People choose a counselor because they need to address a major life issue. So, obviously, making the right choice is important.
I believe that many people choose based on the wrong criteria.
Compatibility and niceness. We’re all attracted to nice people who are good listeners. But that may not be what we need. Many people would grow more from a crusty counselor who’s an expert than a kind one with middling expertise.
Physical attractiveness. Studies find that people overestimate competence based on a person’s looks, which you can assess before meeting. All that’s usually required is a quick Google-images search.
A counselor’s references. Even bad counselors can dredge up a few happy clients or ersatz clients. For example, their romantic partner could pretend to have been a client. And top professionals may be reluctant to give references because they’d be embarrassed for clients to think that to be credible they still need to provide references.
A reference you receive from a friend. Just because your friend thinks a counselor is great doesn’t mean s/he’d be great for you and your situation.
A person’s academic credentials. Often, the skills required to get a Ph.D. (a research degree) and to write research articles are inversely correlated with the skills required to be an effective counselor. Great counselors are expert at the practical and on clear communication with mere mortals.
Celebrity. A person’s having lots of broadcast media exposure may more reflect their having received media coaching and hired a PR firm than being a fine counselor. Good counselors mainly get clients by word of mouth. They don’t need to flog themselves in the media. And celebrity counselors typically are expensive—they usually feel they can charge more.
Locality. Most people assume that in-person sessions will be more helpful because you can see visual cues and because of the bond that comes from being together. But I, for one, feel I’m almost as effective with my Skype clients and only slightly less effective than that with my by-phone clients. Whatever decrement accrues is likely outweighed by your being more likely to find a well-suited and affordable counselor if you don’t insist s/he’s local.
I believe these criteria deserve more consideration than they usually get:
The likelihood of your trusting that person’s advice. Many clients blow-off their counselors’ advice. So pick someone so expert that you’d likely trust their counsel. Do beware of counselors you’d trust mainly on the irrelevancies above: pleasant demeanor and physical attractiveness.
Your belief in their approach. Counselors can be mainly a facilitator, a tester, or an advice-giver.
Psychotherapists, of course, vary in their approach. Cognitive-behavioral therapy focuses on substituting new behaviors for those driven by distorted thinking. Psychodynamic approaches focus on your malaise’s childhood roots. Spirituality-centered therapies are rooted in religious and secular-spiritual teachings. The aggregated data suggests that, on average, cognitive-behavioral therapy is most effective but that might not be true in your case. At the risk of reductionism, you may be wisest to choose simply on which approach your gut tells you is most likely work best for you.
All things equal, consider a moderately priced counselor. The cheapies are usually cheap because they’re inexperienced and/or disliked. But also think twice about seeing a top-priced person. Some counselors—as do some universities and wineries—deliberately price high to create perceived prestige. I have met some of the world’s most expensive career coaches (including one who charges $250,000 per year) and don’t believe they’re, on average, better than many moderately priced ones. Also, anyone who charges an exorbitant fee may have an inflated sense of self, which can impede a counselor’s effectiveness.
If you’ve used the above criteria to winnow to two or three counselors all of whom feel pretty good to you, chances are they won’t differ much in efficacy. It may be wise to then choose the one who’s most convenient: located nearby or who works by Skype or phone.
So, how to go about finding the right counselor?
I’d start by identifying perhaps a half-dozen candidates using Yelp reviews, recommendations from trusted friends, and Internet searching. Regarding the latter, does the counselor seem like someone you’d trust: expert in your particular problem and seeming like a mensch—a person of character? There are many ways to discern that. For example, I’d be turned off to a hypey website and fat-package pricing, for example, a bronze package for $4,950, a silver for $7,500 and a gold for $9,500. It’s possible the counselor wants your money upfront because, after the first session or two, you’re too likely to feel s/he isn’t very good. In contrast, if the counselor charges by the hour, it means s/he’s confident that after the first hour, you’ll have found it worthwhile enough to buy a second. The latter pricing also suggests they’re more about helping than about maximizing profit.
I’d phone them all and ask something like, “I’m considering hiring a career counselor. Are there some kinds of clients you work particularly well and not well with?” I wouldn’t describe my problem first. I’d rather hear them say that they specialize in my sort of situation and my sort of personality. Here’s where you can assess if they seem expert in your situation, someone whose advice you’d likely follow.
Then ask something like, “Would you tell me what our first session or two would probably be like?” That should tease out whether you’d feel optimistic that their approach would work with you.
If the person sounds good, ask about their availability. If they’re too available, such as, “Oh, I can see you tomorrow, the next day, whatever,” be wary. Good, experienced counselors don’t have openings for new clients for at least a week, usually longer.
Finally, ask about price. While prices vary by specialty and region, expect to pay $100 to $200 an hour for a solid professional. I suggest that you not ask for a free introductory session. All but beginning or unsuccessful counselors may view that as insulting. You’ve vetted them on the phone and studied them on the internet. That should be enough to decide if you want to at least have one session with them.
If you book someone who’s only charging by the hour, if after the first session, your intuition is that the counselor won’t quickly-enough be helpful, you’re only out that one hour’s fee, not some silver-package fortune.
I worry that the people who most need to choose carefully will view my recommended procedure as too complicated. It really isn’t and really is worth it.
Marty Nemko was named “The Bay Area’s Best Career Coach” by the San Francisco Bay Guardian and he enjoys a 96 percent client-satisfaction rate. In addition to the articles here on PsychologyToday.com, many more of Marty Nemko's writings are archived on www.martynemko.com. Of his seven books, the most relevant to readers of this blog is How to Do Life: What They Didn’t Teach You in School. Marty Nemko's bio is on Wikipedia.