Summarising in Counselling
Feltham and Dryden (1993: 186) define ‘summarising’ as ‘accurately and succinctly reflecting back to the client, from time to time within and across sessions, the substance of what she has expressed’.
Summarising is therefore a counselling skill used to condense or crystallise the main points of what the client is saying and feeling.
Difference between paraphrasing and summarising in counselling
Using summaries is different from using paraphrasing, as a summary usually covers a longer time period than a paraphrase. Thus, summarising may be used after some time: perhaps halfway through – or near the end of – a counselling session.
The summary ’sums up’ the main themes that are emerging.
Purpose of Summarising in counselling
When summarising, the counsellor is ‘reflecting back’ the main points of the session so that the client has the opportunity to recap, and to ‘correct’ the counsellor if any parts of the summary feel inaccurate.
Summaries are therefore useful for:
- clarifying emotions for both the counsellor and the client
- reviewing the work done so far, and taking stock
- bringing a session to a close, by drawing together the main threads of the discussion
- beginning a subsequent session, if appropriate
- starting the process of focusing and prioritising ‘scattered’ thoughts and feelings
- moving the counselling process forward.
While the above uses are all in keeping with a person-centred approach to counselling, other uses may also be more relevant in more directive modalities. For example, in CBT, summarising may be useful for:
- enabling ‘the client to hear what she has expressed from a slightly different perspective’
- offering ‘an opportunity for structuring counselling, especially with clients who have difficulty in focusing on specific topics and goals’
- providing ‘a useful orientation towards homework and future sessions’ (Feltham & Dryden, 1993: 186).
Summarising at the End of a Session
Kelly (2017: 10)) outlines how important the skill of summarising is, as a way of respectfully bringing the session to a close, while giving the client an opportunity to correct any misconceptions the counsellor may have.
Note how he uses the term ‘a neat package’ as a metaphor to indicate that the client leaves with a summary of their material, feeling understood and ‘heard’:
It can be useful to summarise what has been brought to give the client a ‘neat package’ that they can go away with, feeling understood because the summary matches their material. Equally, the summary is an opportunity for the client to say, ‘No, it’s not like that; it’s like this.’ This too is great for the counsellor, because it allows you to realign where you are and be fully within the client’s frame of reference.
Kelly (2017: 10) describes the use of summarising in ending the therapeutic hour as follows:
About five or ten minutes before the end of the session, it’s important to let the client know that the time is coming to an end, so they have time to ‘pack up’. It allows them to ‘change gear’ and gives you, as the practitioner, the chance to close everything up before they leave, making sure they’re safe to ‘re-enter the world’.
Use of Summarising in Beginning a Session
Summarising can also be used as a way into the next session, reminding the client (who may have come from a busy week of everyday life, not necessarily recalling the nuances of their previous week’s therapy) of the key themes covered then.
When reviewing the client’s notes, before they arrive for the session, you might like to draw out the key theme (or a few themes – perhaps a maximum of three) that they brought to their previous session, and summarise these at the start.
This can help the client ‘settle in’ to the session; it also shows them that you have a clear memory of their material, which helps to build and consolidate the therapeutic relationship.
For person-centred counsellors, using a summary at the start of a session in this way doesn’t go against the principle of the client being free to bring what they wish to each session: you can still convey the client’s absolute freedom to choose to develop any of that work or to bring something entirely different this time. The choice is theirs.
How do you feel when someone has clearly listened and understood you?
© Counselling Tutor, updated 10/11/2020
Kelly K (2017) Basic Counselling Skills: A Student Guide, Counselling Tutor
Feltham C & Dryden W (1993) Dictionary of Counselling, Whurr