Counseling Today, Member Insights

Four lessons in building therapeutic relationships

By Anne-Marie Burke November 9, 2021

Tell me if this resonates: You enter graduate school bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, fresh with hope and galvanized by various novel theories that promise to offer you some sliver of competence when you enter the counseling room in barely a year’s time. Like any counselor-in-training who takes seriously the ethical imperative to “do no harm,” you are practicing basic skills, reflecting on how developmental models and family systems reveal your own skeletons, and thinking to yourself, “Surely these heady ethics issues won’t come up in internship.” (They do — immediately.) 

But you are still stuck. There are nagging questions jangling in the back of your skull: “How in the world do I counsel someone? Where do I even begin? What do I do when I am totally lost in a session?” 

Seeking to know the future and set my expectations, I consulted with a diverse milieu of practitioners, doctoral students and professors. Nonetheless, satisfying answers eluded me. As my anxiety grew, I was forced to seek comfort in the cozy lap of our profession’s favorite platitude: Trust the process.

Having since finished practicum/internship, I can now appreciate the futility of trying to anticipate all that this defining year has in store for counselors-in-training. Although I cannot tell you what to expect, I can shed light on the complexity of your experience and encourage you to lean into the promise of the therapeutic alliance.

Counseling’s heartbeat

The importance of the therapeutic alliance for client change cannot be overstated. It is the heartbeat of each intervention, technique and theoretical approach in the counseling profession. Furthermore, scholarship abounds with evidence of its effectiveness in the field.  

But what is the therapeutic alliance? An agreed-upon definition is difficult to find, but two common threads are routinely mentioned:

  1. A mutual respect is present between the client and the counselor as they embark on the shared purpose of resolving the client’s issues.
  2. Once safety and trust have been established, honest disclosure from the client is required, alongside support and nonjudgmental feedback from the counselor. 

These key aspects of the therapeutic alliance have their own implications: How do we establish mutual respect? How can we ensure safety and trust? Instead, I have simplified the therapeutic alliance down to one thing: figuring out what the client needs from me in every moment. 

Branislav Nenin/Shutterstock.com

Despite initially feeling underqualified to counsel clients — some of whom were at their most vulnerable — I was not ill-equipped. Theories and hypotheses lit my path, while companions such as horizontal and vertical processing, reflecting and silence never failed to fuel my clients’ process of discovery. These tools, along with many others, emboldened me to take risks with clients that, in turn, spurred them to “try on” emotional intimacy with me.

But in the beginning, it was not pretty. Impatient with the skills I was learning, I lurched from one to the next, hoping something would stick. For example, when an open-ended question and simple reflection did not produce the kind of insight I intended, I would jump to psychoeducation or a more complex reflection rather than giving space to my client to process what I had said. Thanks to good feedback from my supervisor and group members, I gradually slowed the pace of sessions down considerably and challenged myself to “be” with my clients intentionally. As I became purposeful in my skills, particularly with reflections, rather than panicking from one to the next, my clients relaxed with me and also became purposeful in their responses. This had an opening effect that laid the groundwork for safety and trust. 

Still, I made mistakes. I went headlong into directions that clients did not buy, catapulted to interpretations that pushed them away and introduced concepts that they simply could not wrap their heads around (e.g., they have value as a person because they exist, not because of how they perform). In such moments, the therapeutic alliance can crack; it can even rupture if these moments are frequent. Even the smallest misstep can create a distance that did not exist before. Recognizing those mistakes and renewing my commitment to figuring out what the client needed from me in that moment put me back on course. 

Doing this often allowed many of my therapeutic relationships to flourish. Because of this, I found that I could also offer difficult feedback to my clients. I believe that clients show up in the therapy room similar to how they show up in everyday life. Knowing this, if they engage in a pattern of behavior with me that is detrimental to building relationships, I judiciously offer feedback regarding their impact on me. 

For example, one of my clients struggled with impulsivity during conflict. She needed to resolve issues on her terms, leaving little room for how her partner processed conflict. During a session, I noted her compulsion to speak over and over again about the conflict as if I were not even there. Because I trusted our relationship, I was able to say, “I know you care deeply about the people you love, and this conflict is wearing you thin, but as you talk about it, I feel an overwhelming need from you to repeatedly say everything you need to say rather than engage in a conversation, and this makes me feel distant from you. I wonder if others in your life feel this same disconnection when you are attempting to resolve a conflict?” 

Her normally tough exterior immediately crumbled, and she burst into tears. She responded, “I thought I was doing everything in my power to overcommunicate and show how much I care about this person, but I am definitely not doing that.” It was the therapeutic alliance that helped the client believe me because she knew I cared about her. This exchange and realization led the client to engage in productive interpersonal work from there on out.  

