Psychologists work with their patients through some of life’s most difficult experiences. Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, severe grief—these are all significant ordeals in which a person may require the services of a trained psychologist. When a person seeks out such a professional, they are in need of various key skills.
Understandably, a psychologist requires professional training, experience, and credentialing to work with clients. These attributes are often considered a priority when clients select a clinician. Most psychologists must have a doctoral degree in their desired area of practice. Additionally, psychologists in independent practice must be licensed in their chosen state. Licensure typically follows several years of professional experience and successful passing of the Examination of Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). Another important factor potential clients may seek out is training and continuing education in specialty areas. For example, a psychologist might have specialized experience treating certain conditions such as phobias, or using certain therapeutic approaches such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.
While the above requirements are absolute musts to get your foot in the door as a practicing psychologist, a number of other skills are necessary to make you a good clinician. After surveying a long list of possible traits, here are the key characteristics experts from entities like the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics have identified as being fundamental to an effective psychologist.
Strong Interpersonal Skills
“Talk therapy” is at the core of a psychologist’s practice. Therefore, communication skills are central to facilitating this process. Even as early as the initial introduction, a good psychologist puts their clients at ease, radiating an aura of warmth and empathy. They set conditions through both verbal and nonverbal communication that demonstrate they are approachable, empathetic, accepting and ready to help. Furthermore, they are able to appropriately explain complex conditions and processes to their clients so that they are active participants in the therapeutic decision-making process.
Clients reveal sensitive information to their psychologists, information that perhaps not even their closest loved ones are privy to. In order for the client-therapist relationship to flourish, the therapist must come off as trustworthy. Trustworthiness is essential in terms of keeping a client’s confidence, but also using their expertise to direct the therapeutic process. The APA sets forth the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct that outlines everything from obtaining informed consent to maintaining records.
Active listening is integral to the therapeutic process. A good psychologist knows that a client speaks through many avenues: their words, their facial expressions, their gestures, and their body language. The therapist is tasked with making sense of both the verbal and non-verbal messages a client produces in order to tune into their unique experience and assess their needs. Listening isn’t simply waiting for a chance to speak. In therapy, listening is an art form that the clinician uses to understand a client’s intended message and validate their emotional experience. Active listening is also a vehicle that allows the psychologist to probe deeper into difficult material.
Clients seek out the services of psychologists because they hope to gain insight and practical solutions for mental health conditions or psychological distress. A skilled clinician must have the ability to use the information provided by the client to make inferences about which types of treatment will best suit their circumstances. A good psychologist also regularly analyzes the client’s behavior and mood to make judgment calls about how they are progressing in therapy and/or whether more intensive treatment is needed.
A Collaborative Approach
The relationship between the psychologist and the client is a partnership of sorts. Although clients seek out psychotherapists for their expertise to help with problems, the therapist does not take over and “fix” them. Instead the psychologist and the client form a working alliance in which both contribute to the therapeutic process. Psychologists often act as guides to educate clients about their difficulties and collaborate with them to devise solutions. The two agree on the goals of therapy from the start. Then, they regularly check in to make sure the client is comfortable with the work. Doing so ensures the client remains committed and engaged in the therapeutic process.
It’s hard to know which, if any, treatment approach will work best for a client. A good psychologist is willing to adjust the direction of the therapeutic process to meet the client’s needs. Flexibility might entail slowing down the process to address any resistance from the client. It may also require considering the use of supplemental treatments, a modification to the therapist’s style, a change in treatment approach, or referral to a different clinician who might better suit the client’s needs.
Experiences, observations, insights, and emotions that manifest in the therapeutic process represent the human experience as a whole. With that in mind, it’s entirely reasonable to consider that, at some point, the content of therapy may touch on issues that impact the therapist personally. An effective psychologist must be able to intuitively distinguish their own issues from their clients’. This requires close monitoring of their own reactions and inferences to ensure that all actions are beneficial to the client’s progress and not influenced by the therapist’s own experiences.
Psychologists use their training in conjunction with evidence-based practices to assist diverse clients from all walks of life. The framework for the therapeutic process is selected with the client’s unique experience and background in mind. From the very beginning, the psychologist must consider the client’s gender, race, culture, ethnicity, spirituality, and other factors that contribute to the client’s identity. The therapist is sensitive to these factors (and how his/her own characteristics apply) when interacting with the client and when making treatment decisions.
There you have it: the top traits experts say you should have to be a great psychologist and to ensure positive outcomes for clients. The buck doesn’t stop at education or practical experience. An awesome psychologist is an ethical and analytical professional who considers a client’s unique background and needs when forming the therapeutic alliance. In addition, they are superb communicators who are able to make clients feel understood and accepted.
Do you have what it takes to be a good psychologist?