#029 - Number one tool for therapists: Five simple steps

In graduate school, first year, they presented a study that claimed 80% of clients reported the relationship between the client and therapist as being the most therapeutic part of therapy. At that time I heard that I thought, “Cool, I’ll keep that in mind and now give me the techniques to be an effective therapist.” I didn’t have a way of framing that information in the larger context of the therapeutic relationship and integrating it into actual practice. 

While in school I sought out additional trainings in body-centered trauma work, family systems, and Applied Existential Psychotherapy. I had a lot of tools and techniques that masters in the field taught me. These techniques are vitally important in building a successful practice, but if those tools are used without a relationship of love and respect in place they fall flat.

I had to learn (and continue to do so!) through many mistakes and errors the importance of relationship between client and therapist. Here are five steps to help you develop your greatest tool in the therapy office: Yourself

1.     First, you would have to believe that this relationship is the cornerstone of your work with clients. I also heard in first year grad school that, “We are wounded in relationship and we heal in relationship.” I agree with that statement but I often add in at the end the sentence “unfortunately” because that can be terrifying for clients and also for some therapists! Techniques are necessary and important but they don’t get us all the way.

2.     Second, you have to know how to be in relationship with another human being. Lets not assume that this is a given for therapists. It certainty hasn’t been a given for me, and continues to be something I work on. I have had to learn how to stay present, how to communicate, how to stay connected to another and myself at the same time (that can be really, really hard!). The biggest way I learn this is through my personal therapy work, doing what it takes to heal those wounds that came through those original relationships growing up. Also, accepting and embracing that my body, nervous system, limbic system, mind, and energetic systems are the tools of the therapeutic trade. I put a lot of time and energy into them so they are in tiptop shape.

3.     Third, be willing to take risks. Be willing to share what happens internally for you when your clients share a feeling or experience. And not just the nicey nicey stuff! For example, imagine saying to a client: “When you disregarded the complement I just gave you I feel sad because I was feeling connected to you in that moment and now I feel like you have moved away, how does it feel to hear me say that?” Taking that risk you enter the room as a full human being who is impacted by your client, you are saying you impact me and matter to me. This can be very powerful, and very edgy!

4.     Fourth, be willing to make mistakes and clean it up, together. Find solutions together for your relationship, you don’t have to be the expert! Remember if you are attempting to hear and understand your client then you will be entering into a process together that is not linear, it is very rich and moment to moment full of life force energy. Lots of events could occur between you two so get comfortable with not knowing what is going to happen next!

5.     Fifth, mirror what you hear and see, share your internal experience, and listen for their unmet needs that can be identified in your relationship. These are the techniques of relationship. Practice them and be willing to use them to enter into relationship with your client. Going super slow is a good idea, checking out every reflection, every experience you share, and collaborate in identifying unmet needs.    

This can be really exciting stuff and pretty edgy, so go slow. This probably would be a lot to bring up with a client who has developmental trauma in the first session, you gotta resource first! So remember therapy needs to be safe, but not too safe for the work to happen. You, as the therapist, can tolerate the unknown and as a result will deeply impact your clients as they navigate the healing journey of therapy. Good luck and have fun exploring together!