Cover Stories

The recipe for truly great counseling

Compiled by Lynne Shallcross December 1, 2012

If that headline caught your attention and you found yourself wondering, what does make a truly great counselor, you are not alone. In fact, many of today’s leading counselors say it pays to never stop asking — and trying to answer — that very question.

No matter where they are in their professional journeys, counselors can still benefit by learning from their colleagues’ experiences and reflections, says Jeffrey Kottler, a professor of counseling at California State University, Fullerton, president of Empower Nepali Girls and a prolific author who has written and presented on master counselors.

“I’ve always mistrusted anyone who claims they understand what counseling is all about and how it ‘really’ works,” Kottler says. “The process is far too mysterious and complex to ever truly get a handle on all the nuances. Far too often, we don’t trust ourselves when we totally buy into what supposed other ‘experts’ tell us is an approximation of so-called truth. Counseling is such a private enterprise that takes place behind closed doors. We rely on self-reports by counselors, and sometimes their clients, about what happened in the room, but I’m not sure those assessments are all that accurate and robust. So I think we are
all works in progress, striving to do better. I think it’s reassuring to most of us to find out that we are all dealing with similar issues and that we aren’t alone in this struggle.”

The best counselors in the field aren’t necessarily those who are most well known but rather those who are always reaching toward greatness and flat out working harder than everyone else, Kottler says. “[These counselors] are constantly questioning what they do and why, being brutally honest with themselves about their work and its outcomes,” he says. “They are always soliciting feedback from their clients and colleagues, begging for the most frank assessments about what is working and what is not. Most of all, they are often so humble that they don’t seek attention or the limelight but just quietly go about their extraordinary commitment to helping others.”

Is the topic of “great counseling” worth exploring? Absolutely, Kottler says. “Heck, if we can’t figure out what makes a counselor great, then how can we possibly ever work toward the goal of excellence?”

Bradley T. Erford is president of the American Counseling Association and a professor in the school counseling program at Loyola University Maryland.

What, overall, makes a great counselor?

A truly great counselor integrates all aspects [of] effective counseling practice by masterfully developing the therapeutic alliance, instilling hope, quickly centering on achievable objectives, judiciously selecting evidence-based practices, maximizing out-of-session change opportunities, and facilitating treatment adherence and follow-up to make sure treatment gains are maintained long after termination.

What are the three most useful skills or attributes to possess as a counselor?

Flexibility, empathy and advocacy.

What is the most overrated skill to have as a counselor? What is the most underrated skill?

Rapport building skills are important, but a great deal of the connection that leads to an effective therapeutic alliance was described by Freud as transference. This is one of the most difficult experiences for new counselors to handle, the “Why couldn’t I connect with that client” conundrum. Sometimes the difficulty in connecting has more to do with characteristics (e.g., “You remind me of…”) than any skill or behavior. Experience is what you earn when you attempt something unsuccessfully. Great counselors have A LOT of experience…

What skill or attribute have you had to develop within yourself in an effort to become a great counselor?

Patience. The client sets the pace of therapeutic change; the counselor needs to create the environment, structure the treatment and allow for clients to pursue natural change opportunities at a self-determined pace.

Marcheta Evans is associate dean of the College of Education and Human Development at the downtown campus of the University of Texas at San Antonio and a past president of the American Counseling Association. Contact her at marcheta.evans@utsa.edu.

What, overall, makes a great counselor?

A great counselor is a person who is totally committed to the clients or students they are serving. They realize that to become the best tool they must be engaged in continued growth professionally and personally. They have the ability to see beyond the spoken word and connect what is truly happening in a client’s or student’s life through even the unspoken words. A great counselor is someone who enjoys helping those they serve [to] become empowered by teaching their clients and students to become life problem-solvers. Ultimately, a great counselor works themselves out of a job with a client by helping [that client] to learn to navigate life on their own with maybe periodic mental health check-ups.

What are the three most useful skills or attributes to possess as a counselor?

An ability to truly listen to the spoken and unspoken, advance accurate empathy [and] ability to establish rapport with a diverse clientele.

What is the most overrated skill to have as a counselor? What is the most underrated skill?

This is difficult question for me to answer. I think all of the skills we teach are important for our students to know. If not, why teach them in the first place. There must be value in all we do or we should change it to something more worthy.

What skill or attribute have you had to develop within yourself in an effort to become a great counselor?

Learning to not “mother” my clients. Sometimes when I have worked with children, it has been hard for me to let go and realize that sometimes the systems in place will only allow so much for me to do. Also, for me and my family’s benefit, I have had to learn when to walk away and not fight.

Are there any additional thoughts you’d like to share on the ingredients of great counseling?

One of the important things I try to teach my students is remembering why you became a counselor in the first place. Don’t ever lose that passion for what you do. Rarely do people come to see you because they are happy. This can pull on your soul if you let it. Remember your first love of counseling and that will carry you through those dark moments of questioning why you are in this wonderful profession. To touch lives!

