the counseling session. Leaders should identify what prompted the counseling requirement, aims our outcomes, and their role as counselor. In addition, leaders should identify possible comments and questions to keep the counseling session subordinate-centered and guide the subordinate through the session’s stages. As subordinates may be unpredictable during counseling, a written outline can help keep the session on track and enhances the chances for success (see figure 2-1 on page 2-6).

Counseling Outline

Type of counseling: Initial NCOER counseling for SFC Taylor, a recently promoted new arrival to the unit. Place and time: The platoon office, Tuesday at 1500.

Time to notify the subordinate: Notify SFC Taylor one week in advance of the counseling session.

Subordinate preparation: Instruct SFC Taylor to develop a list of goals and objectives to complete over the next 90 to 180 days. Review the values, attributes, and competencies of ADRP 6-22.

Counselor preparation:

Review the NCO Counseling Checklist/Record.

Update duty description: fill out the rating chain and duty description on a working copy of the NCOER. Review each of the values and responsibilities in NCOER Part IV and the values, attributes, and competencies in ADRP 6-22. Review how each applies to SFC Taylor’s duties.

Review the actions necessary for a success or excellence rating in each area. Make notes on relevant parts of the NCOER to assist in counseling.

Role as a counselor: Help SFC Taylor to understand the expectations and standards associated with the platoon sergeant position. Assist SFC Taylor in developing the values, attributes, and competencies that enable him to achieve his performance objectives consistent with those of the platoon and company. Resolve any aspects of the job that SFC Taylor does not clearly understand.

Session outline: Complete an outline following the counseling session components based on the draft duty description on the NCOER. This should happen two to three days prior to the actual counseling session.

Organize Information and Draft a Plan of Action

2-32. The counselor should review all pertinent information, including the purpose of the counseling, facts, and observations about the person to be counseled, identification of possible issues, and main points of discussion with possible questions to pose to the subordinate. In addition, as part of organizing information, the counselor should assess the situation and consider the subordinate’s performance and any prior issues. The counselor can outline a possible plan of action with clear obtainable goals as a basis for the final plan development between counselor and the Soldier or Army Civilian.

Plan the Counseling Strategy

2-33. Leaders plan each counseling session, tailoring the counseling session to the individual and situation. Part of the planning process includes identifying the counseling approach, assessing the individual’s situation and reputation, and identifying any anticipated resistance. 2-34. An effective leader approaches each subordinate as an individual. Different people and different situations require different counseling approaches—counseling is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Army leaders may employ three major approaches to counseling: nondirective, directive, or combined. 2-35. The Army leader can select from several techniques when counseling subordinates. These techniques may cause subordinates to change behavior and improve their performance. Counseling techniques leaders may explore during the nondirective or combined approaches include:

  • Suggesting alternatives. Discuss alternative actions the subordinate may take. Leader and subordinate together decide which course of action is most appropriate.
  • Recommending. Recommend one course of action but leave the decision to accept it to the subordinate.
  • Persuading. Persuade the subordinate that a given course of action is best, but leave the final decision to the subordinate. Successful persuasion depends on the leader’s credibility, the subordinate’s willingness to listen, and mutual trust. *Advising. Advise the subordinate that a given course of action is best. This is the strongest form of influence not involving command.

2-36. Techniques to use during the directive approach to counseling include:

  • Corrective training. Teach and assist the subordinate in attaining and maintaining the required standard. A subordinate completes corrective training once consistently meeting standards.
  • Commanding. Order the subordinate to take a given course of action in clear, precise words. The subordinate will face consequences for failing to execute.

Table 2-1. Counseling approach summary

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Approach Advantages Disadvantages
Nondirective Encourages maturity. Encourages open communication. Develops personal responsibility More time-consuming. Requires greatest counselor skills. Proin vehicula tempor ex. Morbi malesuada sagittis turpis, at venenatis nisl luctus a.
Combined Moderately quick. Encourages maturity. Encourages open communication. Allows counselors to use their experience. May take too much time for some situations.
Combined Quickest method. Good for those needing clear, concise direction. Allows counselors to use their experience. Does not encourage subordinates to be part of the solution. Treats symptoms, not issues. Tends to discourage subordinates from talking freely. Solution is the counselor’s, not the subordinate’s.

Establish the Right Atmosphere

2-38. The right atmosphere promotes open, two-way communication between a leader and subordinate. To establish a more relaxed atmosphere, leaders may offer the subordinate a seat or a cup of coffee. If appropriate, choose to sit in a chair next to or facing the subordinate since a desk can serve as a barrier.

