Examination of Traits Possessed by Effective Counselors
Catherine M. Kleinschmit
Because the counselor-client relationship is one built on trust, a counselor should seek to have as much knowledge as possible to facilitate this trust and bring about healing and wholeness for the client. This paper examines many of the traits possessed by counselors who are considered successful in their field. Much of the research came from peer reviewed material, and most of the traits listed in this paper- positive mental attitudes, possess self-awareness, are culturally diverse in their methodology, are good communicators and are versed in non-verbal communication, awareness of the laws in their state, awareness of the dangers of burnout, mindfulness, and empathy all come from the opinion of different sets of counselors who are themselves successful. Some of these traits are in born to the counselor, while others are learned. With the exception of burnout, strategies for effective learning are examined, while strategies for avoiding and coping with burnout are highlighted.
The counseling relationship is unlike any other. It is a private and safe place where the client can feel free to express his or herself and receive help and understanding in a time when they may feel no one else can help them. It is imperative that counselors strive to be as effective in this relationship as they possibly can in order to fuel change in the client’s life. An effective counselor has many characteristics that facilitate that healing. Some are natural to them, some are taught in college or continuing education classes. Even further still, some are sought out by the counselor themselves. However they are acquired, the effective counselor will build up his or her portfolio of strategies in order to continue a high level of strength in the counselor-client relationship.
Effective counselors have positive mental attitudes, are culturally diverse in their methodology, communicate well, are aware of the laws in their state, are aware of the dangers of burnout, practice mindfulness, and are empathetic. Positive mental attitude is the basis of becoming an effective counselor. In a study published in 1971, Jackson and Thompson identified that effective counselors have positive attitudes toward “self, most people, most clients, and counseling.” This study was conducted with counselors who were already working in the field in order to find traits that were common among successful counselors. The purpose for this was for screening possible graduate students for admission into counseling programs. The school of thought among the participants in this study was that, while they had received training in various counseling techniques, that as a rule, once a counselor begins practice, they will revert back to the attitudes they once had at the beginning of training. In their book, Competent Christian Counseling, Clinton and Ohlschlager assert that counselors should be comfortable in their understanding of counseling practices, professional skill, and their qualifications. (2002, p. 193) Clients do not want to enter therapy with a counselor who is unsure of themselves or nervous.
An effective counselor will, to put it simply, “know what they know” and will have the natural positive attitudes to practice their trade successfully. Because of the intimate nature of the counseling relationship, a counselor has a responsibility to be self-aware. (Corey, Corey & Callanan, 2011, p. 44) They need to know where they have unmet needs in their life that may hinder a client’s progress. Areas of denial will greatly affect the counselor’s ability to help their client. Corey, Corey & Callanan suggest that all counselors enter into some sort of counseling themselves to help them stay aware of their own mental health and abilities.( p. 47) An effective counselor also has a multicultural view. The counselor should not hold the opinion that his or her culture is in any way superior to another person’s, and so must avoid becoming a culturally encapsulated counselor. (Corey, Corey, & Callanan, p. 117) He or she has made conscience steps to venture out of his or her own culture in an effort to experience and understand other cultures so that their personal issues, value system, or any sort of bias will not interfere with their counselor/client relationship with clients of a different culture. They should try to see the world through their client’s viewpoint.
The culturally sensitive counselor should be aware of any type of prejudices or other negative feelings that may interfere in the helping process. (Corey, Corey, & Callanan, p. 126) Being a culturally aware counselor should also include the ability to understand family dynamics within different cultures. With that, they should be able to understand roles of different family members in relation to each other. In some cultures, the male(s) of the household hold a dominant position over the female(s), despite birth order. Additionally, counselors should be able to respect and try to understand their clients’ religious beliefs. A counseling technique that may work for an American Christian may not work for a Hindu from India. A counselor must be sure to be versed in different counselling techniques for various religions. Of course, communication plays an important role in effective counseling. A good counselor will know when it is time to speak, to listen, or to allow silence to remain to allow the client time to remember, or to think upon what was just said. Communication does not just involve words that are spoken; an attentive counselor will also be versed in high-context communication. High context communication, or non-verbal or inferred communication, is a valuable tool for the effective counselor. High context communication can be thought of as a cultural tool, in that some cultures are more adept at it. People from the Mediterranean area, Japan, Korea, China, parts of Africa, parts of the Middle East, and Latin America have high context communication ingrained in their culture. (Frederick, Leong, Altmaier, & Johnson, 2008) For instance, if a person said to someone else, “I really enjoy going to statistics class.” but rolled their eyes and crossed their arms, someone who is adept at high context communication will be able to take the comment as not particularly truthful, relying instead on the non-verbal cues exhibited.
