What Makes a Good Therapist: Your Essential Guide and Checklist

coaching counselling therapist therapy Jul 16, 2023

 Choosing an effective counsellor or therapist, which are essentially the same, can be overwhelming. This article offers a clear and assured path to finding suitable support. 


 The Challenge of Finding the Right Therapist


Not long ago, I received an offer from a counselling directory. This platform promised visibility among potential clients for a monthly fee, presenting an effective way to keep my practice thriving. 

On the surface, it sounded beneficial, but I found myself hesitating.

My doubt stemmed from a belief that therapy directories do not necessarily serve their intended purpose: connecting therapists and clients for effective therapeutic alliances. 

While it may appear logical to group all the specialists together and let potential clients scroll through the options, the reality is more complex.

A take-your-pick approach might be practical for transactional services like mechanics, plumbers, and florists. However, counseling and therapy - human-centred services - require a more nuanced approach. 

When it comes to therapy, too many options often lead to confusion - the very emotional state that typically prompts a search for a mental health professional in the first place.


Navigating the Therapist Landscape



Broadly, psychotherapy is categorized into five main branches. Yet, the available therapeutic options, including the myriad esoteric approaches, can appear overwhelming. 

If you're seeking mental and emotional help, an exhaustive list of options often leads to hesitancy and a delay in seeking the support you need.

Scrolling through numerous therapist profiles, you notice how similar many of them are. This isn't a criticism - there are only so many ways to describe a support service neatly.

Yet, from the client's perspective, this lack of distinction can make the process of enlisting a suitable therapist seem like a gamble. As a potential client, your meaningful selection criteria can feel reduced.

In a nutshell, too many therapy options can feel risky. This is a stark contrast to the clarity and assurance most seek when looking for a therapist.

This article aims to simplify the process of identifying a good therapist. Whether you're considering therapy or already working with a therapist, the following sections will clarify what to expect from meaningful therapeutic support. 

We'll cover:

  • Characteristics of an effective therapist
  • What an effective therapist doesn't do
  • An Effective therapist checklist


Key Traits of a Good Therapist



1. Establishing Rapport


A key trait of a good therapist is their ability to establish rapport.

According to Hill and Knox (2001), most people decide whether someone is trustworthy within 50 milliseconds of meeting them. 

In a therapeutic alliance, you want to know that your therapist can be relied upon to support and guide you through the issues you confront safely. 

For this to happen, your therapist should know how to help you feel comfortable sharing private, confidential information and details about yourself that you may not have disclosed to others. 

Putting you at ease requires the ability to listen intently, demonstrate compassion for your circumstances, validate your feelings and indicate a grasp of what they have heard to ensure they have understood you correctly. 

These competencies will promote your faith in the quality and confidentiality of the relationship and facilitate a deeper connection with your therapist.


2. Clear Communication


Clear communication is another essential quality of an effective therapist.

Discussing emotions can be complex and confusing. We each have different vocabularies and phrases to express our concerns and frustrations.

Consider terms like 'feeling free' or 'getting support'. While these are common ideas in therapy parlance, such concepts represent different experiences for each of us.

Without defining a shared understanding of emotional language, discussion with your therapist will remain abstract. This will lead to unclear and potentially frustrating exchanges.

To ensure a constructive and reassuring exchange, an effective therapist will: 

  • Express themselves clearly and concisely, and support you in doing the same.
  • Distil psychological principles into digestible and relatable language, reducing any guesswork about what they mean.
  • Infer what you are thinking and feeling and assist you in pinpointing and clarifying these thoughts and emotions.

These communication skills will transform discussions with your therapist into accessible topics for reflection, building trust, momentum and direction in your therapeutic alliance.


3. Instilling Hope and Optimism



A third trait of an effective therapist is the capacity to instil hope and optimism.

An effective therapist understands the power of hope as a catalyst for change. They balance realism and optimism, guiding you to set attainable yet inspiring goals.

For instance, if you're battling social anxiety, a counterproductive goal might be, 'I will never feel anxious again.' Instead, an effective therapist would help you shape a more realistic and hopeful goal, such as 'I will learn strategies to manage my anxiety and gradually expand my comfort zone in social situations.'

As you achieve these attainable goals, you'll develop a sense of hope and confidence that can positively influence other areas of your life. A crucial part of a therapist's role is encouraging you to recognize this progress and understand how it can be leveraged to overcome other challenges.


4. Multicultural Sensitivity


Being sensitive to multiple cultures is a must for a good therapist.

A competent therapist understands and respects the diverse cultural tapestry that forms a client's identity. They appreciate the unique beliefs, values, and experiences that underpin your worldview.