Navigating the frontier of uncertainty

Perhaps all this talk about therapeutic alliance comforts you. You are skilled at constantly navigating your clients’ specific sensitivities and acknowledging your own mistakes. I hope this brings you substantial peace of mind. But do not be deceived. There is something else bubbling underneath all of this, and it is magical.  

The great pleasure of the therapeutic alliance is not that you can control it. In fact, the opposite is true. You have no clue where it will take you. For instance, I recall a time when one of my clients was laughing about their dog’s odd name one moment, and the next they were divulging their mother’s rape and their subsequent childhood in victim protection. 

In every session, no matter how I prepared, I landed in uncharted territory. This uncharted territory is the fertile but painful frontier of uncertainty. In this frontier of uncertainty, I made it my singular responsibility to shepherd properly by modeling presence, authenticity, cognitive flexibility and emotional agility. As a practicum/internship student, I noticed four counterintuitive ways to navigate this frontier and build powerful therapeutic relationships. 

Lesson No. 1: Do not infantilize clients. I treat clients as the adults they are by going over my center’s attendance policy with them and charging them for no-shows and late cancellations. This can lead to some awkward conversations, and, candidly, it is tempting to not charge them. Yet when I do have these conversations, clients show up, work with me in advance to reschedule their appointments or tell me to charge them because they know the policy. 

In other words, they treat me as a human whom they can affect with their actions. It is an invitation for the client to meet me at a boundary, which, by nature, brings connection rather than pushing us away from each other. Resistance to paying indicates other boundary issues that are worth exploring together. 

Lesson No. 2: Allow clients to be the experts of their own lives. Remember the abrupt drop into uncharted territory that I mentioned earlier? Generally, a big dose of anxiety accompanies it. Here, instead of asking myself what is going on with the client right now, I quickly ask myself what is emerging inside of me at this very moment. A quick scan of my internal environment usually tells me that I am too preoccupied with looking incompetent or fearful of disappointing my clients. This makes me overly involved in my own need to find answers and not involved in my clients’ search for their answers. 

My goal is to help clients make meaning of their life, not ascribe my meaning to their life. Recognizing whose search I am in — mine or theirs — and then permitting myself to not know their answers generally allows me to enter back into the session and sync into their process. This takes us to places that my limited understanding never would have given us access to. 

Lesson No. 3: Allow clients to feel that they matter to us. One of the most effective ways I have done this is simply to ask my clients, “Are you getting what you need?” Better yet, I ask them to tell me what they got out of the session. This helps both of us know where we stand. 

We are taught in counseling skills classes to summarize a session. Doing so demonstrates that we have listened thoroughly and, more important, ensures that the client feels safe and seen. If I have not done this throughout the session, then asking the client to tell me what they got out of it at the end is not going to bring us closer. But if I have gone to great lengths to show that I have seen and heard the client throughout the session, then asking them to summarize is a good way to see where we are on the same page and where we are not. 

What stuck? What did not? We see what we are creating together, which further bonds two people. (Note: I am careful here to ensure that clients are not giving me answers for my own ego. When we have a strong bond with our clients, they might want to please us. Teaching them to discern their progress through what Carl Rogers called their own “intrinsic valuing system” rather than our “conditions of worth” is critical for their long-term success.).  

Lesson No. 4: Seek out exceptional supervision. My supervisor sharpened my attunement to the therapeutic alliance by leading me to the root of my countertransference. 

In a couple’s session, I was determined to amplify a boyfriend’s voice by redirecting to him each time that his girlfriend would cut in. It had begun sinking in that their relationship was in jeopardy, and, naturally, she was in a lot of pain. But instead of validating her pain, I stayed the course to see what was happening inside of the boyfriend. In a sense, I cut her off emotionally. 

This backfired in two ways. One, there was an insurmountable distance between the girlfriend and me for the rest of the session. And two, rather than continuing to express his own emotions and thoughts, including his desire to end the relationship, the boyfriend turned his attention to comforting and validating his girlfriend. She could not see his pain without her pain first being acknowledged, and he was in pain because he was causing her pain. And I missed it because I had my own agenda. How did this happen? 

Upon listening to the recording of the session, my supervisor nonjudgmentally asked me what my feelings were toward the girlfriend to have skipped such an important reflection. I answered that I had not wanted to allow her to monopolize the conversation in yet another session. But there was more to it below the surface. 

At the beginning of the session, the girlfriend had accused me of turning her boyfriend against her. This had caused a high amount of tension in me and a desire to defend myself, even though I knew her accusation was only a distraction from what was going on between her and her boyfriend. I knew it was much easier to blame me than for her to see the signs that had been present in their relationship for months. 

