Counseling, therapy, and psychology are often stereotyped by society with misconceptions and stigma.
However, effective therapy, quality counseling, and psychotherapy are about a relationship, developing skills, learning techniques, and improving the concept we have of ourselves and the world around us.
Effective counseling helps relieve distress, build resilience, improve self-esteem, and ultimately improve lives. The more successful this process is, the easier it is to prove misconceptions wrong and see and accept therapy and counseling in their true light.
So then, let’s look at some of the characteristics, traits, and techniques of effective counselors.
Before you continue, you might like to download a few Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology, including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.
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3 Characteristics of Counseling
Counseling is a process between a client and therapist to explore difficulties, learn to see things clearly, and facilitate positive change (Sexton, 1996).
The process is built on a relationship of trust, confidentiality, and mutual respect. The practice of counseling has roots in humanistic, behavioral, and cognitive traditions. All of which are also seen and utilized in positive psychology.
There is plenty of research to support practical approaches to counseling. The term “best practices” signifies that empirical evidence supports the effectiveness of specific approaches and techniques.
Evidence-based counseling supports both the art/science and the research/practice components of the field. Research clearly supports the benefits of individual, group, and family counseling for a wide variety of issues.
It is specifically important to match certain client problems with specific counseling approaches to obtain the best outcome (Sexton, 1996).
Theoretical orientation and effective counseling
A few common factors of effective counseling matter a great deal more than the specific theoretical orientation. Theoretical orientations can, however, emphasize the environment/background, emotions, behavior, or thoughts.
Psychoanalysis, as well as Jungian and Alderian psychology, are theoretical orientations that emphasize background.
Emotion-based theoretical approaches are Rogerian (or person-centered psychology), existential psychology, and gestalt therapy.
Cognitive therapy and rational-emotive behavioral therapy focus on thoughts.
Lambert (1991) found that 30% of effective counseling outcomes come from “common factors” – 15% from the client’s expectations and 15% from specific psychological techniques.
The common factors can be broken down into three broad areas:
- The value of learning or psychoeducation. This is done through affective experiencing, correcting emotional experiences, and skill acquisition.
- The supportive value of a collaborative counseling relationship, or what Carl Rogers called the therapeutic alliance
- Action occurs through behavior change, creating successful experiences, behavior regulation, and mastery.
Psychoeducation is the process of providing information to individuals in therapy.
When people understand mental health conditions, the benefits of specific treatments, and research supporting coping techniques, they develop an internal locus of control to work toward mental and emotional wellbeing.
Most clients have little knowledge about mental and emotional health nor what to expect from therapy. Basic education of mental and emotional issues can lead to a better understanding of how techniques can be implemented to relieve distress and improve overall wellness.
Counselors can provide this education via both a combination of face-to-face teaching and skills-training, as well as by encouraging their clients to engage with psychoeducational interventions in between counseling sessions. In this sense, psychoeducation may serve to supplement and support aspects of the counseling process.
For instance, using a blended care counseling app such as Quenza, counselors can share self-paced reflection exercises, guided audio meditations, and a range of other activities with their clients digitally. Clients can complete these at their own pace using their smartphone or tablet, potentially having a range of benefits for furthering their learning and progress toward their goals.
One study showed that when psychoeducation was administered to patients with schizophrenia, it helped reduce hospitalization rates and decreased the number of days the patient spent in the hospital (Bauml, Frobose, Kraemer, Rentrop, & Pitschel-Walz, 2006).
Carl Rogers outlined the factors necessary for developing the therapeutic alliance in 1957. Rogers (1957) states that a counselor must be genuinely engaged in the therapeutic relationship, have unconditional positive regard, feel empathy, and communicate these attitudes.
The therapeutic alliance is also described as the relational factor in counseling that includes goal consensus, collaboration of counseling-related tasks, and emotional bonding (Meyers, 2014). The first impression and early formation of the therapeutic alliance has been shown to be one of the most significant predictors of psychotherapy success (Horvath, 2001).
This positive bond involves mutual trust, liking, respect, and caring and includes establishing goals for therapy that both parties are equally committed to achieving. It creates a sense of shared responsibility and investment in the process.
Additionally, Hill and Knox (2001) explain that this relationship evolves as a counselor uses appropriate techniques that intensify client engagement, increase therapist influence, and thereby strengthen the alliance. Supportive and engaging procedures allow the client to become more involved in the process.
Behavior change is a critical component of the counseling process. Creating a strategy for behavior change is a crucial component of every established type of therapy, including CBT, person-centered therapy, and even psychoanalysis (Schueller, 2009).
