Have you considered the counselling environment?

A crucial but often overlooked aspect of therapy is the physical counselling environment. Factors like temperature, noise level, and even bathroom accessibility can impact your comfort level. Ultimately, the best environment depends on your preferences and the counsellor's approach yet taking some time to reflect on what feels comfortable for you and understanding what your needs are, can make a real difference to the comfort of your therapeutic journey, so let's explore these factors in more detail.


Building trust and comfort

You have likely considered factors like in-person or online therapy, your therapist's location, their gender identity, and their qualifications but have you considered the importance of the therapist’s environment itself? When searching for an in-person (face-to-face) therapist on common directories, I found that ‘quiet and comfortable’ and ‘warm and inviting’ are common phrases when describing the therapeutic environment. However, in my experience, these descriptions of 'lovely spaces' are subjectively relative to the practitioner, not necessarily compared to what might be comfortable for the client and that these descriptions lack specifics.

To feel comfortable, clients need objective information to assess their level of perceived discomfort. However, it's important to go beyond generic descriptions like "quiet" or "inviting." As a client, you deserve a space that feels truly comfortable for you.

I have for over a decade met many counsellors within their practices, whether that is my own experience of personal therapy, supervising trainee counsellors setting up in private practice or when managing the design of counselling rooms in schools in the Middle East and the UK.

To illustrate, I initially took the therapist's description of their room at face value. Unfortunately, I have left feeling nauseated by the smell of wet dog, held myself tight as I shivered through sessions and at times, felt like an imposter when I asked to use the toilet (only to be informed that there isn’t one available) or to be told awkwardly, to hold on, as ‘it’s in the house’. Consequently, I learned that feeling at ease with a therapist should also be measured by the comfort of the inclusively suitable facilities.

Additional details about the space could help you assess if the service meets your needs

Private practitioners would agree that their first consideration of practice set-up is that you, the client, will find them based on your search criteria specifics such as location qualifications experience, professional ‘niche and fees. It appears common that the comfort of the therapy room is referenced in either décor or atmospheric terms such as this is a ‘comfortable, safe space’ quiet and comfortable’ ‘warm and inviting’ however, in my view, this is often lacking diligence.

For example, where therapists describe their practice as comfortable and cosy, have you considered what a comfortable space might mean for you? Comfortable for who, does cosy mean small enclosed, windowless, or seasonally hot or cold?

For example, are you someone that feels claustrophobic? How might you feel arriving for therapy being led into a clinical cubicle, imagine, with whitewashed walls, a side table and two chairs placed within knee-touching distance of the therapist? For those with sensory awareness triggers, this is far too close for comfort. How thin are the walls? If you could hear another person talking, does that suggest that they can hear you? Are the chairs accessible to your size – do you mind a Tub Chair, or do you prefer a one-size-fits-all sofa? How do you respond to the thought of sitting on a bean bag or a Kyoto floor cushion…

Or how about arriving at the address of your chosen therapist to find that you're led down a garden path to the ‘Summer House’ or 'Garden Room.’ Does this description explicitly describe walking distance or chair access, warmth in winter, and heat management in summer? How far away from the practitioner’s house is it? Is there access to a toilet? Will you have to ask, or can you imply with a nonverbal cue to point out that you would like to use the facilities?

Conversely, does the counsellor practice from their home, in a living room back room or a room upstairs? If you are not aware, then a private practice might be a residential address or office block (check on Google Maps) that might require you to unexpectedly be directed to walk ‘around the back’ or to traverse through the therapist’s home to their workspace which, without notice can feel intrusive and could give you the sense of being an imposter.

At the same time, smells such as the smell of pets, mould (like wet socks or rotten wood) or cooking smells can be off-putting. As is, being offered a glass of warm tap water (that may also be -trigger warning- being served in a glass that wears someone else’s lip stains).

When designing a counselling practice, I believe that the comfort of the room ought to be seen and described through the eyes of the users. The priority is that the counselling room should be client-focused on a scale of session comfort

Will I appear ‘entitled’ demanding or arrogant? 

Not at all, as you embark on your search for a therapist, consider that counsellors are ready to answer any questions that you might have, they will be keen to accommodate your needs and if they cannot, they may have a colleague who can.

I recommend that before booking an appointment you communicate with your chosen therapist to enquire about questions that encompass all your needs, (as a rule of thumb, consider your senses likes and dislikes) you want to feel welcomed and comfortable in the environment.

While ‘quiet and comfortable’ are important qualities, the specifics of the environment can play a significant role in your sessions, so read on to make note of more questions.

Before we begin, imagine walking into your therapist's room for the first time. Does the space feel calming yet organised? Is there enough light to create a comfortable atmosphere? Now picture yourself settling into a seat. Are you able to relax in the seating arrangement? Will you feel hot and bothered or chilly? Will you need a hand to get up? Are you fussing with a cat or shivering at the thought of one? 

Now you are asking important questions based on your needs, what is the room temperature like consistent log fire or air condition cooled? Do you need an extra layer of clothing or a blanket on arrival or if you are a ‘hot’ person would you prefer a fan to be available/can you open a window?

Is the furniture size accommodating and spaced comfortably apart?

Are hot and cold refreshments available, single-use or shared, are toilets available, where are they, ground floor, discrete, shared or accessed upstairs/outside via the therapists’ house?

Do animals (therapy dogs cats’ hamsters or otherwise) have access to the room? If so, mention any allergies and show your preference, such as whether you are opposed to or prefer their presence. 

Can you bring your therapy assistance animal?

Knowing these insights into the therapist’s organization and accessibility considerations can help you to decide if the space aligns with your comfort level needs.

Requesting descriptions of the therapist's work environment will empower you to choose a setting that fosters a successful therapeutic alliance and a much more comfortable experience.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Leek ST13 & Stoke-On-Trent ST6
Written by Jennifer Heathcote-Osborne, GBPSsS MBACP /MSc /BSc (Hons) PGCerts
Leek ST13 & Stoke-On-Trent ST6

Jennifer Heathcote Osborne, M.Sc. MBACP/ GMBPSS, is a Counsellor, Clinical Supervisor and Counselling lecturer, she supports adults’ children and young people virtually and ‘face to face’ at her practice in Leek Staffordshire UK.
For further information ask@need2talk2someone.com

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