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Learning from highly effective counselors

By Sidney Shaw March 10, 2020

The term “supershrink” has been used to refer to counselors and other mental health professionals who are very good at what they do and who attain significantly better client outcomes than average. It is perhaps not surprising that such a witty and playful term would come from an adolescent.

In the early 1970s, David Ricks conducted an analysis of the long-term outcomes of “highly disturbed” adolescents treated in a metropolitan guidance center. In this center, some of the youth had labeled one provider “the Supershrink.” Upon subsequent data analysis, Ricks found that adolescents who received treatment from this provider had significantly better long-term outcomes than did those who saw another provider. Turns out that the teens were right; the provider was a supershrink.

The idea that some counselors are exceptional and have very high success rates with clients is not new. In fact, this phenomenon has been verified empirically. Research over the past several decades has demonstrated that some counselors consistently achieve higher client improvement rates than do other counselors. With that in mind, it is important to consider what we can learn as counselors from so-called supershrinks and how we can embody the characteristics and actions of highly effective counselors to improve our own effectiveness.

Counselor effects and outcome research

The term “therapist effects” or “counselor effects” refers to variation in counseling outcomes that are attributable to the counselor, in contrast to other factors such as techniques or theories that contribute to counseling outcomes. Findings of counselor effects appear in a variety of study settings such as naturalistic clinic settings and in randomized clinical trials (RCTs). Counselor effects in RCTs are particularly intriguing because these studies are tightly controlled. In RCTs, counselors commonly adhere closely to a treatment manual (i.e., following specific steps in adherence to a specific theory), and there is also control for client severity. RCTs are the gold standard for comparing efficacy of specific treatment approaches for specific disorders.

Although there have been important findings about the efficacy of different treatment approaches or theories from RCTs, another finding that has received less attention over the years is that counselor effects are the better predictor of counseling outcomes. In other words, who the counselor is makes more of a difference in terms of client improvement than does which theory the counselor professes to use. It is impossible to completely disentangle counselors’ characteristics and actions from the theories that they use, but meticulous research and meta-analyses by renowned researchers such as Bruce Wampold have indicated that counselor effects are up to eight times stronger at determining client outcomes.

As Wampold and others have pointed out, these findings about the relative strength of counselor effects in comparison with theoretical approach are not justification for tossing out counseling theories. Framework, structure, a road map for navigating clinical territory, and conceptualization are just some of the benefits of grounding our work in theories of counseling. That said, outcome researchers have for decades focused predominantly on comparing different theoretical approaches while giving relatively little attention to a more powerful factor — the characteristics, pan-theoretical practices/actions, and attributes of the counselor.

Five characteristics and actions of highly effective counselors

Although the existence of counselor effects in outcome research has been around for several decades, empirical attempts to discern pan-theoretical characteristics and actions of highly effective counselors are rather new. There are limits to developing a list of such characteristics because new research is frequently emerging. In fact, it is noteworthy that the five characteristics highlighted in this article are just some of the major characteristics and actions of highly effective counselors.

The list contained here is composed of qualities that counselors can actively cultivate in their current practice. In other words, there are some strategies for growth with each of these five qualities. There are other characteristics of highly effective counselors in the research literature for which it is not currently clear how to increase or enhance those characteristics (e.g., attachment history, facilitative interpersonal skills). Thus, this list focuses on characteristics and actions that can be enhanced to improve counselor effectiveness. Accompanying the descriptions of these characteristics are some tips for developing each of them in your own counseling practice.

1) Presence and
2) countertransference management

The counselor’s “way of being” serves as a vehicle through which therapeutic actions and interventions take place. Two related concepts from the counselor effects research that speak to the counselor’s “way of being” and “way of relating” are presence and countertransference management. Both concepts have theoretical roots.

For instance, in the existential-humanistic tradition, presence refers to counselors being “in the moment,” connected with clients’ experiences and their own, and fully engaged in the I-Thou relationship with a client. Presence can also be defined by identifying it as the opposite of absence (e.g., distraction, boredom, disconnectedness, remoteness).

Countertransference, of course, has theoretical roots in psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud considered it to be when a client’s transference activated a counselor’s unresolved childhood conflicts. More broadly, a totalistic view of countertransference is that it encompasses all the counselor’s reactions to the client. Although countertransference reactions are commonplace, the impact of countertransference on counseling outcomes is largely due to how the countertransference is managed. Meta-analytic research by Jeffrey Hayes and colleagues has indicated that successful management of countertransference predicts better counseling outcomes. Similarly, presence has been described by Shari Geller and Leslie Greenberg as a “prerequisite for empathy,” and counselor empathy is a strong predictor of client improvement.

