Essential Traits of Successful Practice As a Mental Health Counsellor


Mental health counselors must have some essential traits and skills to offer their patients and families the high level of care they need to overcome personal challenges and trauma. Some of these skills are people skills that are developed over time by interacting with others from many different backgrounds, while others are professional theories and techniques that require advanced education and mentored clinical practice to obtain a full professional license to practice independently.

People who love to help others and have the natural resilience to deal with a lot of complex emotional and physical health issues could certainly consider mental health counseling as a potential career choice. Here are a few of the traits, skills, experiences, and qualifications needed to be the best counselor possible:

Listening skills

Counselors have to be among the best listeners out there in order to provide a high level of care. Listening to patients and emphasizing when appropriate is a lot of the job. Patients need to know that a counselor is paying attention to everything they have to say. When one is a good listener, it helps create a bridge of trust and understanding.

Patients need to be allowed as much time as they feel they need to express themselves. If a patient does not seem forthcoming or needs encouragement, counselors must reassure them that they are there to listen to whatever they have to say.

Listening requires the ability to stay focused and calm, even if a patient is not. Learning as much as possible about a patient initially requires more listening than question asking or advice. Patients need to feel that they have some measure of control over how sessions are going if they are to feel comfortable throughout extended therapy.

Cultural awareness and empathy

Practically everywhere is becoming more culturally diverse. Counselors must learn about different cultures and groups within society. No matter what background a counselor may come from, it is likely they would benefit from learning about and experiencing working with people from other backgrounds. Volunteering at various non-profit agencies or clinics can help counselors and students gain experience and become more culturally aware. Reading and researching can help too, but there is nothing like one actually being around others who are different from them.

Empathy is important in counseling, but one needs to be able to empathize well and learn how to relate to a lot of different people. Improved knowledge means a greater understanding of the challenges that others face and how those challenges may be bigger for some than others.

Ability to be non-judgmental when listening and offering advice

While there are some judgment calls one will have to make as a therapist, one does need the ability to listen and respond to patients in as non-judgmental a manner as possible. Counselors are there to listen to patients and help them, not let personal prejudices or trauma lead to them making patients feel judged or threatened when at the practice. 

The most successful mental health counselors and therapists are those who have the ability to make practically anyone let their guard down and feel that they are talking to someone they can trust and who truly wants to help them solve their problems or learn good and healthy coping mechanisms for things that they cannot change like the actions of others.

Written and verbal communication skills

When communicating with others, counselors need to always be clear and concise. In the world of mental health, the fewer misunderstandings the better. Patients, counselors, colleagues, and others rely on counselors to communicate well. 

People communicate more with the written word than they realize. Thanks to so many people texting and emailing rather than picking up a phone, the ability to write well is perhaps more important to a working professional than it was in the past. Even those who have administrative assistants and others to do a lot of their communications still have to do plenty on their own.

Clinical experience

Those wondering how to become a licensed mental health counselor in NY will find that they need to earn at least a master’s degree and complete 3,000 clinical hours working under the supervision of a currently licensed mental health counselor.

St. Bonaventure University offers an online Master of Science in Education in Clinical Mental Health Counseling that can be completed online. The coursework prepares students for the licensing exams and clinical practice hours needed to become a fully licensed mental health counselor in NY or their chosen state of practice.

Professional confidence

It is important, as a counselor, to have confidence and faith in what one does and how to approach each client. Being confident allows a counselor to approach each client from the viewpoint that there is something that can be done to help them and make their life better, no matter what their situation might be. 

Having the education, skills, and experience to be a good counselor is something to remember. Degree programs and the necessary clinical hours required to be a fully licensed counselor are designed to instill natural confidence in one’s professional skills.

Personal confidence and resilience

Counseling means dealing with a lot of difficult situations and traumatized individuals and families. Substance abuse can provide additional issues that counselors have to help patients overcome. As you might imagine, this can result in patients or family members being fairly harsh in their language and comments to counselors. A counselor must remain confident in themselves and not let any of this lead to a major reaction or influence the level of care they offer the patient. 

