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
Therapist Reflective Functioning and Client Outcomes
Cologan, J., Schweiter, R.D., & Nolte, T. (2017). Therapist reflective functioning, therapist attachment style, and therapist effectiveness. Administration Policy and Mental Health, DOI: 10.1007/s10488-017-0790-5.
Differences between therapists account for about 8% of patient outcomes, which is a moderate effect and therefore an important factor. Constructs such as therapist personality characteristics and facilitative interpersonal skills may play a key role in how effective therapists can be with their clients. An important therapist quality might be reflective functioning, or mentalization. Reflective functioning refers to the ability to conceptualize, identify, and understand mental states in oneself and in others, and how mental states affect behaviour and functioning. For example, reflective functioning is the basis for predicting others’ behaviors, understanding social nuances and others’ intentions, and also one’s own behaviors and internal experiences. Fundamentally for a therapist, reflective functioning is necessary for empathy, which is a key therapeutic quality. Another key issue for therapists might be their own attachment security, or their characteristic ways of relating to others in interpersonal relationships. Securely attached therapists (those who have a positive view of self and others in relationships) may be able to develop a better therapeutic alliance with clients. Insecurely attached therapists (those who are avoidant in relationships or who are preoccupied in relationships), may struggle to a greater extent with developing and maintaining an alliance. In this study, Cologan and colleagues assessed reflective functioning and attachment security in 25 therapists from different theoretical orientations who treated 1001 adult clients who mostly had problems with depression or anxiety. Client outcomes were measured pre and post treatment. On average clients experienced a reduction in their symptoms after psychotherapy. Clients of therapists with higher levels of reflective functioning experienced better outcomes. Therapist attachment insecurity did not have a direct effect on client outcomes.
As with other studies, therapists in this study varied in their outcomes, so that some had better outcomes than others. Level of therapist reflective functioning (ability to mentalize) accounted for a large proportion of this difference. Therapists who had greater skills with understanding their own and clients’ behaviors in terms of mental states (intentions, motivations, psychological and emotional needs, internal conflicts) likely were better able to empathize and develop an alliance with their clients. These are skills that therapists can learn with practice, consultation, personal therapy, and training.
Experts Agree on Strategies to Repair Alliance Ruptures
Eubanks, C. F., Burckell, L. A., & Goldfried, M. R. (2017, December 21). Clinical consensus strategies to repair ruptures in the therapeutic alliance. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration. Advance online publication.
Research is clear that the therapeutic alliance (i.e., agreement on tasks and goals of therapy, and the bond between client and therapist) is an important predictor of client outcomes across theoretical orientations. It is also clear that ruptures or strains in the alliance occur often and can have a negative effect on client outcomes. One can define two types of ruptures: (1) withdrawal ruptures, in which the client moves away from the therapist by shutting down, changing the focus, or not completing session assignments; and (2) confrontation ruptures, in which the client moves against the therapist so that the relationship quality is low, the client is not collaborative, and the client does not agree with the goals of therapy. Repairing alliance ruptures can have a positive effect on client outcomes, and therapists can learn to repair alliance ruptures. What are the best strategies that a therapist can use to repair alliance ruptures? In this study of expert consensus, Eubanks and colleagues surveyed clinicians in three broad and different surveys. In the first survey, the authors asked 330 professional social workers and psychologists from a variety of theoretical orientations to describe situations in which they encountered alliance ruptures in clinical practice. The researchers categorized situations described by clinicians as withdrawal ruptures or as confrontation ruptures, and then the authors selected those scenarios that best represented each type of rupture. In a second independent survey, 177 clinicians indicated how they would advise a colleague seeking consultation to respond to each scenario of a therapeutic alliance rupture. Clinicians generated between 35 and 45 strategies to repair each type of alliance rupture. In the final part of the survey, training directors in psychology and social work programs nominated peer experts to rate the strategies for alliance repair, so that 134 peer-nominated expert clinicians provided ratings. There was a high level of consensus among experts such that between 55% and 74% agreed on effective strategies to repair alliance ruptures. Experts agreed that during the session in which the alliance rupture occurred therapists should: explore and empathize with the client`s anger at the therapist, and validate or legitimize the client`s position on the issue related to the rupture. Experts also agreed that in future sessions clinicians can use other strategies like: helping the client manage and cope with painful feelings related to the rupture, helping the client clarify and explore their emotions related to the rupture, and exploring the meaning and patterns of problematic relationships outside of therapy.
