Research Describes 14 Qualities and Actions of an Effective Counselor (Part 3 of 2)

This is part 3 in a series of posts originally intended to be a two-part pageturner. You can check out part 1 here and part 2 here.


counselor with depressed manIt’s the middle of January, which is the most common month that people seek out counseling. Of course, many factors go into choosing a therapist—location, specialty, a perception that he or she can help with your concerns, fees and insurance, and so on.


It’s also been my guess in this series that you also are wondering how in the world to pick an effective counselor. There are online reviews but only sometimes, and therapist websites can only give us clues about a counselor’s competence.


It’s been my goal to help you pick a good counselor, one that you can know with a little more clarity if the help you’re getting is worth your time and investment. Ultimately, I do feel that there’s a ineffable quality of “fit” between a counselor and a client that makes therapy work, and that’s hard to write about.


But let’s give it one more go. And I do mean just one more. I don’t want to go full Douglas Adams and turn this two-parter trilogy into a four- or five-part saga.


8) An Effective Counselor Is Flexible with the Course of Treatment

As we saw in the last post, an attentive, responsive counselor will be tuned into the progress of his client, or the lack thereof. If what the counselor is doing with the client isn’t working, he’ll adjust the treatment and keep adjusting until he finds what works.


Ideally, this is a collaborative effort. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked with a patient about what’s happening in the therapeutic relationship and in sessions. “How are you feeling about therapy with me?” I might ask. I really want to know how I can help better, and your therapist probably will too.


After gathering feedback, a good therapist may discuss possible treatment adjustments with you so that you can reach your goals for therapy.


9) An Effective Counselor Makes What’s Difficult in Therapy Talkable

Stop for a second and reread that heading. It’s really important and I chose the words carefully.


What does it mean to make something “talkable”?


We all have thoughts and feelings that we don’t talk about. Especially difficult thoughts and feelings, and sometimes especially in therapy. I know that therapy is where you’re “supposed” to talk about that stuff, but most of the time people don’t.


It’s not because they aren’t trying to avoid talking about what’s difficult (though sometimes they are, and it’s the therapist’s job not to collude in the avoidance). It’s often because they’re so used to not talking about their difficult feelings that they don’t even realize what’s happening.


A good therapist, then, will recognize what’s difficult in counseling and try to open it up for conversation with the client. This can be a tricky process; in trying to help, the therapist may actually say or do something that hurts the client.


Yet even this process of rupture-and-repair is critical: Outside of the therapist’s office, ruptures are common but repairs aren’t. Modeling for the client how to do this and providing this healing experience or paying attention to the client’s hurts (instead of telling them to “get over it” or responding defensively) works wonders.


10) An Effective Counselor is Hopeful

Sometimes, even when counseling is working, even when the counselor and client are working well together and the client feels understood, shit really hits the fan. Maybe things were going well in counseling and now, well, it’s not. Or at least it doesn’t feel that way.


Some psychodynamic therapists say that periods like this, which can be very lengthy at times, are necessary to deep, lasting change. In long term counseling especially, it’s not uncommon for the client to feel worse before she feels better. (After all, we’re talking about difficult stuff, right?)


It’s precisely in times like that the counselor needs to be hopeful. Oftentimes this means that the counselor holds onto her theory and treatment approach tightly, being the anchor for the client in the process. The therapist knows that the waves buffeting the client are a necessary part of that process, and that the storm will pass.


11) An Effective Counselor Is Aware of the Client’s Characteristics and Context

What are the client’s characteristics and context? It’s pretty straightforward, as the APA statement we’re reviewing explains:

Characteristics of the client refer to the culture, race, ethnicity, spirituality, sexual orientation, age, physical health, motivation for change, and so forth. The context involves available resources (e.g., SES status), family and support networks, vocational status, cultural milieu, and concurrent services (e.g., psychiatric, case management, etc.).

A good counselor keeps all of this in mind as treatment starts and proceeds, adapting and tailoring the counseling to meet the client’s specific needs. She’ll also coordinate with adjunctive services to ensure that the client receives the best care possible (e.g., referring the client to a doctor if he’s depressed, coordinating with the client’s psychiatrist when necessary).


A counselors worth her salt will also keep her own characteristics and context in mind, which leads us to . . .


12) An Effective Counselor Has Been in Counseling Herself (and Probably for a Good, Long Time)

A good therapist has done her own work. She’s aware of her stuff and how she’s reacting to the client. These reactions, called countertransference, are inevitable; a really good therapist will actually use her feelings to help the client. At the very least, she’s aware of her own process she’s careful not to let it adversely affect the client.


Now, no matter how good a therapist might be, some of our “stuff” is going to get on you. The therapist certainly doesn’t mean to do this, of course. He’s just trying to show up authentically, or at least he should be. In doing that, he’s going to “miss” you or even say or do something hurtful. But when that happens, it’s an invaluable opportunity to work through it (see #9 above).


13) An Effective Counselor Keeps Up on the Latest Research, Books, and Articles in His Field

A good therapist will know about the research that relevant to his treatment of the client.


In other words, a good counselor is constantly learning. They’re going to conferences, seeking out consultation, reading books, articles, blog posts, listening to podcasts—you get the idea. They’re in the know and always looking to learn more.


Sometimes this means learning more about particular practices and approaches that are most appropriate for a particular patient’s needs.


14) A Effective Counselor Is Always Improving

Therapists who are effective are always getting better. They’re not just constantly learning. They’re progressively mastering the key skills in their specialty. They’re passionate about mastering their craft because they are passionate about helping people.


The EMDR therapist will seek ongoing training in EMDR and consultation specific to this trauma treatment.


The sex addiction therapist will peruse the latest research and attend regular conferences to stay informed about new treatment approaches and materials.


The psychodynamic therapist or psychoanalyst will subscribe to psychoanalytic journals and book series. She’ll participate in regular consultation groups and present client cases in order to hone her skills and deepen her work with clients.


In other words, effective therapists have identified and regularly practice habits that sharpen their clinical skills. As they do this, they become better clinicians and their clients reap the benefits.

Jeremy Mast

Jeremy is a licensed marriage and family therapist (CA LMFT90961) in private practice in Ventura, California. He helps those struggling with drugs, alcohol, and out-of-control sexual behaviors awaken to new possibilities for their lives. He lives with his wife, son, and cat in beautiful southern California.

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