What makes a good therapist? Is it empathy? Understanding? Experience? Fast results?

I asked myself the same questions when I was studying and training to become one.

Since there are so many variables that can alter the outcome of the therapeutic process, experts find it difficult to come up with set-in-stone rules that therapists can follow to help their clients achieve notable results.

But the most frustrating part is that in this line of work, there are moments when you simply don’t know why some techniques work and other (which are also supposed to work) don’t.

I had clients who abandoned therapy after twenty sessions and clients who managed to solve their problems in only five. I had clients who offered heartwarming feedbacks and clients who disappeared without a word.

I tried to learn from each of these experiences and use them to improve my skills.

At the beginning of their career, most therapists follow specific guidelines that help them set the course for successful interventions. In time, each develops his/her own style.

Some are rigorous and methodical while others like to enhance their sessions with a pinch of humor.

But regardless of personal style or therapeutic approach, there are a few absolute ‘musts’ that every good therapist should follow.

If you’re planning to see a psychotherapist or are already seeing one, here’s how you can tell if he/she is right for you.

#1 He/she Follows Evidence-Based Approaches and Techniques

Since we at PsycheGuide are all about using evidence-based techniques and approaches, I believe every good therapist should recognize the value of something that has been tested and proven to be effective.

A good therapist will always pay close attention to the latest developments in the field, especially in his/her area of expertise.

Since psychology is a dynamic, ever-growing field, the only way to ensure top quality services and visible results is by staying up-to-date with all the latest studies and theories.

The reason why a science-driven approach to mental health is the ‘gold standard’ is that it produces the most valid, reliable, and measurable results.

One of the most significant challenges therapists often face is determining whether the positive effects of therapy are the result of specific techniques or placebo.

By using the results of clinical trials conducted by researchers from all over the world, mental health professionals can zero-in on the techniques that have been proven to have a direct positive effect on our mental health.

Even though psychology is not an exact science, having an evidence-based approach to therapy helps mental health professionals draw detailed evaluations, measurable goals, and a clear direction.

The easiest way to find out if your therapist uses evidence-based approaches to mental health is by simply asking him/her about? After that, you just need to do a bit of research on the topic to find out for yourself if what he/she does in the office is based on science or speculation.

#2 He/she Helps You Set Realistic Expectations

People come to therapy for various reasons. Some want to overcome problems such as anxiety, depression, or stress, while others are simply interested in getting to know themselves better.

But regardless of the reason, every person who walks into a therapist’s office brings a set of expectations.

Maybe we see therapy as a miracle cure that will fix our problems quickly and effortlessly. Or perhaps we think the therapist should somehow be responsible for our well-being.

Big or small, realistic or unrealistic, expectations are a crucial part of the process.

A good therapist will always help you set realistic expectations right from the beginning. Otherwise, you might reach a point where you feel like you’re not getting out of therapy as much as you hoped you would get. And that, of course, can lead to tension between you and your therapist.

Let me give you a clear example:

Can you spot the difference between “I want to get rid of anxiety forever” and “I want to learn how to manage my anxiety?

As you probably noticed, the first one is a totally unrealistic expectation – because anxiety is a normal response which becomes problematic only under certain circumstances – while the second one is clearly something achievable.

Never trust a therapist who:

  • ‘Walks and talks’ like he/she has all the answers.
  • Promises fast and effortless results.
  • Doesn’t discuss expectations right from the first sessions.

As far as I know, I have yet to hear about a therapeutic approach that can “fix” everything and meet all expectations.

A Therapist Who is Warm and Understandable

The only way to understand people’s suffering is by stepping in their shoes.

#3 He/she is Warm and Empathic

Empathy is one of the most important qualities a good therapist should have.

It is the capacity to understand and experience other people’s emotions as if they were yours. In other words, it means putting yourself in other people’s shoes to get a better sense of what they’re going through.

A therapist who’s mastered empathy is an active listener. He/she listens to understand, not just to have something to say when it’s his/her turn to speak.

