How do I find a good counsellor? Part 2 of 2
Part 2: Finding a good fit
Part 1 of this series explores how to interpret counsellors’ websites and listings to decide who to contact for help. In Part 2, we will look at how you know whether or not a counsellor will be a good fit for you!
So, you’ve found a handful of counsellors online who have piqued your interest. You understand what all the letters behind their name mean, and whether or not your benefits cover their services. You have read through their “About Me” section and found something that gets your attention. Now what?
It is true that engaging a counsellor is unlike any other shopping experience. You need to find someone who you can open up to and trust in relatively short order. But you should absolutely still shop around! The vast majority of therapists offer a brief phone call for you to ask any questions and get a feel for their counselling style. Some even offer this in-person. I encourage my prospective clients to email 4 or 5 counsellors and try to set up time to speak with them.
What should I ask?
The phone call is your chance to determine whether or not you and the counsellor would have a good working relationship together. Luckily, you don’t have to understand the technical aspects of psychotherapy to ask some insightful questions:
“What is your approach to counselling?”
The fascinating thing about counselling is that five different counsellors taking five different approaches to your problem may all be able to help you meet your goal - but, you still have to pick just one! There are many very legitimate but different theoretical orientations that a counsellor may bring to their work. You might hear acronyms like CBT, PCT, ACT, or EFT to describe a counsellor’s approach. But what does this actually mean for you? A good counsellor should be able to explain to you what their approach looks like in action. For example, they may specify that they typically work with thoughts, behaviours, or emotions. So, if you are seeking counselling because you have a constant ache of dread in the pit of your stomach, a counsellor who works with negative thought records may or may not feel like the appropriate fit to you.
“What are the first couple of sessions typically like?”
Some counsellors prefer to use the first session (the “intake”) to go through an in-depth history taking exercise, whereas others prefer to let the client take the lead and go from there. Both are completely valid methods, but depending on your situation, you may be looking for more of an opportunity in the first session to get some things off your chest. Asking this question may help you to avoid disappointment.
“Would you describe yourself as more active and directive, or more hands-off?”
This question is absolutely key. Some clients go to counselling hoping for worksheets, homework, toolkits; practical strategies that they can implement in their lives. They are looking for a counsellor to take on more of a “teacher” or “expert” role, providing education on alternative ways of thinking/feeling/behaving. Other clients are looking for a safe space to release their pain, fear, and dread. In this sense the counsellor takes a much less active role, using the revealed information to “guide" the course of therapy in a more collaborative way.
“What is your experience working with my population/issue/diagnosis?”
If you would be disappointed to find out that you’re the first client the counsellor has had with your background or issue, make sure you find out early on whether or not they have experience.
“How does your schedule/payment/cancellation/invoicing/building access work?”
This is also your chance to ask the logistical questions. If you can only attend counselling the evenings and this counsellor only has daytime availability, it’s good to know before you go to book with them! Similarly, you should ensure that the therapist’s office meets your accessibility needs.
What will the counsellor ask?
One of my biggest tips when shopping around for counsellors: make sure that the counsellor is also shopping for you. No counsellor is going to be right for every prospective client, so we need to make sure that we are actually going to be able to help you. A good counsellor will use the phone consultation as an opportunity to ensure that you will be a good fit as their client.
“Have you been to therapy before?”
This question allows us, as counsellors, to understand the work you have done in counselling before. We will usually ask what kind of approach your previous counsellor took, and what you did or didn’t like about it. This helps us to determine if we can offer what you, as a client, are looking for. If you have never been to counselling, the therapist should ask about your expectations.
“What made you decide to go to counselling now?”
While the 15-minute phone call isn’t necessarily an appropriate space to actually delve deeply into your concerns for counselling, it is helpful for your counsellor to get a small snapshot of your current circumstances. If you have been dealing with anxiety for months, was there something in particular that caused you to actually pick up the phone and reach out for help this week?
“What have you tried in the past to help? What did or didn’t work?”
Again, this question helps us as counsellors better understand if we might be a good fit for you. If you tried meditation in the past and didn’t find it helpful, the counsellor will know that a different approach is needed in order to help
The bonus of your counsellor asking you these questions in a consultation is that, if you decide to book with them, they have the information they need to hit the ground running once you begin counselling.
After the phone call
After hanging up, take a moment to consider how you feel. Was the conversation easy and natural? Could you see yourself opening up to this stranger? Did you feel heard by them, or did they seem distant? Did they sound knowledgeable about your concerns?
If none of the counsellors you spoke with seem present, respectable, knowledgeable, and trustworthy, then it is worth your time to go back to square one and schedule consults with different therapists.
If only one of the counsellors met your criteria, or if one seems to stand out from the rest, then congratulations! Either call to schedule a time, or use their online scheduling software to find a first session time that works for you.
If there seems like multiple counsellors who might be a good fit, go with your gut (or eenie-meenie-minie-moe). The great thing about counselling is that there are many different ways and different people who can help you.
Finally, if you go to the first session or two and something just doesn’t feel right, you can switch to a different counsellor. Therapy is an investment that you make in yourself - don’t let the sunk-cost fallacy keep you in a counselling relationship that does not work for you. Good counselling can be life changing, and you deserve it.