Good counsellor – bad counsellor – how to choose!

Blog Post No. 148

By Dr Jim Byrne

16th October 2016

Dr Jim’s Counselling Blog: How to choose a potent (and safe) counsellor or psychotherapist to help with your problems…

Copyright (c) Jim Byrne, 2016



choosing-counsellorsIf you are thinking of using counselling, coaching or psychotherapy, as a way to tackle one of your current problems, then you will have to decide how to choose a counsellor.

The best approach is probably to go off ‘word of mouth’ recommendations.  If you have a friend or relative who recently went through a course of counselling or therapy, or lifestyle coaching, who wants to recommend their coach, counsellor, or therapist to you, then that is normally a reliable guide to what you can expect in your turn from that professional person.

However, since many people who use counsellors, and other helping professionals, feel somewhat shy about revealing that fact to their friends and/or relatives, it is often difficult or impossible to get a personal recommendation.  In such circumstances, you have to have some way to evaluate the available counsellors, to determine who would be best for you.

Some common approaches

In a blog on – –  you will find the following list of criteria for choosing a counsellor or therapist:

1. What does it feel like for you to sit with the therapist?

checklist-palmerThis is the wrong place to start.  If you are already sitting with the counsellor, then you have already made some kind of choice, even if it is only to try one session with them.  A better starting point is this: A checklist for clients interested in receiving counselling, psychotherapy or hypnosis, By Dr Stephen Palmer & Kasia Szymanska.

However, this checklist is primarily interested in finding a safe counsellor; but you also need to consider their competence!


2. What’s the counsellor’s general philosophy and approach to helping?

This could be a helpful guide.  And you may often find clues on the counsellor’s website.


3. Can the counsellor clearly define how he or she can help you to solve whatever issue or concern has brought you to therapy?

This might not be so helpful, since the counsellor could tell you anything they liked, and you would not have much idea how to assess its veracity or reasonableness.


4. Does the counsellor seek regular peer consultation?

This is important, but it does not determine the effectiveness nor the morality of the therapist.  Anybody can go through supervision (or peer consultation), and hide what they are like in practice with their clients!


feedback5. Can your counsellor accept feedback and admit mistakes?

This is not much help, since you would have to engage with them for quite some time to find out the answer, and you might be with the wrong counsellor!


6. Does the counsellor encourage dependence or independence?

This is a very important principle.  A good counsellor should begin as a ‘nurturing parent’ type (if appropriate) and allow the counselling relationship to evolve into one of equal adults (companions!)  But again, you would have to consult them many times before you knew the answer to this question, and then it might be too late!


7. Has your counsellor done his or her own therapy?

This is a hugely important point.  Many counsellors go through the motions of doing their own therapy, because it is a requirement of their training for a diploma in counselling in the UK; but they often do not really resolve their childhood problems in the process.

cover-imageI have done my own therapy exhaustively, and resolved my childhood developmental problems.  See:

NTS eBook No.2 – Healing the Heart and Mind: Two examples of writing therapy stories, plus reflective analysis, by Jim Byrne

NTS eBook No.3 – Daniel’s Devilish Daydreams (which is a fictionalized autobiography of the first 35 years of my life), by Jim Byrne.


8. Does the therapist have experience helping others with the particular issues for which you are seeking therapy?

This is difficult to determine.  Anybody can claim to have helped anybody with anything.  Who would know if that claim is true or not?


9. Does the counsellor make guarantees or promises?

This does not help much.  If the counsellor makes guarantees or promises, this might be because they are trying to generate hope in the client – but it is better not to create false hope!  A counsellor might also insist they cannot make any guarantees or promises – and this might be a sign of realism, or a sign that they know they will not be much help!  How would you know which it is?


tim-bond-ethics10. Does your counsellor adhere to ethical principles in regard to issues such as boundaries, dual relationships, and confidentiality?

This guideline only helps once you are involved with the counsellor.  If they show signs of breaching their declared ethical principles, you should end the relationship immediately, and depart.  And consider making an ethics complaint to their accrediting body.  But this principle will not help you to choose a counsellor in the first place.


11. Is the counsellor licensed?

Harold Shipman, MD, was a fully licenced GP in the UK, who murdered several of his patients!  Licence means licence!  It tells you nothing in terms of the morality or safety of the practitioner.  Anybody who tells you a licence is a guarantee of safety is lulling you into a false sense of security!  The current system of registration in the UK is guilty of this serious sin!  A registered counsellor is just that: registered!  Registration does not guarantee that they are ethical in their moment to moment practice!  It also cannot guarantee either that they are normally competent, or that they would be reliably competent with you!


