Successful therapists focus on their clients’ strengths

Research is increasingly showing that the success of therapy depends not on the theoretical orientation of the therapist, but on key therapeutic processes that cross theoretical boundaries. Two such processes are ‘problem activation’ – helping the client to face up to their problems, and ‘resource activation’ – reminding the client of their strengths, abilities and available support. In a new study, Daniel Gassmann and the late Klaus Grawe have shown that for therapy to be successful, simply using these mechanisms is not enough; rather, success depends on how and when the mechanisms are brought into play.

Gassman and Grawe’s research team studied videos of 120 therapy sessions conducted with 30 clients who had a range of psychological problems. The success of each therapy session had also been reported by the clients and therapists on a session-by-session basis.

From minute-by-minute analysis of the sessions, the researchers found that unsuccessful therapists tended to focus on their clients’ problems, but neglected to focus on their strengths. Moreover, when the unsuccessful therapists did focus on their clients’ strengths, they tended to do so at the end of a therapy session, too late to have a positive effect. Successful therapists, by contrast, focused on their clients’ strengths from the very start of a therapy session, before moving onto dealing with their problems. “They created an environment in which the patient felt he was perceived as a well functioning person”, the researchers said. “As soon as this was established, productive work on the patient’s problems was more likely”. Successful therapists also made sure they ended sessions by returning to their clients’ strengths.

The researchers concluded that a prerequisite for successfully dealing with a patient’s problems is to remind them of their strengths and available support. “The therapist can achieve this not only by establishing a good therapeutic bond”, they said, “but also by focussing more explicitly on the healthy parts of the patient’s personality”.

Gassman, D. & Grawe, K. (2006). General change mechanisms: The relation between problem activation and resource activation in successful and unsuccessful therapeutic interactions. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 13, 1-11.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.