Wampold, B. & Owen, J. (2021). Therapist effects: History, methods, magnitude, and characteristics of effective therapists. In Barkham, W. Lutz, and L.G. Castonguay (Eds.) Bergin and Garfield’s Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change (7th ed.). Wiley. Chapter 9.
Is therapist interpersonal skill a therapeutic “competence”? Past research on this important topic has been hampered by a couple of methodological challenges. First, asking therapists to self-report on their own social skills and empathy may result in a self-serving bias and is not related to patient outcomes. A second challenge is that therapists’ competence may be influenced by patient characteristics. For example, a therapist seeing an angry patient with low motivation to change might appear less competent than the same therapist seeing an agreeable patient who is highly motivated. Until recently these issues have limited the research on therapist characteristics that indicate therapeutic competence. In this part of the chapter, Wampold and Owen review some of the research that overcomes this limitation. Some researchers conducted a series of studies in which therapists watched videos of standardized patients with different characteristics, and the therapists’ responses to the videos were recorded. In this way, all therapists “saw” the same patients. Therapists’ responses to the videos were coded for facilitative interpersonal skills; that is, for therapist verbal fluency, hope, emotional expression, warmth, empathy, and alliance capacity. In one study, therapist facilitative interpersonal skills assessed with these standardized patient videos predicted outcomes of real patients seen by the therapists in their practices. In another study, student therapists completed the therapist facilitative interpersonal skills assessment at the very beginning of their training. These facilitative skills predicted outcomes obtained when the trainees began seeing patients later in their training. In an interpersonally challenging situation, like some therapeutic encounters where affect is strong, the interpersonal skills of therapists were robust predictors of patient outcome.
The research showing that therapist interpersonal skills predict patient outcomes is beginning to redefine what it means to be a competent therapist. Research reviewed elsewhere in this blog indicated that adhering to a treatment manual or protocol is not related to patient outcomes. Instead, therapists’ capacity to use verbal skills to express emotions, to be empathic, to develop a therapeutic alliance with a variety of patients, and to repair therapeutic alliance ruptures appear to be much more reliable predictors of patient outcomes. Training programs and professional development should focus on these important skills.