Preparing for the interview for a counselling position Part 2 of 2

Nathan Beel and Florence Ee, 2018

Interview panels are typically looking to answer two questions. Do you have capacity and is there a likelihood you will succeed in the position they are recruiting for, and are you the best candidate compared with the other applicants? Both of these must be met for you to be successful. To get to the interview, there is a high likelihood they believe you have the potential to succeed. They may be uncertain about whether you are the best applicant and this is where you have an opportunity to influence their perceptions. In the previous instalment on preparing for the interview, we covered eight areas of focus, included impression management, motivation, skills, and practice frameworks. This instalment will describe another eight areas to consider in preparing for interviews for counselling related positions.

Relating with colleagues and conflict management: An important part of agency work is the ability to work well within a team and manage conflict well. On the panels I (Nathan) have been part of, every interviewee has said they work well with others and manage conflict well. It is predictable. The panel is less interested in reassurances and more interested in hearing actual examples the interviewee can provide. Come prepared to discuss a difficulty you had with somebody (without revealing others’ identities) that you managed well, why you managed it the way you did, and what the outcome was. Typically, examples should demonstrate sensitive assertiveness, rather than passive or aggressive responses. It may also be helpful to talk about what you have learned about yourself and others from the experience.

Strengths: The panel may ask for an applicant to describe their strengths. The answers to this will be compared against the position’s needs and/or the organisation’s needs to check for fit. It may be useful to provide examples of how these strengths benefited your clients, colleagues, or organisation in previous situations.

Openness to learning and weaknesses: The panel may ask you about your weaknesses and what you have done to manage or improve on the weakness. This question checks for organisational / performance risks, and answers or non-answers can raise questions about lack of insight, evasiveness, lack of boundaries, low self-esteem or other issues. Other answers such as “My weakness is I am so committed to my job” can sound insincere. Only provide a weakness that relates to the position requirements, state the weakness concisely, and then state what you are doing (or willing to do) to address it.

The panel may ask for a time when you were given negative feedback and how you responded to this. Effective counsellors should be open to feedback and actively seek it out, so evidence of openness to feedback can be viewed positively by counselling employers. Choose a story where you responded well. For instance, a story where you actively sought the feedback to improve, thanked the person for the feedback, considered the feedback critically, identified what parts you could accept, and identified actions to help improve the situation or performance.

Managing risk or complex situations: The panel may ask about a difficult situation you responded to, or may provide you with a hypothetical situation and ask how you might respond to such a situation. These situations may relate to specific knowledge about a particular risk factor (such as domestic violence risk), an ability to consider contextual factors in the situation (such as other’s safety), relevant legislation, mindfulness of one’s roles and other potential roles (such as clinical supervisor, line manager), mindfulness of potential organisational policies that might guide such decisions, and ethical principles that may relate. One example might be, “Suppose an 8-year-old child disclosed to you that her parent was abusing her and asked you not to tell anyone. What would you do and why?”
In such a case, a person might describe how they might respond to this child and manage the rest of the session, what policies the organisation might have on reporting, what ethical and legal considerations need to be considered, who might be consulted, who and how to report if this was the option or requirement, etc. Whether you make a determination that the panel agrees with or not (if it is a more complex situation), your depth of reasoning and awareness of relevant principles is likely what they will evaluate your answer on. Your answer will show your professional thinking process. You can prepare for these types of questions by reflecting on ethical case studies in counselling (or in the specialist area of the position you are applying for) in an online search, reviewing your code of ethics, and by discussing these with your clinical supervisor.

Stress management: Counselling is a burnout career if self-care and stress is neglected. Panel members who ask this question generally want to hear what the person does or has done in the past previous roles to manage stress and self-care. Inability to manage one’s own stress becomes an organisational risk. Being able to articulate clear and healthy strategies that work for you shows a commitment to maintaining good mental health.
Other skills and duties: Counselling positions often involve other duties such as preparing and presenting talks, researching, writing articles, and networking with other professionals. Be prepared to discuss notable examples from your own history in some of these areas irrespective of whether the experience relates to a counselling role. Many of these skills are easily transferrable from other professions (including parenting skills).

Values: Panel members and organisations will typically have a range of values, sometimes that are not stated clearly in the application kit. They may have a strong value towards client centredness underpinning client engagement. Some may emphasise the importance of using evidence-based treatments. In a logistical direction, they may have a value of your being available outside of hours. Many of the values will be evident in the application kit, the organisation website, and the questions they ask in the interview. You will need to determine whether the visible values are congruent with your own values. Your own values will be reflected in your answers and even if different, the organisation might be interested in you irrespectively.

