5 Crucial Qualities of Therapists - A Client's Point of View

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By: Lisa Kift, MFT

I'm a Marriage and Family Therapist who's written a number of articles about various mental health and relationship topics as well as maintain several blogs. As much as I might think I "know," a recent comment I received on one of my blogs challenged me in a very positive way. The following is an anonymous comment I received on one of my blog posts titled, What Therapist Qualities or Experiences Have Been Helpful? It's a powerful and beautifully written statement about the client's needs - as stated by a client his/herself - and is a therapist must-read. I hope other mental health and relationship professionals benefit from it as well.

I was given written permission by the "anonymous" poster to share his/her following thoughts in this article.

Here are some crucial qualities of a therapist from a client's point of view.

1) That the therapist pays attention to the client's plan for therapy, as opposed to what the therapist decides the plan should be. Most people come into private practice therapy already motivated. They have at least an unconscious idea, and usually a conscious one, of what they want to work on with us. I certainly did when I was in therapy! I wanted the therapist to stay focused on my plan.

2) Know the difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is feeling the client's world. Sympathy is expressing your feelings about it. I think clients in general want big doses of empathy and small doses of sympathy.

3) Understanding is much more important than "caring." Many merely neurotic (as opposed to e.g. pathological) people coming into therapy -- I was one of these, too -- have a social world of people who care. What they don't have is a worldful of people who are trained to understand. If one needs to err on this balance, this former client would take understanding over "caring" any day. Understanding makes the therapist a valued professional. Caring makes him or her paid friend. My therapist struggled a little with this distinction before he got it. When he got it, the therapy got hugely more valuable for me.

4) Understand first. Then, seek to be understood. My therapist used to always says, "Let me make sure I understand what you're saying before I even think about responding. You're saying that...." This was the BEST phrasing in the universe, because often he was 85% or 90% there, and I could clarify the last ten or fifteen percent. It meant we were walking the same turf. I was grateful for this. It shortened the process and made it more valuable.

5) A therapist who remembers that "the client is not their problem, and the problem is not the client" is doing the client a real service. I always had the nagging sense in therapy that the therapist was lacking a sense of who I really was; apart from whatever my presenting problem happened to be. Yes, it's true that in therapy we're there to talk about big issues and big concerns. But our lives outside the room are so much more than that, and the therapist who explores and understands the whole range of our lives -- our work, our play, our love, our being part of a larger community, our literary tastes, our good experiences as well as our painful ones -- will be a more effective therapist for us. We clients have problems, just as therapists have problems. But neither the therapist nor the client "is" their problem.

Similarly, the problem is not the client. Yes, a client may have some pathogenic belief(s) or maladaptive patterns. But they're far more than that, too. They might be essentially good people with those beliefs or even because of those beliefs. It might even be that those beliefs contribute or underscore their being good people in the world, even though the beliefs might not be so comfortable for the client.

The more the therapist was able to grasp me as a whole person, the better the therapy was. And the more the therapist was able to underscore and strengthen the good, as well as try to repair the pathogenic, the better the therapy was. Sounds simple, no? If it was that simple, and more therapists could execute it effectively, a lot fewer people would be abandoning therapy.

Lisa Brookes Kift is a Marriage and Family Therapist in Marin County, California. She is the creator of The Toolbox website at www.lisakifttherapy.com which contains her mental health and relationship articles, workbooks, therapist tools and information about her private practice.

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