6 Qualities to Look for When Choosing a Counselor

How to Find a Counselor Who Gets You

If you've gotten to a place in your life where you need extra support to face an obstacle, deal with a painful situation, cope with grief, or better understand your mental health, you've probably considered getting counseling. 

Working with a counselor is a great way to learn about yourself, grow toward your goals, and mature emotionally. But sometimes, finding the right counselor has challenges of its own. It reminds me of a message we got recently:

"I've been wanting to talk to a counselor about my anxiety, but there is an overwhelming amount of options. How do I narrow down my search? How do I know if I've found the right person to work with me?"

If you're facing this dilemma as you think about choosing a counselor, I get it. 

It can be hard to narrow your options down to one choice.

After 25 years of counseling people on my radio show, Dawson McAllister Live,  I know a few things about connecting with people and pointing them toward healthy thinking. I’ve also referred many people on for long-term counseling and have been blessed to work with the best. Here are some qualities to look for that might be helpful during your search:

1. Special Expertise in Your Struggles

While all counselors receive similar training to become licensed to practice, there are many who have additional training and certifications around issues that need specialized support. 

If you're struggling with an eating disorder, for example, you can search for counselors who specialize in treating people in eating disorder recovery. Whereas, if you're trying to break free from substance abuse or other harmful addictive behaviors, it may be best to reach out to a recovery organization to see who they recommend. Does the counselor you're considering:

  • Have experience working with clients who share your struggles?
  • Have strong reviews?
  • Focus on the treatment you want to receive?

If so, that makes them a strong contender to work with you.

2. Challenging Without Judging

No one wants to feel judged when they're in a counseling session. After all, you know you need support, and you want to make things better. So, no one should be making you feel ashamed or judged as they're working with you. But it's also important to work with a counselor that challenges you. 

It's tempting to work with someone just because they make you feel better, or because you walk out of the session convinced that you've got it right. But the truth is, you may need to be pushed to grow. And while that is a bit uncomfortable, the counselor who's the best fit for you will be able to challenge you without making you feel judged, called out, or attacked. Does the counselor you're considering:

  • Make you feel like you can do better and be better?
  • Have high expectations for your personal growth and life changes?
  • Make plans with you for how to face challenges and obstacles on the way to your goals?

If so, they are likely to challenge you in a positive way, without making you feel overwhelmed or pushing you too hard.

3. Advice You Can Use

Have you ever gone to someone for advice, only to feel more frustrated or confused as a result? Maybe someone told you to "think about it differently" or "pick yourself up and keep going" but didn't show you how to actually do that. 

I know how frustrating that can be. Looking for a counselor who can give practical advice you can actually use to grow, change, and move forward is important. Does your prospective counselor:

  • Help you understand why you feel the way you do?
  • Show you how to work through difficult emotions in the moment with steps that are easy to remember?
  • Give you things to try when you're not in a session to practice the skills you're working on developing? 

If so, they're giving you useful advice, and that can only help you in the long run.

4. Real Listening

Yes, all counselors have strong listening skills. It's necessary for them to take the time to listen in order to accurately understand what's going on.

But there will be some counselors you talk to who seem to especially understand and connect with you, while others don't seem to go much beyond the surface of how you're feeling. Does the counselor you're considering:

  • Acknowledge how painful or frustrating the difficult situations you face are for you?
  • Spend time making you feel like your emotions are valid and understandable?
  • See the good in what you're doing?
  • Focus on acknowledging how you're growing?

If you notice a sense of deep, empathic listening, and don't feel like they're only focused on what you need to change, that's a good indication you've found someone who is a good fit.

5. Hopeful Outlook

Sometimes, counselors and mental health professionals must focus on the difficult and painful things you’re going through. After all, you have to get a sense of what happened and how it affected you before you can work through it. 

But it's important that any counselor you work with doesn't make you feel stuck in "what's wrong" mode. Finding someone with a hopeful outlook is key because they can help you visualize things improving or changing in your life. Does the counselor you're considering:

  • Seem hopeful about the future?
  • Have a focus that is change and growth-oriented?
  • Lift your spirits and generally make you feel better about yourself and your life?

If so, you should definitely consider working with them long-term.

6. Common Ground

As I’ve counseled people, I find it helpful when they really open up to me because we seem to have a common ground.  Maybe that means they're from the same area, or maybe they grew up with a similar background. Maybe it's important to you to find a counselor who shares your spiritual beliefs, or maybe you're looking to work with someone who is open to the fact that you're still trying to figure out what you believe about God

Finding common ground with your counselor, whether it's interests, personalities, or core values, is going to build trust. And trust makes it easier to open up. Does the counselor you hope to work with:

  • Acknowledge what you have in common?
  • Remind you of other people you respect and care about?
  • Make you feel open to talking about God, or where you are on your spiritual journey?

If so, you can expect to go deep with them, which is always good when you're trying to make changes in your life.

I'm hopeful that these are some good signposts to point you in the right direction when it comes to finding a counselor to work with. But I know that it can still be intimidating, even if you've done the research and made a plan. 

If you need extra help, TheHopeLine is here for you. We offer mentoring from trained HopeCoaches who have experience helping people talk through what they're looking for in a counselor. And because we've partnered with many counselors and support organizations over the years, we can make some suggestions about where to go for the specialized support you need to face your specific challenges. 

It's understandable to feel unsure about which counselor to work with, but you don't have to do that work alone. We can help you feel more prepared and confident in making your choice. Talk to a HopeCoach today about what you're looking for in a counselor.

We're here to listen, and we hope to help you find a great fit for your needs.

Think you may have a mental illness, but not sure what to do? Read my blog about what you should do if you think you may have a mental illness.

Dawson McAllister
Dawson McAllister, also known as America's youth pastor, was an author, radio host, speaker, and founder of TheHopeLine. McAllister attended Bethel College in Minnesota for undergraduate work where he graduated in 1968, began graduate studies at Talbot School of Theology in California, and received an honorary doctorate from Biola University.
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