Research Describes 14 Qualities and Actions of an Effective Counselor (Part 1 of 2)

Looking for a therapist in the New Year? You’re not alone. In fact, January tends to be the most popular month of the year for seeking counseling. Why? It’s hard to say, really, but there are probably several reasons:

  1. The holidays are over. With New Year’s, it’s time for a change.
  2. Being with family around the holidays can encourage people to want better relationships and emotional wellbeing.
  3. There’s a good stretch of time before summer, so people usually are going to be able to go to therapy for some time before traveling again.


counselor with clientWhatever the reason, if you’re looking for counseling right now, it’s a perfect time to think about the qualities you want in your counselor. More specifically, you probably want to know more about those characteristics of a good counselor, and what a good counselor does. 


You’re in luck. While no psychotherapist can ethically “guarantee” results of psychotherapy, research suggests that there are certain qualities of a psychotherapist that are key to successful treatment. That is, the qualities and characteristics of a psychotherapist are important contributors to benefits of counseling.


The American Psychological Association has an article here about those qualities. Let’s go through the first five of them together, as they’re a little more involved. In the next post, we’ll consider the next nine.


1) An Effective Counselor Is Good with People

This one’s precisely what we’d expect, right? The APA says that an effective therapist has a “sophisticated set of interpersonal skills,” including verbal fluency (which I understand as the ability to articulate freely one’s thoughts and feelings), warmth and acceptance, empathy, focus on the other, and focus on the other. What does this mean?


When is the last time you had a really good conversation? Maybe it was the past party you went to, or with your spouse or partner.

  • What made the conversation so good?
  • What was it like?
  • How did you feel when you were speaking with the other person?


Chances are that person looked you in eye, was really “with” you, showed interest in you, and that you felt it.


Even if you’re not aware that all of this might be happening at the time, we all know what it’s like when we don’t feel heard: The “listener” seems distracted, he’s not focused on us. Maybe he’s looking over your shoulder or checking his phone. Or he’s with you but he’s just, well, kinda cold. Or there’s something off about how he talks to you that you can’t quite put your finger on.


An effective therapist is warm, understanding, and really tuned into you. He’s going to miss some things, sure, but he’s a great listener. You feel heard and understood when you’re with him.


2) An Effective Counselor Helps the Client Feel Understood and Accepted

Another huge curveball, right? Nah. By her presence, a good therapist helps the client feel understood and accepted. The client, in turn, begins to trust the therapist, even during the first session or consultation.


During this session, the client is unconsciously on the lookout for cues of acceptance, empathy, and expertise: “Can this therapist help me? Do they understand me? Can I do this work with this person?”


A good therapist’s ability to successfully bond with the client in these ways is critical to forming the trusting relationship that is the vehicle for change in counseling. Which brings us to . . .


3) An Effective Counselor Forms a Therapeutic Alliance with the Client

What’s a “therapeutic alliance”? It’s a Final Jeopardy way of talking about a trusting, helpful, supportive relationship. Without this, as you may have guessed, therapy’s sunk.


There are a ton of factors that go into making this relationship work. The APA notes that this relationship is collaborative and purposeful, that is, the client and the therapist form an agreement to work together toward the client’s goals for therapy.


To me, these first three qualities are absolutely essential. Without them, a therapist simply cannot be effective. It’s important to note that sometimes a therapist is able to form these trusting, therapeutic relationships with some clients but less easily or not at all with other clients. The same is true for clients; some therapists just aren’t good matches.


That’s why therapists sometimes talk about the “fit” between the therapist and client. If you’re not a good fit for a therapist, you’ll feel it, and you should trust that feeling. It doesn’t mean that you did anything wrong or that you’re a bad patient, or anything like that.


The same is true for therapists; believe me, we hope we can help you, but if we’re not a fit for each other, we want you to go to some other therapist who’s a better fit. After all, we want you to heal. It’s why we do what we do.


4) An Effective Counselor Understands and Explains Well the Client’s Distress

This one is less intuitive, but it makes perfect sense. If you go to your doctor with a pain in your shoulder, you’d expect that the doctor would provide you with an understandable explanation of your pain.


Clients have the same expectations of therapists. A good therapist will describe why the client feels his emotional pain in a way that makes sense to him.


The APA provides an additional tidbit that’s really interesting: “[T]he explanation must be adaptive—that is, the explanation provides a means by which the client can overcome his or her difficulties. This induces positive expectations that the client can master what is needed to resolve difficulties.”


To me, this means that the explanation also describes what can be done to help the client feel better. It provides the foundation of a plan to reach the client’s goals and improve his life.


This quality, I think, is especially important when the client’s concerns are confounding or confusing to the client. I see this all the time, for instance, when I’m supporting sex or porn addicts in changing their lives. Usually, they’ve tried to change on their own, sometimes for years, without success. It’s confusing and frustrating to them that they haven’t been able to change in ways they want. The early part of my journey with them always includes creating a shared understanding of why they’ve been struggling.


5) An Effective Counselor Has a Plan

A good therapist will utilize her understanding and explanation of the client’s psychological problems to inform and guide her treatment. In her treatment of the client, she’s providing interventions that she expects will be helpful and healing to the client based on her understanding of the client’s emotional pain. In other words, the therapist knows what she’s doing.


Often, especially in managed care settings, counselors will write up a treatment plan to guide their work and modify the treatment plan along the way if necessary. Depending on the therapist’s theoretical approach, the therapist may share this treatment plan with you.


Usually, psychodynamic or psychoanalytic therapists may not create a treatment plan, even though their work is guided very much by the client’s presenting concerns. This “depth work” tends to be longer-term and more open-ended, which can be hard to translate into a treatment plan. However, you should always feel free to ask your therapist about her thoughts about where therapy might need to go.

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Man, I could talk about this all day, every day. In the next post, we’ll round out the list by considering the rest of the qualities of an effective therapist.

Jeremy Mast
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