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Key to Successful Therapy

A key component to successful therapy is the relationship between the therapist and client, Drs. Bernard Schwartz and John V. Flowers suggest. The therapist and client must develop trust and a strong bond, and the therapist must communicate caring and empathy for the client.

"Techniques, though useful, are insufficient by themselves," Schwartz and Flowers insist, and they give an example that illustrates this problem:

"Adrian was the poster child of a graduate psychology student. He rarely did less than perfectly on papers and exams, and he had published several professional-level research papers by the time he graduated. But when he started practicing, one small problem arose - his client dropout rate was nearly as high as his grades had been. This was not a case of not being adroit at diagnosis and treatment planning; he knew what to do and how to do it.

"Adrian would have been a great therapist - if it hadn't been for the clients. He just didn't know how to connect with them. Reviewing Adrian's taped sessions, his supervisors determined that he approached therapy as if it were analogous to repairing an automobile - tell the customers (clients) what the problem is, what needs to be done to fix it, and when it will be finished. The human element was missing. For Adrian there was never any time for chitchat, for asking about how the client's favorite team did that week, where they were going to spend their upcoming vacation, or whether the kids had recovered from the flu. Instead it was 'How did the homework assignment go?' 'On a scale from zero to ten, where is the depression this week?' These are relevant questions but not the stuff of which bonds are made."

We can learn from Adrian's mistakes. The relationship between therapist and client must come first. Schwartz and Flowers offer some suggestions in their book, Thoughts for Therapists (Impact Publishers), for strengthening the therapist-client bond:

  • Treat each session as an opportunity to bond with your client. "Warmly welcome the client- making eye contact, shaking hands and perhaps offering a beverage. All too often therapists wave in the next client much as an accountant does so at tax time - 'next victim?'" (Eve Lipchik)
  • Ask the client periodically if they feel understood and respected.
  • Voice your admiration for demonstrations of client strengths, survival skills, and personality characteristics.
  • Convey to clients that their struggles, successes, and setbacks matter to you - that their wellbeing is a deep concern, not just as a professional, but on a personal level as well.

Focus on the quality of the therapeutic relationship, rather than on just the mechanics of therapy. You are treating a whole person, and empathy, the sense that the client is really being listened to, is a curative force. Not only will you probably enjoy your therapy sessions more, but you might also find that your patients stick around for years. After all, what else is more important in therapy than a friendly listening ear?

Patients who felt that their therapy was successful described their therapist as "warm, attentive, interesting, understanding, and respectful." (Hans Strupp and Ann Bloxom)

Adapted from Thoughts for Therapists, by Bernard Schwartz, PhD and John V. Flowers, PhD. Available at online and local bookstores or directly from Impact Publishers, Inc., PO Box 6016, Atascadero, CA 93423-6016, or phone 1-800-246-7228.

Reviewed by athealth on February 5, 2014.