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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Top Ten Therapist's Traits

Which characteristics make for a good therapist

 Many people have the idea that therapists are 'a breed apart'.  Usually I am writing to say that therapists are in fact just human, they are not perfect, that they experience the vicissitudes of life like everyone else.  Of course this is all true.
However, in my opinion, there are some qualities that an individual may have that make them more suited to this profession:
Focus.  The ability to focus, to block out extraneous sounds or sights or, at least to not be distracted by them is pretty basic and important.  Some people are quite distractable  and require a library-like environment as well as a mind that isn't preoccupied, to be able to maintain focus.
A therapist has to be capable of maintaining the focus despite what else may be happening in the waiting room, the hallway, on the street outside, or in their own mind.  
In addition, the therapist has to be able to track which means that, if there is an interruption, they should be able to return to the thread of the session.
Sometimes even the patient themselves produce a distraction; they suddenly exclaim that they remembered something they forgot earlier in the day, they failed to turn off their cell phone at the beginning of the session and it rings, or they begin bringing in related but off the course topics.  The therapist has to be able to field these interruptions and remain focused on the task at hand.
In addition, it takes a lot of ability to concentrate in order to clearly get what the patient is communicating.  The kind of listening required is not just to the topic but, also to nuances, tone of voice, attending to body language and trying to sense the unspoken parts.
Enjoying the unknown.  Therapy can be a mysterious process and so an individual who enjoys the intrigue of the unknown will be happier at work.  Sometimes a person comes in presenting a problem for therapy and it turns out that the real problem is something completely different.  A therapist who can be interested in following a sometimes winding road and enjoy the surprise, or surprises while proceeding, will do better.  The course of any therapy process is unpredictable; the therapist has to like following the signs along the way and let go of controlling the outcome.

Willing to take risks.  Again, the unknown plays a part.  When a new patient walks in the door, the therapist has no idea of who that is or what they are bringing to the table.  
Also, therapists sometimes pick up an unarticulated aspect of a problem being presented or an apparently out-of-awareness trait in the patient that is pertinent, and once having decided it will be useful, has to be willing to take the risk of communicating that to a patient who may be caught off guard.

Be an idea person.  Therapists need to have some skill in conceptualizing.  Idea people who have an imagination and who are prone to think inventively will make good therapists.  This usually arises from the intuitive function.  Therapists still need to have some practicality.  After all, some problems brought to treatment have practical aspects that need to be sorted out.  It can't all be about ideas and concepts but, the capacity to conceptualize and think creatively is valuable.  Many patients present an array of material and the therapist has to be able to take those disparate parts and feed them back to the client in a cohesive way---or, at least that ability will be very helpful.

Artist Unknown
 Finds other people interesting.  One who is interested in the variety that is represented by knowing a number of people well will find doing therapy ever challenging.  Not being bored by hearing another try to explain their point of view, wanting to know what is behind the public mask, and being really intrigued by that is a good characteristic for a therapist to have.  One cannot feign this interest; if attempted, not only will the client  sense it but, also the therapist will lose focus, concentration, and connection.  If the therapist is genuine about wanting to learn about the person before them, it will contribute to an involved, alive, productive dynamic between therapist and patient.

Have a compassionate nature.  Someone once told me, "You have a big heart".  Being able to offer true compassion can go a long way in the therapy relationship.  This characteristic is an asset for the therapist and the patient; compassion can be healing. 

Curiosity.  Having a curious nature will make a therapist feel and appear engaged.

Mental organizing.  An aptitude for mental organizing is an asset for a therapist.  By this I mean things like being able to prioritize, listening to a lot and finding the essence in the message, and scanning verbal material for signs.

Ability to manage the self.  A therapist has to learn to be able to put their own personal concerns aside when they are in a session.  This is a skill that takes practice.  It helps with the first quality, the ability to focus.  
Things happen in life, to everybody, but when the therapist comes to a session with a patient, they need to be able to leave those things of theirs for later.  The more their own personal life is settled, the easier this will be.  This is why, as I've said before, we should all be willing to go to therapy ourselves.  But, if something difficult and unexpected does occur, the therapist has to be able to self-manage.  It just isn't fair to the patient to not be fully present.

