There is no one-size-fits-all approach to counseling or counselors, and while there are basic standards of good counseling (see previous post), much of the counseling experience consists of what you and your counselor bring to the table. The counselor uses his or her knowledge, training, theoretical foundations, personality, values, life experience, and intuition to understand and choose how to approach your personal situation. At the same time, you come in with your own beliefs, values, goals, problems, perspectives, expectations, knowledge, history, life experiences, and ways of doing things. Together, you and your counselor will create a unique relationship and experience as you work on achieving your goals and making positive changes in your life.
With something as personal (and personalized) as counseling, it’s important to find someone you work well with. Here are a few things to consider:
1. Professionalism. How does this counselor present him- or herself? Does the counselor treat you with respect? How do you see other colleagues and office staff being treated? Are office policies clearly defined? Does the counselor keep promises, appointments, and agreements? Does he or she keep not only your confidences, but those of other clients?
2. Environment. Do you feel comfortable in the office/counseling room? Is this someplace where you would like to spend some time? Depending on the setting (agency vs. private practice) a counselor may have more or less control over the way the office is furnished and decorated. Some counselors use this space as a way to express themselves; others keep the room more simple and neutral. Regardless of décor, the space should be comfortable, safe, and free of distractions. If the room itself is a turn-off, it might be wise to look for counseling elsewhere.
3. Type of counseling offered. What are my goals? Will this counseling method meet my needs? Does it fit well with my way of being and/or does it require me to stretch myself and be open to new things? Counseling theories and techniques come in a variety of “flavors.” Some focus on the past while others focus on the present. Some emphasize insight while others emphasize action. Approaches may be rational, artistic, analytical, solution-focused, relational, emotional, holistic, practical, abstract, and so on. Most counselors I know have a variety of tools in their toolbox and adapt to the needs of their clients. Ask the counselor to explain his or her approach and ask if they have the training, tools, or experience to help you with your particular issue.
4. Therapist qualities. What kinds of personal qualities do I value in a therapist? Do I prefer to work with a therapist of a particular gender, background, religion, or other characteristic? Do I feel comfortable talking to this person, even about difficult subjects? Is he or she comfortable and respectful talking to me?
5. Your expectations. What do I want from this experience? Do I expect counseling to be helpful or unhelpful? Is this a resource or a punishment? Will it be worth my time and effort? The expectations you bring to the table will affect your relationship with your counselor and your results. Ideally, counseling is a collaborative process; you and your counselor work together to define your goals and find solutions to your problems. But the best counselor can’t meet your needs if you don’t let them know what they are—or if you aren’t willing to accept their help. Talk about your concerns and expectations. Ask questions. Be open to trying new things. And if some aspect of the counseling isn’t working for you, speak up.
Counseling can provide comfort and hope, but it also requires energy and effort. It’s good to find someone you can have a good working relationship with. That person doesn’t have to perfect; he or she just has to be good enough for you. Decide what’s most important to you and approach your decision prayerfully. Talk to a few counselors, listen to your instincts, do your part, and counseling can be a productive and rewarding experience.