Questions you may have: At the end of interviews, panels might ask what questions you might have. Not asking any questions at the end can be interpreted as the person not having sufficient motivation towards the role, being passive, or being unable to process information with sufficient depth. If you have given the position some thought and reviewed their website, you will probably have questions. Asking judicious questions can signal to the panel a thoughtfulness about the role, the position, and the organisation. Common questions might be about the wage, the notification date for position outcome, the start date, and questions about the wage or other benefits if unclear. You might also ask questions about the role itself, such as what staff find most rewarding and most challenging about the role. Remember, you are also checking out whether the position is a good fit for you, too.

The interview process is where the panel will view a sample of your behaviour, knowledge, and skills, and will assess it against the needs of the role, their values, and against other candidates. Considering some of the areas mentioned in this article may help strengthen and enable you to target your preparation so that your interview leaves a more positive impression in the minds of the panel. Don’t be discouraged if you do not get the job. It is not unusual for people to apply for several jobs before they are successful. Remember that there may be many applicants and only one will get the job. That you were shortlisted shows the panel believed you earned a closer look. Try to get feedback from the employer about your strengths and weaknesses in your application. This is a subtle way of asking why you did not get the job. Learn from the experience and aim to be better at the next interview. Irrespective of if you succeed in the gaining the position, the interview itself will provide you with experience in being interviewed for counselling related positions.

Preparing for the interview for a counselling position, Part 1 of 2.

Nathan Beel and Florence Ee, 2018. Previously published in Qld Counsellors Association blog.

Recently I (Nathan) was asked by a recent counselling graduate for some tips for her upcoming interview. Rather than simply emailing the tips that might have some benefit for one person, this prompted me to consider a blog post that could provide wider benefit. I mentioned the idea to Florence, who started sending in ideas from her experience. With our combined experience on both sides of the interview process across several organisations and counselling related roles, we thought our observations may be useful. While the interview process will vary from panel to panel and organisation to organisation, below are some generic observations that applicants can consider when preparing for an interview.

Evidence, not reassurances: Many interview panels will base the interview on the job selection criteria. They may be less interested in verbal reassurances that one can meet the criteria, and more interested in historical examples of when one has met the criteria (or shows capability to meet something similar). Make sure you have clear and concise examples available that highlight how you met each criteria available to describe on request. If you don’t have examples that meet the criteria exactly, choose examples that relate to the skill in some way, even if from a non-related context. It can demonstrate to the panel that you have the potential to perform the same skill, perhaps with some tweaking, in the work context they are interested in.

Impression management: While positions are criteria-based and require objective ratings to compare applicants, there are subjective elements that will influence the panel’s ratings. Applicants need to leave an impression that is positive about who they are and what they value. Arrive close to the starting time. Not too early and certainly not late. Your grooming and clothes you wear to the interview send signals about how important the interview is to you, whether you are casual or serious, and your level of professionalism.

Demonstrate your interpersonal skills and qualities in the interview itself: Another thing that makes an impression is how you interact with the panel. While they may appear scary and, sometimes, emotionally hard to read and overly serious, they are people who want to make a good decision about who they will employ. When answering, remember you are talking with people. You are interviewing for a position that relies on your ability to relate to people in a way that helps set them at ease. You are giving them a sample of how you build and maintain rapport with others by doing this with them. Interviewers will expect interviewees may demonstrate nervous behaviours and, with this nervousness, can come self-consciousness. Find ways to connect at the human level and make comments that demonstrate empathy for their role. For instance, consider saying, “I appreciate the questions you’ve asked, as I can see it’s important for you to get the right person for the position and for the clients.” Thank them after the interview for their time meeting with you and for the opportunity for the interview. As an interviewer, I’m asking myself: Would I be comfortable working with this person’s interpersonal style being demonstrated? Would I be comfortable entrusting our service’s clients to them?

Monitor your own behaviour in the interview and aim to be relaxed as possible. I (Florence) find grounding strategies helpful before an interview – deep breathing, imagery, progressive muscle relaxation and using your five senses. Aim to give sufficiently detailed answers while keeping answers appropriately concise, stay on track, and when finished, check with the panel if you have answered their question. Take a moment to answer your question. I (Florence) find it helpful to sometimes write the questions down. If you give long rambling answers, this could raise questions in the interviewer’s mind about whether this is how you normally communicate and could indicate a lack of empathy for the listeners. Likewise, too short an answer or an inability to stay focussed on answering the question they posed may raise other concerns about you.

