The “Directive” Therapist

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Folks in emotional distress need to know there’s a way out. They don’t just need to be understood and accepted. They need far more than merely feeling both safe and relieved in venting their concerns to another human being.

Not too long ago, therapists were routinely trained in a very different way about how best to do their jobs. In many ways, they were urged to do as little as possible. They weren’t supposed to make judgments about their clients, or more specifically, to pass judgment on them. They also weren’t supposed to have emotional reactions to the things their clients said, and to be on guard about displaying reactions they couldn’t keep from having. Most importantly, they weren’t supposed to give direct advice. Rather, they were supposed to set an atmosphere in which their clients could feel perfectly safe to explore their own issues, come to their own insights, reach their own conclusions, and, therefore, eventually, resolve their own problems. But in recent years, research on the effectiveness of therapy has provided us some contrary evidence to many of these traditional notions. In the process we’ve learned a lot not only about what makes therapy effective but also about the characteristics an effective therapist needs to possess.

When it comes to facilitating change and growth in human beings (in effect, therefore, what constitutes effective “therapy”), the research has been sending us some consistent messages about what does and doesn’t matter. The discipline within which a therapist is trained doesn’t seem to matter all that much. Nor does it seem to matter whether the therapist has an advanced level of training. Therapist gender doesn’t appear to make a big difference. Nor does the therapist’s theoretical orientation really matter. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, the degree of so-called “experience” the therapist may have accumulated during their professional career doesn’t appear to matter very much. What appears to matter more than anything else are the personal characteristics of the therapist. It’s who the therapist is as a person and the kind of personal attributes they bring to the table that appear to matter most of all.

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There’s an acronym that summarizes the kinds of qualities a therapist should possess for therapy to be effective; the effective therapist is ‘W-E-R-D’:

  • Warm
  • Empathic
  • Rewarding
  • Directive

What does it mean to be such things? First off, effective therapists have to be amiable, genial, and welcoming enough for even the most wounded, angry, or hesitant heart to feel inclined to approach. It’s impossible to build a truly “therapeutic relationship” with a client unless he feels respectfully accepted by the therapist. Second, good therapists have to possess the capacity to understand where their clients are coming from and to appreciate the nature of their distress. All the textbook understanding about pathology in the world is no substitute for truly appreciating and having genuine concern about someone’s circumstances. Third, good therapists focus on encouraging and reinforcing as opposed to criticizing or admonishing their clients. When clients perceive therapy overall as a “rewarding” experience, they tend to invest themselves more heavily in the process. But lastly, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly (especially given the longstanding notions that a therapist is at his best when passively reflecting as opposed to actively doing anything), good therapists provide their clients with a clear pathway forward, gently guiding them to a more empowered, fulfilling place in their lives.

Folks in emotional distress need to know there’s a way out. They don’t just need to be understood and accepted. They need far more than merely feeling both safe and relieved in venting their concerns to another human being. They need to see that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Often, despite their very best efforts, they don’t have all the resources they need inside of themselves to intuitively know where they need to go or how to get there. After all, if they did, they probably wouldn’t need the help of a therapist in the first place. So, a caring, concerned therapist knows and respects this and always points the way forward. That doesn’t mean dictating every little step. Rather, it means presenting both a vision (a cooperatively crafted vision based on a truly empathic understanding of where the client has been and therefore needs to go) and the means to achieve that vision.

Many years ago, I began doing a type of work I never imagined myself doing when I first embarked upon professional practice. I was doing my best to observe the caveats above but was still having difficulty helping people change. Eventually, I came to realize that because so many of my clients suffered from disturbances of character as opposed to “neurotic” conflicts I would need to adopt a radically different perspective on the nature of their problems and the tools they needed to make necessary changes. (For more on the difference between neurosis and character disturbance see the series on distinguishing neurosis from character disorders and my books Character Disturbance, In Sheep’s Clothing, and The Judas Syndrome.)

While the new perspective I adopted did indeed represent a radical shift, I also quickly learned that the kinds of qualities I would need to display as a therapist would need to remain the same as the research had long suggested was essential. While I would focus more on distorted thinking patterns as opposed to unresolved emotions, and on facilitating behavior change as opposed to insight, I would still have to be approachable, trustworthy, accepting, and encouraging. I would also have to provide a clear pathway for growth. In the process, I learned what it meant to be both a compassionate yet directive therapist. And that, as a famous poet once said, has made all the difference.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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