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Strategies for conducting a counseling session using DA 4856

Changing your approach

Let's go back to the approaches of counseling. Just like a long rifle isn't the best choice of weapon for clearing a small house, using the same approach to counseling every time isn't the best choice either.

How much guidance did you receive on counseling other Soldiers? Were you told the purpose of a counseling session, the importance, the types of counseling, the different approaches, or how to adapt them to different people?

Did you conduct counseling sessions as a junior enlisted or was the first time when you were an NCO and placed in a team leader position?

Talking with NCOs, it seems as though there hasn't been much time spent on teaching leaders how to counsel, the importance of it, and the need to adapt it to different Soldiers based on the situation or need for growth.

When It comes to professional growth or End of Month (EOM) counseling sessions, This is how I adapt my approach to develop junior Soldiers and prepare them to counsel others.

When I get a new junior enlisted Soldier, I start with the directive approach where I control everything about the counseling session. The counseling form is completely filled out, the Soldier is either new to the Army or new to the organization and this is the time to set standards and expectations. I usually maintain this approach for about 6 months (overall it's completely dependent on the individual for the transition timeline).

Once I am comfortable that they understand the expectations and how a general counseling session is supposed to go, I move to the combined approach. This means that I work with them to gather information prior to or during the counseling session that ultimately gets put on the form whether that is adding details to the summary or updating and changing plan of action goals, steps, or timelines. This way we both have a part in the counseling process and it starts to involve them in their own development. Let them choose some of their own goals, make it personal. Hold them to a timeline and help them determine the appropriate substeps to complete their personal goal as well. Don't forget to show how you are going to support this in the leaders responsibilities section. This shows empathy and caring for them not only as a Soldier but as a person as well.

After about 6 months to 1 year, I am usually confident in moving to a non-directive approach. For this, I usually have the Soldier (most commonly a Specialist) write a counseling statement for themselves or someone else in the team. During their counseling session, I cover both the counseling I have planned and go over the counseling form that they created. Usually the first few are very rough and take a fair amount of time to cover. It is important to note that I don't use these counseling to give to anyone, this is just practice for the junior.

After about six months, they usually have a pretty good grasp on how to conduct a counseling and what topics they want to cover as a template to manage expectations and maintain a standard. They have developed a good understanding of the importance of counseling, the resources available to help them, and how to conduct a session. At this time I have them write full counseling statements for themselves. When they present the counseling we will review it together and if they present all the information I would and match their performance according to the standards the same way I would assess them, then we wrap it up and sign the form. If there are any discrepancies or if I don't agree with their assessment, I inform them of the changes that need to be made and most importantly, WHY. If possible, this is the point where I will assign them another Soldier in the team to counsel and lead when I'm unavailable. I do not allow them to present counseling statements to the junior without us reviewing the counseling form together to make sure it meets the standard.

Usually at this point, the Soldier is eligible to attend the promotion board and now has a phenomenal understanding of the counseling process, has a complete counseling record, and has experience counseling other Soldiers. What a great way to transition them into the next rank. This also works with NCOs using the NCOER support form which is another NCOPD topic.

If you struggle with plans of action or have been missing some key elements of the SMART goals that are needed, let's expand on that here.

One of the biggest things I see on counseling forms that lets me know the leader doesn't care about the goals and isn't following up with the Soldier is when I see the exact same goal month after month on the counseling form. If the Soldier completed the goal, then update the plan of action and change the goal. If they have had the same goal for 3 months or more and have made no progress, then make sure you capture that in the assessment before you start your next counseling and update or change the goal!!! Make sure you mention that in the next counseling session and assign any corrective training/action needed.

Corrective training VS corrective action is another NCOPD topic.

If they are having a hard time completing a large goal like finishing a degree, buying a house, getting promoted, etc., then reform the plan of action and break it down into smaller goals or steps to accomplish the goal if you haven't already. If they just aren't making progress then either recommend action to senior leaders or, if not so serious, change the entire goal completely.

