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The Counseling Process

Effective leaders use the four stage counseling process

Effective leaders use the counseling process. It consists of four stages:

  • Identify the need for counseling.
  • Prepare for counseling.
  • Conduct counseling.
  • Follow up.


Quite often organizational policies, such as counseling associated with an evaluation or counseling required by the command, focus a counseling session. However, you may conduct developmental counseling whenever the need arises for focused, two-way communication aimed at subordinate development. Developing subordinates consists of observing the subordinate’s performance, comparing it to the standard, and then providing feedback to the subordinate in the form of counseling.


Successful counseling requires preparation. To prepare for counseling, do the following:

  • Select a suitable place.
  • Schedule the time.
  • Notify the subordinate well in advance.
  • Organize information.
  • Outline the counseling session components.
  • Plan your counseling strategy.
  • Establish the right atmosphere.

Select a Suitable Place: Schedule counseling in an environment that minimizes interruptions and is free from distracting sights and sounds.

Schedule the Time: When possible, counsel a subordinate during the duty day. Counseling after duty hours may be rushed or perceived as unfavorable. The length of time required for counseling depends on the complexity of the issue. Generally a counseling session should last less than an hour. If you need more time, schedule a second session. Additionally, select a time free from competition with other activities and consider what has been planned after the counseling session. Important events can distract a subordinate from concentrating on the counseling.

Notify the Subordinate Well in Advance: For a counseling session to be a subordinate-centered, two-person effort, the subordinate must have time to prepare for it. The subordinate should know why, where, and when the counseling will take place. Counseling following a specific event should happen as close to the event as possible. However, for performance or professional development counseling, subordinates may need a week or more to prepare or review specific products, such as support forms or counseling records.

Organize Information: Solid preparation is essential to effective counseling. Review all pertinent information. This includes the purpose of the counseling, facts and observations about the subordinate, identification of possible problems, main points of discussion, and the development of a plan of action. Focus on specific and objective behaviors that the subordinate must maintain or improve as well as a plan of action with clear, obtainable goals.

Outline the Components of the Counseling Session: Using the information obtained, determine what to discuss during the counseling session. Note what prompted the counseling, what you aim to achieve, and what your role as a counselor is. Identify possible comments or questions to help you keep the counseling session subordinate-centered and help the subordinate progress through its stages. Although you never know what a subordinate will say or do during counseling, a written outline helps organize the session and enhances the chance of positive results.

Plan Counseling Strategy: As many approaches to counseling exist as there are leaders. The directive, nondirective, and combined approaches to counseling were addressed earlier. Use a strategy that suits your subordinates and the situation.

Establish the Right Atmosphere: The right atmosphere promotes two-way communication between a leader and subordinate. To establish a relaxed atmosphere, you may offer the subordinate a seat or a cup of coffee. You may want to sit in a chair facing the subordinate since a desk can act as a barrier.

Some situations make an informal atmosphere inappropriate. For example, during counseling to correct substandard performance, you may direct the subordinate to remain standing while you remain seated behind a desk. This formal atmosphere,normally used to give specific guidance, reinforces the leader’s rank, position in the chain of command, and authority.


Be flexible when conducting a counseling session. Often counseling for a specific incident occurs spontaneously as leaders encounter subordinates in their daily activities. Such counseling can occur in the field, motor pool, barracks-wherever subordinates perform their duties. Good leaders take advantage of naturally occurring events to provide subordinates with feedback.

Even when you haven’t prepared for formal counseling, you should address the four basic components of a counseling session. Their purpose is to guide effective counseling rather than mandate a series of rigid steps. Counseling sessions consist of:

  • Opening the session.
  • Discussing the issues.
  • Developing the plan of action.
  • Recording and closing the session.

Ideally, a counseling session results in a subordinate’s commitment to a plan of action. Assessment of the plan of action (discussed below) becomes the starting point for follow-up counseling.

Open the Session: In the session opening, state the purpose of the session and establish a subordinatecentered setting. Establish the preferred setting early in the session by inviting the subordinate to speak. The best way to open a counseling session is to clearly state its purpose. For example, an appropriate purpose statement might be: “The purpose of this counseling is to discuss your duty performance over the past month and to create a plan to enhance performance and attain performance goals.” If applicable, start the counseling session by reviewing the status of the previous plan of action.

You and the subordinate should attempt to develop a mutual understanding of the issues. You can best develop this by letting the subordinate do most of the talking. Use active listening; respond, and question without dominating the conversation. Aim to help the subordinate better understand the subject of the counseling, for example, duty performance, a problem situation and its impact, or potential areas for growth.

Both you and the subordinate should provide examples or cite specific observations to reduce the perception that either is unnecessarily biased or judgmental. However, when the issue is substandard performance, you should make clear how the performance didn’t meet the standard. The conversation, which should be two-way, then addresses what the subordinate needs to do to meet the standard. It’s important that you define the issue as substandard performance and don’t allow the subordinate to define the issue as an unreasonable standard-unless you consider the standard negotiable or are willing to alter the conditions under which the subordinate must meet the standard.

Develop a Plan of Action: A plan of action identifies a method for achieving a desired result. It specifies what the subordinate must do to reach the goals set during the counseling session. The plan of action must be specific: it should show the subordinate how to modify or maintain his behavior. It should avoid vague intentions such as “Next month I want you to improve your land navigation skills.” The plan must use concrete and direct terms. For example, you might say: “Next week you’ll attend the map reading class with 1st Platoon. After the class, SGT Dixon will coach you through the land navigation course. He will help you develop your skill with the compass. I will observe you going through the course with SGT Dixon, and then I will talk to you again and determine where and if you still need additional training.” A specific and achievable plan of action sets the stage for successful development.

Record and Close the Session: Although requirements to record counseling sessions vary, a leader always benefits by documenting the main points of a counseling session. Documentation serves as a reference to the agreed upon plan of action and the subordinate’s accomplishments, improvements, personal preferences, or problems. A complete record of counseling aids in making recommendations for professional development, schools, promotions, and evaluation reports.

Additionally, Army regulations require written records of counseling for certain personnel actions, such as a barring a soldier from reenlisting, processing a soldier for administrative separation, or placing a soldier in the overweight program. When a soldier faces involuntary separation, the leader must take special care to maintain accurate counseling records. Documentation of substandard actions conveys a strong corrective message to subordinates.

To close the session, summarize its key points and ask if the subordinate understands the plan of action. Invite the subordinate to review the plan of action and what’s expected of you, the leader. With the subordinate, establish any follow-up measures necessary to support the successful implementation of the plan of action. These may include providing the subordinate with resources and time, periodically assessing the plan, and following through on referrals. Schedule any future meetings, at least tentatively, before dismissing the subordinate.


Leader’s Responsibilities: The counseling process doesn’t end with the counseling session. It continues through implementation of the plan of action and evaluation of results. After counseling, you must support subordinates as they implement their plans of action. Support may include teaching, coaching, or providing time and resources. You must observe and assess this process and possibly modify the plan to meet its goals. Appropriate measures after counseling include follow-up counseling, making referrals, informing the chain of command, and taking corrective measures.

Assess the Plan of Action: The purpose of counseling is to develop subordinates who are better able to achieve personal, professional, and organizational goals. During the assessment, review the plan of action with the subordinate to determine if the desired results were achieved. You and the subordinate should determine the date for this assessment during the initial counseling session. The assessment of the plan of action provides useful information for future follow-up counseling sessions.

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