When a therapist manifests empathy, the entire process takes on a different vibe. As a client, you will feel safe and comfortable enough to share your deepest thoughts and emotions. You will feel accepted and cared for and you will eventually learn how to accept and care for yourself.

In a therapeutic context, empathy becomes the basis for excellent interpersonal communication. In other words, it creates that bridge that allows the therapist to enter your most intimate universe.

By being warm and empathetic, a good therapist can get a clear understanding of the problem you’re facing. And that’s the first step towards elaborating a strategy to help you overcome your deepest emotional pains.

#4 He/she Has a Refined Set of Interpersonal Skills

As social creatures, interpersonal skills represent the foundation of our daily social interactions.

In fact, a robust set of interpersonal skills helps us solve problems, ‘defuse’ tensions among people and forge lasting relationships.

For a therapist, having the ability to listen, communicate, and socialize in a meaningful way can make the difference between success and failure.

A good therapist knows how to build meaningful interactions regardless of his/her clients’ unique personality and character.

He/she can eloquently express ideas and can quickly recognize and understand the emotions you’re going through.

When interacting with clients, a good therapist manifests warmth, acceptance, and empathy, thus creating a welcoming therapeutic setting.

He/she talks and behaves in such a way that makes you feel safe and comfortable in his/her presence.

Without empathy, you can just as well discuss your problems with a chatbot.

Regarding therapy: Without empathy, you can just as well discuss your problems with a chatbot. Click To Tweet

#5 He/she Builds a Meaningful Therapeutic Alliance

Back in 2015, I came across an interesting study published in World Psychiatry which discussed the factors that lead to positive outcomes in therapy.

Aside from empathy, expectations, interpersonal skills, and other ingredients that make up the recipe for therapeutic success, another crucial element is the therapeutic alliance (or simply ‘the alliance’).

In fact, many researchers and practitioners believe the alliance represents the fundamental factor of any therapeutic relationship.

A clear and meaningful alliance gives the entire process both direction and purpose.

Therapeutic alliance is comprised of three key ingredients:

  • Client and therapist’s consensus regarding the specific goals that they’re going to pursue.
  • Client and therapist’s consensus on how to pursue and achieve those goals.
  • And the bond that exists between client and therapist.

In a way, the alliance is an informal agreement between the two parties that are involved in the process. A symbolic “pact” between client and therapist, who both pursue the same goal – the client’s health and well-being. 

To Sum Up …

The perfect therapist doesn’t exist. And that’s partly because psychotherapy, like any other branch of the health services, has its flaws and limitations. However, it’s the best we have right now and it definitely has the potential to become better.

However, certain hints could help us determine if the therapist we’re seeing is right for us.

In broad lines, a good therapist should always:

  • Use evidence-based approaches and practices.
  • Help you set realistic expectations.
  • Offer you warmth and empathy.
  • Have a sharp set of interpersonal skills.
  • Set the foundation for a meaningful therapeutic alliance right from the start.

And lastly, if you allow me to add a personal opinion, I believe a good therapist should always be ready to debunk myths that generate stigma around mental illness and teach others how to offer emotional support. Just imagine how the world would look if at least 1 out of 5 people knew how to provide emotional support…

If you have any questions or inquiries regarding therapists or therapy sessions, don’t hesitate to ask me in the comments below and I’ll make sure to answer as soon as possible.

Stay healthy!

Alexander Draghici - Psychotherapist and Coach in Psyche Guide

Alexander Draghici

Clinical Psychologist, Licensed CBT Therapist.

I’m a Clinical Psychologist and a licensed Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy practitioner. My work focuses mainly on strategies designed to manage and prevent the most common mental issues – anxiety, depression, and stress.

When I’m not busy with my therapeutic practice or other work-related activities, I enjoy going out for a jog or hit the nearby gym.

You can contact me at alex@psycheguide.com, or via LinkedIn (link below), or through the Contact Us page.

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