What to put when you don't know a specific timeline or don't want to put a timeline that would end the plan prematurely. Let's say you have a negative event-oriented counseling and you want to assign them corrective training or corrective action to help them overcome the deficiency but you don't know how long you should put for the timeline. This can be simple but don't overuse this example as it shows the leader isn't putting forth effort or developing. You can put until the deficiency is resolved/corrected/ or until further notice for your timeline.

Maybe you don't know the date of the event or deadline, simply put To Be Determined (TBD).

If you really want to show your support for them but simultaneously use that goal to support the mission, find out how they are linked. Show them that what they are doing for the Army supports that goal. If you are successful, you will create commitment. Commitment in a Soldier will go so much further than just using a directive approach to create compliance. Commitment VS compliance is another topic for a different NCOPD.

One example of this is college. Let them know this is a great personal goal and something that will also make a big impact on their career both within the military and out of it. Get them in to talk to an education counselor to pick a good degree path. If they want to use it to become an officer, try to set them up some time with some officers in your unit that can help them manage expectations and succeed. This will build interpersonal relationships and if they know you are invested in them, they will likely do much more for you as a leader.

Are you someone who has received a positive event-oriented counseling? Awesome. If not, well, that's normal.

Going back to every NCO I have talked to that has had a positive counseling, every single one remembers it very clearly. I have not received one but I have made it a point to write them when I can.

For those that have, it has had some sort of an impact on their lives and many of those that have received one have also taken the time to write one for someone else.

As an instructor I had the privilege to work with a few Ready and Resilient (R2) Sports Psychologists who we were using as consultants to help us increase student retention and break down psychological barriers that keep people from performing with an open mindset. If you are unfamiliar with open VS closed mindset I encourage you look it up. One of the things they said that really stuck with me was "praise the change you want to see in the world"

It is likely that if you have come across this material by your own research that you are someone who cares about self-development and being a good leader. This could also mean that you perform to a higher standard than those around you and are asked to do more. If you aren't this person, you probably know them and see that they are often overtasked and probably burnt out. If you aren't this person, were you at any point? I have seen multiple Soldiers that start of this way and quickly change after they observe the hardships of this lifestyle and choose to, at least at work, be mediocre. For both groups, would it make a difference to you if you received positive feedback for the work you've done? Positive feedback is much different for everyone and the most effective approach will only be known by someone who takes the time to understand you.

Many of those that I have seen change, did so after seeing that their work went unrewarded. They feel as though the effort wasn't worth the reward, or lack thereof.

A positive counseling doesn't need to be done on paper, the best way to do it just depends on the person and what is important to them. If you want to better understand what form of praise is best for someone, I recommend you read the 5 love languages book and use the information to figure out the people around you. The love languages apply outside of marriage or romance and are a big part of who we are. Understand that and you will be a more effective leader.

Bottom line up front, if you want someone to keep performing a certain way then you need to find a way to sustain them and make the effort worth the reward. There aren't many people who will just keep choosing the hard right and performing to the highest standard without justification just because it is ingrained in them as a core value. For everyone else, you need to give them a reason. This is where the positive counseling comes in. Again it doesn't have to be on paper, figure out what is the most effective for them. If you do put it on paper, whether that is a counseling, award, or certificate, that will allow other leaders and Soldiers to see that this is a stellar person and increase their opportunity for promotion. It also may show someone else who gave up that there is someone who actually gives a crap and maybe it's worth their time and effort now to perform to a higher standard.

Let me ask you now is counseling important to you? If you've made it this far, I'm guessing it is. If it's not, why not?

More importantly, what are you going to do to implement the information here into your leadership style? Think about it and give an example below.


Department of the Army. (2014, July). Developmental Counseling Form (DA Form 4856). Headquarters, Department of the Army.

JBLM Legal Team. (2019, March). Master counseling template.

Morgan, B. (2019, February 7). Future Capabilities or Readiness? It’s Time to Rethink the Army’s Priorities. Modern War Institute.,future%20Army%20(his%20number%20two

‘The time is now’ to transform the Army, says CSA. (2020, October 14). Www.Army.Mil.

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