Effective Qualities To Look For In A Psychotherapist

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated February 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

For the most effective mental health care, you may want to find a provider who correctly matches your needs. You might look for someone you can trust and feel comfortable with or a provider who openly listens. When looking for a psychotherapist, consider how their active listening skills may benefit you.

Seeking a therapist who really listens?

What is a psychotherapist?

A psychotherapist can be defined as a mental health professional who often uses a variety of therapeutic approaches to help people define issues and cope with symptoms related to mental health. They often employ talk therapy to uncover underlying mental health challenges or conditions. 

Psychotherapists can provide a range of services depending on their license. For example, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and counselors all provide psychological care, but each one may focus on a different area, type of care, or type of patient. 

If you're interested in connecting with a professional to discuss difficult emotions or symptoms, you might seek a counselor or a therapist. They may each have differing licenses. For example, a behavioral counselor may have studied behavior, whereas a trauma therapist may have specialized in the impact of trauma on the body. 

When looking for the right therapist for you, it is important to consider how their education and qualifications vary. Areas of study for psychotherapists include topics such as human development, sexual abuse trauma, or sociology.

How does psychotherapy work?

To understand why listening skills can be necessary for a psychotherapist, you may want to understand what the psychotherapy process entails. Often, it's a collaborative talk therapy treatment for mental health challenges or conditions, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

For talk therapy to be effective for you, you might want a trusting relationship between yourself and your therapist. If you don't feel safe or heard, you may not feel comfortable being fully honest about your feelings. In this case, it can be difficult for the therapy to be as effective as intended.

CBT focuses on identifying and shifting flawed thought patterns that may lead to unhealthy emotional responses and behaviors. Extensive research supports this type of therapy's effectiveness for various mental health challenges and conditions, including depression and anxiety. 

The National Institute of Health (NIH) calls CBT "the gold standard of modern psychotherapy." Active listening can be a vital part of this therapy model (and others) because it's often based on open communication within the therapeutic relationship.

How to recognize active listening from a counselor

You may wonder how to find a therapist that practices listening skills. Often, therapists are trained to use the technique of "active listening." 

The American Psychological Association defines active listening as "a psychotherapeutic technique in which the therapist listens to a client closely, asking questions as needed, to fully understand the content of the message and the depth of the client's emotion." 

If your therapist ignores, interrupts, or invalidates you, you may be meeting with someone who is not using active listening principles. In this case, you might choose to try a new therapist or bring up your concerns in a session. 

What isn't active listening? 

It might also be valuable to recognize potential behaviors that may not represent active listening. A 2013 academic paper on the topic lists twelve categories of these characteristics that are not indicative of active listening:

  • Commanding with a voice of authority
  • Cautioning with a threat of negative consequences
  • Giving advice that begins with phrases like, "what I would do, is…"
  • Arguing or lecturing to try and persuade a client that their position is the only correct one 
  • Moralizing or preaching with "should" statements that convey negative judgment
  • Disagreeing or criticizing, implying that there's something wrong with the client
  • Agreeing or praising too often or in a disruptive way
  • Shaming or expressing disapproval at a specific behavior or attitude
  • Interpreting or analyzing what the client's "real problem" is based on a statement meant to invalidate or ignore a client's feedback
  • Reassuring often without listening 
  • Excessive questioning, which may make a client feel they're being interrogated
  • Distracting from the topic at hand

Healthy qualities of a psychotherapist 

A healthy psychotherapist may make you feel listened to and understood without being judged, interrupted, or told what to do. 

There are three elements of active listening that you can look for in a provider, based on an article in the International Journal of Listening

1. Displaying nonverbal involvement

Non-verbal cues may demonstrate involvement and interest in a speaker's message. In psychotherapy and other situations, this may take the form of regular eye contact, head nods, or open body language. 

If someone is looking around the room or sitting perfectly still without physically acknowledging their continued involvement in a conversation, it could make you feel like they're not listening or not interested. You may also pick up on visual cues in online therapy via video. If your therapist is not in a quiet and professional environment on a video call, you might feel they're not paying attention. 

2. Refraining from judgment and paraphrasing

Many of the twelve characteristics from above relate to passing judgment or giving an opinion. A therapist who is arguing, moralizing, disagreeing, or shaming may not be creating a safe, neutral space where the individual can openly express how they feel. 

