Therapy couch and coffee table

What Ingredients Make a Psychologist Really Good?

There are a few key ingredients that make a psychologist really good at what they do. By understanding the key components, you’ll be much better placed to find a good psychologist to work through your difficulties.So, how do you find a really good psychologist?

First, narrow down your search for a new psychologist by following these three steps:

  1. Make a list of psychologists who are available and located conveniently to you.
  2. Check the psychologists’ experience matches the areas you’re seeking help for
  3. Enquire about the psychologists’ client engagement to gain an understanding of their ability to build strong relationships with their clients. If a psychologist has poor engagement, their clients will discontinue early. If you’re talking directly to the psychologist, ask how many sessions do they normally see clients for? For common issues like anxiety and depression, expect around 4- 6 or more sessions. For more complex issues, expect above 15 sessions. If you speak to reception (rather than the psychologist), ask them directly to describe the psychologists engagement with clients – look for descriptors like “amazing”, “excellent”, “everyone loves him/her”.

For more information on searching for a psychologist, you may find it helpful to read blog post How to Find A Good Psychologist in Melbourne? Once you’ve made an appointment with a psychologist, you need to be prepared to assess whether they’re the right fit. Finding a psychologist who is a good fit is like finding the perfect shoe: You may need to try on many different pairs before you find “the shoe”. It’s important to be patient in the process of sampling different psychologists and remember that your sessions will never be a waste if your psychologist sheds some insight into your issues.

So, how do you assess the first session and what ingredients make a psychologist really good?

Key Ingredients to a Good Psychologist

Empathy

Empathy is the ability of the psychologist to understand and show an understanding of the clients experience. Empathy is something most of us have naturally. You can see empathy very early on in newborns who respond to a babies cry by crying themselves. However, whilst empathy may be inherit in a persons biological make-up, a psychologist has learnt skills and techniques for deepening empathy and reflecting an understanding beyond just “oh, that sounds so tough”. In particular, psychologists are trained in skills known as micro-counselling skills, which help the psychologist understand (and reflect to the client) on a deep level the clients problem. There are a long list of micro-counselling skills that psychologists are required to learn and master in their training. However, there are definitely varying degrees to which psychologists will practise and use these skills.

A good litmus test to see whether your psychologist is properly engaging these skills is to assess how you feel in the session, and right after. Ask yourself these questions:

Do you feel your psychologist “gets” you?

Do you feel understood and not judged?

Do you feel you’ve gained more insight into your problem and having some “uh ha!” moments?

I personally rely heavily on micro-counselling skills in my own therapy work, as I see these skills as core to good psychology or any other form of support. The literature indeed backs me up that empathy accounts for the majority of change in therapeutic work, over and above therapy technique¹.

Hope

A good psychologist gives their client hope. This is relatively easy to do, given therapy works and positive change is inevitable with a compatible psychologist. However, with therapy mostly focusing on problems, therapists can sometimes forget about instilling hope in their clients. Hope can be instilled in a client by highlighting strengths, talking about predicted outcomes, sharing inspiring stories that relate to your situation, celebrating small or large change, and setting goals.

You can check if your psychologist instills hope by simply asking yourself after a session:

Do I believe things will get better? Do I trust that my psychologist will help me?

Warmth

Sometimes it’s hard to disentangle warmth from empathy because they somewhat sit side-by-side, but warmth comes from a therapist who is kind, thoughtful and genuine. It’s the person you sidle up to at a party who is easy to talk to and you find yourself sharing way too much, versus the person who is stiff and stand-offish where you feel lost for conversation. It’s the therapist who leans forward and nods kindly as opposed to the therapist who sits upright staring down their glasses at their clip board. Note, to be fair, you can’t blame the therapist who sits upright, because the seated job of a psychologist gifts us with back issues, but none the less, you get the gist. Warmth is imperative to feeling comfortable and cared for; the absence of warmth makes you feel judged and pathologised. You can ask yourself these questions to check whether your psychologist is warm:

Do you feel comfortable to talk openly? Do you feel cared for?

Therapeutic alliance

The therapeutic alliance describes the bond formed between the psychologist and the client. The better the alliance, the better the outcomes, it’s that simple. A psychologist skilled at building a strong therapeutic alliance is nearly always very empathic and warm, but they will also tailor their approach to you and work with your personal goals: It feels collaborative like you’re working side-by-side on the same goals with the same shared vision. To demonstrate how a good therapeutic alliance may look, it’s easier to explain how a bad therapeutic alliance may look. A bad therapeutic alliance is felt by the client in the following ways:

  • The therapist has their own agenda and you’re struggling to keep up
  • Your therapist has explained your problem in a generic way and it doesn’t seem to fit your experience
  • Your therapist is using a therapy or technique that feels a bit “round peg square hole” for your experience of your struggles
  • You feel a bit stupid as you don’t follow through on techniques, but know you “should”. You don’t understand how the techniques are particularly helpful to you.
  • You feel the psychologist often doesn’t understand what you’re saying and you’re often trying to correct them.
  • You feel your psychologist is clinical and disconnected, you don’t feel cared for.

Therapy and techniques

Outcomes from therapy are also significantly influenced by the therapy and techniques a psychologist is trained in and how they apply therapy in sessions. Early on in therapy, it may be worthwhile asking the psychologist what therapies they use and how effective they are with your particular issue. However, the art form of therapy is not that simple. Often times, good psychologists will adapt their approach to the individual and mix up therapies depending on what seems most helpful to the individual. A good way to assess the useful of therapy and techniques used, is to assess whether you’re starting to improve in your wellbeing.

What if your psychologist is just OK? Or not very good?

If you feel your psychologist is reasonably good, but is lacking in a particular area, it’s best to talk to them directly. Psychologists are familiar with receiving feedback and should respond well to this by adapting their approach. If you feel your psychologist is majorly missing the mark, then I recommend reading How to Find a Good Psychologist in Melbourne? to try someone new. This may feel exhausting and daunting to repeat your issues with another psychologist, but remember when you find the right psychologist, therapy can be life changing.