What the therapist brings is her training on change — how it works, how to inspire people to make it, and how to help people through it. A counselor can be the de facto expert on, say, phobias or anxiety but if she doesn’t know how to help a client make changes around her phobia or her anxiety then how much good can she do? The therapist is first and foremost an authority on the process. The work we do to understand life stages, mental health and illness, and therapeutic theory is all about helping us become change experts.
Interestingly, some of us are better counselors than others and it has little to do with our training, experience or therapeutic orientation. So what does make for an effective therapist? The research says an effective therapist has:
- Passion for his or her work;
- Willingness to be flexible and responsive to the client’s needs.
The first piece (passion) goes without saying. A burned out therapist who’s phoning in her sessions isn’t going to do anyone any good. But the willingness to be flexible and responsive is an interesting one because it’s hard to be flexible and responsive if you never ask for feedback.
Scott D. Miller, who founded the The International Center for Clinical Excellence, has made it his life’s work to figure out why some therapists are better than others so that he can help spread that talent around. To that end he’s created a couple of scales to help counselors get the feedback they need to do a better job with every individual client. (Professional therapists can download the scales here.) But your counselor doesn’t have to use a formal feedback form to do a great job; she just has to ask how it’s going in session and then listen to you.
Whether it’s something seemingly minor (perhaps the scented candle she uses in her waiting room gives you a headache) or something major (like she keeps focusing on an area of your life that you’re ok with and you think the problem is something else entirely), it’s a good idea to tell her what’s going on.
Let me tell you, your therapist wants to do right by you. You can help her help you by giving her feedback about her services. Help her be the therapist you need her to be and if it’s not working? Well, there are a lot of other counselors out there. And most of us would rather give you a referral to someone who can help if we’re not the right therapist for you. Seriously.