Knowing what makes a good counselor or support worker is useful for those who work in the field and those seeking help.
If you require support, understanding the key attributes counselors need will ensure you seek help from the right person. Suppose you are considering becoming a counselor or support worker. In that case, it is also important to know what attributes are required to make an informed decision before taking on this valuable role.
Although many key attributes are required, no one should feel discouraged if they lack some of them. Training and practice will allow you to transform any weaknesses into strengths. Once you know what attributes are required, you can hone, develop or acquire any skills you are lacking, enabling you to become a person who can truly make a difference in the lives of those who seek your support.
One of the key steps to becoming a counselor is getting qualified. Typically, counselors in the U.S. need a master’s degree and 600 hours of practical experience. Courses are offered at many universities, and this is an option worth considering for those interested in a counseling career.
However, not everyone will have a counseling course nearby or be able to move closer to one another. Additionally, many people will have professional and family commitments, meaning they cannot take the two years of full-time study typically required to complete the course. Online study is a good way around this, providing the opportunity to study conveniently in the comfort of home.
Some people worry that an online course will not effectively provide the rigorous preparation required, but this is not usually the case. It is certainly true that the standard of online courses varies considerably. Still, if you research your options carefully, you should be able to find an accredited system that meets the requirements for starting a counseling career.
Anyone enrolling in a good, accredited online program can be assured of receiving an education as thorough and effective as anything an in-person course can offer. A good example is the counseling master’s programs at St. Bonaventure University, including an MSEd in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and School Counseling accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Through 100% online study in programs like these, you will be well supported by world-class faculty, including dedicated coordinators who can help you secure the required practicum and internships in your local area.
Good communication skills
The ability to communicate well is one of the most obvious attributes required by a good counselor or support worker. It is a key part of the job to be able to talk to people about their problems and all the issues they are dealing with. A good communicator should be able to put people at ease, making them feel comfortable talking so they can open up, even if the subject matter is deeply sensitive. This also involves being a good listener. No one wants a counselor who interrupts them all the time, but counselors need to be ready to steer the conversation in the most beneficial way.
A counselor is likely to suggest strategies to help people cope. This must be communicated clearly and effectively without the person feeling patronized or talked down to. While good verbal skills are vital, communication is about far more than that. Counselors must be aware of their body language and how it contributes to an atmosphere that makes the person feel comfortable and safe.
Not all counseling takes place in person, so a counselor must have good phone manners. Without verbal cues, the ability to both speak and listen effectively becomes even more important. Some counseling might be online or via email, so written communication is also important.
Counseling can take place in different settings, including schools and medical settings. The problems and issues people talk about will be as varied and unique as the person themselves. Nobody can instantly offer solutions to every possible situation, so counselors need to be ready to research different conditions and issues. This can mean sifting through many research papers and articles to find the information necessary to offer the right support and strategies to the person you are treating.
Experienced counselors may reach a stage where they feel like they have seen it all, but they should never discount the need for research. Our knowledge of how to best support people through different conditions or after certain experiences is always developing, with discoveries being made all the time. A good counselor will recognize this need to stay up to date with their knowledge and the latest research and should always be willing to learn something new.
Counseling is not a quick fix, and while the breakthroughs are incredibly rewarding, these are likely to follow long periods when progress can seem slow or non-existent, and setbacks are common. There will expect to be times when the person you treat ignores your advice, perhaps even taking action you have advised against. While this can be highly frustrating, counselors must remain calm, encouraging, and supportive.
For the client, counseling can be a difficult, emotional process. They may get angry or cry, carry out destructive behavior or say they want to give up. Through all this, the counselor needs to remain patient, even if the same backward steps occur over and over. It is only by bringing the client through their struggles that positive changes can occur, which can take weeks, months, or even years.
Communication is not entirely verbal. Sometimes a client may tell you just as much without talking, which is where observational skills come to the fore. By observing their reactions and body language, you will better understand what strategies are working and how comfortable a client is, enabling you to make any necessary changes.
As you get to know a client better, you should be able to spot any changes in their behavioral or body language that can tell you whether this strategy is effective, if progress is being made, or if the system is proving to be counterproductive. With good observational skills, you can monitor the effectiveness of your counseling and amend it as necessary sooner than if you wait for a client to tell you.
Compassion is an attribute that every counselor or support worker needs. People seek counseling because something has gone wrong in their life that goes beyond the occasional ups and downs that everyone experiences. They may have experienced grief, a physical or mental condition, a serious injury, abuse, sexual violence, or addiction, to name just a few reasons people seek counseling.
Whatever the reason – and it is possible they will not even be completely certain what it is – something is hampering their ability to cope in their daily lives. Approaching your clients with compassion is essential in allowing them to open up about what has happened and how it is affecting them.
