Five Attributes Of A Great Counselor (It's Not What You Think)
Updated: Mar 16
Average counselors help people fix problems.
Great counselors help people discover wise principles that can fix any number of problems.
They help you develop emotional muscle. After 17 years of helping people I’ve become pretty good at counseling. Here are a few of my top attributes to look for in a great counselor. But first, a brief intro:
You’ve got a problem. A big one. It feels like an unhinged 800-lb gorilla in your life. Every time you’ve tried to wrestle the brute it acts like it wants to give you a warm hug then suddenly throat punches you and walks away laughing.
Zero progress made. Epic failure.
Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.
The cold truth of the experience makes it worse: you feel defeated because you just got defeated. Your emotions aren’t lying to you (this time around).
You want to reach out for help, but this is a big issue and not just any counselor will do. You need to bring in a heavy-hitter. You think to yourself, 'Who’s a heavy-hitter? Who can really help me overcome this problem?' Here are five attributes of a great counselor:
1. Great counselors tell you things no one else has the guts to tell you.
Great counselors have an uncanny ability to tell people hard things in loving ways. They have a way of doing this that lets the other person know they have their best interests in mind. They’re patient in their approach to helping you change. Like a caterpillar emerging from its cocoon, they know if they help you too much, they will mess up your progress.
They are dedicated to seeing you succeed. They know you aren’t finding the success you want because there are things about yourself you aren’t ready to look at yet and great counselors know how and when to introduce you to those things.
Some counselors don’t possess the emotional stamina to work with a client long enough to unearth problems in helpful ways. They rush the delicate therapeutic process by forcing issues into the light. This makes clients feel ambushed, angry, and betrayed. Then they do what angry people do - they tell the next 87 people they meet how lousy of a counselor that person was.
When counselors are too forceful it costs them their reputation.
Some people reading this might be thinking, “I’m black and white and I call it like I see it. Direct communication is good. It’s not my fault if the other person can’t handle the truth.”
Okay, let’s test that theory.
I think you’ve diluted yourself into thinking that you’re some kind of know-it-all truth dispenser. Because you use truth like a weapon and beat people up with it, I guarantee a number of people in your life keep things from you – far more than you think. They know you won’t listen. You never think you’re wrong.
In fact, the thought of being wrong is so terrifying that you get defensive at the first whiff of someone trying to give you constructive criticism. Others don’t want to hurt your fragile, underdeveloped feelings so they don’t talk to you about anything that really matters. You feel this relational distance too, but instead of addressing the real issue (YOU) you tell yourself they aren’t willing to have a deeper relationship because they “can’t handle the truth.”
That was about as black and white as I could be. What’s that? You think I’m a jerk and my assumptions about you are completely wrong? Gee whiz, what a surprise. Maybe you don’t like direct communication as much as you thought. Here’s my point:
Communication that is too direct will be received as brutality by the recipient.
Communication that is too loving will be received as a lie by the recipient.
Great counselors are constantly aware of the fact that love is tactful as well as truthful.
2. Great counselors see through the lies you tell yourself.
We all have various needs. These needs are governed by one of three subconscious core beliefs – to control, to be perfect, or to please others. All core beliefs are ultimately focused on lovability. A core belief is your own personal filter – some experiences make it through the filter, some don’t.
A core belief is an internal system of how we make sense out of life and its inconsistencies. Think of core beliefs in flexible, not rigid, terms. People tend to gravitate toward one core belief a majority of the time, but human beings are created in God’s image and thus immensely complex. But there’s a problem with core beliefs:
They’re defective and they lie to us. Here’s how the lies work:
Imagine Sarah, whose core belief is: “Perfection is the only acceptable standard.” Deep down, she thinks her worth – her lovability – is tied to her performance. If she does something really well, she’s worthy of love. If she does something poorly, she’s not worth loving.
Her core belief also influences the way she sees others – if you do a good job she will respect you and think highly of you. If you don’t, she won’t. Of course, this reasoning is very flawed and she most likely knows it, but that doesn’t stop her core belief from trying to influence the bulk of her behavior, reasoning, and emotional state throughout the day.
An illustration about Sarah’s perfectionistic core beliefs may be helpful.
Sarah is at a stoplight in the left-hand turn lane. She’s in a hurry. There is one car in front of her. The arrow turns green…nothing happens. She waits 3-4 seconds. Still nothing. She gets irritated, honks the horn, and yells, “Hey moron, green means go!” The person in the car in front of her looks up from whatever they were doing and begins to accelerate. Sarcastically she says, “Fantastic. So glad you decided to drive while you’re in your car.”
Let’s unpack her less than stelar response:
Sarah believes people should drive well. But she doesn’t really mean “well” she means perfect. That’s the first lie.
The person in front of her clearly isn’t driving well. But she’s not holding them to the reasonable standard of driving “well.” She’s subconsciously holding them to a perfect driving standard. That’s the second lie.
When they don’t drive well, she believes it gives her the right to point out how they’ve fallen short of her perfect standard. Because they’ve fallen short, she believes she’s rightly justified for yelling at them. If they drove well, she would respect them, but because they didn’t, she believes she has the right to disrespect them. That’s the third lie.
Until she interrupts her thinking by challenging the belief that she’s a perfect driver and every other driver is imperfect nothing will change. And that’s the final and most powerful lie – the belief that nothing is wrong with Sarah and her problems are ultimately everyone else’s fault.
That’s how a core belief can rule parts of your life. But it doesn’t have to. In fact, figuring out your core belief can be one of the most beneficial things you ever do in life. A great counselor will help you accurately identify what makes you tick in order to effectively manage it.