 Samuel Gladding is professor and chair of the Department of Counseling at Wake Forest University and a past president of ACA. Contact him at stg@wfu.edu.

What, overall, makes a great counselor?

I think a willingness to listen carefully, form and maintain a strong therapeutic relationship, show care (empathize), be persistent (energy) and work with clients on mutually agreed upon goals are essential qualities of a great counselor. If the counselor is truly a wounded healer, he or she may well go beyond what would be considered exemplary practice because of increased sensitivity and understanding of what it feels like to be hurt and what it takes to heal.

What are the three most useful skills or attributes to possess as a counselor?

a) Self-awareness — knowledge of self, including attitudes, values, and feelings and the ability to recognize how and what factors affect you as a counselor

b) Empathy and understanding — the ability to put oneself in another’s place, even if that person is totally different from you

c) Flexibility — the ability to adapt what you do as a counselor to meet clients’ needs so that you establish and maintain a therapeutic relationship and clients’ benefit

What is the most overrated skill to have as a counselor? What is the most underrated skill?

I am hard-pressed to identify a counseling skill that is overrated. I think creativity is the most underrated counseling skill.

 What skill or attribute have you had to develop within yourself in an effort to become a great counselor?

I have had to learn to be more patient and to listen more carefully while letting counseling sessions develop. Often, I can see what a client should ideally do before he or she reaches that insight. Coming to a decision and owning it is the client’s job. My job is to provide the structure that will facilitate the client’s development and empowerment.

Are there any additional thoughts you’d like to share on the ingredients of great counseling?

I think most counselors grow with experience, over time, and under supervision. While many individuals have the attributes to become extraordinary counselors, skills have to be cultivated and nourished if clinicians are to reach their full potential.

 Gerald Juhnke is a professor in the Department of Counseling at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Contact him at gerald.juhnke@utsa.edu.

What, overall, makes a great counselor?
Great counselors possess a passion to help others. They demonstrate respect for those they serve and understand their roles within the counseling process. Great counselors are also committed to the counseling profession and understand the importance of professional unity. Concomitantly, great counselors understand themselves. They know their core values and beliefs, and they accurately anticipate how their core values and beliefs influence the counseling process. Likewise, superior counselors have appropriate fun and utilize benevolent and kind humor. They understand the critical need for balance within their clients’ lives as well as their own. Finally, great counselors exhibit a degree of tenacity that promotes continued client engagement — even when the counseling process becomes challenging.

What are the three most useful skills or attributes to possess as a counselor?

Invitational verbal and nonverbal skills are some of the most useful skills counselors can develop. It is imperative counselors develop skills that “invite” clients to engage in the counseling process. From nonverbal encouragers such as engaging eye contact and attentive silence to verbal encouragers such as “door-opening statements” — e.g., I see your purse has pictures of your grandchildren on it (observation). What kinds of fun things do they like to do?” — these skills ensure the counseling process “engages” and clients “commit” to the counseling process.

What is the most overrated skill to have as a counselor? What is the most underrated skill?

For me, the most overrated skill is active listening. Some counselors mistakenly believe that active listening means remaining silent throughout the counseling session. Thus, they fail to engage clients in meaningful treatment. Their clients capriciously ramble throughout session. These counselors also tend to utilize hazardous and inappropriate verbal encouragers like, “How does that make you feel?” Such hazardous encouragers victimize clients. They incorrectly imply clients should feel a certain way (e.g., depressed, anxious, etc.) based upon their experiences or life situations. Skilled counselors balance their techniques and interventions in a way that optimizes the counseling process and promotes client goal attainment without overemphasizing a single skill.
Are there any additional thoughts you’d like to share on the ingredients of great counseling?

Great counselors aren’t “born.” Instead, great counselors develop and perfect the intricacies of their counseling skills over time. Counselors who merely replicate the same counseling elements over and over again likely are perfecting imperfection. Superior supervisors provide critical direction. They enable average counselors to become more satisfied and effective.

Jeffrey Kottler is a professor of counseling at California State University, Fullerton, and president of Empower Nepali Girls. Contact him at jkottler@fullerton.edu.

What, overall, makes a great counselor?

Truly exceptional counselors are those who live what they teach to others. They walk their talk and practice in their own lives that which they consider to be most important for their clients. As such, they are continually living on the growth edge, always looking for ways to become more effective as a professional and a person. Such individuals would never consider themselves to having “arrived” but rather see their own development and mastery as an ongoing process that will never end.

What are the three most useful skills or attributes to possess as a counselor?

Brutal self-honesty and self-scrutiny, forgiveness for being less than perfect [and] willingness to take constructive risks, both personally and professionally.