2-39. Some situations require formal settings. During counseling to correct substandard performance, leaders seated behind a desk may direct the subordinate to remain standing. This reinforces the leader’s role and authority and underscores the severity of the situation.

Stage 3: Conduct the Counseling Session

2-40. Army leaders use a balanced mix of formal and informal counseling and learn to take advantage of daily events to provide Soldiers and Army Civilians with feedback. Figure 2-2 on page 2-9 portrays an example of a formal counseling session. Even during informal counseling, leaders should address the four basic components of a counseling session:

  • Open the session.
  • Discuss the issues.
  • Develop a plan of action.
  • Record and close the session.

Open the Session

2-41. In opening, the leader makes the purpose clear and establishes a subordinate-centered setting as appropriate for the situation. The counselor establishes an atmosphere of shared purpose by inviting the subordinate to speak and acknowledge the purpose. An appropriate purpose statement might be “SFC Taylor, the purpose of this counseling is to discuss your duty performance over the past month and to create a plan to enhance performance and attain performance goals.” If applicable, start the counseling session by reviewing the status of the current plan of action.

Discuss the Issues

2-42. The leader and counseled individual should attempt to develop a mutual and clear understanding of the counseling issues. Use active listening and invite the subordinate to do most of the talking—encourage the subordinate to participate fully in the session. Leaders respond and ask questions without dominating the conversation but help the subordinate better understand the subject of the counseling session, such as duty performance, a situation and its effects, or potential areas for growth. Leaders must be open to adjusting their understanding of the situation based on the subordinate’s input. 2-43. To reduce the perception of bias or early judgment, both leader and subordinate should provide examples or cite specific observations. When the issue is substandard performance, the leader must be clear what did not meet the standard. During the discussion, the leader must clearly establish what the subordinate must do to meet the standard. It is very important that the leader frames the issue at hand as substandard performance and prevents the subordinate from labeling the issue as unreasonable. An exception would occur if the leader considers the current standard as negotiable or is willing to alter the conditions under which the subordinate can meet the standard.

Develop a Plan of Action

2-44. A plan of action identifies a method and pathway for achieving a desired result, limited to one or two realistic goals tied to work or life events with milestones that allow for monitoring progress. Before developing the plan of action, the leader must assess whether the counseled subordinate understands the purpose and any related issues. The plan of action must be appropriate and specific, showing the subordinate how to modify or maintain specific behaviors to reach goals set during the counseling session. For example: “PFC Miller, next week you’ll attend the map reading class with 1st Platoon. After class, SGT Dixon will coach you through the land navigation course and help you develop your compass skills. After observing you going through the course with SGT Dixon, I will meet with you again to determine if you need additional training.”

Record and Close the Session

2-45. Although requirements to record counseling sessions vary, a leader always benefits from documenting the main points of a counseling session, even informal ones. Documentation serves as a ready reference for the agreed-upon plan of action and helps the leader track the subordinate’s accomplishments, personal preferences, or issues. A good record of counseling enables the leader to make proper recommendations for professional development, promotions, and evaluations. DA Form 4856 is designed to help Army leaders conduct and record counseling sessions. Leaders must decide when counseling, additional training, rehabilitation, reassignment, or other developmental options have been exhausted.

2-46. Army regulations require specific written records of counseling for certain personnel actions, such as barring a Soldier from reenlisting, processing an administrative separation or placing a Soldier in the overweight program. When a Soldier faces involuntary separation, the leader must maintain accurate counseling records. Documentation of substandard actions often conveys a strong message to subordinates that a further slip in performance or discipline could require more severe action or punishment.

2-47. Leaders should close the session by asking the counseled subordinate to summarize key points and expectations based on the proposed plan of action. Leaders should establish any necessary follow-up measures with the subordinate to support the successful implementation of the plan of action. Follow-up measures may include providing the subordinate with specific resources and time, periodic assessments of the plan and additional referrals. If possible, schedule future meetings before dismissing the subordinate.

Stage 4: follow-up

Leader Responsibilities

2-48. The counseling process does not end with the initial counseling session. It continues throughout the implementation of the plan of action consistent with the observed results. Sometimes the initial plan of action will require modification to meet the desired outcomes. Leaders must consistently support their subordinates in implementing the plan of action by teaching, coaching, mentoring, or providing additional time, referrals and other appropriate resources. Additional measures may include more focused follow-up counseling, informing the chain of command, or taking more severe corrective measures if appropriate.

Assess the Plan of Action

2-49. During assessment, the leader and the subordinate jointly determine if the desired results happened. They should determine the date for their initial assessment during the initial counseling session. The plan of action assessment provides useful information for future follow-up counseling sessions.