Behavior change can be accomplished through emotional arousal, commitment, and environmental regulation.
Consciousness raising is a great starting point for clients. This approach invites clients to explore where they are, how their actions and attitudes influence their emotions and health, and what they want to become. This worksheet is an excellent example of consciousness raising.
Another effective way to create behavior change is self-reevaluation. Examining a client’s core beliefs with this core belief worksheet is an excellent way to begin self-reevaluation.
6 Characteristics of a Good Counselor
There are six personal characteristics that are critical for good counselors and should be improved upon continually.
These include having good interpersonal skills and being trustworthy, flexible, hopeful/optimistic, culturally sensitive, and self-aware.
1. Interpersonal skills
Counselors must be able to express themselves clearly and effectively. It is important not only to be able to educate clients about therapeutic topics, but also to gauge the client’s understanding at any given time.
Being able to sense what clients are thinking and feeling and relate to them by showing warmth, acceptance, and empathy are cornerstones of effective therapy. You can learn about and improve interpersonal skills and empathy by downloading our Emotional Intelligence Exercises.
According to Hill and Knox (2001), most people determine whether they can trust someone within 50 milliseconds of meeting them. Counselors must be able to communicate verbally and nonverbally that they are trustworthy.
Clients need to feel comfortable sharing private, confidential information and parts of themselves that are often entirely unknown by others. Having faith in the quality of the relationship and the confidentiality of what is disclosed leads to a deeper connection with the therapist.
A good counselor will create a meaningful treatment plan that is individualized for each client. This means the counselor shouldn’t follow a rigid schedule of treatment or have a “one size fits all” approach.
Prochaska and Norcross (2001) found that some treatments are better than others for specific types of disorders. Matching the treatment to the client’s stage of readiness is the most effective way to implement therapeutic techniques. Additionally, counselors need to be able to adapt and change course if treatment is not working for the client.
4. Hope and optimism
Hope is a wonderful motivator. Effective counselors can find a balance between realism and hope.
A good counselor will set realistic goals that engage the client and inspire a more optimistic outlook.
As attainable goals are reached, clients will develop a sense of resilience and confidence that can help in all areas of life. These traits are why positive psychology is such an effective method of improving emotional health.
5. Multicultural sensitivity
The American Psychological Association recommends that therapists adapt treatment to a client’s cultural values and show respect for differences, beliefs, and attitudes.
When working with clients, it is important to be educated and sensitive to issues of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, and cultural background.
An effective counselor can separate personal issues from those of the client. Countertransference is a phenomenon described by Freud where issues expressed by a client lead to an emotional reaction of the therapist.
When counselors can identify and manage responses to their own issues, they will be less likely to react to them during sessions, and it will eliminate any detrimental effects on therapy.
Part of self-awareness is the ability to know how much information should be disclosed to clients. This will vary on a case-by-case basis, but professional boundaries, personal insight, and the ability to read others are integral parts of this.
What is Non-Directive Counseling?
Non-directive counseling is all about the client.
It is also known as client-centered therapy.
It is a type of treatment where the therapist avoids giving advice or interpreting what they hear so that the client can discover things about themselves with minimal guidance.
Rogers (1961) developed non-directive counseling as a more humane way to help with mental health than psychoanalysis or behavioral techniques. He proposed that therapists should be permissive and seek to understand the client’s feelings.
This client-centered therapy should focus on a client’s direct experiences and consciousness. Rogers (1961) stated that people tend toward self-actualization, which motivates them. Read our related blog post, which provides more guidance and gives practical tools for self-actualization.
For non-directive therapy to be successful, six conditions need to be met (Rogers, 1961). The first three are for the therapist to have empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard for the client.
The other three conditions are:
- A strong therapeutic alliance
- A client who is emotionally upset or in a state of incongruence
- A client who can know the counselor has unconditional positive regard
Most people can benefit from this counseling approach, but individuals who are more educated seem to adapt to the non-directive style more easily (Guilbeault, 2020). Clients should also enter the counseling setting with the right motivation and an approach that desires change and optimal wellbeing.
The most important assumptions a counselor can bring to non-directive therapy are that humans are fundamentally good, that they desire healing and positive change, and that they have what they need within themselves to change their self-concept, attitudes, and behaviors (Rogers, 1961).
Above all else, there is a concept of fundamental human goodness and the belief that clients have the ability and potential to change. This Inward/Outward Strengths Expression exercise is a great way for clients and counselors to explore personal strengths and the potential for change.
Group Counseling Session Characteristics
The group dynamic in counseling can help remind people that they are not alone.
Group counseling sessions are led by at least one qualified therapist and usually include 5–12 group members who share the same mental health issues or common goals.
