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Characteristics of an Effective Counselor: The “Big 3” Characteristics (Part 2)

*Editor’s Note: this is Part 2 in a series on how you—yes, you—can help bring wise and kind counsel to a young person’s life. For Part 1 (“Do You Have What It Takes?”), click here.

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.[1]

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.[2] These findings have been supported by subsequent research and are found in practically every textbook on counseling and psychology. It would be helpful to define in more detail each particular characteristic.

#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.”[3]


“Empathy is the ability to communicate to another that you feel their pain.”


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.”[4]

#2 – Unconditional Positive Regard/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. “Paul Tournier, the renowned Swiss counselor, said, “I have no methods. All I do is accept people.”[5]

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.”[6]


“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.”[7]

“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.”[8]

#3 – Genuineness/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 is 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.”[9]

“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.”[10]


“If the counselor is verbally communicating words of care and concern, but his tone of voice and body language is 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.


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

[2] 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[10] 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.

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