Experts agreed that the best strategies to repair therapeutic alliance ruptures were to deal with the therapeutic bond (e.g., explore and empathize with the client`s anger at the therapist) and to validate the client`s position on the issue related to the rupture. Other strategies like helping the client cope with their reactions and feelings, and exploring the meaning and patterns related to the client`s response were also rated as helpful. Less helpful strategies included therapists communicating about the limits of therapy, and therapist self-disclosure of their reaction to the rupture.
Therapists’ Interpersonal Skills Make a Difference
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.
Does Therapist Training Improve Client Outcomes?
Erekson, D. M., Janis, R., Bailey, R. J., Cattani, K., & Pedersen, T. R. (2017). A longitudinal investigation of the impact of psychotherapist training: Does training improve client outcomes? Journal of Counseling Psychology, 64(5), 514-524.
The research on the effects of therapist training on client outcomes has not been very encouraging. Most studies indicate that more therapist training, better adherence to and competence in a treatment manual, and greater experience are not related to improved client outcomes. The profession would like to think that therapists affect client outcomes so that more training and experience might be related to better outcomes. One could argue that the research in this area is hampered by many studies not following the same therapists across time over stages of training. That is, many studies compare client outcomes between novices and licensed professionals – but these studies do not really address the question “does an individual therapist get better as he or she accumulates more years of training and experience?” In this unique study, Erekson and colleagues track client outcomes of 22 therapists over a 10 year period starting from the therapists’ early training in a doctoral program in psychology to their first years as licensed psychologists working in a counselling centre. On average, the psychotherapists saw 183.95 (SD = 103.23) student clients during that time (range: 62 to 449 clients). The clients primarily had clinically impairing problems with anxiety and depression. Stages of training were defined as: graduate trainee, intern, post-doctoral fellow, and licensed professional. The average client moderately improved (d = .72) in terms of symptoms from the start to the end of their therapy. When looking at therapists’ effects across stages of training, the authors controlled for client initial severity and size of therapist caseload. The results indicated that 4 of the 22 therapists improved in their client outcomes over stages of training, 10 remained the same, and 8 therapists worsened over time. On average, client outcomes remained the same across a therapist’s stage of training. However, average client rate of change (i.e., how quickly a therapist’s client improved) became slower as therapists achieved more training and experience.
This study adds to the weight of evidence that therapist training and experience as currently conceptualized do not result in better outcomes among clients. One possible explanation for why psychotherapist trainees do as well or better than when they are licensed professionals may lie in the structure of training programs. Trainees in graduate school and internships typically receive a high level of supervision and learning experiences, and must deliberately report client progress on an ongoing basis. Therapists who are licensed professionals are not required to maintain these practices, and so they may not be practicing deliberately. Researchers and clinical writers identify deliberate practice as an important means by which practicing psychotherapists can maintain and improve their skills in interpersonal effectiveness and therapeutic alliance.
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Do Psychotherapy Trainees Get Better with More Training?
Owen, J., Wampold, B. E., Kopta, M., Rousmaniere, T., & Miller, S. D. (2016). As good as it gets? Therapy outcomes of trainees over time. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 63, 12-19.
