As reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in May 2015, there are in excess of 128,000 mental health counselors in this country. Most are well-qualified academically, but the intangibles required of this profession eclipse those learned at school. Whether you’ve earned your graduate degree at a top online master’s program in mental health or at an Ivy League on-campus institution, the profession of counseling necessitates certain qualities. Qualities being synonymous with traits, attributes or characteristics. At or near the top of essential facets of one’s personality is the ability to be genuinely empathic.
Carl R. Rogers, Ph.D. (1902-87) an eminent and accomplished lecturer, psychoanalyst and writer stated his thoughts on empathy: “To be with another in this [empathic] way means that for the time being, you lay aside your own views and values in order to enter another’s world without prejudice. In some sense it means that you lay aside yourself; this can only be done by persons who are secure enough in themselves that they know they will not get lost in what may turn out to be the strange or bizarre world of the other, and that they can comfortably return to their own world when they wish.”
What Dr. Rogers described is difficult to learn. According to the latest neuroscience research, 98% of people (the exceptions include those with psychopathic tendencies) have the ability to empathize wired into their brains. The problem is that many of us don’t tap into this pre-wired condition. To do so, we have to resonate with what is going on in the subjective world of another while not losing your objectivity. You must be able to “put yourself in the shoes of another” without the emotional involvement or attachment. Some people are more versed in empathy; for those who aren’t, you can learn to access your empathic wiring. This is accomplished by radical or active listening.
Therapists have described active listening as the practice of listening to a speaker while providing feedback indicating that the listener both hears and understands what the speaker is saying. Listening is a precursor to empathy. A good counselor cannot illicit empathy without listening intently to the client’s conditions and problems. One crucial feature of active listening is responding: the act of providing both verbal and nonverbal feedback to the speaker that indicates the listener is both hearing and understanding what the speaker has said. Through listening and empathizing a relationship of trust develops between the counselor and the client. Trust can be enhanced by the ethics displayed by the mental health counselor. Ethics is paramount for any type of counseling as addressed by the American Counseling Association (ACA). They opine that trust is the cornerstone of the counseling relationship, and counselors have the responsibility to respect and safeguard the client’s right to privacy and confidentiality. In this endeavor, counselors must respect the diversity and cultural differences of their clients and abstain from any personal relationship. As stressed by the ACA, counselors have an ethical responsibility to each client to provide professional care and knowledge. This must be done in accordance with the ACA Code of Ethics.
This article is not a grocery list of successful qualities for the aspiring mental health counselor. It is intended to illuminate the premise that to be a good counselor there are intangibles that transcend your college/university diploma.