The Most Important Qualities You Need To Be An Effective Therapist. Part 1. By Dr Linda Berman

pexels-shvets-production-7176286“Psychotherapy is an art enlightened by wisdom, theory and research.”

Barbara Temaner Brodley.

As I gather together some of the most important qualities of being an effective therapist, I realise even more how very skilled, learned and sensitive a therapist needs to be.

Obviously, every counsellor and therapist needs to have experienced their own personal therapy, and a thorough and effective training.

Managing all this, as well as one’s own life, is quite taxing. Yet the work can be so rewarding and enriching. However, this is definitely not a job for the faint-hearted……

This week’s post will focus on just a selection of some of these skills (certainly not all) and will be followed by further important aspects of being a therapist, in Part 2, next Tuesday.

  • Having Empathy For Another’s Feelings.

imageStanisław Wyspiański – Studium kobiety 1902. (Study of A Woman) Wikimedia Commons.

What is empathy? How can we define such an important concept?

Empathy is the ability to put oneself into the world of another, in both a thinking and feeling way, as far as that is possible. It is really trying to understand how that other person sees and experiences the world.

There is a difference between empathy and sympathy or compassion. Sympathy is feeling affected by and sorry for someone’s situation. Compassion is feeling caring concern towards them and their plight and wanting to offer help.

Empathy is a more total experience of someone else’s perspective, an intense attunement, putting oneself in another person’s shoes.

imageChristian Krohg – Madelaine. Wikimedia Commons.

“…deep understanding is, I believe, the most precious gift one can give to another.”

Carl Rogers.

Empathy has been thought of as a natural aspect of most people’s personality, a fundamental, innate part of us that enables us to relate to and socialise with others.

However, it is also learnt from parents, educators and other people as life progresses.

Many well-known psychotherapists have underlined the crucial importance of empathy as a core skill.

Here are two important quotations from Kohut:

“Empathy is the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person.”

Heinz Kohut

“The empathic understanding of the experience of other human beings is as basic an endowment of man as his vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell”

Heinz Kohut.

Obviously, empathy alone is not enough to bring about real lasting change; there are many other therapeutic aspects of the process.

However, empathy is important in helping create a vital sense of acceptance, validation and safety, throughout the process of psychotherapy.

Without it, there can be no progress, no healing, no real connection.

  • Understanding The Uses Of Reverie

imageAmadeo Modigliani-  Reverie. 1914. Wikimedia Commons.

“Paying reflective attention to reverie can offer practitioners and researchers access to visceral, heart-felt responses that might otherwise escape attention; responses that can be used sensitively to empathise with clients’ or participants’ spoken and unspoken meanings.”

Lynn Mcvey

The use of reverie is crucially important, in my opinion, for both patient and therapist.

What do I mean by reverie and how is it applicable to therapy?

It is a state of mind that is relaxed, silent, freeing and is perhaps best described as a kind of creative mind-wandering or imaginative daydreaming.

For a few moments, the therapist can mentally retreat into their own world, allowing feelings and thoughts to drift by, without coming to any conclusions, but letting the process take its course.

Out of this, often emerges some new insight, based on allowing the self to drift to another level of consciousness.

“A certain amount of reverie is good, like a narcotic in discreet doses. It soothes the fever, occasionally high, of the brain at work, and produces in the mind a soft, fresh vapour that corrects the all too angular contours of pure thought, fills up the gaps and intervals here and there, binds them together, and dulls the sharp corners of ideas.

Victor Hugo

This is not about the therapist’s inattentiveness or distraction.

On the contrary, it is a little like an empathic and reflective ‘playing’ with the material the patient brings, within the therapist’s mind. This can be highly creative.

“Active imagination requires a state of reverie, half-way between sleep and waking.”

Carl Jung

It is a way of understanding more about what is happening for the patient.

In relation to the therapist, reverie can lead to greater clinical knowledge and understanding.

imageReverie. Pipi Haerehuka – Charles Frederick Goldie. Wikioo

“When we keep our silence we gather our power; when we speak we let loose the concentration of quiet reverie.” 

Bryant McGill

In relation to the patient, reverie is important, in that it allows the patient to relax, daydream, fantasise and free associate.

“Unconscious insights or answers to problems that come in reverie do not come hit or miss… they pertain to those areas in which the person consciously has worked laboriously and with dedication.”

Rollo May

imageHeinrich Vogeler. Reverie. Wikimedia Commons.

“Sit in reverie and watch the changing colour of the waves that break upon the idle seashore of the mind. “

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

  • The Ability To Relate To Others.

imageConversation Piece – Vanessa Bell. Wikioo

Being able to make a good therapeutic relationship is crucially important for a therapist.

The patient needs to feel validated, safe and accepted by the therapist, in order that the work of therapy can be carried out effectively.

It is important that this is not a ‘one-up, one-down,’ relationship, with the therapist having all the power. This would merely replicate the sort of relationships that the patient has most likely experienced in life.

It needs to be an ‘equal but different,’ kind of interaction.

In my early professional years, I was asking the question, “How can I treat, or cure, or change this person?” Now I would phrase the question in this way: “How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth?”

Carl Rogers

Such a connection requires empathy, warmth, and professionalism on the part of the therapist, so that boundaries can be established and maintained, and the experience will feel safe and containing for the patient.


Through this enabling and facilitative interaction, the patient can begin to learn what real and authentic connection between two people is all about.

This is termed the ‘therapeutic alliance,’ which is about building trust and confidence in the relationship between therapist and patient.

Research has indicated that an effective therapeutic alliance is the most important aspect of therapy, in terms of a good outcome, so the therapist’s interpersonal skills are paramount.

  • Really Knowing How To Listen

tear_by_leuseni_d53mgpoTear by Leuseni. 

“When a person realizes he has been deeply heard, his eyes moisten. I think in some real sense he is weeping for joy. It is as though he were saying, “Thank God, somebody heard me. Someone knows what it’s like to be me”.

Carl Rogers

Rogers is describing the overwhelming feeling of  being listened to and heard with empathy and understanding, perhaps for the first time ever.

It is indeed, a powerful experience, often producing tears of relief.

imageThe Conversation. Edgar Degas.

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”

Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway’s quotation neatly encapsulates the need for us all to listen better, both as therapists and in relation to those around us in our own lives.

The words ‘listen completely’ imply a kind of ‘whole body’ experience; it is as if we need to use all our senses to really be present for the other person.

This is a real giving of ourselves, our attention, concentration, time and love, to another.

We all need to be heard, to have someone to listen to us, especially when we are feeling emotional. Being truly listened to, perhaps by a friend or therapist, is in itself highly therapeutic.

Developing expertise in listening, really listening to another person, including the music behind their words and the non-verbal communications involves a kind of attention that many people often do not find easy.

“We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.”

Carl Rogers

Here is the therapeutic core of the listening experience.

Rogers is underlining the ways in which truly being listened to can be immensely helpful in terms of clarifying feelings and moving on in life.

In therapy, once we have felt heard and have gained insight into our thoughts and feelings, real change can be achieved.

Rogers further expressed the importance of being heard in this complete way, person to person, in a few poignant and moving words:

imageHappy Tears, Roy Lichtenstein. Wikimedia Commons

“A person’s real need, a most terrible need, is for someone to listen…not as a ‘patient’ but as a human soul. To listen well is to respond to a great human yearning.”

 Carl Rogers.

© Linda Berman.

To be continued next Tuesday in Part 2. To receive weekly updates about the next week’s post and a link to this blog straight to your email inbox, please become a follower. Thank you.

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