Get Renew.org Weekly Emails

Want fresh teachings and disciple making content? Sign up to receive a weekly newsletters highlighting our resources and new content to help equip you in your disciple making journey. We’ll also send you emails with other equipping resources from time to time.

14 minutes
Download

Characteristics of an Effective Counselor: Do You Have What It Takes? (Part 1)

“Kids respond to people whom they sense have a feel for what they’re going through.” —Rich Van Pelt, Intensive Care: Helping Teenagers in Crisis[1]

“Leaders must not wait until they feel ‘good enough’ to make a difference. Accepting this myth may prevent leaders from fulfilling the very role that students need most: loving them and being there with them. The most important instrument of healing a leader can have is herself. Why? Because who a person is in relationship to hurting teenagers is more important than what a person can do in terms of professional competence.” —Les Parrott III, Reaching a Generation for Christ[2]

I never wanted to be a “professional counselor.” I just wanted to be involved in youth ministry and be the most effective youth minister that I could possibly be.

It was my privilege to be hired as a part-time youth minister in a medium-sized church my freshman year of Bible College. I entered into this ministry opportunity with all eight cylinders running strong. I played guitar and led the youth group in contemporary worship before it was even called contemporary worship! The wild and crazy games I came up with from my library of Idea Books wowed the teens and they looked forward to the next student event to see what bizarre thing I would come up with next.

The Wednesday night Bible studies came right out of my Gospels class that I was taking at college. Whatever I learned in college that week was what I passed along to the students. It seemed the deeper I took them and the more I challenged them with biblical insights, the more they liked it.


“I never wanted to be a ‘professional counselor.’ I just wanted to be involved in youth ministry and be the most effective youth minister that I could possibly be.”


The church people were always very complimentary when I preached for the monthly youth service. As far as my skills in biblical exegesis, apologetics, homiletics, and practical ministry were concerned, I was very confident that I could meet the needs of the students entrusted to my care.

I just wasn’t prepared for the depth and the intensity of the counseling needs that I encountered in my youth ministry. Serious problems such as rape, incest, homosexuality, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicidal thoughts needed much more than just a prayer from me and some hastily quoted verses of Scripture.

I just wasn’t prepared for the depth and the intensity of the counseling needs that I encountered in my youth ministry.

The depth of inadequacy that I felt was overwhelming. I loved these teens and really wanted to help them, but it was obvious that what they needed was beyond what I could give them at the time. It was this first ministry experience that convinced me to go to graduate school and pursue a Master’s Degree in Pastoral Care and Counseling.


“The depth of inadequacy that I felt was overwhelming.”


The training and education that I received in graduate school proved invaluable to me in terms of my confidence and skill level in treating the various counseling issues that I encountered as a regular part of my ministry. However, I learned a very important lesson concerning one’s effectiveness in counseling when I was serving as a Youth and Counseling Minister after graduate school.

My policy was that I would see people on a short-term basis, but if the problem required some long-term, intensive treatment I would refer them to a professional counselor.

One of the counselors that I would use was a very godly man. He was a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and also served as an elder in our church. Our children played together in the neighborhood and our families would often share a meal together.

While “Fred” was qualified professionally and spiritually to be a counselor and I had confidence in him, I encountered a troubling phenomenon when I would refer clients to him. After about four or six weeks (sometimes less than that), the people I referred would call me at the office and try to convince me to take them back as clients.


“The training and education that I received in graduate school proved invaluable to me in terms of my confidence and skill level in treating the various counseling issues that I encountered as a regular part of my ministry.”


When I questioned their experience with Fred, they would be very apologetic and say something like, “Well, I am sure he is a very nice man and he may be a licensed counselor, but I just didn’t get the feeling that he really cared for me. I mean, he just seemed so cold and distant.”

It was then that I realized one’s personality contributed as much to a successful counseling experience as one’s training and education.

“The single most important factor in effective counseling is the personhood of the counselor. Regardless of one’s education, training, theoretical orientation, or counseling techniques, it is now widely accepted that if certain qualities are not brought to the helping relationship, little chance of successful intervention exists.”[3]

You see, while Fred was a Christian and qualified as a counselor professionally, his very reserved and quiet personality did not communicate to his clients that he understood and cared for them. As a result, his clients interpreted his reflective and introverted personality as a lack of concern. Dr. Keith Olson sums it up well:

“You are the main ingredient in counseling. The effectiveness of your counseling is determined primarily by the quality of your personality. The techniques that you use and the skills you possess, although important, are secondary to the quality of your being.”[4]

Don’t misunderstand! Learning counseling techniques is very important. Years of specialized training, classes, supervision, and continuing education all help the counselor to develop and refine their skills. But in the end, a counselor’s style will be very much a reflection of their unique and caring personality. “Research findings have shown that in general, therapeutic change in clients results from client and therapist factors more than from techniques.”[5]


“In the end, a counselor’s style will be very much a reflection of their unique and caring personality.”


