Castonguay, L.G., Boswell, J.F., Zack, S., Baker, S., Boutselis, M., Chiswick, N., Damer, D., Hemmelstein, N., Jackson, J., Morford, M., Ragusea, S., Roper, G., Spayd, C., Weiszer, T., Borkovec, T.D., & Grosse Holtforth,, M. (2010). Helpful and hindering events in psychotherapy: A practice research network study. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, and Training, 47, 327-344.
There are many reasons why I like this paper, and one reason is that it is a psychotherapy practice research network study (most of the co-authors are independent practice clinicians). This group of clinicians and researchers met on a number of occasions to define the research questions, including: “what do psychotherapists and clients find most and least helpful in a psychotherapy session?”; and “do psychotherapists and clients agree on what was most and least helpful?” The clinicians and researchers also discussed and agreed on the method for collecting and analysing the data. Thirteen independent practice clinicians participated (6 CBT, 4 psychodynamic, and 3 experiental/humanistic). For a period of 18 months, all new clients were invited to participate so that 121 clients with a variety of disorders enrolled in the study. Clients and therapists filled out (on an index card) parts of the Helpful Aspects of Therapy (HAT) measure, which asked them to report, describe, and rate particularly helpful and hindering events from the session they had just completed. For example clients and therapists were asked: “Did anything particularly helpful happen during this session?”; and “Did anything happen during this session which might have been hindering?” When participants answered “Yes” to either of these questions, they were asked to briefly describe the event(s), and then rate them on a scale from 1 to 4 for level of helpfulness or level of hindrance. Both clients and therapists did so at the end of every therapy session. Close to 1500 therapeutic events were recorded by the clients and therapists. The events were then coded and categorized according to type of event by independent raters using an established coding system. Clients rated self-awareness, problem clarification, and problem solution as the most helpful type of events, although self-awareness was significantly the most identified of all helpful events by clients. Therapists rated self-awareness, alliance strengthening, and problem clarification as the most helpful type of events. Therapists identified self-awareness and alliance strengthening significantly more often than any other helpful events. Hindering events were identified much less frequently by clients and therapists. Client identified poor fit (e.g., therapist tried something that didn’t fit the client’s experience) as the most frequent hindering event category. Therapists identified therapist omissions (i.e., failure to provide support or an intervention) as the most frequent hindering event category. Overall, with the exception of self-awareness, therapists and clients did not agree on what were the most helpful or hindering events in therapy.
Results regarding self awareness indicate that providing clients with opportunities to achieve a clearer sense of their experience (e.g., emotions, behaviors, and perceptions of self) is frequently reported as beneficial by both clients and therapists. The events that therapists most frequently reported as detrimental were those in which they failed to be attuned to their clients’ needs. This may reflect therapists’ concerns with potential alliance ruptures. The overall lack of agreement between therapists and clients on helpful and hindering events raises the question about whether therapists are not aware enough of clients’ experiences, or whether clients are not knowledgeable about what is in fact therapeutic. Perhaps client and therapist ratings of events represent complementary perspectives on what works or does not work in psychotherapy. Regarding participating in research, these independent practice therapists reported that the procedure of writing down helpful and harmful events and reading what their clients wrote after each session had a positive impact on their practice. That is, the process of data collection became immediately relevant to their clinical work.
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