Group counseling is a common way to address everything from addiction to anxiety, parenting, grief/loss, anger management, and building self-esteem. Read our group therapy article for more in-depth insight into the intricacies and potential benefits of group therapy.
Two approaches to group counseling
Of the various types of counseling groups, most can be divided into two main approaches.
A psychoeducational group provides members with information regarding specific issues and is led by a qualified therapist. The therapist or counselor directs group meetings, sets goals, and delivers content through instruction. As the counselor takes on the role of a teacher, the relationship between group members becomes less important.
On the other hand, process-oriented groups emphasize the group experience. The counselor is a facilitator rather than a teacher and leads the group in discussion. As members discuss and share group activities, they gain a sense of belonging and self-confidence.
Common Characteristics of Clients
Clients bring the sum of their experiences as well as their current state into the therapeutic relationship. Client expectations, behaviors, and actions have a direct correlation to how effective counseling will be for them.
A client’s temperament, knowledge of relationships, ability to trust, stress/tolerance level, and cultural norms play a role in the counseling process. While race, gender, culture, and religion are all important “big picture” client characteristics, there are a few subtle characteristics that counselors should be aware of at the start of therapy.
Readiness to change
One of the most important predictors of successful therapy is the client’s readiness to change. Prochaska and Norcross (2001) developed the Transtheoretical Model of therapeutic change, which moves through precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance.
The following diagram is from PsychCentral:
Prochaska and Norcross (2001) recommend that therapists assess the client’s stage of change and tailor interventions accordingly.
They estimate that 10–20% of clients are prepared for action, 30–40% are in contemplation, and 50–60% are in the precontemplation stage and need psychoeducation before any therapeutic interventions.
Deference is the client’s submission to the thoughts, opinions, and ideas of another person (in this case, the counselor) who is seen as “superior.”
In the therapeutic relationship, the counselor is generally considered more expert than the client, which creates a power dynamic. This dynamic is often overlooked in counseling research and education.
Being deferential to the counselor is a client’s way of protecting the therapeutic alliance, but it can be detrimental if it suppresses the client’s opinions and desires (Rennie, 1994). Being aware that clients can be susceptible to deference may help counselors avoid conflict that comes from a client not feeling good enough or worthy of positive results in therapy.
A client’s self-awareness plays a considerable role in the strength of the therapeutic alliance and the success of therapy.
Self-awareness allows clients to set achievable goals based on their personal strengths and weaknesses. It also allows clients to make positive behavior changes and experience better personal and interpersonal relationships.
If clients come to counseling without self-awareness, that may be the first place to start with them. Our article on self-awareness explains the benefits it provides and offers practical ideas for strengthening it.
Most individuals struggle to share difficult parts of themselves. Still, for anything to get accomplished in counseling, a client must be willing to self-disclose personal information, feelings, and insights.
Farber, Berano, and Capobianco (1997) found that about half of clients keep secrets from their therapists. Lack of self-disclosure occurs most often in relationship issues, sexual problems, and perceived personal failures. This indicates that embarrassment, shame, and fear are significant deterrents for clients opening up.
The longer a client is in counseling, and the stronger the therapeutic alliance becomes, the more willing they will be to disclose information.
A Take-Home Message
Perhaps Dr. Ili Rivera Walter said it best:
Success as a therapist is not in doing something for the client, but rather being someone for the client.
When we can accept others as they are, meet them where they are, and have the self-awareness to be with them in their journey, true healing can occur.
Counseling is more than a profession; it is a science and an art. It is a relationship and a pathway that allows others to reach their full potential and truly experience life.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
- Bauml, J., Frobose, T., Kraemer, S., Rentrop, M., & Pitschel-Walz, F. (2006). Psychoeducation: A basic psychotherapeutic intervention for patients with schizophrenia and their families. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 32, 11–19.
- Farber, B., Berano, K., & Capobianco, J. (2004). Clients’ perceptions of the process and consequences of self-disclosure in psychotherapy. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 51, 340–346.
- Guilbeault, L. (2020). What is the therapist’s role in non-directive therapy? Better Help. Retrieved August 4, 2020 from https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/therapy/what-is-the-therapists-role-in-nondirective-therapy/
- Hill, C., & Knox, S. (2001). Self-disclosure. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 38, 413–417.
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- Meyers, L. (2014). Connecting with clients. Counseling Today, 18. Retrieved August 2020 from www.ct.counseling.org/2014/08/connecting-with-clients/#
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- Schueller, S. M. (2009). Promoting wellness: Integrating community and positive psychology. Journal of Community Psychology, 37, 922–937.
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