Qualities of an Effective Counselor

To gain a better insight into the importance of personal characteristics and effective counseling, think through the following chart and reflect on what you discover about counseling effectiveness and personal characteristics. Think about the different people who have made a significant impact on your life. Try to remember especially those people whom you deemed helpful during your teenage years as you were struggling with developmental and relational problems.

The idea is to list the person’s name in the first column, try to identify a specific characteristic or helping quality they exhibited and write it in the second column, and finish by describing your personal response to their help.[6] Some people may have more than one characteristic.

Exercise 1.1 – Helping Qualities

Helping Person

Helping Quality My Response
Glen Always made himself available; he was never too busy to listen Trust and a sense of security knowing I could call on him whenever I needed
Kenny Showed unconditional love Did not feel “judged” or inferior just because I had a problem
Chuck Encourager; always found something positive to say Improved my self-esteem and motivated me to keep trying and not give up
Paul Speaking the truth in love; confronted me and held me accountable Learned to take responsibility for my life and choices and to be honest about my failings

So, what are the qualities of the people who helped you along in your life? I believe that what you will find is that the qualities that were deemed “helpful” are qualities that can be found in just about any caring person. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. or a Harvard education in order to make a significant difference in a young person’s life.


“You don’t have to have a Ph.D. or a Harvard education in order to make a significant difference in a young person’s life.”


However, research has shown that there are certain characteristics that are found in the most successful counselors. You will want to try and incorporate those into your life if you wish to be the most effective counselor to youth that you can be.

The Discovery of the “Big Three”

The search to discover what makes some counselors successful and some unsuccessful (and some even harmful) has led researchers to an overwhelming conclusion. There are certain personality characteristics that provide the core of effective counseling when adequately integrated within the counselor’s person.[7]

It has been said that there are no superior therapies but only superior therapists. In other words, it doesn’t matter as much what particular therapy you have been trained in, if you have the essential personality characteristics that communicate genuine concern and caring, then you will be a successful counselor of youth.

What are the essential personality characteristics of effective counselors? Research has proven that clients of therapists improve if the therapist expresses high levels of 1) accurate empathy; 2) unconditional positive regard or warmth; and 3) genuineness or congruence.[8] These findings have been supported by subsequent research and are found in practically every textbook on counseling and psychology. It will be helpful to define in more detail each particular characteristic.


“Research has proven that clients of therapists improve if the therapist expresses high levels of 1) accurate empathy; 2) unconditional positive regard or warmth; and 3) genuineness or congruence.”


1. Accurate Empathy

Empathy is the ability to communicate to another that you feel their pain. As far as it is humanly possible, you are sharing in their experience along with them whether it be grief, anger, depression, or hopelessness, etc. Empathy “implies both the capacity to enter into the feeling states and understandings of another person but also the capacity to communicate this to the person.”[9]

Empathy is different from sympathy; it is deeper and stronger. With sympathy, you feel sorry for someone—but you are personally removed from the situation. With empathy, you feel sorry with someone—you enter into their situation and try to understand and experience it from the viewpoint of the client. “Sympathy is standing on the shore and throwing out a lifeline while empathy is jumping into the water and risking one’s safety to help another.”[10]


“With empathy, you feel sorry with someone—you enter into their situation and try to understand and experience it from the viewpoint of the client.”


2. Unconditional Positive Regard or Warmth

This is simply another way of saying “unconditional love” (Romans 5:8,10). Jesus loves us enough to die for us just as we are. He came and provided salvation for us even though we didn’t deserve it nor could we earn it. It is nonjudgmental acceptance of people. Swiss counselor Paul Tournier said, “I have no methods. All I do is accept people.”[11]

Caution: this does not mean that the counselor approves of all the current behaviors and choices of the teenager, but simply that he accepts the teenager as a worthwhile human being, made in the image of God and deserving of respect and care. “It is friendliness and consideration shown by facial expression, tone of voice, gestures, posture, eye-contact, and such non-verbal behavior as looking after the helpee’s comfort.”[12]


“Jesus came and provided salvation for us even though we didn’t deserve it nor could we earn it.”


