Counselors today are working with increasingly diverse populations that have diverse sets of needs. Honing a solid set of essential skills makes for an effective, successful mental health practitioner.
This one isn’t technically a skill – but it is an essential component of a counseling career. When you wake up in the morning, do you have the drive and energy to sit with people through their best and worst? Can you be fully present for your clients’ stories, however difficult or long? Will you still be ten years down the road? A sustained commitment to facilitating positive transformation and human-to-human connection is key to a successful and fulfilling career in mental health.
An effective therapist knows that it’s just as important to look within themselves as it is to carefully observe others. The idea of “Self as Instrument” is central to a successful education and career in mental health. A counseling student is taught to feel well, think well, and act well. By feeling well, a therapist can relate well and empathize with clients. Thinking well means to think critically, to conceptualize the client in theoretical terms, and to demonstrate good academic skills. To act well means to conduct oneself in the service of the client, community, and the professional field. Through the use of Self as Instrument, counselors are able to better relate to clients and facilitate positive change.
This one may seem like a no-brainer, but effective listening as a counselor is a nuanced skill. A counselor needs not only to listen to what is being said, but how it’s said, why it’s being said, and what it means in the context of that particular client. Think content, delivery, and context. A counselor also needs to be able to listen “between the lines,” so to speak, for those things that aren’t being said. What a client omits from a session can speak just as clearly as what is communicated out loud. Perhaps most importantly, a counselor should know how to listen without judgment or evaluation. Clients are going to come to you with difficult and complicated issues, and they’ll need to feel as though they have the space to say everything they feel they need to, without fear of shame or feeling as though their counselor has jumped to a conclusion. As a counselor, cultivating a non-reactive stance and learning the difference between observation and evaluation will help in making accurate assessments, and developing a relational connection with the client.
A counselor must be accessible to clients in order to gain their trust, but perhaps more importantly, a counselor needs to be genuine and empathetic – in his or her communication, listening, and professional persona. Developing an empathetic connection with each client is key to moving forward in the therapeutic process, and is the core of an effective counselor-client relationship.
A good counselor has flexibility in world views and a strong understanding of multicultural issues in clinical practice. Each client is going to be different in his or her background, experience, and engagement in the therapeutic relationship, so to be able to transition from one perspective to another based on each client is a skill that should be developed early on. However, recognizing when a counselor and client may not be a good fit with each other is another important facet of flexibility. Being able to communicate when things aren’t working, and then offering to refer the client to another professional who may be able to better aid them is one hallmark of a good counselor. A good counselor cannot – and should not -- be all things to all clients.
Counselors sit through some uncomfortable, difficult, and often traumatic stories. That said, it’s alright for both counselors and clients to laugh along the way. Timing is, of course, everything when it comes to this type of thing, but knowing how to form a relational connection with someone to the point of developing a shared sense of humor is a skill that shouldn’t be overlooked. Humor and a nuanced understanding of its uses in the therapeutic environment is a valuable tool.
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Lesley University offers a broad range of licensure-oriented graduate programs in Counseling and Psychology and Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Specialization options include trauma studies, holistic studies, school and community counseling, professional counseling, and more.
"Using my own experiences with clients, other professionals, and agencies helps my students become oriented to the reality of their professional milieus." -- Susan Gere, Ph.D.
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