What is the most overrated skill to have as a counselor? What is the most underrated skill?

It’s a belief or attitude rather than a skill: that interventions and techniques are what make the most difference to clients rather than those relational skills that build trust, confidence, optimism and caring.

What skill or attribute have you had to develop within yourself in an effort to become a great counselor?

Most of my life and career I’ve carried around the secret that I never know enough, or can do enough, to help my clients the way I want. I’ve always searched for a safe and trusting environment where it is acceptable to talk about what I don’t know and understand — which is a lot. So I’ve learned to be as honest and open as I can about my mistakes, shortcomings and failures, which is so critical if I can ever attain that elusive goal of being a “great counselor.”

Courtland Lee is a professor in the Department of Counseling, Higher Education and Special Education at the University of Maryland and a past president of ACA. Contact him at clee5@umd.edu.

What, overall, makes a great counselor?

Courage, compassion and the ability to not only listen, but to hear.

What are the three most useful skills or attributes to possess as a counselor?

Empathy, multicultural competency [and] creativity.

What is the most overrated skill to have as a counselor? What is the most underrated skill?

Overrated: unconditional positive regard.

Underrated: a sense of humor.

What skill or attribute have you had to develop within yourself in an effort to become a great counselor?

Multicultural counseling competency.

Are there any additional thoughts you’d like to share on the ingredients of great counseling?

It is important to remember that counseling is more an art than a science and that it is part of a worldwide, centuries-old helping/healing tradition. As such, as counselors, we are the inheritors and guardians of a timeless wisdom. People look to us to use this wisdom to help them solve problems and make decisions.

Don W. Locke is the dean of the School of Education at Mississippi College and the immediate past president of ACA. Contact him at locke@mc.edu.

What, overall, makes a great counselor?

The underlying quality that supports great counselors is the genuineness they can convey both in how they respond to the client and how they view themselves and others.

 What are the three most useful skills or attributes to possess as a counselor?

In addition to being genuine, the second most useful skill is to truly not only have empathy but [also] to be able to communicate that empathy to the client. A third critical skill is to be organized to the point that you can assist the client in viewing the presenting problem clearly and determining choices or options.

What is the most overrated skill to have as a counselor? What is the most underrated skill?

Effective counselors have a multitude of skills. That multiple skillset is necessary because each client offers a different and many times unique concern. For that reason, what might be considered an overrated skill may be the very skill needed by a counselor to address an individual client, but not necessarily with another. The key is to have the critical three, listen carefully and then have strong additional skills to select from when necessary.

What skill or attribute have you had to develop within yourself in an effort to become a great counselor?

The most difficult skill I have dealt with throughout my career is having patience. By patience, I mean the ability to match the pace of the session to the client and not pre-diagnose or rush to assist in a decision or move in a specific direction before the client is ready.

 Are there any additional thoughts you’d like to share on the ingredients of great counseling?

Great counselors are always learning. Each client presents new challenges and experiences. Each workshop or conference or conversation with another counselor provides new insights and approaches. Great counselors are always open to another tool to incorporate into their portfolio. Great counselors realize that the next client will probably extend them in a direction that they did not anticipate and they need to be prepared for any and all options.

 Patricia Nunez is a rehabilitation counselor who has worked for more than two decades for an insurance company, first as a manager of rehabilitation counselors and registered nurses and now as director of the workers’ compensation commodity leader team within the claim vendor management office. Contact her at patricia.nunez@cna.com.

What, overall, makes a great counselor?

Overall, a great counselor is someone who is empathetic, creative and truly cares about others…but cares about empowering others, not creating dependencies.

What are the three most useful skills or attributes to possess as a counselor?

The ability to be genuine, self-aware of weaknesses and bias, and capable of building a trusting relationship with another.

What is the most overrated skill to have as a counselor? What is the most underrated skill?

Overrated and underrated: the ability to listen. Yes, I have rated the same skill as both underrated and overrated. Let me explain why. People who say listening skills are what make a great counselor are overrating the skill of listening! Yes, being a great listener is important, but there is so much more than just an auditory function. It is the ability to hear what is being said — and what is not being said. Or, what needs to be said. Or, what are the implications of what is being said. The mere act of “listening” is only a fraction of a skill needed by a counselor.

And yes, the ability to listen is [also] underrated. When you consider “listening” is more than auditory, or ASL communication, listening is the basis of all we do as counselors. Without it, we have no relationship with our client. We have no common ground on which to reach our client. We have no basis for development of the trust that is essential in a counseling relationship. Yes, definitely underrated.

What skill or attribute have you had to develop within yourself in an effort to become a great counselor?

When I think back, I had to work the most on developing patience. I have always been more solution-focused then process-oriented, and it is natural for me to want to resolve issues brought to me. As a counselor, I had to learn to have the patience to let the counseling relationship develop and learn to facilitate my client’s resolution of issues, rather than me fixing things for my client.

