What to Look for in a Counselor
In our previous post, we talked about what clients can do to contribute to counseling success. So, what about the counselor?
In my experience, a counselor should have a healthy balance of likeability and effectiveness. If you don’t like her, you’re probably not going to want to come back, no matter how helpful she could be. However, if she is a really likeable person who offers nothing substantive, you’ll probably stop going because you felt that you’re not getting anything out of it.
Let’s take a look at each of these characteristics separately.
Likeability, of course, begins with genuineness–an authenticity. It’s not something that can be faked. Most people can spot a fake pretty quickly. The ability to be liked is absolutely not based on the ability to charm, manipulate, or put on a good show.
You see, the relationship you have with your counselor will be a professional one, but it will be unlike almost any other professional relationship that you have. You don’t necessarily need to like your accountant or lawyer, for example; as long as they are doing the best job for you, you’re kind of okay with not liking them. If I needed surgery, and the best surgeon around was totally devoid of personality, I’d still let her operate because I don’t need her to be nice; I need her to have steady hands.
With your counselor, though, you will likely find yourself sitting together for an hour at a time and sharing your intimate details, private thoughts or deep-seated fears; for that, you’ll want to be friendly–but not friends with–your counselor.
When you meet your counselor for the first time, she is probably more comfortable than you are, having done countless intakes. You, of course, have probably thought about counseling for a long time before actually picking up the phone to make an appointment, so just walking in the door is a major victory for you. Your counselor knows that, and will probably spend that first session trying to keep you at ease while simultaneously gathering information. In short, your counselor will want to normalize the situation for you. (BTW: You will probably cry during your intake. It is absolutely okay. We expect it–that’s why there is a box of tissues conveniently placed right beside your chair.)
After your first session, perhaps your loved one will ask, “So, how did it go?” “I liked her,” or “I felt comfortable with her” is one of the best things that your counselor would want to hear you say if she was a fly on the wall. The absolutely best thing to hear? “I liked her. I feel like she can help me.” That speaks to our next point: effectiveness.
I have had numerous clients for whom I was their second or even third counselor, and often, when I ask why they didn’t stick with their previous counselor, the answer I hear is, “She was nice, but I didn’t feel like she was helping me much. It got to feel like we were just talking as friends.”
Remember: people have friends to feel better; people have counselors to get better. Your counselor is not your friend, so if it feels like you are just receiving NPR counseling (Nice Person in the Room), it is always okay to ask your counselor about the process or what it is that you are supposed to be accomplishing.
My advice? Ask your counselor about the theoretical model or approach that she uses. There are many paths to wellness–literally a dozen or so mainstream counseling frameworks from which she can work. Be wary of the one who says, “I use an eclectic approach,” because “eclectic” is often code for “I’m making this up as I go.” If she says, “eclectic,” ask her what she means by that…
If you are considering receiving counseling from us, of course, you won’t have to wonder what approach we’re using, because we are going to educate you in it. We believe in empowering you so that you can be your own therapist and stop coming as soon as possible! Our job is to build you up enough to put us out of a job.
While the responsibility for change ultimately lies with the client, your counselor is the “change agent.” (I know, I can’t stand the phrase either, but I couldn’t think of something else.) If she has a good measure of likeability and effectiveness, chances are that you’ll be fine.