Multiple factors can lead counselors toward increased presence and better countertransference management, including self-insight (e.g., awareness of self in relationship, cognitive and emotional awareness), anxiety management, intentionality and mindfulness. Given all these factors, counselors can be left feeling a bit overwhelmed by methods to strengthen their presence and countertransference management. Fortunately, research evidence supports a few overlapping practices to enhance both of these qualities.

> Meditation/mindfulness practice: Sustained and consistent meditation practice has been shown to increase effective countertransference management, promote emotion regulation and nonreactivity, sharpen awareness and increase presence. Many different types of meditation and mindfulness practice exist. Counselors are advised to investigate these practices, to choose a practice aligned with their own preferences, and to maintain a consistent mindfulness practice.

> Self-insight and anxiety management: Counselors should work on their own psychological health and consistently practice self-observation and self-reflection. This can be done in supervision, in one’s own experience as a client, and through deliberate planning aimed at increased self-awareness.

Relatedly, anxiety management is an important component of countertransference management and presence. Although it is not unusual for counselors to experience anxiety within sessions, unmanaged anxiety can have untoward effects on a counselor’s presence, ability to manage countertransference reactions, and the therapeutic alliance. A first step is developing sensitivity to noticing anxiety when it appears. Second, counselors likely already have anxiety management skills (e.g., behavioral, cognitive, mindfulness-based) that they use with clients. Counselors can apply these skills to themselves.

> Pre-session centering: A study by Rose Dunn and colleagues revealed that counselors perceived themselves as having higher levels of presence when they engaged in a brief mindfulness centering exercise within five minutes of a counseling session. Additionally, clients perceived the sessions to be more effective when the counselor used the mindfulness exercise prior to the session. The basics of the centering exercise are consistent with acceptance and commitment therapy principles.

In this case, counselors would simply sit comfortably with a straight spine, take and notice gentle and full breaths, notice physical sensations, notice thoughts that emerged, acknowledge the existence of those thoughts and allow them to be present, imagine creating additional space for the thoughts with each breath, and then let go of focus on the thoughts to broaden attention to the environment around them. In this mindfulness approach, counselors aimed to accept the thoughts and experiences as an observer rather than clinging to or pushing away those thoughts. For more detailed information on mindfulness and acceptance centering, I recommend the work of John Forsyth and Georg Eifert.

> Self-care: This term is frequently discussed in our field, and self-care activities can vary greatly among individual counselors. It is important for presence, countertransference management and multiple other reasons that counselors engage in consistent self-care actions. One self-care behavior that seems relatively universal, and which has an impact on attention (i.e., presence) and emotion regulation, is sleep. Practicing healthy sleep hygiene (keeping room temperature at 62-68 degrees, sticking to a consistent sleep schedule, maintaining a dark environment, having technology limits at night, etc.) can provide conditions that are favorable for increased presence and greater countertransference management.

3) Professional self-doubt

The essence of this quality of highly effective counselors is captured in the title of an article by Helene Nissen-Lie and colleagues: “Love yourself as a person, doubt yourself as a therapist?” At first glance, the idea of professional self-doubt may seem like an unproductive place to be as a counselor. However, if we consider just a basic definition of “doubt” (i.e., to be uncertain), then the benefits for clients become clearer.

Counselors who possess certainty that they are helping a client are likely closing the door to self-critique and thoughtful consideration of ways to improve their work. Indeed, several studies by researchers such as Corinne Hannan and others have indicated that counselors consistently overestimate the effectiveness of their work with clients. Regarding self-doubt, two studies of experienced counselors by Nissen-Lie and colleagues revealed that counselors higher in professional self-doubt had stronger alliances with clients and higher levels of client improvement than did counselors lower in professional self-doubt.

Importantly, a third study by Patrizia Odyniec and colleagues showed that increased professional self-doubt among trainees/students resulted in poorer client outcomes than did lower professional self-doubt. One explanation for these findings is the difference in developmental stage of the counselors. Experienced counselors likely have higher confidence in their basic skills as counselors. Thus, professional self-doubt about their effectiveness can be beneficial as they strive for improvement due to their own uncertainty about client outcomes. In contrast, high professional self-doubt among trainees may be debilitating because of their earlier stage of counselor development and lower confidence in their basic counseling skills.

All that said, there appear to be clear benefits for clients when experienced counselors cultivate professional self-doubt. Here are some strategies for doing that.

> Prevent the “overconfidence effect.” This concept from social psychology is particularly relevant here due to numerous studies that have shown that counselors commonly overestimate whether and how much their clients are improving. Just being aware of this tendency to inflate their own client success rates can help counselors become increasingly humble and self-reflective about their effectiveness. Consciously questioning our own self-serving biases is an important step in maximizing client improvement rates.

