One Of The Most Important Qualities To Look For In A Psychotherapist

Updated October 27, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

For the most effective mental health care, it’s usually important to find a provider who is a good fit for you and your needs. You want to be able to trust this person and feel comfortable with them—and a key element of this feeling stems from their ability to actively listen. Let’s take a look at what this skill looks like in a psychotherapist.

Seeking A Therapist Who Really Listens?

What Is A Psychotherapist?

First things first: A psychotherapist is a mental health professional who may use a variety of therapeutic approaches to help people define issues and cope with symptoms. They often employ talk therapy as a means to uncover underlying mental health challenges or disorders.

Psychotherapists can provide a range of services depending on their license. For example, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and counselors are all considered to be under the psychotherapy umbrella, but each one may focus on a different area, type of care, or type of patient. If you’re interested in connecting with a mental health professional for help managing difficult emotions or potential symptoms of a mental health condition, for example, you’ll likely want to seek out a counselor (typically for shorter-term treatment) or a therapist (typically for treatment over a longer period of time), both of which exist in the psychotherapy category.

How Does Psychotherapy Work?

To understand why listening skills are so important in a psychotherapist, it’s helpful to understand what the process of psychotherapy entails. In general, it’s a collaborative treatment for mental health challenges or conditions that often takes the form of talk therapy. For talk therapy to be effective, there typically needs to be a trusting relationship between the therapist and the individual. If the individual doesn’t feel safe, secure, or listened to, they may not feel comfortable being fully open and honest about their feelings. In this case, it can be difficult for the therapy to be as effective as intended.

One of the most common types of psychotherapy is a talk therapy practice known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is likely what you’ll experience when you seek out the help of a general therapist. It focuses on identifying and shifting flawed thought patterns that may lead to unhealthy emotional responses and behaviors. Extensive research supports the effectiveness of this type of therapy for a variety of mental health challenges and conditions, including depression and anxiety, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) calls CBT “the gold standard of modern psychotherapy.” Active listening is a key part of this common therapy model (and many others) because it’s based on open communication within the therapeutic relationship.

How To Recognize A Good Listener

Now that it’s clear how important it is to choose a psychotherapist who is a good listener, how can you recognize when you’ve found one? In general, good listeners use the techniques of what’s known as “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, in order to fully understand the content of the message and the depth of the client’s emotion.” It’s a skill that most trained, licensed therapists should be well-versed in, since it’s such an important component of the practice of talk therapy.

It might also be helpful to recognize what kinds of behaviors do not represent active listening, which a helpful therapist generally should not employ. 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 the client that the therapist’s position is correct
  • 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 in order to be in the “one-up” position
  • Reassuring, which can interrupt the flow of conversation and interfere with careful listening
  • Excessive questioning that can make the client feel they’re being interrogated
  • Distracting from the topic at hand

Instead, a psychotherapist should make you feel listened to and understood without being judged, interrupted, or told what to do. Here are three key 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

Nonverbal cues are a way to demonstrate involvement and interest in the speaker’s message. In psychotherapy as well as in other situations, this may take the form of regular eye contact, head nods, or open body language. It’s easy to understand how someone looking around the room or sitting perfectly still without physically acknowledging their continued involvement in the conversation could make you feel like they’re not listening or not interested. Even in online therapy via video, you can often pick up on some of these visual cues.

2. Refraining From Judgment And Paraphrasing

Many of the twelve characteristics that do not correspond to active listening (as listed above) relate to passing judgment on what’s being said. A therapist who is arguing, moralizing, disagreeing, or shaming, especially, is not 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.

As expressed in one study on the topic, “An active listening response theoretically communicates empathy and builds trust by indicating unconditional regard and confirming the other’s experience.” That’s why psychotherapists are usually trained to avoid judgment, and instead to rephrase what the individual is saying in order to show they’re taking it in. This might sound like, “What I’m hearing you say is…” or “I understand how that situation could make you feel…” for example.

3. Asking Questions

One final part of active listening is to ask questions as needed to encourage elaboration. A trained psychotherapist might ask you to share more about how something made you feel, or to identify the underlying belief behind something you’ve shared. These gentle nudges can let the individual know that they’re being heard and provide encouragement for them to continue.

Seeking A Therapist Who Really Listens?

How To Find A Psychotherapist Who Really Listens

All psychotherapists are trained to listen to their patients, so most you find should be well-practiced in the art of active listening. 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 sharing your feelings, they are likely not the right fit for you. 

For a convenient way to connect with a therapist online, consider a virtual therapy service like BetterHelp that matches you with a licensed professional based on your answers to a questionnaire. Since research suggests that online therapy is as effective as the traditional, in-person format, it’s become an increasingly popular option for those who want an accessible, convenient way to find a therapist who is right for them. Continue scrolling to read a review of one BetterHelp therapist. If you prefer in-person therapy, you can still use the information from this article to identify one in your area who demonstrates active listening and makes you feel comfortable.

BetterHelp review #232357

Date of review: October 3, 2021

Review written by BetterHelp user R.Y. after working with Kandice Cowherd for 2 months on issues concerning depression, stress, anxiety, relationship issues, intimacy-related issues, eating disorders, self-esteem, anger management, career difficulties, coping with life changes, and ADHD

“Kandice wonderfully balances making me feel heard and listened to while also providing new ideas and resources to work on improving or helping the wide variety of struggles I come to the session with. Just a couple months in, and I am feeling so good with all the progress I've made. I have full confidence that Kandice would support me and help me with anything I came to the session with. Kandice always responds quickly, checks in with me throughout the week, and overall has made this experience much easier.”

BetterHelp Review For Kandice Cowherd, LCSW

Takeaway

Active listening skills in a psychotherapist can help make the individual receiving treatment feel safe and comfortable in expressing how they feel, which is typically a key aspect of effective talk therapy. You can use the information shared above to help you identify if your therapist is engaging in active listening.

It was formatted this way with review #, date, context, etc. so I left it, but none of the other reviews in articles I've edited have been structured this way. Just flagging in case it needs to be changed to match

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