Are there any additional thoughts you’d like to share on the ingredients of great counseling?

While I am not a practicing rehabilitation counselor today, I will tell you that I use my counseling skills each and every day in my current job. Strong counseling skills can be used throughout your lifetime, in so many ways, to help clients as well as others you encounter on a day-to-day basis.

 Mark Pope is professor and chair of the Department of Counseling and Family Therapy at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and a past president of ACA. Contact him at pope@umsl.edu.

What, overall, makes a great counselor?

I’m trying to go beyond the banal to have something especially pithy to say, but the truth is the foundation upon which all great counselors are built is a passion for helping others. We can teach knowledge and skills, and help our students gain awareness, but we can’t teach this passion. When we admit applicants into our programs in counseling, that is we what we look for.

Also, being a great client. Great counselors really learn to be a great counselor by first being a great client.

 What are the three most useful skills or attributes to possess as a counselor?

How about four? Being an authentic human being, having a sense of appropriateness, having perspective and having a big, inclusive worldview.

 What is the most overrated skill to have as a counselor? What is the most underrated skill?

Overrated: Using the precise feeling word in your response. If you just get in the ballpark in terms of their feelings, clients will respond — either by correcting you or thanking you for showing you care.  Either way, it works to facilitate communication.

Underrated: Humor.

What skill or attribute have you had to develop within yourself in an effort to become a great counselor?

Tolerance of intolerance (still working on it).

Are there any additional thoughts you’d like to share on the ingredients of great counseling?

The research says that the most effective elements of the counseling relationship are 1) the alliance; 2) empathy; 3) goal consensus and collaboration; and 4) cohesion (in group counseling). The next most effective elements include 1) unconditional positive regard; 2) congruence/genuineness; 3) feedback; 4) repair of alliance ruptures; 5) self-disclosure; 6) counter-transference management; and 7) the quality of relational interpretations.

And any counselor attribute or skill that contributes to the counseling relationship is the most important. Period.

Finally, here are my 10 keys to becoming a great counselor:

1. Knowing the research on what REALLY works in counseling.

2. Understanding what counseling is (and is not).

3. Knowing how to intervene appropriately (the 12 basic interventions/techniques that form the basis of all counseling — ok, it could be more, I just like the number 12).

4. Being able to use your body as an instrument (the primary tool in the counselor’s arsenal).

5. Understanding your own feelings.

6. Understanding the primary importance of grieving and doing it properly.

7. Self-disclosing properly (it’s not really about you).

8. Using and tolerating silence (especially for those who prefer extraversion).

9. Understanding the role of breathing in counseling.

10. Trusting and loving yourself.

Manivong Ratts is an associate professor in the Department of Counseling and School Psychology at Seattle University. He is the immediate past president of Counselors for Social Justice, a division of ACA. Contact him at vong@seattleu.edu.

What, overall, makes a great counselor?

An effective counselor is one who is adept at both individual counseling and advocacy counseling. Individual counseling takes place in the traditional office setting. In contrast, advocacy counseling calls on counselors to work in communities to address systemic barriers that impede on client development. This approach requires counselors to examine how biological, psychological, sociological and issues of equity influence clients and their world.

What are the three most useful skills or attributes to possess as a counselor?

Being able to connect with clients is the art of counseling. So much of what we do as counselors is based on human relations skills. Being able to make real human connections with clients can be a difficult skill to develop. However, when counselors are able to form meaningful connections with clients they begin to see the potential impact they can have on a person’s life. Another important skill is related to being grounded in multiculturalism and social justice. Counselors need to be both multicultural and advocacy competent in their practice.

What is the most overrated skill to have as a counselor? What is the most underrated skill?

Theories in counseling are important. However, they are often overrated. I think the therapeutic alliance is much more important than being able to apply theory in practice. While theories in counseling are important, I believe clients benefit most when they have a real connection with their therapist.

 What skill or attribute have you had to develop within yourself in an effort to become a great counselor?

As I embarked on a career in counseling, I realized quickly that there were limits to what I could do as a counselor due to the training I received. I realized that the theories I used with clients from historically oppressed groups were often ineffective. The clients I saw also presented issues that were systemically based. I was trained to do individual counseling and not necessarily work in communities. So, the skill I had to develop was community engagement. I found my counseling skills were useful in being able to connect with others. However, I needed to develop skills around working in the social milieu. This learning led to my passion for integrating advocacy and social justice in counseling.

 Dee Ray is a professor in the counseling program and director of the Child and Family Resource Clinic at the University of North Texas. She is also president of the Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling, an organizational affiliate of ACA. Contact her at dee.ray@unt.edu.

What, overall, makes a great counselor?

