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After university

Your career: How to be a great therapist

This article appears in: Psychology
Psychology student at CDU

If you're finishing your studies in psychology at CDU, now's the time to be thinking about how you'll apply what you've learned to propel your career forward. Here, Dr Simon Moss from CDU, shares his advice on how to be a great therapist. 

A great therapist often mirrors a great steak: rare, tender, expensive—and not too hot. Yet, many therapists are not great.  Indeed, some therapists are downright horrid.

In one instance, a woman, approaching 30, plagued with issues of abandonment, complained that her therapist would often forget to arrive.  And, if the therapist did arrive, he would dedicate most of the session to filing his nails or completing errands. One session was even convened in his car, while he drove to buy lotto tickets and KFC.  While waiting in the drive-through, the client began to discuss her problems. 

“I’m experiencing terrible PMS”, she said.

“Regular” the therapist responded. 

“Usually”, the client replied, “But when I’m stressed my periods can range from—“

“I was talking to the cashier”, the therapist interrupted, “I just didn’t want the large chips”.

Some therapists might seem caring, insightful and suitable, but not be as effective.

Obviously, few therapists are so patently unsuitable. However, some therapists might seem caring, insightful and suitable but not be as effective as predicted, so the client feels almost as awful as before.

Top tips

So, what makes a therapist effective rather than futile?  Here are some characteristics and behaviors you should apply in practice as a therapist.

  • Articulate your therapeutic philosophy and plan clearly.
  • Do not sit behind a desk. Maintain eye contact and smile occasionally. These are behaviours that promote a sense of trust and alliance.
  • Be happy and content rather than dejected or nervous. This is important to accommodate the needs and perspectives of clients.
  • Offer some choice about how to proceed and what to discuss, but also be direct when your client feels uncertain or uncomfortable.
  • Demonstrate genuine interest in your client’s life and show compassion—not just to them but to people they describe.
  • Inspire clients to explore and experience negative emotions, such as complete a challenging task or contemplate a sad memory.
  • Do not diagnose clients too quickly or apply labels, such as refer to clients as “an extrovert”.
  • Your intuition will tend to be accurate when working through a problem that you’ve resolved with previous clients; use it.
  • Insightfully ascribe many of your client’s problems to one modifiable cause.
  • Be willing to concede your limitations; acknowledge that your plans or solutions may not be completely effective—yet instil a feeling of hope and relief.
  • Seek feedback about how your client feels the sessions are progressing and what changes they would like you to introduce.
  • Make the waiting room private. To maintain anonymity, nobody should see your client while they wait in this room.

Think you could nail all of the above and become a therapist or psychologist? Discover CDU's Psychology courses.

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