“Warmth is non-judgmental. It is neither approving nor disapproving. Rather it accepts the individual, not requiring change or growth in order to invest time and energy in him or her. This issue here is acceptance, not evaluation. . . It is a freeing kind of love. It frees the teenager from the tyranny of pleasing the counselor in order not to feel guilty. It frees the teenager to be his or her own person, rather than the person someone else wishes.”[13]

“If we are to respect the other person, we are required to see him or her again, from God’s perspective, to relate to him or her as though he or she is a person of worth, regardless of what life has done or what the person has done in his or her life.”[14].

3. Genuineness or Congruence

This trait refers to the necessity of the counselor’s behavioral and affective display to match what he is communicating to the teenager. It must also be in harmony with the content currently being communicated by the teenager. In other words, if the counselor is verbally communicating words of care and concern, but his tone of voice and body language are sending a message of boredom and indifference, then he is not being congruent or genuine. Another example of failing to exhibit congruence would be if the teen is sharing about a very painful experience and the counselor has a smile on his face and a very self-satisfied demeanor.

The counselor must communicate by their body language, facial expression, tone and rate of voice, and expressed emotions that they are genuinely with the teenager and understanding the teen’s current experience whether it be joy, depression, hopelessness, or confusion. “Genuineness means that the helper’s words are consistent with his actions. He or she tries to be honest with the helpee, avoiding any statement or behavior which could be considered phony or insincere.”[15]

“Genuineness cannot be faked. Either you sincerely want to help or you are simply playing the sterile role of a “helper”—hiding behind masks, defenses, or facades. In other words, authenticity is something you are, not something you do.”[16]


“If the counselor is verbally communicating words of care and concern, but his tone of voice and body language are sending a message of boredom and indifference, then he is not being congruent or genuine.”


While these three traits have been found to be critical for effective counseling, they do not guarantee success nor are they the only traits needed. They are necessary but not all-sufficient. In a follow-up article, we will look at additional traits that contribute to successful youth counseling. What you don’t want to miss is that all three traits described here can be found in just about any caring person. Again, you don’t have to have a Ph.D. or a Harvard education in order to make a significant difference in a young person’s life.


[1] Rich Van Pelt, Intensive Care: Helping Teenagers in Crisis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), p. 32.

[2] Les Parrott III, “How Can We Help Hurting Adolescents?” in Richard R. Dunn and Mark H. Senter III, Reaching a Generation For Christ (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1997), p. 515.

[3] Les Parrott III, Helping the Struggling Adolescent (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), p. 25.

[4] Keith Olson, Counseling Teenagers (Loveland, CO: Group Books, 1984), p. 1.

[5] Siang-Yang Tan, Counseling and Psychotherapy: A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), p. 14.

[6] This exercise is suggested by Keith Olson in Counseling Teenagers (Loveland, CO: Group Books, 1984), p. 2.

[7] Keith Olson, Counseling Teenagers (Loveland, CO: Group Books, 1984), pp. 1-2.

[8] Carl R. Rogers et al., The Therapeutic Relationship and Its Impact (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967); Douglas A. Bernstein and Peggy W. Nash, Essentials of Psychology , 3rd ed. (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008), pp. 506-507; Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler, Handbook On Counseling Youth (Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 1996), pp. 10-11; Keith Olson, Counseling Teenagers (Loveland, CO: Group Books, 1984), p. 3.

[9] Graham A. Barker, and Clifford J. Powell, From Woe to Go: A Training Text For Christian Counselors (Bloomington, IN: Balboa Press, 2014), p. 43.

[10] Les Parrott III, Helping the Struggling Adolescent (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), p. 32.

[11] Les Parrott III, Helping the Struggling Adolescent (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), p. 30.

[12] Gary Collins, How to Be a People Helper (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1976) p. 34.

[13] Keith Olson, Counseling Teenagers (Loveland, CO: Group Books, 1984), p. 5.

[14] Graham A. Barker, and Clifford J. Powell, From Woe to Go: A Training Text For Christian Counselors (Bloomington, IN: Balboa Press, 2014), p. 45.

[15] Gary Collins, How to Be a People Helper (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1976) p. 34.

[16] Les Parrott III, Helping the Struggling Adolescent (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), p. 31.


Excerpted from Gary Zustiak, Intensive Care: A Manual for Nonprofessionals Who Work with Hurting and Broken Youth. Used with permission.

Get Renew.org Weekly Emails

Want fresh teachings and disciple making content? Sign up to receive a weekly newsletters highlighting our resources and new content to help equip you in your disciple making journey. We’ll also send you emails with other equipping resources from time to time.

You Might Also Like