A great counselor is a master counselor, a person who concentrates on being effective, not on being great. A counselor is most concerned with developing and growing as a person throughout the professional lifespan. Being great as a counselor is feeling secure in the knowledge that I will never reach greatness but I will always strive to expand my personhood and my skills. The drive to grow is the force that inspires my desire be in relationship. Being in relationship inspires my drive to grow. In my connection with others, I am encouraged to learn more, be more and engage more. These are essential to being a great counselor.

What are the three most useful skills or attributes to possess as a counselor?

The top three attributes for a counselor are the ones we all learned and can cite, but do we really live them? I must be at home with myself, confident in my own skin and able to share who I am with others (genuineness). I must believe in the person of the client, secure in the knowledge that my client is capable of determining personal direction (unconditional positive regard). I must be at home in my client’s world, able to inhabit my client’s worldview, no matter how painful or different from mine (empathic understanding).

What is the most overrated skill to have as a counselor? What is the most underrated skill?

Currently, our field encourages the overrated use of techniques with clients. Typically, these techniques have little theory or research base to support their use, yet new counselors are often sent to books full of ideas on what to do with a client. In contrast, the most underrated skill is intentionality. Counselors should know why they are taking actions with clients: What is the intended outcome? How does this benefit the client or the therapeutic relationship? What change construct underlies my action/response? How does this action/response meet the client’s goals? Why do I do what I do?

What skill or attribute have you had to develop within yourself in an effort to become a great counselor?

I am always in the state of becoming, and I have experienced that the most important attribute of this state is vulnerability. Being aware and accepting of my own vulnerability immediately puts me in connection with my clients. My acknowledgement of our common humanity is the base of my effectiveness. I work on being in relationship with my vulnerability continually. It’s a humbling process.

Are there any additional thoughts you’d like to share on the ingredients of great counseling?

I hope that we are honest with ourselves about what makes great counseling. We have come a long way in our knowledge about the behavior and motivations of people, but this knowledge is secondary when I am sitting in a room with someone who is hurting. It is who we are as counselors that really makes the difference.

Sidney Shaw is a doctoral student in counselor education at the University of Montana. He has worked in a variety of mental health settings, including rural community mental health in Alaska, adventure-based therapy in schools and in private practice. Contact him at sidneyleeshaw@gmail.com.

What, overall, makes a great counselor?

The evidence-based paradigm that is dominant in the current therapeutic landscape doesn’t address this question well, if at all, but “practice-based evidence” does. The counselor who gets systematic feedback from clients about outcomes, and helps clients achieve good outcomes, is a great counselor.

What are the three most useful skills or attributes to possess as a counselor?

1. Ability to elicit honest client feedback about the therapeutic relationship and whether counseling is proving helpful.

2. Empathic understanding — specifically finding out if the client experiences the counselor as empathic.

3. Flexibility — counselors, regardless of orientation, need to be able to match the counseling services to the client’s values and preferences as opposed having the client conform to the counselor’s model.

What is the most overrated skill to have as a counselor? What is the most underrated skill?

The most overrated is using the medical model approach to counseling. This means acting on the following premise: a. the counselor obtains an accurate diagnosis or problem type, b. the counselor applies a treatment that has been found to have efficacy with that disorder and c. this is assumed to lead to problem resolution. Meta-analytic research clearly indicates that this model accounts for much less of the outcome in counseling than the common factors (e.g., the relationship, hope, expectancy). Thus, the most underrated is deliberately enacting the common factors.

What skill or attribute have you had to develop within yourself in an effort to become a great counselor?

The biggest attribute I’ve had to develop is to step out of my own assumptions and place the client’s voice in the center regarding the most central, salient aspect of counseling — the therapeutic relationship. Research shows that the counselor’s view of the relationship with a given client often correlates poorly with the client’s view. Accepting and encouraging feedback from clients — especially negative feedback — is central to client empowerment, good outcomes and counselor growth.

Are there any additional thoughts you’d like to share on the ingredients of great counseling?

Throughout counseling history there have been numerous trends of what counselors need to do or how they need to be in order to be helpful. Though a framework for understanding great counseling is useful, counselors also need to be able to put those a priori assumptions aside to find out, from clients, if they are in fact being helpful.

Anneliese Singh is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Development Services at the University of Georgia and a past president of the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling, a division of ACA. Contact her at asingh@uga.edu.

What, overall, makes a great counselor?

This is an easy question for me to answer! Great counselors are those who make positive social justice change in their communities. We all know that so many of the concerns clients present with are related to multicultural and social justice issues — so, we are truly at our best as counselors when we are working from a health promotion perspective both within and outside the walls of our offices.

What are the three most useful skills or attributes to possess as a counselor?

The first is not a skill or attribute (or maybe it is): going to a counselor yourself. I had one of the best feminist counselors myself, and I learned more than any class could teach me about the actual practice of counseling. Second, and related to the first, is that idea of the “wounded healer.” Counselors — and counseling programs — need to be prepared to acknowledge that no one comes into counseling training unscathed by life. Third, we must be prepared to act when we identify injustices in the world.