The American Psychological Association emphasizes the importance of therapists adapting their approach to accommodate a client's cultural values. This requires therapists to respect differing attitudes and beliefs while being sensitive to race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, and cultural background.



For instance, an effective therapist will be aware of and sensitive to cultural differences when interpreting the symptoms and behaviour of a client from a different culture. They will also incorporate cultural strengths and resources into therapy, making it more relatable and compelling for the client.


5. Self-awareness - the ability to separate stories 


Lastly, self-awareness, especially the ability to separate their own experiences from that of their client, is a crucial trait of a good therapist.

Every individual, including therapists, has unique sensitivities that can be aggravated by interactions with others. These can be personal bugbears, irritants or trigger points influenced by our experiences and worldviews.

To illustrate, I'm reminded of a therapist friend who had experienced multiple hardships in her romantic life. She disclosed a case of treating a beautiful woman distressed over how to select the most suitable partner from her many admirers.

 At first, my therapist friend struggled to find the bandwidth to take her client's problem seriously. A woman with too many admirers seemed like a very nice problem, thank you!

However, as a seasoned professional, she could recognize her emotional responses, name them - a tinge of jealousy and begrudging admiration - and set them aside. Sometimes called 'naming your animals', this process refers to a therapist's critical ability to separate their own experiences from that of their client. This enables the therapist to retain an objective and compassionate approach towards the client's issue.

Effective therapists must discern when their personal experiences or biases might interfere with their therapeutic work. They must possess the self-awareness to acknowledge these biases and have the professionalism to prevent them from influencing the therapeutic process.


The Practices Effective Therapists Avoid 


More than anything, a valuable therapy alliance is built upon trust and integrity - characteristics that can be quickly undermined due to poor therapy choices. 


For therapy to work, you have to feel assured that your therapist has your best interests at heart and confident that they have the requisite skills to help you realize the changes you want to experience.  

Personal discretion, reliable intuition and a refined sense of judgement are critical qualities that an effective therapist must possess.

Among these skills are specific practices and behaviours that a successful therapist will diligently avoid -pitfalls that can compromise the therapy alliance and derail progress. Here are some behaviours that a reliable therapist will avoid.


1. Passing Judgments


Effective therapists consciously prevent personal judgmental thoughts from infiltrating their therapeutic space. They understand that the essence of therapy lies in empathy, understanding, and open-mindedness, not in moralizing, criticizing, or expressing personal bias. 

Clients frequently arrive for therapy with premature (negative) judgements about themselves and the situations they confront. A good therapist understands that their job is to help you to suspend unhelpful, limiting perceptions and, instead, to formulate constructive, empowering alternatives. 


2. Crossing Boundaries


Overstepping professional boundaries can disrupt the balance of the therapeutic relationship and compromise its efficacy. 

An effective therapist ensures a clear distinction between their professional and personal lives, abstaining from being excessively involved in a client's affairs or engaging in dual relationships. 

They uphold their professional ethics, ensuring the therapeutic space remains secure and devoted to the client's well-being. 

In addition, an effective therapist won't pursue invasive lines of questioning or excess probing about sensitive topics that don't feel relevant to your progress. 


3. Having a rigid approach 


Therapy is not a one-size-fits-all service. Effective therapists shun rigid adherence to a single theoretical orientation or treatment method. 

Effective therapists will avoid pre-suppositions about how long therapy will take and focus on efficient progress in the shortest possible time. 

Utilizing a wide range of therapeutic tools and practices to align with your needs, an excellent therapist can adjust the plan according to your needs. 


4. Disregarding Feedback


Ignoring or dismissing client feedback is a pitfall that effective therapists consciously avoid. They welcome positive or negative feedback as a critical element for improvement and progress. 

Instead of becoming defensive or dismissive when faced with client dissatisfaction, they use it to adapt their approach, enhance their services, and ultimately deepen their understanding of their clients' needs. 

A combination of effective characteristics and mindful awareness of potential therapy pitfalls will result in a therapist who you can feel is in your corner and on your side. 

You deserve nothing less if you've made the courageous step to enlist support. 

Finally, here's a handy and reliable checklist from the accredited Human Givens Institute to help you feel confident and assured about the skills and competencies your therapist should possess. 

Can I help you? Contact me.


We've just explored the key traits of an effective therapist and the pitfalls a good therapist avoids. Finding the right support can be overwhelming, but it needn't be that way. 

If you're seeking effective and professional counselling support, take a look here to read about how I might be able to help. 


  • Hill, C., & Knox, S. (2001). Self-disclosure. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 38, 413–417.


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