Most counselling roles require knowledge that is deemed relevant to the role. Some knowledge will be essential, while other knowledge will be accepted to develop and extend once employed. The job description and selection criteria should indicate what knowledge may be important to prepare for. The depth of knowledge you have will be evident in your answers to the questions, particularly as they will compare what you say against their own knowledge and the answers from other interviewees. Admit if you don’t know something rather than attempting to bluff the panel. Do some research on the role that you have applied for, read what is available on the organisation’s website or ask friends / colleagues from the counselling association about the job you are applying for.

Motivation for the role: There may be a question about why you applied for the position. Many interviewers want someone who will be passionate about the position, client group, and/or organisation. Referring to the financial benefits as a major benefit of the role can send a message that this is all that is important to the applicant. Another mistake would complain about one’s previous position. I remember one interviewee who spent 5 minutes describing her burnout from her previous position and how unsupportive her previous employer was. As much as we felt for this person, we considered her an unacceptable risk, recognising we were hearing one side of a story.

While agencies can be quite toxic at times within the human services, employers are careful about the potential risk of work cover claims, of employees who may generate stress and blame within organisations, and sends a signal of the willingness of the former employee to diminish the reputation of her workplaces when dissatisfied. Compared to other applicants, the panel will want a person passionate towards the role, willing to learn and receive feedback, the organisation’s values, and objectives, and to have minimal risk and baggage with them.

Skills: Some interviews may assume your qualifications and experience means that you will have the necessary skills. Others may ask you to describe what you might do in hypothetical situations, or skills you might have used in the past. Some interviewers may ask you to demonstrate your skills in the interview itself in a simulated counselling interview. Regardless of how they assess your skills, the main thing is that they want to know if you can deliver the service they are employing you for.

If the panel asks you to demonstrate skills, consider what they may look for. Often it is simply about your ability to form a relationship with the client, particularly if they are asking for a brief five-minute simulated session. Demonstrate your counselling micro skills instead of problem-solving, ask open questions, empathise with your client, and if there’s an opportunity to summarise the session, demonstrate this in the role-play. Many counsellors can be prepared for these through their educational experience of counselling in front of their lecturers and producing counselling videos for assessment. Nonetheless, it can still trigger anxiety performing in front of a panel in a job interview context.

Practice frameworks: Some positions will not require the counselling applicant to align with a particular modality, while others may. It is not unusual for panels to ask what framework you work from and why. Citing a microskills textbook author or stating that one is Rogerian or Person Centred is common and can raise questions in the panel about whether one has gone beyond initial training in their development. Another common answer is that one uses an integrated approach. Be prepared to answer what you might integrate, otherwise it can be viewed as not following any model and flying by the seat of one’s pants. Be prepared to describe any modalities you have studied and influenced your practice and why you chose these. While the panel may not be particularly interested in the selection of models that influence you, they may be interested in whether your knowledge is basic and shallow, or alternatively, well considered. You might also ask the panel what practice frameworks the organisation prefers or adopts, and if appropriate, ask why the organisation adopts it. This will both show a willingness to engage with the organisation’s own preferred treatment framework and also enable you to consider whether this is a framework you would want to learn and practice.

This first instalment has listed eight areas to consider when planning for an interview, including topics such as impression management, motivation, skills, and practice frameworks. The next and final instalment will list another eight areas that may assist you in preparing for the counselling position interview.

Increasing Your Chances of Employment as a Counsellor Part 3 of 3

By Nathan Beel, 2018 reprinted from QCA blog and PACFA’s Psychotherapy and Counselling Today.

In the second part of this three-part series, I discussed five strategies for increasing one’s chance of counselling employment. These included possess a minimum of degree level or higher, gain volunteer experience in counselling, be a member of a counselling association, become known within the profession, and develop a positive professional reputation. This final part of the series will address an additional four strategies that I believe will help enhance your chances of employment as a counsellor.

Ensure your CV is professional: Your curriculum vitae (CV) is often one of the first evidence for panels of what type of professional you are. It should be error free. Errors, particularly basic or repeated errors, send signals of lack of attention, diligence, or writing ability. It should be targeted at the job you are applying for. Customise it to the potential readers. What will you include? What will you exclude (that doesn’t add value to the application)? How will you express it? You might consider gaining help from a professional in resume writing. Your CV gives the potential employer a window into who you are, what skills and potential you have, and your communication abilities.