What is the most overrated skill to have as a counselor? What is the most underrated skill?

This is a funny question! The most overrated is definitely the “lean in” move we all learned in our introductory helping skills course. Culturally, sometimes this is the worst thing you can do in a session. I am not saying we should ditch the “lean in.” Rather, we should use [it] in moderation. The most underrated skill is our ability to understand that the constructs of Western models of counseling — empathy, authenticity, congruence, positive regard — are all culture-bound. So, we must consistently push ourselves to new learning about the many and varied cultural conceptions of wellness across cultures.

What skill or attribute have you had to develop within yourself in an effort to become a great counselor?

The majority of clients I work with are transgender youth and people of color, so much of the counseling centers around naming the injustices — such as transprejudice and racism — that influence their well-being. I guess this skill would be called “truth-telling.” Seriously, so much pain is released and potentially healed for both the counselor and client when we can name the ways that people have internalized negative stereotypes and self-esteem related to systems of oppression.

Are there any additional thoughts you’d like to share on the ingredients of great counseling?

Before I became a counselor, I was a community organizer advocating for issues of HIV/AIDS, reproductive justice and environmental justice. I am so grateful for the skills and lessons I learned and experienced as a result of engaging in street activism. These skills were advocacy, group work, community-building and consciousness-raising. I believe these are the great elements of counseling!

John Sommers-Flanagan is professor and acting chair of the Department of Counselor Education at the University of Montana. Contact him at john.sf@mso.umt.edu.

What, overall, makes a great counselor?

Great counselors have a wide variety of attributes and skills; because clients are unique, a great counselor for one client and problem may not be a great counselor for a different client and problem. That being said, great counselors are deeply and authentically interested in the welfare of others, able to communicate effectively with clients from diverse cultural and individual backgrounds, able to be relatively nonjudgmental, and knowledgeable of empirically supported or evidence-based approaches — including knowledge about evidence-based relationships.

What are the three most useful skills or attributes to possess as a counselor?

My top counseling skills or attributes include: a) interpersonal skills for establishing positive emotional bonds with clients (these include active listening and the ability to experience and communicate — as Carl Rogers would say — empathic understanding); b) skills for collaboratively formulating counseling goals with clients; and c) skills for working with clients on specific in-session counseling activities such as relaxation or mindfulness, gentle confrontation/feedback, and acceptance and management of client reluctance or ambivalence.

What is the most overrated skill to have as a counselor? What is the most underrated skill?

The most overrated skill is any skill that gets in the way of counselors developing and maintaining positive therapeutic relationships with clients. One of the most underrated skills is the skill or trait of humility. Just as we should practice multicultural humility, we should also do as Adler suggested and not strive too much to perform or prove ourselves to our clients. We should win them over by adopting a friendly, helpful and optimistic demeanor, and be humble and not overconfident in our ability to be helpful.

What skill or attribute have you had to develop within yourself in an effort to become a great counselor?

I’m not comfortable claiming the label of being a “great counselor.” Nevertheless, one thing that has helped me to become a better counselor is learning to contain my impulses to offer immediate insights or advice to clients. This has required me to look deeply at myself and recognize that what sounds good to me or what I think might be helpful may not be a good fit for the unique client who is sitting in the room with me.

 Are there any additional thoughts you’d like to share on the ingredients of great counseling?

My answers to these questions are and will always be in process. As Mary Cover Jones said just before she passed away, “I am still learning about what is important in life.”

Regine Talleyrand is an associate professor in the counseling and development program at George Mason University. Contact her at rtalleyr@gmu.edu.

What, overall, makes a great counselor?

A great counselor is someone who can use compassion, empathy, respect and authenticity to form a genuine, trusting relationship with their clients.

What are the three most useful skills or attributes to possess as a counselor?

Multicultural competence. One of the most useful skills or attributes to have as a counselor is the ability to understand our own and our client’s worldview and priorities within a cultural context (e.g., impact of race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.) since our cultural context influences the lens we use to view the world. Understanding and acknowledging the client and counselor’s cultural lens can have a major influence on the formation of the therapeutic relationship and on the work that can be accomplished in the therapy process.

Authenticity and humility. Being able to genuinely relate to our clients in a way (e.g., using empathy, and trust) that clients can see us (counselors) as human beings, too. This includes counselors knowing that they may make mistakes, may not have all the answers and can learn as much from their clients as clients learn from us.

Clinical intuition. The ability to put aside what you’ve been “taught” and go with your gut feelings when working with a client is an invaluable counseling skill.

What is the most overrated skill to have as a counselor? What is the most underrated skill?