3. Great counselors know the obvious thing is rarely the important thing.
In the first few counseling sessions, the client “presents” a certain problem (or set of problems) they want to work on. In the counseling world we call these smaller problems “presenting issues.”
Nearly everyone that attends counseling presents low-level problems and keeps the real problems hidden because they’re too big and scary. Most clients keep big problems hidden by talking about smaller problems that are easier to deal with. Most counselors worth their salt know that these presenting issues are rarely what the client really needs help solving.
Here’s how average counselors and great counselors think about presenting issues: average counselors either dismiss presenting issues because they think they aren’t important, or overestimate their importance and focus too heavily on them.
Both are rookie mistakes.
Great counselors don’t dismiss or place too much emphasis on presenting issues, they view them as a roadmap. These low-level problems may not be the important issue(s) the person really needs help with, but they understand helping the client with smaller issues builds trust.
All counselors know that trust is the foundation of any relationship, but great counselors know how to quickly cultivate trust. Helping the client with small issues shows them that their counselor is skilled, and this allows the client to trust the counselor with big issues.
4. Great counselors will help you become a winner.
(For lack of better terms, I'm going to be talking about winners and losers in this section)
The difference between winners and losers is that winners do things losers simply do not want to do. Winners will pay a price losers are not willing to pay. When we do things we don’t want to do, we get stretched and challenged. Sometimes the challenge is too great and we fail. Winners will push through the pain and discomfort of failure because they believe:
They can succeed if they try again,
There is something valuable to learn from the failure that can help them in the future.
Losers do not want to push through the pain and discomfort of failure. Failure torpedoes them and they give up.
Winners think, “Ouch! That stung, but if I change my approach to this problem I’ll get a different outcome and maybe I’ll succeed.”
Losers think, “Ouch! That stung, and I never want to experience that hurt again so I’m done trying. I value comfort more than the growth I would experience by overcoming this problem.”
Because of the difference in perspective the winner will go on to achieve, grow, and contribute. The loser will view the problem as a mountain too tall to climb. Everyone experiences failure but a great counselor will help you understand the value of your failure and help you use it to grow.
Every winner has been a loser – that’s what makes them a winner.
Great counselors will expose you to ideas that will challenge you because they know that’s how winners develop.
Brief side note: some of you might be thinking, 'I don’t like the whole winners vs. losers comparison.' Isn’t it fascinating that our society has become so fearful of failure and losing that even the mention of it makes some people uncomfortable? Our refusal to acknowledge failure and losing fuels our fear of it, which in turn exaggerates its influence in our lives.
5. Great counselors are pros at putting their clients in different emotional states.
You’re driving down the highway with your spouse or a good friend. You’re both laughing and having a great time. All of the sudden a dumpy little car cuts in front of you for no apparent reason causing you to slam on your brakes and your adrenaline to spike.
How do you feel?
Chances are, that driver just put you in a different emotional state.
If you change your emotional state, your thinking will shift. Great counselors are skilled at interrupting your thinking to put you in a different emotional state. Some counselors force their clients into different emotional states, but these counselors are too heavy-handed – they don’t care what you feel, they care that you feel.
They're control freaks.
In the end, clients get angry with these types of counselors because they feel strong-armed. The change will wilt with the first hint of trouble. It won't last because it wasn’t their choice to begin with.
The trick to long-term lasting change is your ability to choose – you have to want it. The worth of getting into a different emotional state is to generate the changes in your life you want to make a reality.
Here’s the best part: you already know how to do it.
Think about a time in your life when you made a big change. You lost 30lbs., you decided to go to college, you stopped smoking weed, you got a better job, you broke up with a boyfriend/girlfriend because you knew they weren’t good for you – whatever your big change was, think about that time. Chances are there was some word or short phrase – one single word or phrase – that was responsible for interrupting your current emotional state, putting you into a different emotional state, and igniting change.
“Enough!” “I’ve had it.” “That’s it.” “I can’t do this anymore.” “I’m done.” “This is stupid.”
“Whoa Jon! That’s exactly what I thought! It’s like you read my mind.”
I'm not. There are patterns to every behavior and I’d have to be blind not to notice them. Great counselors are pros at getting you to take that next step; at getting you to decide you want to be better.
Next time you or someone you know is looking for a counselor, share this article with them. There are lots of average counselors out there, these five qualities will help you find a great one.
 Do any one thing for 40-60 hours per week for 17 years and you’ll become pretty good at it too. Research shows that it takes anywhere between 6-10 years before someone starts to become really, really, super-duper, uh-mazingly great at something.  Hopefully no one reading this actually has an 800-lb gorilla in their life.  Notice I didn’t say, “… tell people hard things in caring ways.” I care about my cat. I care about my truck and the really cool art piece hanging on my office wall. But I love my wife, parents, sister, and close friends. If I’m your counselor, which group do you want to belong to? Down deep, no one wants to be cared for, they want to know they really matter; they want to be loved.  “Those who boast about being brutally honest are usually more brutal than honest.” – Lori Palatnik  “The worst thing about being lied to is realizing that I wasn’t worth the truth.” – Client quote  Core beliefs are a complex subject and my brief mention of them here hardly does their importance justice. An in-depth explanation is beyond the scope of this article. For more on core beliefs I recommend Dr. Mark McMinn’s textbook, Cognitive therapy techniques in Christian counseling (1991). Dallas, TX: Word Publishing.  I’d ask what specific words went through your head but I’m trying to keep this PG-rated.  But I didn’t read your mind because that’s impossible… and really creepy. Great counselors don’t want you to view them as some guru or Jedi mind master, but they do want you to view yourself that way.