How do I choose a counsellor?

I know I need help. I want to find support but how do I choose the right counsellor for me? There are so many and I just don’t know what questions to ask…

These thoughts will be familiar to anyone seeking therapy for the first time. Browsers such as Google are really helpful in providing choice. Enter a few key words and then a profusion of individual names appears, but that choice can be almost overwhelming, particularly when accompanied by bewildering labels and complex terminology. 

The challenge is to find a way through this information jungle. One approach is to simplify the whole process by applying some basic filters to that long list of names. A good place to start is with regard to location.

If you are going to have regular counselling sessions, it can be helpful at the outset to lay down some parameters in terms of travelling time and distance. You may have found the online details of a counsellor who looks and sounds like a great fit for you, but if she or he is located on one side of the city, county or even country, and you are in the opposite direction, then this may not be the right choice for practical reasons of travelling time and cost. 

A second filter can be the type of counselling. For example, how long do you want this counselling work to continue? Do you want to meet with someone for just a few sessions? That will be less expensive in terms of fees and may be all that is needed to help you work through a relatively straightforward issue such as a minor phobia. If so then you may want to look online for references to short-term therapy or time-limited counselling.

Alternatively, if you feel that your concerns are particularly complex and that you may be a challenging person for a therapist to understand, another option could be to look for long-term therapy. This is sometimes referred to as open-ended counselling.

There are also different counselling techniques used in the room. The terminology can be confusing but again let’s simplify this. One approach could be to envisage a continuum with different types of therapy set out at different points along that line.

At one end are the short-term therapies such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). CBT work focuses on bringing about change through relatively instructive or didactic methods. For example, clients may be encouraged to complete thought diaries or complete record forms. The emphasis is on pushing through a change in a short period of time rather than trying to develop a particularly deep understanding of the emotional personality and the reasons underlying the issues.

At a similar place on the continuum are techniques such as solution-focused therapy (SFT), which focuses on outcomes rather than understanding.

In the midpoint of this continuum, we can find therapies such as person-centred work which encourages a sense of accepting the now and finding a safe non-judgemental place from which to embark on a process of change. Existential therapies may also be seen in the centre of this continuum. With this approach, the client is invited to acknowledge responsibility and accountability for their actions. An acknowledgement of personal choice is seen as particularly important within most existential work.

At the other end of the continuum are therapies which allow for a deeper level of reflection. These approaches encourage enhanced self-awareness with work focused on attaining a more profound understanding of why we think, feel and behave in the way that we do. Importance is placed on achieving insight into the personal factors underpinning our emotional world as a way of affecting change. Psychodynamic counselling is one example of this type of therapy.

These are simplistic descriptions of what can be regarded as complex methodologies. Most therapists will offer their own interpretation of the various techniques. There are also many variations of these therapies, although these can sometimes be seen as just superficial tweaks to existing approaches.

How do I know the counsellor is a professional practitioner?

This is an important question. One approach is to look for individuals who are registered with one of the main counselling organisations such as BACP, UKCP or BABCP, or alternatively listed on a professional directory such as Counselling Directory, which will carefully vet entries. In addition to being officially registered, some experienced counsellors will also be formally accredited. Accreditation status with both BACP and BABCP can be seen as particularly robust evidence of professionalism.

What training will my counsellor have had?

A competent counsellor is likely to be one who is well trained with formal qualifications as opposed to those who offer counselling or therapy despite just having had brief training experience, perhaps through a short seminar programme. Many therapists will expect counsellors to have undergone their own personal therapy as an important part of their training before seeing clients. Information on training should be available on the counsellor’s website where details can also be found regarding status as a registered or accredited practitioner.

What else will tell me if the person I am contacting is a professional?

A professional practitioner will have insurance through an established provider. He or she will undertake what is known as regular supervision with another experienced practitioner. One would also expect professional therapists to be registered with the Information Commissioner and to have available policies on Data Protection.

How do I know which type of therapy will work for me?

It is a sensible question, but there are no easy answers. Much recent hype has been given to ideas around evidence-based therapy, with the premise being that statistics on outcomes will prove which form of counselling is the most effective. This is now regarded by some as simplistic and even misleading, with concern expressed about key issues of validation including small sample sizes, bias in research methodology and outcome periods being far too short to evidence persistency of improvement.

Are there any final words of advice?

Advice is an interesting concept with regard to counselling work. Many counsellors will argue that professional therapists should not give advice. Instead, the counsellor should provide support and assist clients in their attempts to find a way forward which is right for each individual. Nevertheless, as we have come close in this article to providing advice, lets end with a specific suggestion.

Successful counselling work involves a relationship between two people. In addition to issues around techniques and strategies, experience tells us that it is the personal chemistry between the two people in the counselling room which will often be the most important determinant as to how effective the counselling experience is for the client.

So, one way forward may be to talk with different counsellors. Contact various therapists and consider how you feel about their response to your initial inquiry. If it feels appropriate, ask for an initial appointment and afterwards reflect on the experience. Explore what different therapists have to offer and then think about what feel right. What is your instinctive reaction to the counsellors you have seen? Trust in your own judgement.

Trust is crucial in counselling work, but the most important person to trust is yourself. That may mean going with your initial instinctive choice but then also being prepared to walk away if the experience does not match your expectations.

Counselling work can be rewarding and fulfilling. To sit in a private, confidential space whilst talking openly about some highly personal issues can be an emotionally challenging activity to undertake. However, if the counselling works well the benefits can be immense, and the return on that emotional investment can really be life-changing.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Geoff Boutle MBACP (Snr Accred)

Geoff Boutle is a BACP senior accredited therapist working in private practice in Chichester and West Sussex.… Read more

Written by Geoff Boutle MBACP (Snr Accred)

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