It is common for people to ask how to begin the very first counseling session with another person (informal or formal). For what it’s worth, here’s what I do.
Direct them to God as Helper.
I begin by thanking the person for showing a desire to seek God’s help for their particular struggle. I assure them that I am not “the answer man,” but that God is our Helper and He has given His infallible Word and the Holy Spirit to be our Counselors (Psalm 119:105; John 14:26). I remind them that Jesus is the merciful and empathetic High Priest who has experienced every form of suffering we can imagine, and more (Hebrews 4:15). I will often read parts of Psalm 46.
Take them to God’s throne of grace.
I then lead them in prayer, thanking God for being our ever present help in times of trouble, and asking Him to guide our time together, lead us into His truth, open our spiritual eyes and ears to see and hear from His Word, make our hearts teachable, help us to be slow to speak and quick to listen to each other, give us hope, and move our wills to be doers of the Word and not merely hearers who delude ourselves (Psalm 119:12, 18; James 1:19, 22).
Listen much, speak little.
I then read Proverbs 18:13, “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him,” and say something like “This verse tells us that it is foolish to speak before listening. I have no desire to be a fool. Therefore, I plan to let you do most of the talking today. I will probably ask a lot of questions, but my aim is to listen more than I speak.” Jay Adams writes, “The most comfortable way for the counselor to become acquainted in the first session is to be relatively passive, spending most of his time asking questions and listening to the counselee’s story.”
Listen to their symptoms.
It is rare for a person to be able to describe to you the root problem for which they have come to you for help. Instead, they will usually describe symptoms (much like any of us does when we go to see our family practitioner). Now, they may think they are describing their problems, but in reality they are usually telling you how they feel, what relational problems they are experiencing, and other burdens they carry with them. Be patient. Don’t butt in right away saying, “Now, you are not really telling me your problems, but only symptoms.” Let them talk. In time, with the Lord’s help and usually not in the first session, you will gently lead them to see at least one root spiritual need as it relates either to love for God (or lack of), or love for neighbor (or lack of), or both.
Ask lots of questions.
I do my best to interpret their language, but many times need clarification. I will ask questions like: You say you feel your wife does not respect you. Can you tell me what specifically causes you to feel that way? Can you tell me what you mean when you say you “asked Jesus into your heart?” What do you see as your biggest problem? What have you done to solve it? In what ways are you hoping that I will be a help to you? What do you hope your life will look like when we are done counseling together?
Begin to apply appropriate Scriptures.
Again, remember that your goal during the first session is to listen well and communicate hope and compassion. But listen for “red threads” that run through their language and thereby reveal patterns of thinking. As you do, jot simple thoughts down on your notepad and draw their attention to one or two pertinent hope-giving Scriptures. The Spirit will guide you.
Give biblical hope and homework.
Communicating that God’s Word has the answers, and that God will truly help the person who is willing to walk in the obedience of faith, will give the hope that is so important at this point, and will propel the person toward biblical change. Giving them an appropriate assignment will engage their heart and mind in the process of change before you meet again. Homework communicates hope to the other person and gives them personal responsibility for their own growth, thus encouraging action toward change (Phil 2:12-13). Homework tests the sincerity of the person’s desire and willingness to grow and is a large part of leading them toward daily renewal of the mind, as it will activate and direct their thinking toward biblical truth (Romans 12:1, 2; Ephesians 4:23).
Again, take them to the throne of grace in prayer.
Together, ask for God’s help in applying the resources He has already provided in the Word and Spirit.
[To learn more about the ministry of intensive discipleship, read Counseling One Another: A Theology of Inter-Personal Discipleship.]