Sense of humor.  I didn't count this on my official list because I don't think it is essential.  A therapist who is of a primarily serious nature could do just fine.  But, some patients like to joke around a little and sometimes humor is also good for the therapist's state of mind.  A little levity in a session is a good thing in my book.  Depending on the therapist's style, humor can add a little but it isn't a necessity.

Confidence.  I think this one will occur naturally if the therapist has the others on the list.  That list will contribute to successful therapy episodes and, thus, will contribute to the therapist's confidence.  A therapist who is a confident person will impart a sense of ease and encouragement to the patient.

This particular post just begs for input from other therapists.  Some of you may think other qualities are more important, some may think some of these are not of primary importance to an effectively functioning therapist, some may have additions to the list, some may heartily agree with my list.  Please comment.

All readers, please share your opinions and experiences. 


  1. Very good traits and I agree with each one of them. When I was therapist shopping, I also looked for someone that seemed honest and genuine. I wanted to be assured that the therapist would have an open/frank line of communication with me. I wanted to feel comfortable enough to say or ask anything and then get an honest answer or response even if it was not what I wanted to hear. Genuine-I want a therapist to just be themselves. Nobody likes to feel like they are talking to a robot lol.

  2. This is a good list. I think a sense of humor is very important because I relate so well with someone I can laugh with! Also, I like when sessions end with a shared joke. Humor is part of my mask, but it's not dishonest. The laughter is genuine!

    This is my favorite line from your post: "Not being bored by hearing another try to explain their point of view, wanting to know what is behind the public mask, and being really intrigued by that is a good characteristic for a therapist to have."


  3. I agree with all of what you wrote, as well as those who commented ... especially Bama Psych's trait of "genuine". From the very beginning, I have been fortunate to have received truly genuine care from my therapist - that's just who she is.

    For me, humor and sarcasm have also played an important part of our dynamic. It was the perfect way (for us) to end our therapy sessions while working through the difficult things - a way to "wake up" and bring me out of what we'd just been working on, to throw me back into a functional world.

    I'd be curious to hear what your thoughts are on the opposite - the traits of a productive client. Or have you posted something like this already?

  4. Hi Amanda. Yes, I have written on that topic, several times. One is called You Side of The Street, another is called Biggest Bang for Your Buck. Finally, one that some didn't like was about clients throwing up barriers to the therapeutic process, the Imperfect therapist, Part III (sorry, i can't put inks in the comment section but you can get to these by typing the titles into the Search Bar. I'll look for what your comment is about those.
    Thanks for sharing about the dynamic between you and your therapist and for replying to BamaPsych.

  5. Very comprehensive list. Each of those aspects resonates with me and I aspire to all of them.

    The fact that clients can relate to their therapist as another human being (complex, imperfect, real) is important. I think that can be quite unexpected for some clients; they are used to seeing, for example, a doctor, who appears as "the professional" or "the expert". We, on the other hand, strive to be human and to engage with our clients congruently whilst, at the same time, applying our professional skills (sometimes so subtly or discreetly that the work might not even feel like therapy).

  6. Hi Steve. Thanks for responding to my request for feedback from other therapists. Interestingly, 2 other comments that both came from patients currently in therapy, also talked about the importance of the therapist being real, genuine and letting their humanness show. As for your last sentence, when I read it, I thought, wow-do we really do that?!, and of course, we do; I have said so myself here before.

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  8. I like the list. I think they are all very important. For me I know that a therapist has to enjoy the unknown because I have an open mind and I am naturally curious.

    I think confidence is very important, but not arrogance. The biggest turn off is when a therapist gives off the vibe that their shit don't stank.

    A sense of humor is a must for me. I feel unease somewhat in therapy because of the nature of the relationship. I care more about other people and their problems rather than my own when conversing, so talking about myself and feeling uncomfortable about asking things is a problem for me. A therapist with a sense of humor puts me at ease and allows me to trust them more.

    Thanks for the post.