I believe that empathy is the most overrated and underrated skill since it is a term we use frequently without fully understanding or exploring the fact that empathy is more than just being “nice” to people or wanting to “help” people. A counselor’s ability to emotionally connect with another person’s emotional experience is one of the most difficult yet necessary skills in working with clients since it requires counselors to be able to recognize, put aside and/or resolve their own emotional baggage.

What skill or attribute have you had to develop within yourself in an effort to become a great counselor?

Patience. The skill/attribute I’ve had to develop within myself when working with clients is the ability to wait in silence and “trust the process” so that clients can arrive at their “aha” moment at their own pace.

Rebecca Toporek is an associate professor and coordinator of the career and college counseling specialization in the Department of Counseling at San Francisco State University. Contact her at rtoporek@sfsu.edu.

 What, overall, makes a great counselor?

Great counselors are committed to their work with an awareness of their own intentions and motivations. They continuously examine and expand their knowledge and competence. Great counselors hold the individual, community and societal levels within their conception of their work. Great counselors are aware of, and integrate, cultural and contextual factors into counseling, including factors specifically relevant to their clients and the counseling relationship. Great counselors help clients distinguish the ways that internal, interpersonal and systemic forces influence their well-being and help clients address those forces, sometimes addressing those systemic barriers themselves.

What are the three most useful skills or attributes to possess as a counselor?

The ability to develop strong relationships, whether in one-session counseling, intermittent or long-term counseling with individual clients or with colleagues and communities. The ability to feel and convey compassion and humility, even in challenging circumstances, without being condescending; blending challenge and support for clients. The ability to convey to clients, as well as to policy makers, community members, administrators and funders, the importance of well-being and its determinants.

What is the most overrated skill to have as a counselor? What is the most underrated skill?

The ability to be flexible and have the ability to integrate information and counseling has been underrated. This is particularly important in roles such as career counseling, educational counseling, case management or other roles where process as well as content-specific information are both necessary and useful for client growth and well-being. Further, the ability to recognize and address the influence of work and economics in overall health and family stability has also been underrated.

What skill or attribute have you had to develop within yourself in an effort to become a great counselor?

Using confrontation and addressing conflict. These are critical skills necessary for facilitating individual and social change. Over the course of my career, as I have gained confidence, experience and a greater facility with compassion, my ability to confront and negotiate conflict has increased. There are different cultural styles of confrontation and conflict negotiation, yet I must be mindful of what style I am choosing, why and whether the style I have chosen is actually in the best interest of the objective, whether it be client growth or systems change.
Are there any additional thoughts you’d like to share on the ingredients of great counseling?

Great counselors provide an anchor for clients, a place to belong, while they are in transition or navigating systems and while they are learning to establish, or reestablish, their own anchors and become agents of change and well-being.

Jane Webber is an associate professor in the counseling program at New Jersey City University. Contact her at jwebber@njcu.edu.

What, overall, makes a great counselor?

I “feel” a great counselor’s presence through their unconditional respect, authenticity, empathy and compassion. Great counselors build a safe therapeutic alliance where I feel connected, affirmed and validated. They are a witness and a partner, walking with me on my journey, empowering me to share my deepest feelings and to take risks to change.

 What are the three most useful skills or attributes to possess as a counselor?

Existential humanistic counselors practice more as “way of being” rather than using a specific set of skills. My greatest tool is my “person” and belief in the power of the therapeutic alliance. In this way of being, counselors: a) are fully present, respectful and attentive to the client; b) collaborate with unwavering trust in the client’s ability to grow; and c) listen with empathy and authenticity, bearing witness to [clients’] suffering and pain.

What is the most overrated skill to have as a counselor? What is the most underrated skill?

Working with clients with trauma taught me that talk therapy is overrated. When I appreciate the power of listening and silence, clients share more and take charge of their therapy.

The most underrated skill is asking clients for their feedback about how I am doing in the relationship and how I should adapt to their needs — Arnold Lazarus calls great counselors “chameleons.” Critical to adapting is collaborating with clients in choosing goals and treatments and in strengthening our working alliance.

Also underrated are nonverbal, multisensory modalities — art, sandplay, music and mindfulness — and neuropsychological techniques that open channels to the brain and promote client disclosure and healing.

What skill or attribute have you had to develop within yourself in an effort to become a great counselor?

I have learned to attend to my own reactions in experiencing intense emotions with the client’s trauma story without gradually losing my sense of self and to monitor myself for compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. In earlier years, I must confess that I changed my tendency to find the quick solution for clients and learned to be more mindful and patient with the moment-to-moment experiencing with clients.

Are there any additional thoughts you’d like to share on the ingredients of great counseling?

Being a counselor is a way of life and testimony to my belief in the power of the therapeutic relationship, which needs to be continually nurtured. It is a lifelong process of becoming and growing, and once I put on the coat, I can’t take it off.