There are some extreme situations where a counselor-patient relationship does not work out. This is up to the patient, except of course in situations where the counselor feels they are in physical danger or the victim of physical violence from a patient.

Good observation and people-reading skills are a must

There are many reasons why a patient may not be entirely truthful when they answer a question or tell their side of a story or situation. Counselors must learn how to hone in on body language and listen for statements that do not quite make sense so they can detect where there may be some alteration or omission of the truth. 

Figuring out why a person feels the need to be untruthful is important in almost any case. The reason may be as simple as fear of judgment and shame for what they did, or they may be scared of criminal repercussions. Parents may be fearful of being truthful because they do not want to lose custody of their children due to past or current actions.

Over time a counselor can learn to read a patient’s body language. Taking notes during sessions that document anything unusual can lead to a better understanding. For example, a patient may blink rapidly when being deceitful or they might make a lot of hand movements when nervous.


Everyone has experiences that have helped to shape who they are today. For some, there are more painful experiences and traumatic situations than others. In some cases, these situations may have been somewhat removed but still shaped a person. A distant family member’s experience may be a story one is told in childhood that affects their perception of some things.

Counselors must take the time to come to terms with their own thoughts, emotions, and past experiences and how that might impact the care and understanding they offer patients. Some patient cases may be more emotionally challenging for a counselor than others due to these past experiences. For example, if a counselor has an abusive parent and is assigned a patient who has admitted to abusing their child then the healthiest way to approach this would be to see the situation as an opportunity to help prevent further abuse by helping the patient learn to deal with their anger and aggression in a healthy and nonabusive way. 

Counselors can make a difference by setting aside their own triggers and using their past experiences as a source of strength and understanding, which will make them an awesome counselor throughout their career.

Continuing education and keeping up with current events

There is always something new to learn in the world of mental health. Counselors should always be looking for new techniques and theories. Reading papers, attending lectures, and networking can all help counselors stay in touch with current trends in mental health treatment.

Keeping up with what is going on in society is also helpful because it has such an impact on the mental health of society. For example, during the pandemic, as lockdowns and social distancing became the new normal, there was an increase in mental health issues and substance abuse. 

Lockdowns also led to fewer people seeking treatment for conditions. In-person therapy and counseling were limited. Telehealth and virtual appointments helped ensure that some people were still able to talk to someone or renew prescriptions, but for those experiencing feelings of loneliness and isolation, virtual appointments were not quite the same.

When there is any type of stressful event that affects the general population, depression, anxiety, and other common stress-related disorders occur more often. People who are normally well-balanced can develop problems that would benefit from some level of professional treatment.


Conferences and lectures are great places to network and meet others working in the world of mental health. Having a good network of peers and colleagues can offer counselors professional support and help them learn about new opportunities in their field.

Seminars and lectures allow professionals to share their knowledge and experience. Sharing experiences can definitely help counselors learn how to help even more people.

Ability to instill trust in patients

Counselors need to create an atmosphere that is comfortable for patients. This means counseling rooms should have windows, and be cheerful, and relaxing. House plants, soothing paintings or pictures, and comfortable furniture are helpful. Having water or even coffee and tea available in some cases can be helpful. Soothing music with no words may help some patients relax and make the most use of session time.

Knowing when to use humor can help patients relax and feel more comfortable. If they find something humorous or want to tell a story that is funny to them then this is a great time to form a better connection and empathize with them. Patients are working through difficult situations, so being able to have some lighthearted moments can help de-escalate emotions and make it easier for them to open up.


Mental health counselors are in demand and provide a valuable service to society. Becoming a counselor is a great way to help others and enjoy the perks of a rewarding career — this can be achieved via a combination of online classes and in-person clinical hours. 

A love for helping others and strong listening and communication skills are some of the main requirements for those who want to succeed as a therapist or mental health counselor. Continually improving skills and seeking out new ways to help others is important throughout any therapist’s career.