Having spent the last 10 years in practice as a therapist and training new therapists as an AAMFT Approved Supervisor, I have noticed a few things. What I have noticed are the things that separate truly awesome therapists from those that are, well… mediocre.
These are not really things that they teach you in graduate school either. Having clinical knowledge is certainly one of the requirements for becoming a therapist/counselor. But that alone does not necessarily make for a great therapist. It takes something a little more.
In a nutshell, it comes down to a natural ability to connect with people. It means connecting in a genuine and authentic way and not in a forced or mechanical way. Some of this just can’t be taught. But there are a few things counselors and therapists can do in their practice to make this connection with people from the very start that will set them apart from all the rest.
1. Take care of and know yourself.
One of the most important things any therapist can do to become an awesome therapist, is make self-care a priority. Certainly taking care of yourself physically should go without saying. Eating, exercising and sleeping well will only help you be your best. But also take care of yourself emotionally and spiritually. I would even be so bold as to say go to therapy yourself and find some sort of either religious or mindfulness practice. If you know yourself well and have done the same therapeutic work that our clients are coming to us for, you will automatically be a step ahead of most therapists out there. There is an old southern saying I love: “Sweep under your own doorstep before you bring the broom to me!” Our clients deserve that!
2. Always be genuine and welcoming.
You have got to be genuine and like people. First impressions mean so much in establishing that therapeutic relationship. From the appearance of your office to the way people are greeted when they come in the door makes a lasting impression. It sets the stage for a person having positive or negative experience. If you have office staff or a receptionist, be sure they are friendly and welcoming. I don’t how many times I have been to either a doctor’s office or other professional services and gotten a bad taste from the get-go because the reception was cold. It felt like I was imposing on them to even be there or I had interrupted their day.
3. Acknowledge the anxiety.
When a person makes that bold decision to seek out counseling, it is just huge! Regardless of the issues affecting people in their lives, the seemingly simple act of coming to therapy for the first time is just simply nerve-racking. By acknowledging this with people from the very beginning is therapeutic in and of itself. If it is not mentioned or talked about, it becomes the “elephant in the room” that can keep true therapy from beginning.
When training new therapists, one of the things that I try to push them on is not being afraid to go deeper with clients. Most of us in this profession are very cordial and polite people. We work very hard to protect our clients and confidentiality is something we take very seriously, as we should. Sometimes though, especially with newer therapists, when emotional things come to the surface with our clients they will tend to shy away or back off from it. A good therapist will help elicit that emotion rather than avoid it. In the end, clients value that because you have made it safe for them to get to those deeper issues.
One of the things that anyone in private practice will tell you, you have to teach yourself to think like an entrepreneur and know how to run the business side of things. And if a person wants to “sell” their services and to have loyal customers (clients) always give them good value. And the best way to do that is to give more than expected. People are “buying” the time they spend with us. I always keep 30 minutes between my session times. The reason is that I try to give more than the typical 50 minutes session, even though that is what they are paying for. Most people notice that and are very appreciative of the extra time I give them.
This is very much connected to #3 and I felt like it was worth mentioning on its own. When people call to ask questions or set up an appointment, they feel sense of urgency. Returning phone calls promptly just lets people know you care. Besides that, it is just a good business move. I don’t know how many times I have returned calls to people and they tell me I am the first to call them back. They might be “shopping” counselors. Usually the first to respond is who they schedule with.
Most of us have continuing education requirements in our states to maintain our license. Don’t be lulled into just getting the minimum requirements. Genuine clinical skill requires both knowledge and practice. Being able to constantly learn new things not only in the therapy realm, but in other areas of your life will only make you more well-rounded and solid. Reading, listening to podcasts and even watching Youtube videos will expand your imagination and creativity in therapy.
If you are in private practice, there is no way around the fact that you also run a business. The normal “business” mindset is to “beat the competition”. It is a mindset of scarcity rather than abundance. Believe me, there are more than enough clients for every therapist out there. The more you can collaborate with other therapists and professionals, the more referrals you will have.
Becoming a counselor or therapist in private practice takes a lot of work. Not only graduate school, licensure requirements and business knowledge, but being able to truly connect with people on a therapeutic level. It means being genuine, caring and a willingness to share of yourself. Keep up this good and noble work.