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Pete Saunders
Apr 12, 2011

Are Good Counselors Born or Made?

“You have a natural ability to listen and make others feel comfortable,” my wife said to me a few years ago. “I worry you might lose that with formal education,” she continued. My response, “Wow.” My thoughts, could she be right, about the formal education? What if school really kills my “natural ability”?

Is there danger in going to school to improve one’s natural abilities? If there is, how does one shield him-/herself from such possibilities? Surely, one should not use the argument that individuals such as Henry Ford, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg are successful because they put an end to formal education to develop their natural abilities and pursue their passions without being ‘contaminated’ by the education system.

I do not believe this profession, unlike many others, is tolerable to informal training. Yet, how does the counselor-in-training preserve his/her natural ability while receiving formal training? One of my mentors compares the experience of pursuing his PhD to tenderizing chicken. “They took the ‘tenderizing hammer’ and boy, did they work on me,” he recalled. My concern, and that of my wife, is that I will not be able to recognize myself after completing my formal training as a Marriage and Family Therapist and ultimately, a clinical psychologist.

I have the view that, unlike many other professions, good counselors are primarily born not made. I realize that one does not naturally know or is able to successfully employ counseling tools and techniques such as Sand Play, Genogram, and Reframing. Saying that, I do believe it is easier to take someone without a knowledge of computers and, in a few years, make them into a successful programmer. It is also possible to do the same thing with nurses, doctors, and, to some extent, teachers and leaders. Being a good counselor is like being a good musician, specifically a vocalist. While voice training, singing exercises, and vocal techniques help, without a natural gift for singing that person will be doing the equivalent of trying to turn stone into bread – it can only happen with a miracle. In other words, without some natural ability and interpersonal skills, all the training in the world cannot make one a good counselor.

Although good counselors are born, I am in no way suggesting that formal training be negated. There is no doubt in my mind that in addition to having strong interpersonal skills, the counselor must also learn tried and tested counseling techniques to improve his/her practice. It takes much more than being a good listener to become a good counselor. A dead person also “listens” well, uninterrupted, in fact.

This is an anxious time for me, especially since I am new to professional counseling. I am looking for your feedback on this one. If you consider yourself a good counselor, what percentage of that is owed to your natural ability versus owed to formal training?

Thank you for your feedback.

Pete Saunders is a counselor in training at Capella University. He also writes a weekly blog and conducts a weekly video interview on manhood at

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