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David N. Elkins Ph.D.
David N. Elkins Ph.D.

The 5 Qualities That Tell You a Therapist Is Effective

2. They see you as a partner, not just a patient.

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So you've decided to go to therapy. You're not alone: 10 million Americans receive psychotherapy every year. And there's a good reason for this: Therapy works. At least it does if you find a good, effective therapist. But how do you select a "good, effective" therapist, one who will truly help you?

Before answering, I need to debunk a few myths about how to select a good therapist.

Myth #1: A therapist attended an excellent university—so she must be good, right?

Not necessarily. Training is important, but it doesn't guarantee that a therapist is effective. Good therapists and bad therapists graduate from top-notch universities. Looking at the diplomas on the wall is not the best way to select a therapist.

Myth #2: A therapist has a doctoral degree, so he must be good.

Degrees are important, as are other credentials, but they should not be the main criterion for choosing a therapist. In fact, many marriage and family therapists, as well as clinical social workers, have a master's degree—and yet they are highly effective.

Myth #3: A therapist has written numerous books and scholarly articles on counseling and therapy. Surely, she is an effective therapist.

Writing books and scholarly articles is important, but does not an effective therapist make. Just because someone is a prolific writer does not mean that she's an effective therapist.

Myth #4: A therapist uses only "scientifically validated" techniques, so he must be effective.

This is probably the biggest myth of all. Actually, the research shows that techniques have relatively little to do with effective therapy. Many people think that if techniques work in medicine, then they should work in psychotherapy.

However, what many do not realize is that psychotherapy is not a medical procedure. Instead, it's a relational endeavor, an interpersonal process. So when a therapist claims to use only "scientific" techniques, it really doesn't mean much in terms of whether or not she's effective—and it's not a good reason to select a therapist.

So how can one select a good, effective therapist?

Extensive research on how psychotherapy works can help answer this question. The evidence shows that the primary determinants of effectiveness in psychotherapy are the human and relational elements. In other words, a good, effective psychotherapist is not a "junior physician" wielding medical-like techniques. Instead, an effective therapist is a warm, caring, empathic, and knowledgeable person who knows how to interact with a client in a way that is healing. If you want to find a good, effective therapist, look for that kind of person. The following are some descriptors of effective therapists.

  1. An effective therapist begins by focusing on the personal and cultural needs of the client to determine the best therapeutic approach. There are many "brands" of psychotherapy. Therapists who are attuned to the latest research do not impose their particular brand on clients. Instead, they begin by talking with the client to determine, in a collaborative way, the type of approach that best fits the client's needs.
  2. An effective therapist gathers routine feedback from clients relative to how the client feels about the therapy and the therapist. In other words, instead of being "therapist-centered," effective therapists are "client-centered." The client is regarded as a partner who knows, better than the therapist, whether therapy is working. In short, effective therapists engage the client as a full partner in the healing process by routinely checking with the client to see how the therapy is going.
  3. An effective therapist is interpersonally sensitive and skilled. Effective therapists listen. They extend empathy, acceptance, and care in ways that are emotionally healing.
  4. An effective therapist is culturally aware and realizes that every relational encounter is, in a sense, a multicultural encounter. Effective therapists have cultural humility and are open to learning from their clients.
  5. An effective therapist supports and activates the self-righting potentials of the client. In other words, effective therapists do not take away the client's power by insisting that "doctor knows best." Instead, they realize that the client's own potentials are the power center of effective therapy and they do everything possible to support and activate those self-healing potentials.

There are thousands of good, effective therapists who have these qualities. Take the time to find the one who's right for you. Go to some "trial" sessions with different therapists if necessary. It's worth the effort to find the kind of therapist I've described—and if you do, I predict your life will never be the same.

Check Psychology Today's directory of therapists for a professional near you.

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About the Author
David N. Elkins Ph.D.

David N. Elkins, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus of psychology at Pepperdine University.

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