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how to choose | what to expect | ways of working
Trying to decide which counsellor to engage can feel confusing.

Often people looking for counselling aren't experienced at understanding what to expect or what different approaches are available.

So what should you think about when choosing a counsellor?

  • Are they fully trained and qualified?
    In the UK a qualified therapist will usually have at least a diploma-level or foundation-degree level qualification in counselling or psychotherapy. (In other countries the names for a similar level of qualification may differ.) Do not be afraid to ask what qualifications the person has and where and when they received them. Many agencies employ counsellors in training, usually students of counselling who are in their final year of their training.

  • When did they qualify and how experienced are they?
    It's one thing to ask how long ago someone qualified, but the passage of time is not always a sign of experience. Ask them approximately how many client hours experience they have. A practitioner of five years experience who sees one client a week may only have two hundred hours experience, whereas someone who has seen twenty clients per week in the same period may have in the region of four thousand hours experience. The difference is significant and there is no substitute for experience.

  • Have they experience or training specific to type of issue you bring?
    A professionally qualified practitioner of counselling or psychotherapy will be trained to deal with a wide range or issues, and many therapists' skill and expertise derives from the rich breadth of experience they have.

    But some specialise in particular areas such as bereavement, couples or family therapy, or alcohol and drugs. Whether specialised or not, a professional therapist should be able to give you an understandable reply to your question.

    A confused, difficult to understand answer to questions like these can sometimes be an indicator that the counsellor is not confident of their experience.

    Remember though, that all counselling is subject to confidentiality so the counsellor will not be free to tell you anything about their work with other individuals that might constitute a breach of that confidentiality.

  • Are they registered with a professional organisation?
    In the UK, most established practitioners are listed on one of the Voluntary Registers for Mental Health and Wellbeing.

    The largest organisations with which therapists can be registered are BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) and UKCP (United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy) in the UK and IACP (Irish Association For Counselling and Psychotherapy) in Ireland, although other organisations exist.

    There's not necessarily anything wrong with a practitioner who is not registered with such an organisation, but practitioner-level membership or registration in one or other organisation suggests that a practitioner has been vetted to a certain degree, and that they are willing to work to the professional standards laid down by these organisations, as well as being subject to their complaints procedures.

    Whichever organisation they cite, do some research online to see what authoritative websites say about it, or ask the advice of a practitioner you trust. Not all organisations vet their members - they may take the registrant's word for it. The organisation's own website will normally have information to let you know what level of qualification or experience is needed for membership, and how they expect applicants to their organisation to prove their credentials.

  • What level of membership do they have?
    Many organisations allow unqualified people to be members, often with membership categories like 'affiliate', 'trainee' or 'associate'. If you aren't sure what the practitioner's membership category means, it may be wise to check it with the organisation themselves, by looking on their website, emailing or ringing them up (all reputable organisations will be happy to answer any queries about the membership credentials of their registered practitioners). Where organisations make a distinction between registration and accreditation, accreditation normally suggests a higher degree of vetting. For such organisations accredited members are usually required to show a more advanced level of experience than ordinary members. The websites of accrediting organisations usually give some indication of what their members have to achieve to gain accreditation.

    Note, however, that accreditation with one organisation does not necessarily mean that the practitioner is more experienced or qualified than one who is ordinarily registered with another organisation. For example,at the time of writing UKCP does not distinguish between registration and accreditation, and registration with UKCP expects more rigorous levels of experience or training than does accreditation with many other such organisations.

  • What will it cost and how long is it likely to take?
    The cost per session is important, but also how long the counselling is likely to take overall. The overall duration may be difficult to assess, as it may not be clear at the outset what issues will be tackled and how, but some counsellors work with fixed numbers of sessions, or time-limited sessions, while others work open-endedly.

  • Do they follow a recognised ethical code?
    Professional practitioners normally follow one or more recognised ethical codes, such as that of BACP. The counsellor should be able to tell you which code they follow, or if they do not follow a particular code, they should be able to give you information about their ethical stance. It's wise to make sure that you are familiar with the code of ethics they follow, to make sure it is compatible with your own.

    For example the code of ethics of the Feminist Therapy Institute expresses "a commitment to political and social change", and the ethical code of the Association of Christian Counsellors is written from a Christian world-view. As a client you may want to make sure that you are comfortable with the counsellor's ethical stance.

  • Could I work with them?
    It's normal with someone you do not yet know to have qualms about disclosing important information about your life and feelings. But you may want to consider whether you feel comfortable with the counsellor and could see yourself working closely with them.

    Having said that, sometimes choosing someone who feels familiar [from the Latin word familia meaning "family"] may actually mean that their "blind spots" in relation to emotional issues may be unhelpfully similar to your own. In those circumstances, it might be the case that a therapist who feels somewhat different from you (un-familia-r) may be better placed to see things from a different perspective from your own and so more effectively challenge and stretch you.

    However, if you feel you have to lie to your therapist about issues crucial to your work together, and do not perceive this as changing as you continue to work together, or if you do not at some point start to experience noticeable change, then this might be an issue that is worth reviewing.

  • What model or theory do they use?
    Different counsellors use different theoretical models to aid their work, and this can have a significant effect on how they approach the issues at hand and how they work with you. A little background knowledge of the various approaches can help you understand how comfortable you would be working with the therapist as well as important issues such as how wide ranging the work is, how long it is likely to take, and what the overall cost might be. You can find information on some of the more common ways of working here.

    Whatever their approach, a counsellor should have good boundaries and at the same time be someone who is caring, warm, non-judgmental and who has the capability to understand what it is like to be in your shoes.