Ask for critical feedback: Sometimes our blind spots can undermine how others perceive us or weaken our applications. When I prepare articles, I send drafts to people I trust will tell me where the mistakes are and give me hints on how to improve. I will have done this with this article, and I guarantee there will be corrections that will spare me the embarrassment of putting my name publicly to a document with errors I missed. Get someone to critically review your CV and cover letter to help enhance it. Ask someone to take you through a practice interview and then give you critical (and supportive) feedback to help you learn how to do better. Supportive feedback makes us feel good and critical feedback is the path to enhanced awareness and improvement. Intentionally ask for feedback, particularly from someone you think has strengths in the area you are seeking feedback in.

Prepare for the position: Study the company website, research about the target client group, target issue, and recommended therapy approaches for the target group, and research anything else that will help you gain a sense of what might be required in the role. While you may not be an expert and should not pretend to be if you are not, it shows the interview panel that you are committed to preparing for the position. If you don’t get the job, you still will have benefited by learning new information about a referral source and information about a target issue you may not have understood much about previously. Conversely, if you under-prepare, it signals the interview panel about a lack of care about the role and/or lack of willingness to demonstrate diligence that might be required for the role. It is generally evident which applicants have spent time preparing for the interview.

Cultivate professional character: The earlier tips are useful to enhance your chances of gaining employment. However, there are some more fundamental areas that form the substance of your professionalism that will probably be seen over time and contribute to the formation of your reputation. Cultivate the substance of a reputable professional. Seek to learn and grow as a counsellor. Aim to practice ethical decision-making consistently. Seek to excel in your studies and counselling practice. Seek assistance in the areas of your life which might be problematic. Continue learning. Read counselling books regularly even after you finish university. Actively seek to learn rather than merely meeting PD requirements. Practice what you preach. These may not be noticeable in first impressions, but over time, people will recognise them and give you regard accordingly. This is where your broader reputation will come from and will provide inspiration to younger members of the profession to follow the virtues you operate by. Your qualities will become a gift to others.

I hope these ideas will be helpful for both the younger members of the profession and to those currently seeking work. In my own experience, I have gained one job because a previous colleague of mine recommended my name to an employer friend of his seeking staff. My reputation with my colleague must have been sufficient that he had the confidence to commend me years later. I’ve gained jobs in which I applied, knowing I didn’t meet all the criteria. From what I have learned in two decades in the field from both sides of the hiring table, is that gaining work as a counsellor often requires strategic planning and development at multiple levels to give oneself the edge in a competitive process. Those who prepare best throughout their counselling journey and, more specifically, for specialised positions are likely to demonstrate greater value and attractiveness to future employers than those who haven’t paid attention to strategic preparation.

These blogs have highlighted one person’s perspectives. No doubt there is much expertise on this topic within the counselling profession. I’d encourage members to share their own ideas and tips in the comments below about how to increase one’s chances of successfully gaining counselling-related employment.

Are you studying counselling or a qualified counsellor and wanting professional mentoring? See here for more information.

Increasing Your Chances of Employment as a Counsellor Part 2 of 3

Young smiling woman getting support on psychotherapy session

By Nathan Beel 2018, reprinted from QCA blog.

In the first part of this series, I discussed the competitive nature of advertised counselling applications. We have established that employers are looking for who they perceive to be the best applicant out of their pool of applicants. Your role then is to give yourself as many chances as possible to be the best applicant. Below are five strategies that may help increase the perceived value of what you might offer an employer:

Qualification: These days, more employers are looking for a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in counselling or a related discipline. Given that bachelor degrees are more common now than previous years, a bachelor’s degree or higher will generally provide an edge over a holder of a certificate or diploma.

Experience: Accredited counselling degrees nearly all have a placement component in them. However, if you and two of your fellow graduates are going for the same position, it is better to have additional experience. I recommend people consider volunteering at Lifeline, Drug Arm, or similar service that provides ongoing experience and close supervision. Quality volunteer experience plus a degree often gives a significant edge over a degree alone. In addition, there may be pathways in the volunteer organisations for becoming a volunteer supervisor, allowing additional skills and experience to be accrued.

Demonstrate commitment to the profession: When I would look at counsellor or counselling educator applicant CV, I always look for mention of membership in a counselling association. When I see a CV that indicates membership in a counselling association, it sends me a signal this person is committed to their professional identity and growth. When I see CVs without mention of membership, it raises questions in my mind. Is the depth of this person’s interest in counselling only limited to the possibility of gaining employment? Membership maintenance requires commitment to an ethical code, maintaining professional development, maintaining clinical supervision and contributing financially to the profession.  When I’m involved in hiring, I’m looking for evidence of commitment beyond the pay packet and promises made in the interview itself.

