“It’s all about relationships” was posted in several spots throughout the hall of my graduate school’s department of Marriage and Family Therapy. One was on a banner, another on a 12×16 poster and another as the tagline beneath some of the promotional paperwork.
I’d ponder the meaning of that phrase as I passed from one classroom to another or stood in the snack area to scarf down a bite to eat.
Was it a way to emphasize how important it is to build rapport with our clients? To help them with their relationships? Was it meant to be a bigger statement of life, that life is all about relationships?
I think we assume grad school will equip us in every way possible to do this line of work and be paid well doing it. But grad programs aren’t designed that way. Schools have criteria set out by college accreditating entities and licensing boards, which tell them the courses they need to have in their programs.
There are Gaps in What Grad School Programs Cover
Needless to say, therapy and counseling graduate programs can’t fully equip us to become successful therapists or counselors. There are too many facets to becoming effective and successful in this field for a 2-year program to cover.
That being said, even though my graduate program was wonderful–they did a great job at educating and inspiring–I knew there needed to be more.
more to understand about human nature and psychology
more to know about clinical issues
more to know about what really helps people in therapy
more to understand about how I could better help my existing clients with the specific issues they had
The Complexity of Becoming a Therapist
But the biggest lesson I learned as a trainee in practicum was how complex becoming a therapist is. The idea and desire to help people in this capacity is a fairly simple one because I felt called to this work. And yet the more clients I saw I realized how much more there had to be out there to help us do this work, and do it well.
Thankfully there is more. We have access to many post-graduate training opportunities. Depending on what we want to do or specialize in, there is usually something accessible to help us with it. Or somebody is busy creating it (e.g. my online course to help pre-licensed therapists get into private practice).
And as a licensed therapist now, having taken years of post-graduate training and education I can tell you in my work with clients, the number one thing I continually focus and re-focus on is, “How am I doing with the alliance, or the relationship with client x, y, z?” This means above and beyond any intervention or technique, my main priority is always cultivating the rapport and strengthening the relationship.
In an article “Reliance on the Alliance: Part 1” by Barry Duncan, who’s known for helping therapists become more effective clinically says “The alliance is the central filter of all your words and actions: Is what I am saying and doing now building or risking the alliance? This doesn’t mean that you can never challenge clients; it just means that you must earn the right to do so and must always consider the alliance consequences.”
Let’s break this down a bit.
- It means you’re aim is to build a relational bond with your clients. We know this begins with estabishing rapport from the get go. And rapport can look different with a wide-range of clients. It’s almost like being on a first date where you’re on your best behavior and putting your best foot forward while being geniune and non-judgmental (credit to Carl Rogers). It’s about being friendly and accommodating. Because everyone’s perception of that can vary, Duncan recommends being flexible in your rapport and relationship building. “Pay attention to what excites clients: When do they lean forward, raise their voice, sparkle their eyes, talk more? What topics and ways of relating raise their activity and engagement?”
- Getting to know your clients in a way that continually increases your understanding of them is the basis of building a relationship with them. The kind of attention, attunement and listening we need to do to accomplish this is almost like a meditation. I say this because of the intent focus we are called upon to do in order to increasingly understand them more while cultivating rapport. Duncan talks about the concept of validation as a “useful way to think of your relational responses, as an overall backdrop for your comments.” This means approaching each client with the awareness and acceptance that in the context of their life and “trying circumstances—that they have good reason to feel, think, and behave the way they do.” That everything they’re going through will be able to be understood and made sense of.
- Use the complexity of who you are to approach each client in a way that’ll help them feel connected to you, understood and accepted. This encompasses your breadth of life experiences, values, education and training. It’s a tall order for all of us, to do this consistently day in and day out but as we get in touch with more aspects of ourselves, process and come to terms with our relationships and who we are, we become more adept at connecting with a broad range of clients and their vast experiences.
- “Use your relational skills as a project and as perhaps the central symbol of your development as a therapist.” Barry Duncan adds that it’s helpful to legitimize the client’s concerns in a way that shows we are putting ourselves in their shoes and imagining what it would be like. And then highlight the importance of the client’s struggle. He also says to approach each client with a geniune appreciation for who they are.
I like to reflect on the courage and vulnerability it takes for my clients to continue to come and open up. Each person has a deep need to be heard, understood and seen, and if we can give that to them then we’re doing the virtuous work of therapy and keeping the relationship first and foremost.
Tyra Butler is a therapist and the founder of the Facebook group Early Career Clinician Community where she gives some of her best tips to succeed on the road to licensure. She works with pre-, provisionally-licensed and early career therapists to help them find paid work, start and grow their practices and make important decisions and career moves. She offers coaching and consultation, and as a professional writer provides copywriting coaching to create web site, marketing content and formulate innovative ideas to create additional income. Tyra has been in private practice for 10 years, with 15 years in mental health, business and professional copywriting. Learn more about her services and blog here. Contact her here.