The Psychotherapy Practice Research Network (PPRNet) blog began in 2013 in response to psychotherapy clinicians, researchers, and educators who expressed interest in receiving regular information about current practice-oriented psychotherapy research. It offers a monthly summary of two or three published psychotherapy research articles. Each summary is authored by Dr. Tasca and highlights practice implications of selected articles. Past blogs are available in the archives. This content is only available in English.
…I blog about CBT, negative effects of psychological interventions, and what people want from therapy.
Type of Research
- ALL Topics (clear)
- Alliance and Therapeutic Relationship
- Anxiety Disorders
- Attendance, Attrition, and Drop-Out
- Client Factors
- Client Preferences
- Cognitive Therapy (CT) and Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
- Combination Therapy
- Common Factors
- Depression and Depressive Symptoms
- Efficacy of Treatments
- Feedback and Progress Monitoring
- Group Psychotherapy
- Illness and Medical Comorbidities
- Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT)
- Long-term Outcomes
- Neuroscience and Brain
- Outcomes and Deterioration
- Personality Disorders
- Placebo Effect
- Practice-Based Research and Practice Research Networks
- Psychodynamic Therapy (PDT)
- Resistance and Reactance
- Self-Reflection and Awareness
- Suicide and Crisis Intervention
- Therapist Factors
- Transference and Countertransference
- Trauma and/or PTSD
- Treatment Length and Frequency
Does Mindfulness Lead to Greater Empathy Among Psychotherapists?
Cooper, D., Yap, K., O’Brien, M. et al. (2020). Mindfulness and empathy among counseling and psychotherapy professionals: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Mindfulness, 11, 2243–2257.
Just about every theoretical model of psychotherapy recognizes that therapist empathy is a necessary and fundamental component of treatment. A meta-analysis showed that higher therapist empathy as rated by patients was a moderately strong predictor of outcomes. Despite its importance, training programs in counseling, clinical psychology, and psychotherapy have not found effective ways of increasing empathy among trainees. Some might argue that more mindful therapists might be more attentive and accepting of aversive emotions and therefore more open to entering a client’s world or experiences. Rogers defined empathy as the capacity to enter into the private perceptual world of the other, and it involves taking another’s perspective and being emotionally moved. Measures of empathy assess dimensions such as personal distress, empathic concern, fantasy, and perspective taking. Mindfulness, on the other hand is defined by some as an open and receptive attention and awareness to one’s own present experiences. The theory is that having this receptive mindful attitude is necessary to develop empathy for others. If this is the case, then mindfulness training might foster a greater empathic attitude among psychotherapists and trainees. In this study, Cooper and colleagues (2020) conducted a meta-analysis to examine the relationship between dimensions of mindfulness and empathy among psychotherapy trainees. They also looked at studies that examined if training in mindfulness was associated with greater empathy among trainees. The results from up to 10 studies showed that greater levels of mindfulness were associated with less personal distress, r = − .42, 95% CI [− .55, − .27], and greater perspective taking, r = .28, 95% CI [.15, .40]. However, there was no significant relationship between mindfulness and empathic concern or fantasy. When aggregating the findings of the six studies that examined the effect of mindfulness training on increasing trainee therapist empathy, there were no significant effects on any of the empathy scales.
This is not a well-developed research area because of the few studies and small sample sizes, and so results should be taken with a grain of salt. Meta-analyses clearly show that therapist empathy is important to patients and their outcomes. Higher levels of mindfulness were associated with greater perspective taking and lower personal distress. Mindfulness might help therapists to disengage from internal experiences and free up resources to be empathic to patients’ distress. However, the existing research does not support the use of mindfulness training to improve therapist empathy.
Therapist Empathy and Client Outcome
Elliott, R., Bohart, A. C., Watson, J. C., & Murphy, D. (2018). Therapist empathy and client outcome: An updated meta-analysis. Psychotherapy, 55(4), 399-410.
As early as the 1940s Carl Rogers spoke about the key role played by therapist empathy in determining client outcomes. Many clinical writers consider empathy as a therapist ability or trait that enables one to understand the other person’s feelings, perspectives, or motivations. Rogers defined empathy as the therapist’s sensitive ability and willingness to understand the client’s thoughts, feelings, and struggles from the client’s point of view. Three main modes of empathy include: rapport in which the therapist shows deliberate compassion for the client, communicative attunement in which the therapist stays attuned to the client’s moment to moment experience, and person empathy in which the therapist makes a sustained effort to understand the historical context of the client’s experience. There is recent neuroscience research showing specific brain processes at work when one automatically or unconsciously mirrors others’ experiences, when one deliberately tries to take an other’s perspective, and when one vicariously experiences others’ distress. Empathy is similar to unconditional positive regard, but empathy further involves the immersion of the therapist in the client’s experience. In this meta-analysis, Elliott and colleagues were particularly interested in the association between therapist empathy and client outcomes. The meta-analytic review included 82 independent samples and 6,138 clients. The overall study-level weighted correlation was medium-sized, r = .28 (95%CI: .22, .33), which is equivalent to a d = .58. In other words, therapist empathy accounted for approximately 9% of client outcome variance, which is similar to the effects of the therapeutic alliance and larger than the effects of specific treatment methods. Measuring therapist empathy by the client resulted in the largest association with outcomes, whereas measuring therapist empathy from the therapist’s perspective had the smallest association with outcomes. There were no differences between therapeutic approaches when it came to the empathy-outcome association.
