What Makes a Good Therapist? 10 Traits Explored!

This is the second in the Brisbane ACT Centre’s two part series on finding a psychology practitioner that’s perfect for you. In our first post we looked at choosing a therapist, now we move onto the qualities and actions of effective therapists – what makes a great psychologist?

A terrific, publicly available paper published by the American Psychological Association suggests that there are fourteen qualities and actions of effective therapists based on theory, policy, and research evidence. These traits aren’t exhaustive, but they give you a good picture of what makes a psychologist effective. Therapy, like all skills coaching, can be subtle and complex, and what’s easiest isn’t always the best treatment for you.

In the APA paper there are 14 qualities and actions that make for an effective therapist, here’s 10 of our favourites:

1. Effective therapists have sophisticated interpersonal skills, they’re sensitive to your emotional state, and are able to communicate well with warmth and acceptance. Do you find your therapist warm and easy to communicate with?

2. Effective psychologists creates trust with their clients – their clients feel understood and believe the therapist is capable of helping them. It’s critical that you feel that you can trust your therapist if you’re going to work well together.

3. Good therapists are capable of creating what’s called the ‘Therapist Alliance’, which means they can create a therapeutic bond around the goals and tasks of the therapy. The atmosphere is collaborative and purposeful. Looks for therapists that create this relationship solidly, and early in therapy.

4. The fourth quality is complex, being a therapist’s ability to give an acceptable and adaptive explanation for a client’s distress. An explanation for distress can be a useful tool in treatment, and it’s important that clients resonate with it. The explanation (in therapy) is however only a tool, a means by which the client can overcome his or her difficulties. Biological explanations, while common, aren’t based on solid science and actually worsen self-stigma, increase hopelessness and decrease useful behaviour change. Understanding that suffering is human, and that we all get entangled in our own ways, decreases stigma and increases optimism/engagement/ flexibility. Hunting for “causes” is often less important than directly learning to handle difficult emotions and change our behaviours. Human problems aren’t simple, often with multiple causes that can’t be easily untangled. Fixating too much on the cause of problems can be very unproductive. The underlying ACT model provides meaningful, helpful explanations of distress which increase engagement, self-compassion and action.

5. The therapist has a treatment plan consistent with the explanation, which makes sense to the client. If a client feels understood and accepts that a treatment plan will be effective they’ll stick better to it. Look for good, clear treatment plans with your psychologist.

6. The effective therapist monitors client progressin an authentic way. It’s crucial that a psychologist measures how their clients are going so that progress is clear. Look for psychologists that use appropriate scales, discussing their purpose clearly, and that pay attention to progress monitoring tools, tailoring their approach to results.

7. A flexible approach is key to good therapy and counselling. It’s important for psychologists to be able to adapt their approach when it isn’t working or if progress is too slow. The psychologist is open to new information, tests their hypotheses and most importantly is willing to be wrong.

8. Effective psychologists don’t avoid difficult or painful areas, and in fact uses difficult areas to most effectively help their clients. Often we can be avoidant of painful thoughts and feelings. Good therapists pick up on when their clients are avoiding a tough topic and can gently explore these difficult areas in a professional and helpful way. It might be uncomfortable for the client, but ultimately is a critical quality of an effective therapist.

9. The effective therapist communicates hope and optimism. This is relatively easy for clients progressing well, however, those with severe and/or chronic problems perhaps need this even more. ACT therapists love working with clients who have failed other approaches – they know well what doesn’t work, and are keen to try something new! Effective therapists acknowledge struggles and yet engender hope that the client can and will get unstuck.

10. Psychology is a field that is growing quickly, there is stronger research being done constantly that helps us understand how best to treat our clients. Effective therapists keep up with the best possible research related to their clients. Look for therapists that are committed to staying on the cutting edge of psychological science.

Those are 10 traits that make a therapist effective at treating their patients. You can check out the full paper here if you like for all fourteen of the traits. Therapy can be a fantastic investment in health and happiness, and it’s important to choose a therapist who will be effective at helping you achieve your goals. If you’re starting with a new psychologist, or on the lookout for one, you can use these 10 traits to figure out if they’ll be effective at helping you.