I processed the accusation as therapeutically as possible, trying to redirect her to the boyfriend’s wishes to end the relationship. But in truth, I was angry and caught off guard. I unconsciously cut myself off emotionally to her in order to align with him. This resulted in all of us being isolated from each other.

Surprise! They never came back. I failed. But in this failure, my supervisor helped me uncover an invaluable piece of guidance: I should not be afraid to ask myself what I am feeling toward a client. I find that my answers are often surprising and worthwhile. I must then assess honestly whether my feelings are affecting my desire to build a relationship with the client. Are these feelings hindering my ability to prioritize my client’s growth? This does not mean that I should just tell clients what they want to hear, but it does mean that I should guard against withholding empathy from them because of my own negative feelings.

The catalyst for change

Despite implementing good tools to enhance the therapeutic alliance, I have had several clients who simply did not want me to continue as their counselor. In some cases, it may have had absolutely nothing to do with me personally. It may have been that I reminded them of someone, that my age made them uncomfortable or any number of other reasons. One former client came to her second session only to tell me that she did not want to continue working with me and not to even bother giving her referrals. 

On the other hand, I witness so much change in other clients’ lives that I overflow with joy. I celebrate those moments and allow fulfillment to cascade through my body. Then, I stop and reflect. Coupled with those moments are the tentacles of hubris tempting me to believe that I am bigger than the therapeutic process. I am not. The therapeutic process — and my clients’ engagement in it — is the catalyst for change. It’s not about me. 

I stay bound to the therapeutic process with my clients and bound to my role in their process. I am not bigger than this process. This truth buffers me on the days (I think) I am totally ineffective and, conversely, humbles me on the days I want to take more credit than I deserve. Good news: This reality testing is also a good way to prevent burnout. 

As I write this, I find myself wishing desperately that I could tell all counselors-in-training what to expect, but I cannot. You will engage in dozens of new therapeutic relationships, all of which must be watered, pruned and loved differently. Those of us who have come before you are cheering you on. Keep doing your work, and trust that if you do, you will get more comfortable in not needing to know what to expect.

 

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Anne-Marie Burke graduated with a master’s degree from Georgia State University’s mental health counseling program. She is a clinical mental health counselor and national certified counselor practicing at Samaritan Counseling Center in Atlanta. Contact her at amburke@samaritanatlanta.org.

 

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3 Comments

  1. Keith Klostermann, PhD, LMHC, LMFT

    Thanks for such an important article highlighting the importance of the therapeutic alliance. I would add to these recommendations that it is essential to create a culture of feedback in which clients feel comfortable telling us when therapy is not working – on a session-by-session basis, which starts from the very first session. Previous research has shown that most clients do not tell us when their needs are not being met or when they feel disengaged or disconnected – they simply drop out. Formally and routinely assessing the client’s perception of the alliance offers an opportunity to better tailor treatment to meet the client’s preferences and possibly improve retention and outcome. Scott Miller and colleagues at the International Center for Clinical Excellence developed the Session Rating Scale (SRS), which is a psychometrically valid 4-item measure used to assess client’s perceptions of the key alliance ingredients (feeling heard and understood [i.e., relationship], means and methods used, and client’s overall perception of the session). As noted by Miller, “engagement and outcomes are improved when problems in the relationship are identified and openly discussed (https://www.scottdmiller.com/intake-a-mistake/).” Client responses can be tracked over time and across clients for use in supervision as a tool to not only monitor performance, but continuing clinical growth and development. The SRS (or other alliance measures) offers an opportunity to more precisely measure the strength of the alliance in an ongoing manner and can be used regardless of preferred theoretical model.

    Reply
  2. Jenny

    Thank you for this insightful article. I am a graduate student currently in my practicum. This article came to me at the right time as I am struggling with my own agenda in relation to techniques and theoretical approaches instead of focusing on the client and our therapeutic alliance. The process has been challenging for me as I started my practicum present and allowing the client to guide the process. However, as practicum continued our class began diving into utilizing therapeutic tools and techniques. This made me think that I needed to focus on those aspects and I lost the most important piece of the counseling process…. the therapeutic alliance. Yesterday, I had a discussion with my supervision about this and I have been struggling with emotions of discomfort and worry that I may have lost my intuition and natural instinct to develop a trusting relationship with the client that is focused on their needs and not my own agenda. This has been an odd experience for me because my greatest skills has been gaining a strong therapeutic alliance with the client prior to this setback. Thankfully, this article gave me the perspective that I needed! I will refer to this article when I fall into doubt as it has given me inspiration and a reminder of why I am in this field.

    Reply
  3. Sue Cristol

    As an experienced therapist, I was so struck by this article. I was struck that we have to constantly as therapists remind ourselves that we don’t know anything! We have to remain curious, patient and vulnerable. In this way our clients can trust us and allow us into their world. Thanks so
    much for reminding me.

    Reply

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