I’ve been retired from the practice of marriage and family therapy for several years now, but people will still ask me, “What is the secret to effective therapy?” I’d like to share some ideas that can be adapted to any relationship.
First is that a commitment to respecting every person is the foundation of a helping relationship. Respect does not mean agreeing with the behavior that may feel like entrapment. It does not mean accepting views with which you do not agree. It means investing valuable attention to understand what the person is describing as a problem.
The second premise that underlies helping is accepting the fact that what a person says makes sense to him. In reality and in your perception, it may be erroneous or even irrational, but you are willing to listen to what seems real to him. Effective relationships are not necessarily corrections of thinking or behavior but allowing another person to begin to discover ways he can modify his own ideas or behavior.
The third ingredient is listening carefully and clarifying the parameters of the issues with which the client or friend is struggling.
Reflecting what a person says becomes a mirror in which he can see his struggle and explore new approaches for change or overcoming the problem. Client centered therapy calls that simply reflection — helping another focus on what he is saying or thinking.
I think it was the Methodist preacher, Sam Jones, who once asked, “How do I know what I’m thinking until I see what I’ve said?”
My faith as a therapist, primarily working with marriage and family groups, was that people could actually change. Christian grace underlies that concept. People do not have to be prisoners of circumstances. By transformation or education and personal choices of their own will, change is possible.
When Jesus walked along the shore of Galilee, he called two of the fisherman by saying, “Follow Me, and I will make you fish for men.” That compelling invitation not only grabbed their attention but allowed them to commit themselves to a different experience.
Helping people change is ultimately helping them focus on a new idea which empowers not only new insight but positive behavior changes. That has been a rewarding career for me.