> Monitor your effectiveness. Counselors should use some type of outcome measure (e.g., Outcome Rating Scale, Clinical Outcomes in Routine Evaluation-Outcome Measure, Outcome Questionnaire-45) to assess the degree to which their clients are improving or not. Routine outcome monitoring has repeatedly been found to improve client outcomes, and concrete client reports of their improvement level can help keep counselor overconfidence in check. Additionally, outcome monitoring can promote the beneficial stance of professional self-doubt because awareness of clients who are not improving or who are deteriorating
can lead counselors to act intentionally to improve.

> Love yourself as a person. An important caveat in the studies by Nissen-Lie and colleagues is that counselor self-doubt can improve client outcomes more when coupled with what is referred to as a “self-affiliative introject.” In general, this refers to higher levels of self-affirmation, self-love and self-acceptance. When a self-affiliative introject or self-affirmation is an area of struggle for counselors, it can affect their work with clients and their capacity to embrace professional self-doubt. Steps to build and strengthen a self-affiliative introject or stronger self-affirmation could include self-help, support groups or personal counseling.

4) Deliberate practice

Deliberate practice, a concept that originates in the expertise literature from researchers such as Anders Ericsson, refers to intentional and individualized exercises and actions aimed at strengthening specific areas of one’s performance. Early research on deliberate practice examined its effects in noncounseling domains such as chess, music and sports, to name a few.

In counseling, a promising study by Daryl Chow and colleagues of more than 1,600 clients working with 17 counselors found that the top quartile of counselors (i.e., those whose clients showed the most improvement) spent nearly triple the amount of time engaged in deliberate practice than did counselors in the lower quartiles of client improvement. Consistent with some previous research, Chow and colleagues found that the following factors were not significantly related to client outcomes: counselor age, professional discipline, gender, years of experience, highest qualification level and theoretical orientation. Below are some core components of deliberate practice combined with recommendations for integrating them into your counseling practice.

> Establish your baseline. To improve as a counselor and to determine if you are increasing effectiveness over time, you need to know how effective you already are with your clients. Routine outcome monitoring is a way to establish a baseline. Using an outcome measure and then tracking your client improvement rates over time is an initial step in deliberate practice.

> Record sessions with difficult or stalled cases. While not intrinsically motivating, we stand to learn a lot about areas for improvement with cases in which our weaknesses are most evident. Video recording is simple these days, and it is an indispensable tool that is not just for practicum students. Video recording can help counselors identify gaps in awareness and skills that simple self-reflection alone is unlikely to reveal. Relying only on our self-assumed clinical wisdom by mentally reflecting back on a session is unlikely to interrupt and change unhelpful patterns that may have emerged outside of our conscious awareness.

> Work with a consultant or consultation group. Stepping out of our own perspective and potential for self-serving biases is a critical ingredient of deliberate practice. By working with a competent consultant or consultation group, we can obtain diverse perspectives on our areas of weakness as counselors and thus develop specific goals and plans for growth while receiving ongoing support and feedback.

> Develop clear, targeted goals. Our goals need to be very clear and specific. It is not very effective to set a goal to “improve as a counselor.” Instead, a first step here would be to identify specific areas for potential growth as a counselor. This could be done in collaboration with your consultant/consultation group. With deliberate practice, the real growth takes place outside of actual client sessions. Outside of session, you have time, support and opportunity for reflection and practice as you engage in intentional efforts to develop new therapeutic skills or “ways of being” with challenging cases.

The specifics of deliberate practice are very detailed. Thus, counselors are encouraged to read the works of scholars such as Daryl Chow and Scott D. Miller on this topic for a more comprehensive review.

5) Multicultural orientation

Multicultural orientation is a rather new construct that differs  from multicultural competencies. As described by Jesse Owen and colleagues, multicultural competencies are considered a “way of doing,” whereas multicultural orientation is a “way of being.” Multicultural orientation is a way of being that communicates the counselor’s
attitudes and values about culture to the client. Specifically, multicultural orientation consists of three overlapping pillars. Each of the pillars is described below and accompanied by recommendations for strengthening it in your counseling practice.

> Cultural humility: This refers to an interpersonal stance that is “other oriented” and open to understanding the client’s cultural experience and background. In addition to this interpersonal dimension of cultural humility, there is also an intrapersonal dimension in which counselors have an openness and eagerness to reflect on their own limits and blind spots in understanding the cultural experience of another. Four studies with more than 3,000 clients have found a significant positive correlation between client ratings of their counselor’s cultural humility and counseling outcomes. An important consideration here is that the “client’s perception” of their counselor’s level of cultural humility was related to client outcomes.