Daniel Weigel is a professor of counseling at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. Contact him at dweigel@se.edu.

What, overall, makes a great counselor?

Great counselors are passionate and committed to helping others; they have the same level of commitment to taking care of themselves.

What are the three most useful skills or attributes to possess as a counselor?

For me, the most useful counseling attributes are Carl Rogers’ core conditions of empathy, genuineness and unconditional positive regard. I see these as counselor attributes rather than skills as it is difficult, if not impossible, to teach someone to personify them through repetitive practice. These are difficult attributes to learn because they involve counselor transparency and vulnerability. But, no client and counselor will truly connect if the counselor is in any way distracted or counterfeit.

What is the most overrated skill to have as a counselor? What is the most underrated skill?

Overrated: the temptation to fall into the myth that counseling is a pure “science” and the delivery of skills as a part of an “empirically proven” set of interventions will actually cause long-term change for a majority of clients. Although empiricism is essential to our field, claiming to provide successful counseling using only “empirically validated” interventions is a way of hiding from what truly affects change in counseling — a genuine human connection. As much as the mental health professions hide behind the gospel of empiricism, counselors who are most effective in the long term must learn, not feign, the art of listening; and, the scientific model simply cannot wrap its numbers around this. Frankly, counselors must get back into the vulnerable seat of non-agenda-oriented listening.

I say this as a practitioner and counselor educator who has tried with great resolve to make the surface-oriented, outwardly symptom-specific approaches work. Such approaches may lead to short-term changes but do so at the risk of disempowering our clients. This is a real repercussion of attempting to mesh the shortsightedness of the medical model with the depth of the wellness model (the root of our profession). This collision of a wellness focus of treatment paired with biological psychopathology is collapsing like a house of cards at an alarming cost (see, for example, the DSM-5, the 18-year product of the psychiatry profession to which we are all expected to conform without question).

What skill or attribute have you had to develop within yourself in an effort to become a great counselor?

A very high commitment to humble and compassionate client care paired with a humble level of counselor self-confidence (confidently caring).

 Are there any additional thoughts you’d like to share on the ingredients of great counseling?

It seems that most counselors claim to utilize Rogers’ core conditions — a therapeutic “given” of sorts — as a foundation for the recipe of their symptom-oriented intervention strategies. But it has been my experience that many, but certainly not all, counselors of today do not actually understand that demonstrating these conditions is the most complex task a counselor can possibly endeavor to accomplish for the wellbeing of his or her clients. It is, after all, a way of being, not a set of skills to traverse like the rushed paperwork in an ER visit. And, as any humanistically trained and properly supervised counselor will attest, no counseling theory exists that is harder to truly epitomize and employ than that of pure person-centered counseling. I welcome anyone to convince me otherwise.

Cirecie West-Olatunji is an associate professor and director of the counseling program and of the Center for Traumatic Stress Research at the University of Cincinnati. She is also the ACA president-elect. Contact her at westolce@ucmail.uc.edu.

What, overall, makes a great counselor?

The most effective counselors have the ability to integrate the science and the art of counseling that allows them to know what to do as well as when to intervene. Additionally, great counselors exemplify authenticity by demonstrating self-awareness, empathy and faith in their clients’ abilities to resolve their problems using the therapeutic alliance.

What are the three most useful skills or attributes to possess as a counselor?

The three most useful skills to have as a counselor are recovery skills, cultural competence and courage. Recovery skills are needed because, while we can be very capable in conceptualizing clients’ problems, we still need to acknowledge that we are only guessing. This guesswork, no matter how skillful will ultimately lead us to errors in conceptualization, hypothesis building and interventions. When this occurs, we need to artfully recover to close the space between our own reality and that of our client rather than lead the client away from expedient resolution of their issues. Cultural competence is needed to allow us to think “outside the box” or, at least outside of our own worldviews in order to expeditiously assist clients in resolving their problems within their own context of healing (i.e., religious, spiritual, ethnic, engendered or sexual orientation). Lastly, courage is needed as a skill to brazenly and critically increase our self-awareness and confront biases that hinder our ability to develop rapport, accurately conceptualize, assess and formulate interventions for our clients.

 What is the most overrated skill to have as a counselor? What is the most underrated skill?

The most overrated skill to have is to accumulate a “bag of interventions,” while the most underrated skill might be to sit in silence with our clients.

What skill or attribute have you had to develop within yourself in an effort to become a great counselor?

The most difficult skill that I have had to develop as a counselor is recovery. After I received my master’s degree in counseling, it took two to three weeks to discover missed cues provided by my client. After seeing clients for a decade, I could recognize missed cues within session and ask the client to go back to something they said that seemed important. Usually, this became a critical moment in counseling that moved the client forward in resolving their concern.

 Lynne Shallcross is the associate editor and senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lshallcross@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org.

 

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