Noticing these behaviors in a therapist may show that you're not being listened to or that they're listening only with the intent to judge—neither of which are generally productive dynamics for a talk therapy relationship.

One study on the topic expressed that "an active listening response theoretically communicates empathy and builds trust by indicating unconditional regard and confirming the other's experience." 

Therapists are often trained to avoid judgment and not to connect their clients' thoughts with their own opinions or experiences. Instead, they might learn to rephrase what a client says to show they're taking it in. It may sound like, "what I'm hearing you say is…" or "I understand how that situation could make you feel…" for example.

3. Asking questions

Another potential component of active listening is asking questions as needed to encourage elaboration. A trained psychotherapist might ask you to say more about how something made you feel or to identify the underlying belief behind something you've talked. These gentle nudges may help individuals know they're being heard and encourage them to continue talking. 


The importance of cultural competence

An important aspect to consider when looking for a therapist who is right for you is making sure that they are sensitive to cultural differences. Attitudes about mental health, family, religion, and social behavior can vary depending on cultural background. Therapy may be the most effective when the therapist is able to approach treatment in a way that respects the culture and values of the patient. 

A culturally competent therapist will be respectful, informed, and understanding of cultural differences. Therapists and other health care providers should never make offensive remarks about things such as your race, gender, sexual orientation, or culture. 

Some patients may prefer to work with a therapist who shares the same cultural background as them. It can be beneficial to enquire about a potential therapist’s cultural competence before deciding to move forward with their services. Setting boundaries and standards for cultural sensitivity at the beginning of the therapeutic process can help set you up for success. 

Protecting LGBTQIA+ youth from conversion therapy

The term conversion therapy refers to the practice of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity, often through spiritual methods. It is also sometimes referred to as “reparative therapy”. Such interventions are based on the false belief that LGBTQ individuals are mentally ill. The practice of conversion therapies to change sexual orientation has been condemned widely by scientific literature and virtually every medical, educational, and mental health organization in the US.

Parents of LGBTQ youth should be aware of the dangers of undergoing conversion therapy. Despite the fact that conversion efforts have been reported to cause long-lasting damage to mental health and increased suicide attempts, many youths are still currently experiencing conversion therapy. The number of youth in America that experiences conversion therapy every year is estimated to be around 16,000. 

Conversion therapy usually starts at home when the family rejects the sexual orientation of their child or teen. A research study by San Francisco State University found that youth who were rejected by their families because of their sexual orientation were eight times more likely to attempt suicide. People who have received conversion therapy have reported shame, fear, hurt, and long-lasting trauma from the experience. 

Human sexuality and gender expression exist on a diverse spectrum, and forcing sexual orientation change through conversion therapy has no basis in scientific research. In fact, sexual orientation change efforts are often detrimental to those who receive them. Conversion therapy statistics show that youth who have undergone conversion therapy are at a much higher risk for depression, homelessness, and suicide attempts. LGBTQ youth who are experiencing homelessness are also at a higher risk for experiencing sexual assault. 

People who have experienced conversion therapy in the past may experience symptoms of lasting trauma, but working with an experienced licensed therapist can help. LGBTQ individuals may find that an informed and affirming therapist can help them process traumatic memories from when they underwent conversion therapy. There are also resources available for the parents of LGBTQ youth, such as San Francisco State University’s “The Acceptance Project”.

How to find a psychotherapist who listens

Seeking a therapist who really listens?

Many psychotherapists are trained to listen to their patients. However, if you come across a mental health professional who is not displaying the hallmarks of active listening or is otherwise not making you feel safe or comfortable in telling your feelings, they may not be the correct fit. 

You may want to read online reviews of a therapist before trying therapy with them. If you enjoy the ease of use that the internet offers, you might also enjoy online therapy. Online therapy can connect you with a therapist from anywhere you have an internet connection, and it is often more affordable than traditional in-person therapy. 

Research suggests that online therapy is as effective as traditional counseling. It has become an increasingly popular option for those who want an available option. If you're ready to try it, consider signing up for a platform such as BetterHelp for individuals or Regain for couples.  


Active listening skills in a psychotherapist may allow a client to feel safe and comfortable expressing their feelings. If you're looking for a counselor who practices these skills, consider reaching out online or in-person to get started. If you're unsure, ask a therapist in your first session or by email how they generally approach a session.
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