Get known: Counsellors are often introverted. We don’t put ourselves out there but prefer more intimate relating with our clients behind closed doors. However, our profession is a relational profession. I recommend people aim to become known. When people become familiar with who you are and the value you represent as a person, this may influence them if they are on your interview panel. Counselling is a fairly small profession, so it is fairly easy to get known by other counsellors. Attend professional development events and get to know other counsellors. Contribute to the association newsletter and blogs. Join an association subcommittee. Seek opportunities to provide professional development in an area you have knowledge and expertise in. Set up a LinkedIn account to put your CV for the world to see. When meeting people, give them your business card and later invite connection with LinkedIn. You might also consider setting up your own special business Facebook page or website as another ‘shopfront’ for your brand. The more people who become familiar with who you are and learn to trust you, the more likelihood that someone on your interview panel may know you and your ‘brand’ and may trust you over other candidates whom they do not know.

Develop a positive reputation: Your interactions with others in person and online, and your online footprint, will contribute to developing your reputation. Likewise, if you are studying, will your interaction with fellow students and behaviour in classes send signals of someone committed to the journey of becoming a counsellor? What type of person do they see? Do they see someone who they would want to refer clients to? Your reputation begins in university and people are unlikely to forget the behavioural impressions you leave with them. If people Google or Bing you, will the results send a signal of professionalism and other qualities associated with counselling? Determine what type of counsellor you want to be viewed as and ensure that is what you communicate in person and online. Employers and clients will look you up online or may ask questions of people who know you. A good reputation takes years to build and can be lost quickly. Aim to build it and protect it.

This segment has offered five ways of enhancing the chances of success in gaining counselling employment. In the next installment, I will list a further four strategies that I believe will enhance your chance of employment as a counsellor.

Increasing Your Chances of Employment as a Counsellor Part 1 of 3

Nathan Beel 2018, reprinted from QCA blog.

Reality hit me hard when I graduated with my first counselling degree. I was 23 years old and confident that obtaining my degree meant that I would become employed as a counsellor in the first weeks of looking for work. I diligently applied for successive positions and on occasions when I received replies, they politely declined and indicated that I needed more experience. I learned the hard way that degrees in counselling were not a guaranteed ticket to employment.

I returned to study for a graduate diploma in counselling with a 200 hr internship for experience and was fortunate to pick up a counselling job soon afterwards. After two decades in various counselling related roles, including being on panels interviewing for counsellors, my understanding of counselling employment has grown, and I can see how naïve my presumptions were in the early days.

A key assumption I operate on now is that counselling employment is a competitive supply and demand market. Employers aim for the most attractive candidate who applies. This attractiveness is based on the perceived value the applicant can bring to the role. Value is subjective depending on the position and the hirer, and the field of applicants.

What applicants often do not see is who they are competing against. This is an important factor that shouldn’t be overlooked. Missing out on a job does not mean that one was deemed inadequate or under-qualified. It may mean that there was another applicant with more diverse or specialised experience and training who gained the position. However it is measured, the applicant who gains the job is deemed by the panel to offer the role the most potential value compared to the other candidates. The challenge for the job seeker is to help shape the panel’s perception that s/he is the most valuable applicant.

Some counselling job seekers will miss out on positions because they disqualify themselves from applying. They may believe they are slightly underqualified for a position, that the position is difficult for them, or that others going for the position will be more qualified and experienced. However, if these job seekers do not apply, they might miss out on gaining the job that they may have otherwise gained. If they were to put their application in, they might be the most attractive candidate compared to the other candidates. I recommend against self-selecting out of applying when there may be some criteria that are not met or when the position description may appear intimidating. I have gained several positions which I perceived were above my capabilities and experience, but which if I had not have applied, I would have missed out on gaining the employment and discovering that I could do the role despite my self-doubts. While job seekers have increased chances of gaining work when they meet all the job criteria, their chances reduce to zero if they self-select out from applying at all.

In this instalment, I have highlighted that advertised counselling positions are competitive by nature and that organisations are seeking the most potentially valuable person from among a number of applicants. Missing out on a position does not imply that one is professionally deficient or unemployable as a counsellor but may simply reflect high-quality competition. I also recommended job seekers to go for positions that one may not meet all the criteria or where the position description tasks appear too difficult, as the job seeker may still be the viewed as the most potentially valuable person for the role compared to the other applicants. In the next instalment, I will discuss five specific strategies for increasing one’s perceived potential value of applying for jobs.