Psychotherapists have known for decades that empathic attunement with a client’s internal experiences is a key factor to clients getting better. Effective therapists of any orientation understand their clients’ goals and tasks, their moment to moment experiences in session, and their unspoken nuances. This requires therapists to continually adjust their assumptions and understanding. Client outcomes depend to some extent on how well the therapist receives, listens, respects, attends to, and responds to what the client experiences in therapy. Regularly assessing and focusing on the client’s experience of therapist empathy (not the therapist’s assessment of their own empathy) is most useful to help therapists modify their interpersonal stances and improve their clients’ outcomes.
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Psychotherapy Relationships That Work: Becoming an Evidence-Based Therapist II
Norcross, J. C., & Lambert, M. J. (2018). Psychotherapy relationships that work III. Psychotherapy, 55(4), 303-315.
Relationship factors in psychotherapy are some of the most important predictors of patient outcomes. They outweigh factors like the type of therapy provided in determining whether patients get better after psychotherapy. In this second overview article, Norcross and Lambert provide a review of 17 meta-analyses of relationship factors in psychotherapy that contribute to positive outcomes. Like the review of patient factors also found in this blog and E-Newsletter, this article briefly outlines those evidence-based relationship factors that reliably predict patient outcomes in psychotherapy. The therapeutic relationship refers to how the therapist and patient relate to each other, or their interpersonal behaviors. By contrast, techniques or interventions refer to what is done by the therapist. Practice guidelines typically focus on interventions or therapeutic orientation. As the authors argue, what is missing from treatment guidelines are the person of the therapist and the therapeutic relationship – evidence for which is backed up by 5 decades of research. Even in studies of highly structured manualized psychotherapy for a specific disorder in which efforts were made to reduce the effect of individual therapist, up to 18% of outcomes (a moderate to large effect) could be attributed to the person of the therapist. By contrast somewhere between 0% and 10% of outcomes (a small to moderate effect) is attributable to specific treatment methods. So, which therapeutic relationship factors are reliably related to patient outcomes? These include: the therapeutic alliance in individual therapy (306 studies, g = .57) couple therapy (40 studies, g = .62), and adolescent psychotherapy (43 studies, g = .40), collaboration (53 studies, g = .61) and goal consensus (54 studies, g = .49), cohesion in group therapy (55 studies, g = .56), therapist empathy (82 studies, g = .58), collecting and delivering client feedback or progress monitoring (24 studies, g = .14 to .49), managing countertransference (9 studies, g = .84), and repairing therapeutic alliance ruptures (11 studies, g = .62) among others. Over the next few months, I will be reviewing these meta analyses in more detail to discuss how therapists can use this evidence base to improve their patients’ outcomes.
The research as a whole indicates that therapists should make the creation and cultivation of the therapeutic relationship a primary goal of therapy. Factors such as managing the therapeutic alliance, repairing alliance ruptures, engaging in ongoing progress monitoring, managing countertransference and others should be used to modify treatments and interpersonal stances in order to maximize outcomes. When seeking out professional development and training, practitioners should focus on evidence-based relationship factors (managing the alliance, judicious self disclosure, managing emotional expression, promoting credibility of the treatment, collecting formal feedback, managing countertransference) in addition to focusing on evidence-based treatments.
The Effect of Therapist Empathy on Client Outcomes
Elliott, R., Bohart, A. C., Watson, J. C., & Greenberg, L. S. (2011). Empathy. Psychotherapy, 48(1), 43.
There has been a recent upsurge in interest in empathy in psychotherapy following scientific studies in the field of social neuroscience. This research has focused on activation in areas of the brain associated with emotional stimulation, perspective taking, and emotion regulation. Conceptualizations of the role of empathy in psychotherapy have a rich history in both client-centered and psychodynamic traditions. Carl Rogers defined empathy in part as “...the therapist’s sensitive ability and willingness to understand the client...from the client’s point of view.” Elliott and colleagues indicate three main modes of expressing therapeutic empathy: empathic rapport (compassionate understanding of the client’s experience); communicative attunement (ongoing effort to stay attuned with the client’s experience); and person empathy (experience-near understanding of the client’s world). In this meta-analysis of research on therapeutic empathy, Elliott and colleagues were interested in the strength of the relationship between therapist empathy and client outcome, and factors that might determine this relationship. Their meta analysis included 57 different studies of 3,599 clients. The relationship between therapist empathy and client outcome was medium-sized (r = .31), and in the same order of magnitude as the alliance-outcome relationship. There were no differences between theoretical orientations in the size of the empathy-outcome relationship – in other words, empathy was equally important across types of therapy. Client measures of therapist empathy had the largest relationship to client outcome, whereas therapist ratings of empathy had the smallest association with client outcomes. In other words, if you are interested in therapist empathy, best to ask the client. Also, the empathy-outcome relationship was larger for less experienced (vs more experienced) therapists and for more severely (vs less severely) distressed clients. That is, empathy likely is most important for newer therapists and more distressed clients.
Therapist empathy is essential to any psychotherapy regardless of orientation. Empathic attunement and expression is particularly important for clients of newer therapists, and for more distressed clients. Elliott and colleagues suggest that the empathic therapist’s primary goal is to understand the client’s experience and to communicate this understanding to the client. This can be done through: empathic affirmations (i.e., validating the client’s perspective); empathic evocations (bringing the client’s experience to life with rich, evocative, and concrete language); and empathic conjectures (making explicit what is implicit in the client’s narrative). Empathy can deepen client’s experiences, but therapeutic empathy also involves individualizing responses to the client. For example, some fragile patients may find typical expressions of empathy as too intrusive, whereas other clients may find therapeutic empathy to be too directive or too foreign. Being attuned to the client’s receptiveness to empathy is an important therapeutic skill. Elliott and colleagues emphasize that empathy should be grounded in authentic caring for the client and as part of a healthy therapeutic relationship.