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key features of a recognised ethical framework in counselling

The key features of a recognised ethical framework for counselling are simple enough principles to ensure we work (and train) as counsellors in ways that are considerate towards, and ensure the safety of, both parties in the therapeutic alliance.

A summary of the key features is as follows:

  • respect for the individual’s rights to self-determine and decide their own path.
  • beneficence, which is another word for generosity and, in this context, means the therapist commits to helping the client.
  • non-maleficence, which means the therapist will avoid hurting the client in any way – physically, emotionally, psychologically.
  • justice, the upholding of equity and fairness in your interactions with the client.
  • fidelity, which means you commit to keeping the promises you make as therapist to your client, thereby maintaining the bond of trust.

These five are added to with a sixth principle, which is the counsellor’s right to all of the above, which we refer to as self-interest because honouring the ethical framework protects the therapist and the profession from reputational damage while building a positive view for the work we do by our clients and society at large.

The BACP Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions (2018) provides a robust, sensible and appropriate structure to work within, one which honours the above principles and gives us confidence in knowing the boundaries and protective measures to take for ourselves as therapists and for our clients.

Everything in the framework is vital to being a successful therapeutic practitioner. It contains no ‘rules for the sake of rules’, no bureaucracy that is hard to see the point of. It is clear and as concise as possible in presenting the expectations placed upon us when we train and qualify as counsellors and go out into the world to help people with our professional skills.

The framework acknowledges it is a living thing, open to evolutionary development in response to changing times and unique situations, as evident in its detailing of how to respond to ethical dilemmas and issues. It covers how we must approach research, and the need to take care of ourselves by taking responsibility for our own wellbeing, in such ways as ensuring a healthy work-life balance and taking precautions to ensure our safety.

The section of the framework centred on ethics starts with an exposition on the importance of our values being the means by which we articulate our ethics as the drivers of our professional purpose and intentions.

Our values involve commitments to:

  • respect (human rights and dignity)
  • ease (distress and suffering)
  • enhance (wellbeing and capability)
  • improve (the quality of relationships),
  • increase (resilience and effectiveness)
  • facilitate (a client’s meaningful sense of self within their personal and cultural sphere of living).

These words – respect, ease (alleviate), enhance, improve, increase, facilitate – are all profoundly positive, uplifting and validatory.

That framework section goes on to highlight our other essential values as therapeutic practitioners:

  • appreciation (of the diversity of human experience and culture)
  • protection (to ensure client safety)
  • ensuring of integrity (when it comes to the therapist-client relationship)
  • working to enhance (the quality of our professional knowledge and how it is applied), and striving (for fair and adequate provision of services).

The point is made that our values inform our principles – that is, they shape their development, so that they become more precisely defined and orientated towards the specific actions we may take in practice as therapists.

Adherence to professional standards equal commitment to good practice

We work to professional standards as part of a commitment to good practice. These standards provide us with the foundational platform we need in order to confidently develop our abilities as therapists, our knowledge and our businesses upon qualifying.

The BACP Ethical Framework covers every aspect of the therapeutic relationship from the importance and limits of confidentiality, our accountability and candour, through to how we are required to work with our colleagues and in team situations, and the necessary components of supervision, training and education.

Adherence to the framework is at the core of good practice, with a commitment to uphold our professional responsibilities while being openly accountable at all times for what we do, willing to explain why we do it. Good practice has a focus on safeguarding clients, and the development and protection of trust. It ensures we address conflicts of interest appropriately, with a supervisor or independent experienced colleague.

Keeping our skills and knowledge up to date is essential to good practice, from reading professional journals and websites through to attending conferences and following developments in law and guidance from the BACP. Attentive, detailed record-keeping and compliance with data protection laws are essential components of good practice as well, for our own and clients’ protection, as is the willingness to work cooperatively with our colleagues to support each other and improve our services for clients.

Good practice involves putting clients first, for they are the reason we do what we do, and we seek to help them always. We make sure they are taking part voluntarily, having given informed consent. When they feel pressured by agencies or other people to enter into the therapeutic alliance, we take account of this in how we offer services to them.

Working with children and young people requires us to consider their capacity to give that informed consent, what their best interests are, and whether it is right to seek the consent of adults who have parental responsibility for the client.

We respect clients’ privacy and dignity as part of good practice, without any unfairness, prejudice, or discriminatory words and actions. We do not abuse our clients in any way, nor do we exploit them.

As part of our commitment to fairness and equality, we challenge assumptions that any sexual orientation or gender identity is somehow ‘better than’ others and will not make efforts to suppress or bring about change in those. We address barriers to accessibility whenever we can, so clients of any ability can benefit from the services we offer; and, should we witness others in our profession acting with discrimination or expressing discriminatory viewpoints, we will challenge them and take action where necessary to protect clients.

Open-mindedness is vital, recognising that even clients who might appear similar to us have their own distinctive life experiences and are on their own unique journey. We must also be capable of acknowledging when our understanding of a client’s background, identity or lifestyle is limited and do what is needed to gain information from other sources without putting any expectation on the client to perform as teacher to fill in the gaps.

The ethical framework may seem weighty in the reading, even when presented as highlights in bulleted form, as here. It is. It deals with important things around safety, legality and security. It is important to remember that using the ethical framework as your guide protects clients and yourself as therapist.

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andrew hinkinson
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