Does psychotherapy training improve trainees’ knowledge and skills? Do trainees improve in their ability to produce positive client outcomes over time? The research on training psychotherapists is mostly inconclusive. Some studies show little or no difference between trainees and experienced therapists, and others found no association between level of experience and client outcomes. On the other hand, some researchers have found a relationship between training and competence in delivering a particular type of treatment. Overall, the research seems to show that there is a lot of variability between therapists in their outcomes and on how training affects their practice and their clients’ outcomes. However, rarely do these studies assess outcomes within the same trainee over time as they accumulate more training. In this study, Owen and colleagues evaluate if psychotherapy trainees’ client outcomes improved with training over time. They assessed 114 psychology trainees at different levels of training in 47 clinics across the U.S. These training therapists saw over 1100 clients over at least a 12-month period, and many therapists were followed for three years. The average client improved, but with small effects (d = .31, CIs not reported). Therapists were more effective with clients who were more distressed (d = .66) than clients who were less distressed (d = .10), probably because more distressed clients had more room to improve. Trainees’ outcomes improved significantly over time, although their average improvement over time was small. Most importantly, trainees’ improvements over time varied so that the researchers were able to identify four patterns of change over a three year period of training: (1) one group of trainees started out with moderately good outcomes and their outcomes remained moderately good over time; (2) a second group started out with small positive effects in their client outcomes and they improved to achieve moderately good outcomes by their third year; (3) a third group of trainees started out with small positive client outcomes but their outcomes got worse by their third year; and (4) a fourth group started out with poor outcomes and improved to achieve small positive outcomes by year 3 of their training.
Trainees appear to have various trajectories in their ability to foster positive client outcomes over time, and, at times, that trajectory is negative. Trainees whose outcomes get worse over time (group 3) or who do not achieve at least moderately good outcomes (group 4) may need specific training to foster better interpersonal effectiveness, empathy, management of countertransference, and humility. In general, therapists should assess their clients’ outcomes with progress monitoring tools in order to use the feedback to improve their outcomes over time. If outcomes are not positive on average, then therapists should consider remediation, further training, or consultation.
What Characterizes Effective Therapists?
Wampold, B. E., Baldwin, S. A., Holtforth, M. G., & Imel, Z. E. (2017). What characterizes effective therapists. In L.G. Castonguay and C.E. Hill (Eds.) How and why are some therapists better than others? Understanding therapist effects. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
The research on therapist effects indicates that some therapists are more effective than others. Previous research showed that therapist characteristics like age, race, ethnicity, gender, and experience are not consistently related to patient outcomes. Neither is therapist competence and adherence to a treatment approach. In this chapter, Wampold and colleagues ask the question: what characterizes effective therapists? The research is complicated because it is difficult to disentangle therapist effects from patient factors. That is, it is possible that some clients (i.e., those who are more motivated, likeable, and psychologically minded) might create favorable conditions for some therapists to be more effective. However, recent advances in statistical methods have allowed researchers to isolate the effects of therapist characteristics from patient factors. Based on this new research, Wampold and colleagues identified four characteristics of effective therapists. (1) The ability to form an alliance across a range of patients. The therapeutic alliance is defined as the agreement on tasks and goals of therapy, and the affective bond between therapist and patient. Alliance is reliably associated with good patient outcomes. Research shows that therapists and not clients are primarily responsible for the alliance-outcome relationship. (2) Facilitative interpersonal skills – which includes verbal fluency, warmth, empathy, and emotional expression. These skills in a therapist are a strong predictor of patient outcomes. (3) Professional self doubt – or healthy skepticism about one’s abilities and skills leading to self-reflective practice has also been found to predict positive patient outcome. (4) Deliberate practice - defined as individualized training activities especially designed to improve specific aspects of an individual’s performance through repetition and successive refinement. The amount of time outside of therapy that therapists engage in improving targeted therapeutic skills predicted patient outcomes.
Some therapists are better than others - and demographics, professional affiliation, training, and adherence to a manual do not differentiate better therapists. Four factors are emerging as indicators of better therapists. Ability to develop, maintain, and repair a therapeutic alliance is well known to predict patient outcomes and it appears that therapists are largely responsible for the condition of the alliance. Therapists’ ability to be verbal, warm, and empathic is also key to patient outcomes. Professional skepticism about one’s abilities that lead to reflective practice is also an important characteristic in order to continually improve one’s abilities and monitor one’s outcomes. And, finally therapists who spend time outside of therapy deliberately and repetitively practicing skills will achieve better patient outcomes.