- When therapist are effective they attend to the therapy relationship with patients to bring positive changes.
- Non-therapists can pay attention to “alliances” with others and create benefit for their relationships.
- Get curious about what matters to the other person.
- Create and act on possibilities for a mutually beneficial relationship.
When I first had the idea for this post, I wasn’t sure there was any benefit to thinking like I, or many of my colleagues might. Therapists are not perfect human beings. We experience stress and struggles like any other professional. We also, like all disciplines, vary widely. Therapists can be quite different (if not at odds) in how they conceptualize their patients’ struggles, how they go about solving problems, how they manage emotions themselves – basically how they think. Therapists' have to contend with biases and emotional reactivity like all human beings, so there's no perfection or unity to our internal landscapes.
Why Shrinks Do Something Worth Emulating
So, why a blog post on the benefits of aligning with the inner workings of “inner workers” such as psychotherapists? First off, therapy is effective. According to well-controlled studies, most people experience symptom reduction and benefit from psychotherapy relative to control groups of individuals who do not receive treatment.
Beyond the overall effectiveness, across over 300 studies, it remains the case that a primary predictor of positive outcomes for patients in therapy is the “therapeutic alliance” between the patient and therapist. What’s the alliance? It’s basically the professional relationship fostered within psychotherapy and entails not only the emotional bond, but also the agreement between therapist and patient as to what the tasks of sessions are, as well as the goals of treatment.
Studies have shown that the more alignment there is between these ingredients, the higher the quality of the “alliance” and the more likely that therapy will lead to improvements. This effect cuts across differences including types of therapists, levels of experience, theoretical orientations, and clinical technique.
So, as I’m arguing here, shrinks who think about, engage, and consciously harness the therapy relationship as a means for helping patients are effective, and there’s something here worth all of us bringing to the various tables of relationships we gather around. Yes, techniques are important, particularly in specific situations, but when it comes to what good therapists do that you could too, learning to think how they think (and act) with regard to the therapy relationship is a safe bet.
How You Can Harness “Alliance” in Your Life
As a therapist, I strive for a healthy tending of the alliance. I give it quite a bit of attention, even when doing so might lead to “uncomfortable” conversations (e.g. the patient is upset with something I said or did, or I’m struggling with something the patient has done that gets in the way of what we’re trying to do).
Whether it’s your relationship with a teen child, your parent, a partner, a sibling or a colleague, here’s how you can shrink-it-up without being that annoying person who unleashes dime-store and unsolicited psycho-babble-advice.
1. How’s your relationship bond? How does it feel to spend time together? How alive and energized do interactions seem? Do you look forward to seeing each other? How’s the trust level? Do the following:
a. Make CONTACT with the thoughts and emotions that come up. Really notice what shows itself.
b. Aim for CLARITY by sidestepping blame, shame or biased stories about the relationship. What is the objective state of affairs?
c. Get CURIOUS as to what matters to the other person? What drives them? What pain points need to be honored?
d. CREATE and act on possibilities for connecting, healing, showing compassion, giving credit, showing interest in collaboration, etc. Aim for resonating with what matters in the relationship for both of you.
2. Now turn to the “tasks” or the things you tend to do together. Are things agreed upon? Are there things assumed that one or the other of you might be resenting? Use the contact, clarity, curious and create prompts to renegotiate what specific activities, tasks, demands both of you can agree upon within the boundaries of the relationship.
3. Make sure there are shared goals for the relationship. Don’t settle for letting the relationship just “unfold.” Touch the elephant in the room of the goals you have and ask what they want of the relationship as well. Use the “C’s” to guide the conversation toward alignment as to what shared goals the relationship is aiming at.
Case Study: Jane and Mark
Jane, a middle-aged professional, found herself facing a challenging relationship with her co-worker, Mark. They were part of the same project team and had to collaborate closely, but their interactions had become strained, impairing their productivity and overall work environment.
Step 1: Assessing the Relationship Bond
- Contact: Jane realized she often felt frustrated and stressed when working with Mark. She acknowledged her own emotions and how they affected her interactions with him.
- Clarity: She tried to understand the objective state of their relationship, realizing that both had been avoiding direct communication about their issues.
- Curiosity: Jane decided to be curious about Mark's perspective. She wondered what drove his behavior and what he might need from their collaboration.
- Create: Jane tried to show more interest in Mark's ideas and collaborate in a way that honored their shared project goals. She also initiated a candid conversation with him about their working relationship.
Step 2: Addressing Tasks and Activities
- Jane and Mark discussed their roles within the project team. They clarified their expectations of each other and identified areas where they had assumed certain responsibilities without clear agreements. By renegotiating their roles, they were able to establish a more balanced workload and reduce resentment.
Step 3: Defining Shared Goals
- They openly communicated their individual goals for the project and realized that they both wanted the project to succeed. They identified shared objectives and aligned their efforts toward those common goals. This helped them work together more effectively and with a shared purpose.
By adopting a "shrink-like" approach, Jane was able to improve her relationship with Mark. They moved from a state of tension and misunderstanding to one of collaboration and shared goals. This not only enhanced their working relationship but also contributed to the success of their project team, demonstrating the benefits of applying therapeutic alliance principles to real-world interpersonal dynamics.
Flückiger, C., Del Re, A. C., Wampold, B. E., & Horvath, A. O. (2018). The alliance in adult psychotherapy: A meta-analytic synthesis.Psychotherapy, 55(4), 316–340.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1995). The effectiveness of psychotherapy: The Consumer Reports study. American Psychologist, 50(12), 965–974.
Smith, Mary & Glass, Gene. (1977). Meta-Analysis of Psychotherapy Outcome Studies. The American psychologist. 32. 752-60.