What Makes a Great Therapist?
by Yuri Tomikawa
A great therapist is attuned to your needs, collaborative, non-judgmental, and respectful. They are also licensed, trained in their areas of expertise, and maintain professional standards through ongoing trainings and peer consultation.
Below are five of the shared characteristics of great therapists.
1. Highly attuned to non-verbal communication
Effective therapists are excellent readers of their clients’ emotions and nonverbal communication. They can easily detect what their clients may be thinking and feeling, even if the client doesn’t explicitly mention it, or can’t pinpoint it themselves.
For example, if a client is discussing a traumatic experience, whether a single acute incident such as a car accident, or a more subtle ongoing relational trauma such as challenging family dynamics, attuned therapists notice when the client’s focus is drifting away or they are feeling less grounded. They watch for signs of distress, such as if the client’s hands are shaking or they seem agitated, check in with them to ensure they’re feeling supported, and make sure that continuing the discussion makes sense at that point. The therapist may slow down the pace or redirect the discussion in order to explore what is triggering the client.
Great therapists are able to assess what the client needs in that session, and guide clients in a direction that is appropriate for them. That may mean offering a gentler session that helps clients feel safe and supported, or a more rigorous session that gets deep into their core challenges.
The ability to notice these subtleties is one of the hallmarks of an excellent therapist.
2. Willing and eager to build a partnership with you
Improving your mood, understanding your belief systems, and shifting interpersonal patterns are not a quick fix – therapy is work!
As a result, one of the indicators of great therapist is feeling that you and your therapist are a team. Therapy involves goal setting, problem solving, identifying and shifting patterns of thought and behavior, and, hopefully, reaching one or multiple resolutions over time.
A good therapist sees your time in therapy as a collaboration, and works together with you to reach your therapy goals.
3. Non-judgmental and gains your trust
Great therapists ensure clients never feel judged, regardless of the thoughts or experiences they may share. Seasoned therapists have worked in various mental health settings and are not phased by what you, as a client, may perceive as your most disturbing thoughts, scariest emotions, or the challenges you may find most embarrassing. They approach every challenge with curiosity and compassion, and have great respect for their clients’ resilience and ability for change.
In addition, effective therapists demonstrate warmth and empathy, making you feel that your experiences are acknowledged, and communicating with you in a language that you can easily understand. They build trust both verbally and non-verbally.
Your gut can tell you a lot: Your therapist should make you feel that you can confide in them, and that all emotions and challenges are welcome in the therapy room. Excellent clinicians are able to build rapport with clients to a point where you know they’ll push and challenge you when you’re ready, and take it slow when needed.
4. Aware but not assuming of cultural values and differences
A good therapist is aware of their clients' cultural backgrounds, more formally called "culturally competence."
They demonstrate respect for your culture, community, and values – even when they differ from those of the therapist – and take the initiative to learn more about your background to provide more effective treatment.
5. Places you first
Therapy is about you, not the therapist. Well-trained therapists always keep the focus on the client, and only bring in their own experience when it is highly relevant and to the benefit of client. While this may sound obvious, it isn’t uncommon for clients to have therapy sessions where it feels like the focus has shifted away from them and to the therapist. Sharing personal experiences can be a great way for therapists to demonstrate empathy, but it should not detract from the focus on you.
Keeping the focus on the client also means that the therapist checks in with you to ensure you’re making progress. While you can’t expect to accomplish all of your therapy goals overnight, you should see some level of progress after three to five sessions.
Much growth will unfold throughout the course of therapy, but it depends on what you’re looking to get out of your therapy experience and the timeline you establish with your therapist. Therapists who place their clients first are open to feedback on what is working and what isn’t, and may proactively check in on progress towards goals. If you feel like you’re not making progress or realize you’re not ready for therapy, excellent therapists will change your treatment plan, refer you to another provider, suggest an adjunct type of treatment (art therapy, medications, acupuncture, yoga, etc), or be open to pausing therapy while keeping the door open for you to return when you’re ready.
If your therapist is not demonstrating these signs of a great therapist, it could help to have a conversation with them and discuss what's not working for you. Sometimes, a conversation like this can lead to an even better collaboration. If the problem persists after that, it may be time to let them know it's not working, and move on.
Yuri Tomikawa is the Founder & CEO of Zencare. She was selected MedTech Boston's 40 Under 40 Healthcare Innovators for her work in improving patient access to mental healthcare and has appeared as a keynote speaker on entrepreneurship, mental health, and female empowerment. She is a graduate of Brown University and former management consultant at McKinsey & Company.