While this may seem like an obvious attribute, there can be a tendency in society not always to be as compassionate as we should be. This can be particularly true once a certain amount of time has elapsed, as some people mistakenly believe an individual should have gotten over their trauma by that point. A good counselor will recognize that there is no time limit on grief or trauma and that sometimes the effects can worsen after the event. For example, the impact of childhood abuse might remain bottled up during childhood, and it is only as an adult that the effects become truly obvious, causing them to seek help many years later.
Just as everyone’s experience differs, so are their reactionshem. Some people may seek support very soon after a bereavement, while others may find the impact hits them many years or even decades after the event. Some people may need recurring help throughout their lives. A child may be supported by a counselor after the death of a parent, yet may need further counseling when they become parents themselves and the emotion floods back. Regardless of the time that has elapsed, everyone should be approached with compassion and the belief that there is no single valid way to react to trauma.
A non-judgmental attitude
People seek counseling for many different reasons. It is easy to feel the utmost sympathy for someone affected by grief, illness, abuse, or injury, but society can be less forgiving of many other reasons for seeking counseling. There may be a tendency for someone to feel they “brought it on themselves” among those seeking support for dealing with alcoholism, drug abuse, or gambling addictions. At the same time, mental health stigma still exists as people struggle to understand an illness with no physical symptoms.
These attitudes can make it particularly hard for sufferers to seek help and make it even more important for the counselor to treat them without judgment from the first time they meet through every relapse. The rest of society may be judging them, but counselors must provide a safe place to talk free of judgment.
Counselors come from all backgrounds and are, of course, only human. However, during counseling sessions, personal beliefs need to be set aside. Throughout your career or even over a day, you may treat people from different races, religions, socio-economic backgrounds, sexes, sexualities, gender identities, political beliefs, and ages. While this may be relevant to their counseling needs, it should not impact how you approach them. Any thoughts or preconceived ideas have to be put aside as you treat each person as worthy as any other while still showing sensitivity to their religions and backgrounds, regardless of whether they are the same as yours.
Counselors and support workers need to create a safe space where their clients feel comfortable talking about sensitive subjects and displaying emotions that they may feel unable to show elsewhere. This means the counselor must appear trustworthy, so clients feel safe with them.
Maintaining a professional attitude is important, with clear boundaries for counselors and clients. Confidentiality is also vital, and the client needs to be certain that what they are telling you will not become a dinnertime conversation for you and your family.
People seek support and counseling because they have a problem or multiple problems impacting their ability to lead fulfilling lives. Therefore, counselors need to be good at reasoning and problem-solving.
When considering how best to treat a client, a counselor can draw on their experience treating people with similar issues, but with the full knowledge that no two people are the same and that their problems will be subtly different. Counselors may need to think outside the box to find the best methods of helping clients, and each session and strategy should be analyzed to see what has been effective and what has failed.
As they get to know their clients better, this knowledge will increasingly factor into how counseling should progress. Counselors must use their understanding of the client, effective strategies, and previous experience with similar issues, combining these pieces to decide the best way to proceed.
Counselors enter the profession with the weight of their own experiences with them. Perhaps they received good support and wished to make that same difference to others, or maybe they had no or poor support and wanted to prevent this from happening to others. For some, their experiences with trauma motivated them to become a counselor in the first place.
Counselor having their own traumatic experiences is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can make them more empathetic to the suffering of others and give them a greater understanding of how it feels. However, a counselor is only human, and hearing about the trauma of others can trigger emotions in them.
Protecting your mental well-being is essential if you want to help others. Regardless of personal experience, hearing about other people’s trauma and grief can be traumatic to the listener, and a counselor is no exception. The phrase “physician heal thyself” most certainly applies to counselors, and they must be aware of the job’s impact on them so they can seek help if necessary.
Self-care is important for counselors. They should be aware of what helps them unwind so they can escape their job and relax. Finding enjoyable hobbies, spending time with family and friends, or simply relaxing in front of the TV will help you maintain your mental well-being and put you in the best possible position to support others when you return to work the next day. Spending your free time worrying about a client will only be detrimental to both of you if a lack of downtime means you are exhausted at work or preoccupied with the problems it has caused in your life.
Becoming a counselor
Counseling is a highly worthwhile career that makes a tangible difference in many people’s lives, and with good counselors in demand, it is likely to offer long-term job security. If the list of attributes feels daunting, do not let that put you off if you think this is the right career path. Many of these are soft skills you likely already possess to some degree, which can be developed through practice.
If you think counseling is the right career for you, consider your training options so you can take your first steps toward a job that will see you support many people through difficult times, helping to transform their lives. Whether you get qualified in person or through online study, you will gain support in developing those skills and learning how to apply them to your new role. The hours of practical experience you must undertake before starting work will help you hone those skills in a real-life situation. At the same time, the support available from your course provider will enable you to make the most of your strengths and find ways to improve in any areas of weakness.