Many therapists give advice, but there isn’t a single correct answer to the question of whether they should.
Giving advice in the context of therapy — something that sounds benign — is actually a controversial and divisive issue. Advice can mean telling a client what to do, something many therapists believe is unethical and counterproductive, or at least risky.
Part of this controversy stems from varying definitions of advice in the context of therapy. Some therapists believe “advice” can only mean “telling a client what to do.” This form of advice goes against the nature of therapy, a practice meant to empower clients with the cognitive and emotional skills to make great decisions without someone explicitly telling them what to do. It can rob a client of his or her autonomy, said Talkspace therapist Denise Garcia.
Advice can also be a result of countertransference, the process of a therapist transferring emotions onto a client, according to Garcia. Countertransference can negatively affect the quality of treatment and the therapeutic relationship if it involves misplaced feelings, including a therapist giving advice based on personal feelings rather than therapeutic insights.
Other therapists say the nature of advice can vary, making some forms of advice acceptable. If a client asks for advice, the therapist might offer an opinion, share their thoughts or encourage a client to try a thinking strategy.
This form of advice aligns with the nature of therapy because it still allows clients to build their coping skills and act on their own. It is different than telling them what to do.
Then there are therapists who do not give any form of advice. They take this approach for various reasons. For some, sharing opinions or encouraging a client to do something is not congruent with their practice or idea of what therapy is. Others worry about the risk of advice: a client might use the advice, experience negative consequences and sue the therapist.
“I think, for a lot of us, training and education has taught us to not give advice,” said Talkspace therapist Jor-El Caraballo. “Usually this is an effort to reduce malpractice risk, which isn’t a great way to practice.”
Nonetheless, the approach of not giving advice can work well for clients who perceive therapy as — more than anything else — a place to share feelings and discuss their issues.
On the other hand, a lack of advice can be frustrating for clients who want guidance. On an anonymous thread in a popular mental health publication, a client complained about his therapist not offering “feedback or advice,” a sentiment several people echoed in the comments section.
Clients can ask their therapist to offer more opinions and guidance, but some of them are too nervous to do so or feel they shouldn’t need to directly communicate what they want from therapy. There are also therapists who will not give any form of advice, even if clients ask.
When clients want appropriate and helpful forms of advice, they should ask their therapist to provide it. If the therapist says no, they should consider seeing a different one. Clients who are concerned about the issue of advice should also bring it up during the consultation phase before they begin a relationship with a new therapist.
Clients also need to be mindful of the opposite issue: therapists who give too many opinions and consistently offer them without being asked. Even therapists who give appropriate advice should be cautious about doing so and only offer it when necessary.
“Sometimes clients are so overwhelmed that they don’t know where to start,” Caraballo said. “In those moments we can respectfully use our knowledge to strongly encourage a client to take certain steps we believe might be most helpful for them.”
Once clients decide how much advice they want — or if they don’t want any — they can look for a therapist who will satisfy their preference. The appropriate form and amount of advice will help them improve their quality of life. It will do so without depriving them of the autonomy they need to develop better emotional and cognitive skills.