Anderson, T., Crowley, M. E. J., Himawan, L., Holmberg, J. K., & Uhlin, B. D. (2016). Therapist facilitative interpersonal skills and training status: A randomized clinical trial on alliance and outcome. Psychotherapy Research, 26(5), 511-529.
Research on therapist effects indicates that there are differences between therapists so that some therapists are more effective than others. Therapist effects account for about 9% of client outcomes, which represents a moderate and therefore important effect. Differences between therapists do not seem to be accounted for by differing levels of adherence to or competence in delivering a manualized treatment. However, some researchers argue that therapist effects can be accounted for by differing level of facilitative interpersonal skills. That is, therapists vary in the level of interpersonal skills, and this difference accounts for a significant proportion of client outcomes. Therapist facilitative interpersonal skills might include: empathy, positive regard, warmth, ability to establish and repair therapeutic alliances, verbal fluency, emotional expression, and the ability to enhance client expectations of improvement. In this unique analogue study, Anderson and colleagues selected 23 “therapists” who were rated as very high or as very low on facilitative interpersonal skills. For example, highly skilled “therapists” scored high on a self-report measure of social skills and also demonstrated high interpersonal skills in their responses to video vignettes of therapy. Therapists also differed on their training status: half of the “therapists” were advanced clinical psychology graduate students, and the other half were graduate students from other programs (social sciences, humanities) who had no clinical training at all. The 66 clients were volunteers from a large undergraduate student research pool who met diagnostic criteria for a mental disorder (anxiety or depression) and were moderately to highly distressed. Clients were randomly assigned to receive treatment or to a wait-list control condition, so that 46 clients (2 per therapist) received treatment and 22 received no treatment. Compared to those in the control condition, clients who received treatment on average improved in terms of level of distress, regardless of which “therapist” they were assigned to. The training status of “therapists” (those with clinical training versus those without clinical training) had no effect on client outcomes or on the therapeutic alliance. Compared to “therapists” with low facilitative interpersonal skills, those with high interpersonal skills (regardless of training status) had significantly better client outcomes and significantly higher levels of the alliance.
This was an analogue study in which some “therapists” were non-clinicians, so one must take the results with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, clients started out distressed, had a diagnosable disorder, and on average they achieved significant reduction in distress if they received therapy. Whether “therapists” had any clinical training did not affect outcomes, that is, non-clinical “therapists” did just as well as clinical trainees. However, higher “therapist” facilitative interpersonal skills regardless of training status lead to better client outcomes. These findings provide support for the notion that a therapist who is: empathic, warm, able to establish and repair therapeutic alliances, verbally fluent, emotionally expressive, and able to enhance client expectations of improvement will be more effective in reducing their clients’ levels of distress.
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