You need to feel comfortable with the therapist. Within a session or two, you should have a sense that you are being heard, have a sense that the counsellor is developing a good understanding of you as a person and that you are comfortable working with this person. The technical term for this is that there is a “therapeutic alliance” between you and the therapist.
A “comfortable” counsellor is not necessarily someone that you never disagree with, or who never disagrees with you. Sometimes the greatest lessons come when the counsellor and the client struggle together for mutual understanding. If, however, this does not happen in a “safe” environment, then you are unlikely to be able to make use of this struggle in therapeutic ways. The exchange must always happen in an environment of mutual respect.
The counsellor needs to be skilled in their practice. It is reasonable to ask them how experienced they are, what qualifications they have and what modalities they use. In talking about modalities, a good question might be “so what draws you to working in that way?”
Psychology, psychotherapy and counselling are skilled professions. While many people can be helpful to talk through an issue, a skilled professional must have more than just a “good ear”. Ensure that the qualifications are at a professional level. In Australia, most professionals will have a mix of university and developmental courses to guide them.
A professional counsellor will ensure that their work is subject to review by other professionals. This involves a process in which the counsellor regularly meets with another experienced counsellor and the work being undertaken is discussed. This process is called “professional supervision” and is done in such a way as to ensure confidentiality is maintained while letting the supervisor explore both the approach being taken and impact of this work on the client and counsellor.
A professional counsellor will be a member of one or more professional organisations. This organisation will ensure that the qualifications and ongoing professional development of the counsellor is maintained. It will also hold the counsellor accountable to a prescribed set of ethics.
The highest standards of professionalism can be determined by choosing a counsellor who is on the National Register. Psychologists are required to be registered in the state or territory in which they practice.