There are some strategies and actions that counselors can take so that clients are more likely to experience them as being culturally humble. First, given the intrapersonal domain of cultural humility, counselors are encouraged to self-reflect upon and analyze their own areas of potential biases and cultural blind spots. Pamela Hays’ “ADDRESSING” model can be a useful framework for determining domains in which a counselor has a privileged status because these domains of privilege are likely sources of blind spots.

Second, counselors are encouraged to broach the topic of culture at the intake session with clients in an open-ended manner. This strategy also overlaps with the pillar of “cultural opportunities” (broaching strategies will be described in that section).

Third, counselors should check in with clients frequently to ensure that they accurately understand the client’s cultural perspective. This “cultural check-in” should be one part of a broader culture of feedback that is created by the counselor in the session. Specifically, counselors need to acknowledge with clients that they strive to understand clients’ perspectives and cultural experiences, but despite their best efforts, they may sometimes misunderstand. Openly and repeatedly inviting clients to provide candid feedback (especially negative feedback) is a way to express humility and to make repair attempts if and when a counselor misunderstands or unknowingly commits a microaggression.

> Cultural opportunities: This pillar refers to opportunities in sessions for the counselor to broach the topic of culture with a client. Importantly, research on this topic indicates that “missed cultural opportunities” (i.e., the client’s perception of the counselor missing and not acting on opportunities to discuss/broach culture) are negatively correlated with client outcomes. In other words, as the counselor misses more cultural opportunities, client improvement declines.

One way to enhance the positive effects of cultural humility and cultural opportunities is for counselors to broach the topic of culture at the intake session. For example, “How does culture influence the problem?” The purpose of such an open-ended question is to better understand the client’s perception of culture. If clients are unclear about what is meant by “culture,” alternative phrasing ideas can be gleaned from the “Cultural Formulation Interview” in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The interview offers numerous examples for asking open-ended questions about clients’ cultures.

Broaching or inquiring about the influence of culture should not be limited to the intake session. Counselors need to attentively engage with clients to understand how they
see the role of culture as sessions progress. This can lead counselors to sensitively seize upon cultural opportunities in sessions in a way that resonates with clients.

> Cultural comfort: The final pillar of multicultural orientation is counselors’ level of openness, ease and comfort in working with diverse clients and engaging with clients about the topic of culture. In a 2017 study, Owen and colleagues found that counselor cultural comfort level predicted client dropout rates. Higher levels of counselor cultural comfort were associated with lower client dropout rates. This is particularly important given that a high dropout rate is one of the more pernicious challenges for our field to address. Indeed, a 2012 meta-analysis by Joshua Swift and Roger Greenberg found that the average dropout rate in counseling is 20%.

In terms of counselors increasing their cultural comfort levels, some of the strategies mentioned for cultural humility and cultural opportunities (e.g., intentionally reflecting on/analyzing biases and blind spots, broaching the topic of culture in sessions) can apply. One additional strategy that can help in this regard is role-playing and rehearsal — specifically, role-playing with colleagues in which the counselor practices engaging with mock clients around the topic of culture. Counselors are advised to practice broaching the topic of culture in situations that represent a wide range of challenge. For example, if a counselor has had little or no contact with clients who are transgender, then role-playing a scenario in which the counselor broaches culture with a mock client who is transgender would be a way to expand the counselor’s cultural comfort. Inviting and receiving feedback from colleagues in such mock sessions is essential for counselors to expand and enhance their broaching skills and increase their level of cultural comfort.

Conclusion

The number of factors that contribute to effective counseling is vast and incalculable. As research continues to evolve on this topic, we develop a richer understanding of some of these factors. We now have abundant research support for counselor effects and the relative strength of these effects in comparison with theoretical techniques.

The lines between counselor characteristics, common factors (e.g., therapeutic alliance, placebo effect) and specific factors (e.g., treatment interventions, techniques) are not neat and discrete. Instead, each of these has some overlap with and multidirectional influence on the others. That said, recent research indicates that the characteristics, qualities and pan-theoretical actions of counselors are prominent in potentiating the therapeutic alliance and theoretical techniques to improve client outcomes.

 

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Sidney Shaw is a core faculty member in the clinical mental health counseling program at Walden University and a certified trainer for the International Center for Clinical Excellence. Contact him at sidneyleeshaw@gmail.com.

 

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1 Comment

  1. Jayne Rose

    Perfect! Theories are important but the relationship with our clients makes or breaks the therapeutic outcomes.

    Reply

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