What Makes A Good Therapist? 5 Lesser-Known Traits of The Best Therapists.

5 Lesser-Known Traits of The Best Therapists

NKS Therapy was recently named on a list of the “Best Psychotherapists” in Toronto. And while I’m not a big fan of the “Top” movement (top 40 under 40, etc.), they can offer some credibility when done with integrity and honesty. It felt good when I found out we had been selected.

It’s not easy to seek support when our mental health suffers. It takes courage and strength, two things that often fail us when we are feeling emotionally weak. A good therapist can be that beacon of positive change, guiding us to those brilliant “ah hah” moments, and helping us find that elusive inner motivation to turn the dial on our lives. What is also not easy is finding a good therapist – one that not only feels like a “fit”, but is also effective and therefore, a valuable investment in the end. So what makes a good therapist?

I worked as a therapist for 11 years, between 2009 and 2020. Feelings of good “fit” aside (which are subjective), there are a number of traits most people know to look for in a therapist: Warmth, compassion, excellent listening/observation skills, and good ethics.

But what about some of the lesser-known traits? Things that have the potential to really move the needle in the quality of the therapist-client relationship (which is, incidentally, the biggest predictor of client success in virtual therapy)? Below I have listed 5 of the lesser-known, but incredibly important qualities that make a good therapist:

1. Assertiveness

The key here is excellent communication. An assertive therapist is neither passive (sits back and says nothing or very little) nor aggressive (says too much or pushes their agenda onto clients). You want an assertive therapist who is confident in themselves and their skills. One who knows when to sit back and just listen, but also when it is therapeutically appropriate to interject and pursue a line of questioning with you to dig deeper on a particular thought or statement. This is an approach that too few therapists use, and one that is greatly appreciated by our clients at NKS Therapy. In some cases (e.g. couples/relationships/marriage counselling and family therapy), it is the most valuable skill a therapist can have.

2. A Master at Open-Ended Questions (And Offers Direct Advice)

Some of our virtual therapy clients at NKS Therapy come to us having been to a therapist already, and express displeasure at their previous experience in this way: “I feel like s/he wasn’t really doing anything. I was constantly asked ‘And how does that make you feel?’” While a well-timed “How does that make you feel?” is a necessary and powerful question for demonstrating compassion, while also inciting self-reflection by the client, when over-used it can come across as insincere and ineffectual. You want a therapist who knows the art of crafting excellent probing questions, and uses them often to create a more collaborative exchange. While you may do the majority of the talking as the client, online therapy should eventually evolve to more of a conversation that is focused on how you can achieve your goals for wellness. In addition, at NKS Therapy we believe in providing plenty of feedback, tools, exercises and mini-challenges. At times, even direct advice. Many therapists shy away from this believing it’s not ethical. We disagree. When well-timed (timing is everything in therapy), advice to a longer-term client is a reflection of the trust that has been built between you. And by then as our client, you feel strong and empowered enough to know you are free to consider or reject the advice with zero consequences to the therapeutic relationship.

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3. Listens “Between the Lines”

A good therapist doesn’t just listen to what you are saying…they are also listening to what the tone of your voice says, what your body language says, and your overall affect (i.e. the therapist’s opinion of your underlying emotional state). A good therapist is also listening between the words (i.e. what isn’t being said/what seems to be left out, and why?), and what is meant by the words clients use. They don’t just assume you mean the same thing the therapist thinks you mean. A good therapist regularly asks you what your definitions are of your goals (e.g. of success, of happiness, etc.).

4. Self-Discloses (Sparingly)

This is another concept that has therapists on the fence. Personally, I think careful and thoughtful self-disclosure from therapist to client can propel the therapeutic relationship forward. I trained in the US and there was a heavy emphasis on the study of Irvin Yalom – an existential psychiatrist who espoused the value of therapist self-disclosure. To be clear, a good therapist does not spill any personal problems they may have to a client, and they certainly do not use session time to talk at length about themselves. That said, when it pertains directly to your experience, has genuine relevance to the ‘here-and-now’ of the session, and has the potential to move you as a client further along in the process, self-disclosure can be a powerful tool of relatability. An example of this could be when working with adolescents. An adolescent client who shares their frustration with school/parents/not fitting in socially may benefit from their therapist briefly sharing a similar experience and feeling when they were that age, if true (a good therapist never deceives clients under any circumstances).

5. Happy, Healthy, and Having Fun In Life!

I have always thought that I would never go see a therapist who wasn’t loving life and having more fun in it than me. After all, would you go to a dentist with a mouth full of cavities? Or an obese physician? I think not! A good therapist isn’t perfect or joyful all the time; they have problems and life challenges just like everyone else. They do, however, have the tools to practice what they preach and deal with them effectively. They genuinely care about you and your well-being as a client, but they also know how not to ‘take you home with them’ after online therapy sessions (i.e. in their head).

I believe the qualities listed above are what truly set us apart here at NKS Therapy. We appreciate the privilege of working with our clients immensely, both online and in-person, and are honoured to be invited into their lives and given the opportunity to make a difference to them. Our clients frequently tell us how much they appreciate the way we approach our therapy and work, and for us that is the biggest ‘thanks’ we can get.

If you want to see an example of an excellent therapist in action, watch season 1 of the mini-series “Big Little Lies.” Yes, it’s TV and fiction, but the therapist who works with Nicole Kidman’s abused-wife character Celeste is absolutely on point.

Lastly, always know that if you ever have questions of your virtual therapist, don’t like something, or need something to change in your therapy experience, as a client it’s important for you speak up about it, and we always welcome it. Don’t be shy. You may not get all the answers you’re looking for, or the things you need and want. But a good therapist will always listen and consider what you have to say.

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