What I Wish I’d Known About Counselling & Psychotherapy Training… (Part 3)

In this series of articles, I am exploring the positive and negative aspects of training to be a therapist in the UK. In my initial article, I looked at the various routes into training. In the second article I looked at the personal impacts, including interpersonal relationships.

Part 3 looks at the issues around power and group dynamics, including conflict, that you might experience during your training. I can only talk from my own experience of completing a Level 2, Level 3 and Level 4 (Diploma) – and cannot talk about what it is like to be a university student for counselling & psychotherapy.

  1. Experience on a Training Course: Power Dynamics & Conflict
    1. Imbalance of Power
    2. Training Institution and Tutor Power
    3. Placement Power
    4. Conflict
      1. Group Dynamics
    5. Complaints

Experience on a Training Course: Power Dynamics & Conflict

Experiences on courses can vary widely. From the excellent tutor (which I had on my level 3) to the ineffectual or even cruel tutors that are drawn to teaching. I will not be naming any of the training providers or individual tutors in this piece. I will however be very honest about my thoughts and experiences.

Imbalance of Power

Power is an integral concept that all trainees should consider. There is a power dynamic between trainee and tutor, trainee and college/organisation, trainee and examining body. There’s a power differential between trainee and placement provider, trainee and supervisor, trainee and placement line manager, and trainee and membership organisation. I’m sure there are more that I have not mentioned.

Yet, during my 5 years or so of training, the only discussion around power introduced by tutors was that of therapist (including trainee) to client. Whilst this is an important aspect to consider – that therapists have an inherent power over clients – disregarding all the other power dynamics is an interesting choice. Either tutors don’t recognise the power they have, they don’t want to admit it, or something not so pleasant.

Training Institution and Tutor Power

During your studies, there is an inherent power that is held over you by your college/institution and/or the tutor(s) themselves. This can be managed well, by creating supportive and positive relationships. This is a hard skill to develop as a tutor, and it’s why I strongly feel that tutors should have a lot more training than they seem to do at present. I’m mindful that I don’t want to tar all therapy tutors with the same brush, however, I can only speak from my own experience and the stories that have been shared with me.

Training institutions and tutors have the decision whether someone studies or not. Whether they start their placement or not. Whether they sit their exam or not. This is a huge amount of power. To not recognise this could be incredibly damaging – and is exactly what happened to me on my original level 4. Tutors ignored my pleas for reasonable adjustments for my disabilities (despite originally agreeing) and then purposefully went against these reasonable adjustments, pushing me into more and more vulnerable positions. Finally, I was hit with my first somatic flashbacks and resulting panic attacks. When challenged, the tutors felt they were right to have treated me that way. By the time I left the course (after one year), I was the shadow of who I really am. It took nearly a year to crawl back from that mental breakdown.

Placement Power

I have heard many a horror story about negative experiences on placements – especially when it comes to placements expecting trainees to pay for the ‘privilege’ of ‘volunteering’ at that organisation. There is a large pool every year of students looking for a place to complete at least 100 hours of free labour to organisations. Placement providers can therefore afford to be picky, as they know they will fill their vacancies. They can charge trainees, because if people refuse to pay, there will be other trainees who are desperate for a placement.

I’m lucky and very glad that the place I completed my placement with did not use this business model. I enjoyed my placement so much that I joined the Board of Trustees after I finished my placement. The therapy team respected the various life experienced all the trainees brought, and we were encouraged to share our passions and experiences. However, I really think this is a fairly unique experience, and I know of many students who have been unfairly treated in their placements.

When completing a placement, you will require various reports from your placement manager (and supervisor) and so moving placements during the year/two years actually creates a lot more work for the trainee. It’s this kind of the thing that allows placement providers to hold an inherent power over the trainees. Students can feel trapped, unable to challenge bad practice or issues, but needing to complete the hours to qualify. This is a really difficult position to be in.


Conflict is a part of life, and not all conflict is traumatic. Whenever you put a group of stangers together, there is going be the development of various group dynamics. You might find that your entire group bonds well, and they get on with their tutor. This is the dream, and was my experience on my level 3 course. There was mutual respect amongst everyone.

You might find the group bonds, but it becomes an element of “us and them” between the group and the tutor/establishment. This could certainly lead to conflict between the tutor and individuals in the group, or the group as a whole.

You might find that the majority of the group bonds well and gets on with the tutor, whilst at the same time there is one or more student(s) who end up on the ‘outside’. Once again, this can create conflict.

Group Dynamics

You may have heard of the following concepts in regards to group dynamics: forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning. Each of these show a different phase of a group dynamic. A tutor is part of these stages, but also is outside of the group. They guide the group through all parts of the dynamic, whilst at the same time, being an individual member of the overall group.

  1. Forming:
    The stage where the group needs more guidance from the tutor. This is where the group learns about each other, and bonds begin to tentatively form.
  2. Storming:
    This is where there is some form of conflict/confrontation between individuals or groups. Common conflicts include roles and responsibilities (e.g. group spokesperson) and individual need for validation and respect.
  3. Norming:
    The conflicts that happen during the storming stage begin to be resolved, and social agreements are developed. Members of the group begin to fall into a more cohesive pattern.
  4. Performing:
    Once people fall into their roles, the group moves towards completing their goals. In this case, the students and tutor move towards completing portfolios and placements. Members tend to use mutual support and creativity.
  5. Adjourning:
    This stage is when the group comes to some sort of closure – for most students, this will be the end of a course.

This pattern is pretty similar for most groups – however, groups can get stuck in certain stages, especially the storming or norming stages.

Whilst all students on counselling and psychotherapy courses are adults, these social structures are common no matter the age of the participants. Conflict can and will happen, and some of it can encourage a lot of personal growth. That said, many of us find conflict really challenging, so whilst it may feel unpleasant in the moment, it may help you.

However, if it causes significant distress, then something is terribly wrong. We all respond to conflict differently, and things such as our neurotype can impact on the whole experience. This is where tutors should be stepping in – managing any conflict, mediating to resolve the issues, and helping the group and individuals move into the more cohesive stage.

Unfortunately there are some tutors who do not have this skill. For example, on my most recent qualification there was a particular student who used practice sessions as therapy, over-shared, and then began sharing content within the group WhatsApp discussion that linked to covid denial, and other conspiracy theories. These harmful aspects were discussed with the tutor by multiple students, but the tutor refused to do anything.


Hopefully you will never reach the point of needing to make a complaint about your course, tutor or placement, but I think it’s really important to understand the processes before you even start.

To understand this, you should ask courses for copies of their policies and procedures. When you start a course you should also find the complaints policies/procedures for the examining body, the membership organisation you join, and when you start your placement, the agencies policies and procedures.

What I’ve noticed within the counselling profession and training, is that every organisation wants to pass the baton of responsibility. This is incredibly infuriating, as there appears to be a lack of accountability. Something I identified in the complaints procedures at the courses I attended is that usually the training organisation/college had very limited procedures, which usually resulted in the tutor making the final decision. It’s very weighted against the student/trainee, and deeply unfair.

Whilst it’s another cost, I do think joining a union such as the Psychotherapy and Counselling Union (PCU) could provide students with an element of support if it comes to complaining about a course/tutor. There are also some excellent facebook groups for peer support for therapists and trainees, however, it’s a delicate matter to reach out for support when challenging the power of your tutors/courses.

If you are a counselling/psychotherapy student and you’d like support to process your personal developments, then you might want to get in touch with me for some therapy. I also offer mentoring to help students apply their learning, as well as guiding students on how to write reflective journals. Fees can be found here.

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