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Tips on Words to Avoid When Counseling

Chairs for counseling

I’d like to think I’m better at counseling real people than I am at answering test questions. Face-to-face, I’m listening, caring, and responding spontaneously with (what I hope to be) the right words for the situation. When taking the IBLCE™ Exam though, all of the “answers” can look good to me! Yet, we’ll find ourselves in both situations, and we’ll need to know what words to avoid when counseling.

First, remember that there are differences between teaching and counseling. Then, remember that the “words” may be phrases, or even unstated but implied messages.  To dodge the red herrings, avoid anything that smacks of the following:


Avoid any implied message of “That’s a dumb thing to do.”

Well, of course you wouldn’t speak such ugly words. But close variations include: “No one else is doing that these days” or “That doesn’t seem very practical!” or “A pump is a much better solution.”

Minimizing or dismissing

The message here is, “This is no big deal.”

You’ve probably heard a professional or a friend minimize or dismiss your concern with a phrase such as “Don’t worry about that.” (As if someone could easily live out that command!) Variations might be: “Lots of mothers have gone through this…”  or “this always resolves pretty quickly…” or “That should be the least of your worries.” These are definitely words to avoid when counseling.


This is a real trap! It’s so easy to say… “Oh, I when I was in your shoes, I did this…” but that deflects from the attention of what the client is saying so those are words to avoid when counseling.

Certainly, it’s okay to try to make a connection by saying that you’ve been through it. But one sentence is plenty — and suggesting that you did the “right” thing is off-limits. After that one sentence, you risk putting the focus on another person, place. In other words, you’re re-focusing.

If the mother is crying her eyes out about her critically ill baby, beware of the sequence of your responses. It may be just fine to offer, “Would you like me to walk you back to the nursery?” However, that is likely to refocus the conversation, so save it for later. In this situation, your first response should be more like “Oh, this must be so difficult for you.”

Giving false reassurance

In this situation, your underlying message is: “Don’t worry; everything will be fine.”

Sometimes, that’s true. But sometimes, it’s false, or the “everything fine” situation is a long way from being achieved. In healthcare, some things might never be “fine” or “normal”. Hence, words that predict a future “fine” or “normal” might possibly be the most important words to avoid when counseling.

There’s a fine line between providing encouragement and support, versus offering false reassurance or false hope.  Here are two examples that are subtly different:

  • “She’ll recover. You’re giving her your milk and she’ll be better tomorrow,” are examples of false reassurance. She might not recover. She might not be better tomorrow.
  • “She’s doing so much better today than yesterday. And all thanks to you! Getting your milk is a better remedy for her than anything medical science can offer!” This is only one of many examples that can convey encouragement, and support.


This is the trickiest of all! Most of us consider ourselves experts, and we can fall into the trap of telling the mother what to do. We honestly think our suggestion would work best.

However, anything that smacks of issuing a command is a turn-off. Similarly, “fixing” the problem is another example of telling someone what to do. (“You just need to do this…”) These are words to avoid when counseling.

While “fixing” may sometimes be appropriate, it is seldom the appropriate first response. Wait until the mother has been “heard” and is “on board” with any suggestions you might make. Aim to facilitate the client’s decision, rather than identifying a “fix” or implementing a decision. Good listening techniques are also a important part of counseling a client.

Do you struggle which words to use and which words to avoid when counseling? Are you more comfortable with counseling clients than answering exam questions on counseling? Share your tips in the comments below!

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  2. Michael Rivera

    This blog post brought back memories of my early days in counseling, where I too struggled with the right words to use and which to avoid. I remember having a particularly hard time with reframing, as it was so easy to fall into the trap of making it about my own experiences instead of focusing on the client. It’s encouraging to see these tips on counseling, which remind me how important it is to stay mindful of the language we use and the impact it can have on clients.

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Well, I think we all struggle with “the words.” You mention reframing, specifically. Reframing is one of the most powerful communication tools we have. (Either for our patients/clients, or for ourselves!)

      Reframing just means that we are helping the person to look through a different lens. It’s about challenging assumptions, or putting a different spin on the meaning or interpretation.

      People (that means all of us!) tend to assign a meaning to something. So I’m the nurse; I pick up the baby and the baby immediately stops crying. The mother says, “OH! He likes you more than he likes me.” (I cringe when I hear this!) So try to have some “talking points” in your back pocket, ready to go. If you can, try to point out something objective, e.g., “Oh, did you hear that big burp when I picked him up? Just the movement probably got that burp up!” Often, though, there’s no objective thing to say. You might try to re-frame with a subjective even vague response, such as, “Sometimes, babies just stop for reasons we may never understand.” (That seems a little lame, but it’s very neutral and works in almost any situation if you truly don’t know what to say!)

      Reframing is all about offering an alternative view, interpretation, or explanation. It’s not easy.

  3. Katherine Lynch

    This blog post truly resonated with me. I remember once, during a workshop I attended, a counselor inadvertently minimized my feelings, saying, “It’s common, many feel that way.” It made me realize the importance of choosing words carefully, especially in delicate situations.

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Oh, Katherine, this is such an easy trap for the speaker to fall into! Because here’s the thing. There’s a fine line between helping people to feel that their feelings are “normal” (which we all want to feel!) but not minimized. In my view, here’s the big difference: The non-verbal message! It’s not just the words. Research shows, over and over, that the vast majority of our communication is non verbal. Hence, we need to become very aware of the words and phrases we use, as well as the gestures and tone of voice and much more that goes into the whole message. Thank you for commenting; this is all so important.

  4. Amelia Black

    Reading this post took me back to a time when I was training as a counselor, and I made the mistake of unintentionally minimizing a client’s feelings. It was a humbling lesson in the power of our words and the need for genuine empathy. Your insight into the subtle nuances between offering encouragement and false reassurance is particularly enlightening and will surely benefit many in the field.

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Amelia, I’m so glad it resonated with you. It’s such an important distinction, and one so many of us had to learn the hard way!

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