Recently I have thought about: what characteristics within a therapist help the therapeutic process become more productive and enriching for the client. Having been a therapist and a client too during my life, I feel I am able to see this from a different perspective.
The characteristics that have been most helpful for me in a therapist have been: honesty; flexibility; the ability to communicate well both verbally and non-verbally; a willingness to give feedback; the determination to put the needs of the client first, and making it a priority to come up with a treatment plan together for the client; the capacity to feel empathy; the ability to teach specific skills that the client needs to know; the ability of a therapist to be aware of his/her own reactions and emotions in the therapeutic encounter, and the ability to deal with it effectively; and the ability to be consistent with rules, boundaries, and presence when with a client.
First, I believe it is essential to be honest in the therapeutic relationship. If a client needs to be confronted about something, it is the therapist’s job to do this in a kind, appropriate way. Avoiding conflict, or being fearful of hurting someone else’s feelings does not help the client or therapist grow. A therapist who lies to a client and says he/she will do something and does not follow through with it, is harmful in many ways. It’s hard for the client to develop trust when that occurs.
Second, flexibility is important in a therapist. The therapist needs to be willing to change the agenda for the session if it seems important to the client that he/she do so. The therapist needs to be willing to work with the client when scheduling an appointment. Be flexible with therapeutic approaches. If a technique or theory isn’t working, throw it aside and try a different one. Life changes and so does the client’s needs. If the client has ideas, listen to him/her. Most often the client has within him/herself what is needed to get well. The therapist must also be able to assert him/herself when he/she is convinced the focus needs to be on thoughts instead of emotions or vice versa. The therapist must be able to teach skills that will enable the client to reduce the intensity of emotions before leaving the session.
Third, being able to communicate well verbally and non-verbally is important. It has always been strange to me for a therapist to present his/herself as being totally neutral without emotion, thought, or action in therapy. That doesn’t work well in other relationships in the real world. I believe the teaching of social skills is one of the main goals in therapy. The therapist can’t achieve that with one-sided conversations. Communication, by its very nature, is about giving feedback. Many client’s in therapy have attachment problems. Parents sometimes fail to mirror back to the child who he/she is. Clients need affirmations. They need to know how they are coming across to others. Without correct feedback, they will never know.
Fourth, doing the treatment plan with a client is very helpful, because the therapist shows the client that he validates and values the client’s ideas. The client becomes more aware of what is happening inside him/herself, and takes a more active role in therapy and assumes more responsibility for making progress.
Fifth, empathy let’s the client know he/she is heard, is valued, and that who and what he/she is, matters to someone in this world. It improves communication and helps build rapport and trust.
Sixth, every client comes to therapy to learn new skills to help him navigate the world in a more productive way. If the therapist doesn’t have the knowledge or skills to enable the client to help himself, the relationship is not a good fit.
Seventh, the therapist needs to be aware and able to deal with his/her own emotional reactions in therapy in order to be objective, fair, just, and it helps the therapist stay honest, focused on the client’s needs and welfare. When the therapist is not able to separate his stuff from the client’s, problems occur.
Eighth, consistency is what helps a client see the therapist can be relied upon and it is what enables trust to grow. It also encourages the client’s development of hope and faith in the world. If the therapist is constantly changing rules, boundaries, and goals, safety is very difficult to achieve. Anxiety grows as well as frustration in the client. The therapist’s presence influences therapy. If the therapist is always presenting him/herself in different ways, problems occur. If the therapist presents as warm, then removed and distant, or fails to be aware and attentive of the client’s needs on a regular basis, transference occurs and makes therapy more difficult to work through and trust to develop.
I have had therapy when these characteristics were present and when they were not. They really made a difference in the quality of the therapeutic relationship and the amount of progress made. It also determined how much anxiety was created in the therapist as well as in the client.