What does a counselor’s office tell you?

What does the decor of your counselor’s office tell you about the person? Or, if you are the counselor, what does your office tell your clients about you?

In the July issue of the Journal of Counseling Psychology (58:3, 2011, 310-320), Jack Nasar and Ann Sloan Devlin published, “Impressions of Psychotherapists’ Offices.” In their study (showing pictures of counseling offices) they found a couple of interesting facts:

“Studies 1 and 2 found similar patterns of response in relation to ratings that assessed feelings about the office and the therapist. As perceptions of softness/personalization and order increased, so did expectations about quality of care, comfort, boldness, and qualifications of the therapist. Perceived friendliness increased with increases in softness/personalization.” (p. 314)

This finding isn’t related to gender, age, or prior experience with counseling.

What should counselors avoid? Chaotic, cramped, messy, hard impersonal offices. Put your papers away. The lack of organization and the lack of personalized touches and softer seating may make your clients feel less safe and therefore experience less therapeutic gains.

So, what does your office say to your clients? I recall an office I had in community mental health (shared by several other counselors on a sign-up basis) was sparse, cold, and completely lacking any personalization, art, etc. No wonder many clients preferred talking to us on the street over the office.

My current office contains a love seat, a couple of other chairs, books in a bookcase, a warm wooden desk (that is usually neat in contrast to my academic office), one nice piece of artwork and another that is ugly, some beanie babies, and a blanket. While this office was set up by someone else, I think I’m going to change one bookcase that is in the eyesight of clients. It is a bit messy with various papers, books, and other junk.


Filed under counseling, counseling science, counseling skills

5 responses to “What does a counselor’s office tell you?

  1. Pam

    Great article, Phil — thanks!

    And now I know what to do with the beanie babies at the back of the closet.

  2. Scott Knapp

    When I counseled children and adolescents, I had this 12′ wide rainbow-colored delta-shaped kite stapled to my ceiling, and the tail draped across the track lighting. It never failed to engender an excited look from a new resident, or an interested comment from a case worker. I made my office a cornucopia of conversation starters!

  3. Thank you, this is quite affirming. 🙂 I have both a small conference table area and a traditional couch-and-chairs area, and I let my clients choose where we’ll sit each time. I also added lamps to offset the overhead fluorescents and they really warm up the space.

  4. Lana Aris

    Lighting was mentioned. Too bright, the client feels interrogated. Too low, they fall asleep. Temperature helps too. Not too hot, nor too cold. Then, there are the smells! Moldly, musty, or other strong oders (even flowers), can be overwhelming and distracting. And pillows are always helpful too. 🙂

  5. Yes! This is an all important topic that is rarely addressed. Way back in the day before I had even started counseling, I could envision my office … and it reflected a personal, welcoming calmness … yet it was professional. A wall of shelves is filled with books . – but also my collection of vintage bowls, pictures, and things that give me pleasure. A vanilla candle burns on the coffee table. Plants thrive by the windows. Yes, the computer and file cabinet are there, but that hand-crafted quilt on the wall, the pillows and throws on the chairs are all designed to say, “I know this is a difficult season for you, but you are welcome here, and you will be respected, honored, and cared for well as we talk together.”

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