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“The Counselor Was Nice but Didn’t Help Much”


No author listed, Pikist, Public Domain

Source: No author listed, Pikist, Public Domain

My new-client questionnaire includes a question, “If you’ve previously had counseling, what were the results?” A number of clients have written that the counselor was nice but didn’t help much.

In the first session, I ask clients to explain this response. Here are the factors they most often mention. I’m a career counselor so I’m unsure how generalizable these are to other counseling and therapy modalities, but perhaps they’ll encourage you to do a little self-reflection about your approach to counseling. And if you’re a client or prospective client, perhaps these items will make you more conscious of what’s important to you in a counselor.

Balance listening/clarifying with suggesting. Some clients mainly want to be heard and wish their counselor gave them more space to talk. Such clients wish their previous counselor was less of an advice-giver and more of a listener and asker of questions to clarify or deepen the person’s insight and possible paths forward. Conversely, other clients who were unhappy with their previous counselor wish he or she had provided more input—tactfully offered and without pressure to agree.

The right amount of interrupting. Some clients resented that their previous counselor frequently interrupted them. Conversely, other clients, aware of their tendency to be discursive, wish their counselor had interrupted more with a question or comment that focused or redirected them.

The right pace. Some clients were frustrated by the counselor’s slow pace, whether in speech, long missives, or more often exploring in too much detail what the client thought was tangential. Conversely, other clients felt rushed, given short shrift, when the counselor too quickly moved to recommendations.

The right balance of retrospectivity and moving forward. Some clients felt that looking back to their earlier experiences, especially in childhood, seemed unhelpful. Conversely, other clients wish that their counselor first spent more time exploring the client’s previous experiences, both to increase insight and in crystallize lessons for moving forward.

The right balance of individual and systems analysis. Some clients feel it was unnecessary to spend so much time looking at their family and social systems. Such clients felt it was better to focus on him or her. Conversely, other clients feel that externalities needed to be explored.

The right level of warmth. Some clients feel the counselor was too cold, too clinical, rarely showing emotion, nor revealing much about themselves. Conversely, a few clients felt nervous because their counselor was too warm and emotive. One said that her counselor showed so much investment in her, that he got teary a few times and even angry once. She said that occasionally she felt a little embarrassed and even scared when she didn’t make as much progress between sessions as he said she could.

Price. Some clients feel that the counselor’s high price made the client wonder whether the counselor was in it more for the money than to be helpful. That was especially likely when the counselor charged a flat monthly or even annual fee rather than by the hour. Conversely, a few clients were nervous about their counselor having charged well below market rate, for example, as low as $25 an hour. Such clients wondered whether, if the client were competent, he or she would charge the going rate.

The takeaway

As you take a deep breath and reflect honestly about your work as a counselor or therapist, do any of the foregoing make you want to consider any changes, perhaps on an experimental basis, with at least one client?

If you’re a client or potential one, do the foregoing help clarify what’s important to you in a counselor or therapist?

I read this aloud on YouTube.


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