Schottke, H., Fluckiger, C., Goldberg, S.B., Eversmann, & Lange, J. (2016). Predicting psychotherapy outcome based on therapist interpersonal skills: A five-year longitudinal study of a therapist assessment protocol. Psychotherapy Research, DOI: 0.1080/10503307.2015.1125546
Therapist effects, or differences between therapists, account for an important amount of patient outcomes (i.e., 5% to 7%). Two therapist characteristics most consistently proposed as predictors of patient outcomes are: therapist competence/adherence to a treatment manual, and therapist interpersonal skills. A recent meta analysis found that therapist adherence or competence were not significantly related to patient outcomes. However, there has been very little research on therapists’ interpersonal capacities. These capacities might include factors like: empathy, warmth, ability to respond well to patient hostility, sensitivity to interpersonal process in therapy, and ability to address alliance ruptures. In this paper, Schottke and colleagues (2016) conducted a five year study with 41 therapists and 264 patients in which they assessed the impact of therapist interpersonal skills on patient outcomes. The therapists were all post-graduate trainees and who practiced a manual oriented cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or psychodynamic therapy (PDT). The patients were adults mainly treated for depression, and many had co-morbid problems. What was unique about the study is that the therapist interpersonal skill was rated before they received formal training, and the rating were done by trained reliable judges. The judges rated the therapist trainees on interpersonal skills including: clear and positive communication, empathy, warmth, managing criticism, and willingness to cooperate. Patients were assessed pre- and post-treatment on general symptom outcomes. Higher therapist interpersonal skills were reliably associated with better patient outcomes, even after controlling for symptoms severity and number of comorbid diagnoses. In this study, therapist interpersonal capacities measured before receiving formal training and supervision was a significant predictor of patient outcomes after training was initiated.
The findings of this study indicate that therapists’ talent should in part be characterized by interpersonal competencies that include clear communication, empathy, respectful management of criticism, warmth, and willingness to cooperate. It could be that therapist trainees with high interpersonal skills engage in an extensive degree of deliberate practice that may account for better patient outcomes.