Do you need an expert counselor?

Have you ever had someone approach you as an expert in something? Feels good, even if you demur the attribution. Occasionally someone makes such a comment to us counselors, “I heard you were the best counselor to deal with ____ and so that is why I am here.”

I’ve been counseling long enough to know that while I do know something about some problems, the person giving me this compliment on the first meeting is also signalling me something about their thinking. Generally, they are signalling that that want me to fix their problem. Not always but often they want my expertise to rub off on them with minimal effort of their own. Although that is a good thing to consider when finding the right surgeon and yes you want to avoid incompetent counselors, good counseling is mostly accomplished by the hard work of the counselee. So when you consider what counselor you might need, consider the following:

1. Is the counselor promoting themselves as expert? Be wary. Experience is good. Identity as expert may not be. Promoting oneself as a “nationally recognized speaker and counselor”? Run!

2. Is the counselor known to be a talker? One who hands out “the 5 secret steps to solve…” Stay away.

3. Is the counselor known for listening skills? Are they willing to learn? This might be your best shot. Well, it would also be good if they have heard of your problem before too…


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5 responses to “Do you need an expert counselor?

  1. As I finish my MFT student practicum I am amazed by the comments I receive from others. “Well don’t you know the answer to that.” “You are now the marriage expert what do you think.”

    On my journey to become a counselor I have realized people have a hard time thinking through questions and want to deflect their personal thinking back on to the one asking the question.

    (Found your blog the other day. It is in my Google Reader.)

  2. Scott Knapp

    I work as a therapist at a residential treatment center for troubled children and adolescents. Prior to this, I worked for many years as a front line, direct care staff. It has long been my conviction that front line staff have many more opportunities to have powerful impact in the lives of our residents in the 40+ hours per week that staff spend with residents, than we therapists have in our miserly 1 hour (at best) which we spend in the clinical office session. I believe either role has a more or less distinct purpose, and in some aspects a boundary line between the two should not be crossed, particularly with regard to certain aspects of therapy that would be more responsibly handled by a trained, licensed clinician. But at a recent convention in my state for professional child and youth care workers, I offered my opinion about potential impact correlating to time spent with residents, and I was roundly shot down by the so-called “expert” in the seminar I was attending. The notion that licensed clinicians are “experts” and less-educated (many times, but not always) front line staff are present merely to keep the residents safe between sessions with the “expert” clinician seems to continue to remain entrenched in the minds of many in my field. As I thought about this response in the aftermath of the seminar, I realized that I’m rather tainted by the culture in my agency, something that in hind sight I recognize as something I should wear as a badge of honor. At my agency we place a very high priority on training and education for our front line staff, and give them considerable responsibility in the total treatment program. The gap between the responsibilities between our direct care staff and our therapists is considerably narrower than most agencies, though it does exist and is generally respected by those on both sides. We therapists (most of us anyways) don’t carry on with an air of superiority as “experts” in our agency culture. In order to achieve this culture, however, our agency has carved a niche in working with the “worst of the worst” behavioral cases that other agencies turn away, pours thousands of man hours every year in training and professional development at all levels of employment, pays our staff considerably higher wages than their colleagues at other agencies of our kind, and thus must charge extremely high per diems for the services we offer. In an environment where “team effort” is prime, there is so much less room for touting one’s self as an “expert”, and I guess I’m rather proud to work in such an environment.

  3. Jess

    Yes, of the choices I’d take the counselor described in #3, also!

    Might it be possible that some clients who say “I’ve heard that you’re the best counselor to deal with ____” is signaling “I’ve heard that you’re trustworthy” or “I’ve heard that you’re good at what you do”?

    I do see what you’re saying about a client who wants the counselor to “fix it.” I guess if I “listen” to the words in a slightly different way, though, I may also hear a bit of insecurity and even vulnerability (ie., “Tell me that I’ve made a good decision by opening up to you in this extremely scary way.”)

  4. Donovan

    I also have experienced the arrogance that sometimes comes from the “expert”. In my years as a front line staff our agency was also progressive in training etc. and nothing could substitute for an “espirit de cor” that we as a team felt about our task and our community. Now as I am working on a second masters level degree I hope I will never play the role of the “expert” in a way that diminishes another – particularly those on the front line who impact residents in more ways than is often realised.

  5. Carmella

    I find it’s easy to experientially recognize this as a counselor. Of course I know I’m not an expert. Of course I know that the more I read and study, the more questions I have and the more I think about how little control I even should have in counseling. It is so strange to be categorized or critiqued by something as convoluted as pointing out patterns and walking with someone as they wrestle with issues.

    I do, however, take a deep sigh of relief when people I respect remind us all that we are not to aim for “expert” status. I greatly value asking good questions and learning and discovering, when the pressure to “fix people” is off. No wonder I shake in my boots when someone calls me out as an “expert”- I can’t solve anyone’s problems (it even takes me a long time to work on my own)!!

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