12. Does the counsellor have a graduate degree?

Graduate degrees are great (and I have a couple!)  But they do not guarantee the competence, morality or safety of the practitioner.  And some voluntary counsellors produce outcomes for their clients which are on a par with the best of the postgraduate practitioners!


graduate-qualification13. Does the counsellor have postgraduate training?

Same problem as number 12 above.  Postgraduate training does not guarantee morality or competence!


14. Have any complaints been filed with the (accrediting body)?

No complaints had been filed against Dr Harold Shipman (as far as I recall) before he was arrested and charged with killing many of his patients!  And before any wayward professional is found guilty of their first instance of professional misconduct, it can be proudly announced that (in most cases) “No complaint has been filed against this individual!”  This is a useless criterion for self-protection!  Only a fool would consult a counsellor against whom a serious complaint had already been made (but you cannot always know about such complaints!).  But only a worse fool would conclude that, because no complaint has yet been made against a particular counsellor, therefore they are pure as the driven snow!  Keep your wits about you! 

Don’t let bureaucratic systems of registration and regulation lull you into a false sense of security!  You are responsible for keeping yourself safe at all times!

What does this mean?  To be quite specific and blunt: If you do not know how to be assertive in relationships – to defend yourself against exploitation – and are prone to passively going along with others, it would be unsafe to enter into any kind of counselling or psychotherapy relationships, before you work on your self-assertiveness!

lillian-glass-toxic-peopleHere’s a list of book recommendations on developing self-assertiveness (at


How to think about individual counsellors

In ancient China, long before Confucius and Lao Tzu, people were classified into four groups, or classes.  These were:

‘Scholars’, who studied the ‘way of the world’;

‘traders’ who bought and sold goods;

‘cultivators’ of agriculture, including tea and cotton;

and ‘handicrafts people’, who manufactured those items that existed at that time.

Of those four classes, today, we could say that counsellors should model themselves upon the scholars rather than the traders, cultivators or handicrafts people.  They should study philosophy, psychology, biology, nutrition, exercise, and all those disciplines which support the healthy functioning of the body-brain-mind. (See Holistic Counselling in Practice***)

Book-cover-front(Of course, it is also important to note that there was also another ten-part classification of ‘men’ in ancient China, given by the King of Ts’u, which was based upon a hierarchy of power relations, undifferentiated by skill or ability, other than the ability to hold on to power!  And power, including abuse of power, continues to be a problem for society today – including relations in counselling and therapy.  Therefore, you should seek a counsellor who is an egalitarian rather than an authoritarian!)


Different kinds of people

A counsellor or psychotherapist is a ‘person’, with a family history, and a track record of dealing with the challenges of life.  It therefore makes sense for a potential client to ask their potential counsellor(s):

  1. What is your family history?
  2. What went wrong, and how did you adapt to those challenges?
  3. How did you resolve the problems presented to you by your family of origin?
  4. And where are you up to with your family of origin today?

These kinds of questions would be particularly important to ask if you (the potential client) have unresolved problems from your family of origin, and want to know that you will be guided through that work by somebody who has done that kind work on their own family of origin.  You can find out about my family of origin, and how I dealt with various developmental challenges, here:

daniels-daydreams-cover-imageNTS eBook No.2 – Healing the Heart and Mind: Two examples of writing therapy stories, plus reflective analysis, by Jim Byrne

NTS eBook No.3 – Daniel’s Devilish Daydreams (which is a fictionalized autobiography of the first 35 years of my life), by Jim Byrne.


There is an ancient Arab saying which classifies human beings into four types:

  1. Those who know not, and know not that they know not. They are fools, shun them.
  2. Those who know not, but know they know not. They are ignorant, teach them.
  3. Those who know, and know not that they know. They are asleep, wake them!
  4. And those who know, and know that they know. They are wise, follow them.

Of these four classifications of persons, only No.4 qualifies as a ‘good counsellor’.  Make sure you choose a wise person as your counsellor, since a fool, an ignorant person or an unconscious person will mislead you.

In order to know whether a person is wise or not:

  1. Look at the qualities of their own life, to the degree that those are visible.
  2. Find out about them from people who know them, or know of them.
  3. Read what they write – but read it critically, since anybody can write ‘for effect’!


That’s all for now.

I hope you find this helpful.

Best wishes,


Dr Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling

ABC Coaching and Counselling Services

Email: jim dot byrne at abc-counselling dot com

Telephone: 01422 843 629


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