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 UnknownFinds 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.