Listening has to be the easiest part of a therapist’s job, right? Not quite. Listening is a multifaceted skill that involves much more than merely waiting passively while someone else speaks.
A good therapist signals that they’re not only taking in your words, but also understanding them.
Feeling like your therapist is distracted when you speak — by the time on the clock, their grocery list, or something else — is a sign that maybe it’s time to see someone new.
What listening looks like
They should provide nonverbal signs of listening, such as eye contact, facial expressions, and posture, as well as verbal ones.
For instance, you might hear your therapist summarize or reflect on what you’ve said or ask for clarification.
Your therapist should validate your thoughts, emotions, actions, and experiences. This doesn’t mean they agree with everything you say or do. In fact, there’s an important difference between validation and approval.
Validation is about acknowledgement and acceptance. A therapist who makes you feel validated acknowledges what you tell them as the truth of your experience.
Approval — along with its opposite, disapproval — is a value judgement. A good therapist tries to avoid making value judgements about what you think, say, or do.
A good therapist is there to offer resources and recommendations while also respecting your agency. You should never feel like your therapist is forcing you to do something you don’t want to do.
This includes choices you make about your own treatment, such as seeing another type of professional or putting therapy on pause for a few weeks. A professional therapist will accept your decision, even when it might not serve them personally.
Strong communicators listen more than they speak. But while listening is a significant part of a therapist’s job, it shouldn’t come at the expense of speaking skills.
A therapist is also an educator, and as such, they should be able to distill concepts and explain symptoms in a way that you’re able to understand. Although most therapists have undergone years of schooling, their language should be accessible as opposed to scientific.
What’s more, a good therapist will ask you questions to ensure you’ve understood and take the time to rephrase their explanation if you haven’t.
Navigating the therapist-client relationship might be new to you. You might find it uncomfortable broaching certain subjects with your therapist, such as feeling unsatisfied with how your treatment is progressing.
As a trained professional, your therapist should be more comfortable instigating these check-ins. They should take the time to regularly ask you how you think your treatment is going and adapt accordingly.
Sometimes, though, you simply might not be a good fit for each other. A good therapist will encourage you to speak up when it’s not working. They might even provide you with a referral to a colleague who’s a better fit.
While your therapist might be an expert in certain areas of human psychology, that doesn’t mean they know everything. Depending on how long they’ve practiced and how specialized they are, some of what you bring to the table might be new to them. That’s perfectly normal.
Your therapist should openly admit it when they don’t know something. They can, however, do their best to learn more by diving into the scientific literature, attending seminars and conferences, and conferring with colleagues.
A committed therapist is continuously increasing their knowledge.
Your therapist isn’t your best friend, guru, or boss. Although a therapist can guide you towards what you are seeking, their role isn’t to tell you what to do and how to do it.
A good therapist acts as an ally. From your very first session together, they’ll work to forge a bond with you that’s based on mutual trust. This is known as a therapeutic alliance.
Speaking of trust, it’s one of the most important — if not the most important — ingredient in your relationship with your therapist. A
How can you know when your therapist has earned your trust?
Trust is feeling safe and supported, like you can say anything to them without fear of judgment. You should know whether you trust them after one or two sessions, and if you don’t, it might not be worth sticking around to find out if they’ll eventually build your trust.
Change, especially meaningful change, takes time. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), treatment length can depend on the person and the conditions they have.
Some types of therapy take longer than others. For example, talk therapy has a broader focus and therefore often extends for a longer period of time than cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses on achieving specific goals.
With that said, you should notice the effects of therapy within a month or so of starting treatment. These will be small, especially at first.
According to the APA, for half of the people who seek therapy, it takes an average of 15 to 20 sessions for them to report resolved symptoms. That’s around 3 to 5 months of weekly treatment.
While it’s not helpful to enter therapy expecting meaningful results right away, you should take the time to evaluate your own progress and discuss it with your therapist.
Different styles of therapy opt for different tactics to spur personal growth. Psychoanalysis involves examining the unconscious, while humanism provides the emotional support for you to develop as an individual.
Some styles of therapy involve questioning irrational thinking patterns. This should be done respectfully, without making you feel bad for ways of thinking that might not be serving you.
If your therapist ever makes you feel stupid, damaged, or guilty, it’s time to reconsider the relationship.
There’s no one-size-fits-all treatment plan. Sometimes, techniques that work for one client — whether it’s progressive muscle relaxation, goal setting, or meditation — simply don’t work for another.
While it’s important to be willing and open to try new things, if a particular intervention doesn’t work for you, your therapist should be able to provide other suggestions. They’re there to offer you a toolbox instead of a single tool.
Your therapist is there to help you identify your needs. And sometimes, they might get it wrong, leading you in a direction that doesn’t feel like what you really need at that moment.
For instance, if your therapist is encouraging you to explore aspects of your childhood, but a more pressing concern is interfering with your ability to function on a day-to-day basis, it might be time to redirect.
You’re in the driver’s seat. Your therapist should be open to shifting gears according to what you feel you need.
Both you and your therapist should be on the same page regarding the goals of your treatment and the estimated timeline for achieving those goals. This is a discussion you should have early on in your treatment.
It’s also important to re-evaluate this plan as time passes. If your treatment isn’t progressing as you initially planned — perhaps you don’t have a lot of time to devote to exercises between therapy sessions, or you’re finding therapy harder than you anticipated — a good therapist will show flexibility and adaptability.
Needs and circumstances change. Therapy should, too.
While many people seek out a therapist who shares a similar background as them, it’s unlikely that your practitioner will share all aspects of your identity, from your sexual orientation to your belief system and class identity.
That’s OK. A good therapist will make an effort to understand where you’re coming from and how it colors your emotions and experiences. At times, they might adopt or avoid treatments to suit your background.
In some cases, it might not work. If you don’t feel like your practitioner has enough knowledge of your culture, beliefs, and background, it’s OK to find someone else who does.
This should go without saying, but therapy is about you. Unlike a friendship, it’s not based on mutual exchange. A professional therapist should never use your sessions to address their own concerns.
Of course, that doesn’t mean a therapist can’t show their unique personality or occasionally share relevant personal experiences. What’s important is that the focus remains on you. If it doesn’t, it’s a red flag.
Therapy is challenging and painful work. You took the step of seeking help from a professional, and that’s something to be proud of.
Seeking help is just the beginning. While your therapist can’t do the work required for you, they can provide you with the resources and support you need to gain new insights, develop new skills, and adopt new habits.
One of the most important signs of a good therapist is how you feel about your work with them. Although therapy can be challenging in all kinds of ways, you should feel positive about where it’s headed.
A good therapist inspires your confidence, leaving you feeling hopeful about the work that you’re doing.