These cues are often used to suspect if a person is feeling something other than what was expressed verbally. Knowing the law of the state one is practicing in is essential to a counselor’s success. Not all states have the same laws in regards to duty to warn, duty to report, child custody cases, etc. (Feldman & Sommers, 2010) Being an effective counselor does not always mean only effective with one’s clients. It means effective with the community and society in general as well. Let us look at the famous Tarasoff case. In 1969, a student by the name of Prosenjit Poddar at the University of California, Berkeley confided in his therapist that he intended to kill a student for whom he had developed romantic feelings. Through his descriptions, the therapist identified the student at Tatianna Tarasoff, and he alerted the campus police after conferring with his colleagues. The police detained Poddar, but found him to be rational, and released him. Poddar eventually killed Tarasoff. It was later ruled that the therapist should have warned Tarasoff. (Corey, Corey, & Callanan, 2011) Had the therapist followed through in regards to duty to warn, it is possible this tragedy could have been avoided. Burnout is a factor that effective counselors deal with successfully. Burnout can be defined as experienced stress manifesting itself in three ways. These are, according to Lent and Schwartz, “emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment.” (2012) Because counselors spend their day dealing with clients’ deep emotional and psychological problems, they must deal with the fact that their self-efficacy will be affected.
There are many indicators that one is experiencing burnout, the lead symptom being neuroticism. (Lent & Schwarz, 2012) Neuroticism is characterized by feelings of anxiousness, feeling angry, being overly self-conscious, and feeling vulnerable. (Lent & Schwartz, 2012) The research conducted by Lent and Schwartz suggests that a counselor’s own personality may help combat this. They show that a counselor who is by nature more agreeable will be more interested in other’s lives and behave in a more altruistic way, thus reaping more benefits from their work and not experiencing burnout as often. (2012) Lent and Schwartz suggest three strategies to create a positive workplace and minimize burnout. Firstly, they suggest that counselors work with employers/supervisors to encourage a more healthy “other-care/self-care balance.” (2012) Secondly, counselors should seek out support from cohorts or mentors that can help them through times of stress, and relieve anxiety. A counselor should be aware that times of burnout are part of the profession, and to be expected, and asking for help from colleagues is nothing of which to be ashamed.
Lastly, Lent and Schwartz suggest that a counselor become a mentor. They advocate that mentoring helps the counselor with working through their problems, because they are not as focused on just what is going on in their life. (2012) A strategy known as mindfulness can improve a counselor’s efficacy. Mindfulness is defined as “bringing one’s whole self into the encounter with clients by being completely in the moment on multiple levels: physically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually.” (Campbell & Christopher, 2012) In a study reported by Campbell and Christopher, medical students who participated in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training raised their empathy for others and saw a reduction in their level of anxiety and depression. (2012) The research showed that after completing a course in mindfulness, participants reported becoming more “aware, patient, mentally focused, empathetic, compassionate, attentive, responsive, and able to handle strong emotions.” They were also “less defensive, reactive and judgmental.” (Campbell & Christopher, 2012) In conclusion, in a study conducted by Pope and Kline, 22 counselors considered experts in their field ranked 10 different personality traits they feel are important for a counselor to possess in order to be successful. Interestingly, among the top three was empathy, and among the bottom three was sympathy. (1999) Sometimes, these two terms can be confused with one another.
However, the website Dictionary.com states that sympathy and empathy both are connected to feelings one has for another person. While sympathy means to “feel with”, empathy means to “feel into.” (2013) The difference is that the counselor who has the ability to empathize will be able to actually feel their client’s hurt or frustration, and will ultimately be able to understand the client better. To put it in simple terms, one feels empathy when one has “been there” and one feels sympathy when one has not. (Dictionary.com, 2013) While effective counselors possess positive mental attitudes, are culturally diverse in their methodology, are good communicators, are aware of the laws in their state, and are aware of the dangers of burnout, one must also have empathy, and to gain empathy, or the ability to have “been there”; one must expand his or her own personal boundaries and borders to become, as Paul said in I Corinthians 9:22, “To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” (KJV)
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