Ever wonder what your therapist is thinking about before he or she works with you? Are their thoughts focused on techniques? Are they reviewing your issues? Theirs? Is therapy more effective depending on these thoughts?
There is an intriguing research that points to better therapy outcome when the therapist thinks about something very specific: Your strengths.
Researcher Christopher Fluckiger has shown that resource priming — contemplating a client’s strengths prior to conducting therapy — results in the client responding with resource activation (using more of their strengths during the session).
The belief that the therapist’s attitude directly influences the client’s responses has been around since the Humanists. Particularly influential was Carl Rogers’s unconditional positive regard. In this approach, the therapist helps to create a climate of complete acceptance and support. The supportive atmosphere allows the client to access his or her own resources for change.
Resource priming, however, takes this approach to another level. By focusing specifically on the client’s character strengths, the therapist is moving beyond acceptance. There is elevation from positive regard to positive influence — from the general to the specific. Not surprisingly, the result is a better (stronger) client-therapist relationship, also linked to better outcomes.
It has been demonstrated that therapists who set goals too difficult for the client to achieve create negative feelings and defensiveness for the client. Also, pointing out what is already self-evident to a client devalues the client and relationship: A word to the wise is (apparently) infuriating.
In Fluckiger’s study, the therapists were interviewed by those more senior about the client’s individual strengths. Identification of these strengths came from the client’s intake and assessment. Before each session the therapists spent five minutes talking about ways to implement resource activation. Afterward, they spent five minutes discussing how effective they had been.
A variety of studies have found that knowing, developing, and using character strengths results in higher scores of well-being and coping skills. With priming, this translates into the client having a greater sense of mastery and accomplishment. Not only has the process of the therapy been enhanced by activating the patient’s strengths, it also carries beyond the session.
In a recent paper I made the argument that therapists conducting group psychotherapy with people with intellectual and psychiatric disabilities use priming as a way to enhance therapeutic outcomes. We’ve had success in having therapists focus on components of group therapy that emerge during a group and benefit a member’s condition.
These are known as therapeutic factors. By doing this it helps these factors, such as altruism, cohesion, and self-disclosure, emerge. We now invite therapists running these groups to review the strengths of its members. It makes sense that if the process works in individual therapy, it should work well in group. Future research will have to determine if this is so.
Essential to this process, be it individual or group, is the therapist knowing his or her strengths. Knowing your strengths and your valued character traits is the foundation for understanding how to spot strengths in others. Dr. Ryan Niemiec, Education Director for the VIA Institute on Character, has written about using and identifying your strengths, as well as how to spot them in others.
To learn more about character strengths and gain knowledge of your own for free, check here. You don’t have to wait to be in a therapeutic environment to begin activating your resources.
Fluckiger, C., & Grosse Holtforth, M. (2008). Focusing the therapist’s attention on the patient’s strengths: A preliminary study to foster a mechanism of change in outpatient psychotherapy. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 64, 876-890.
Fluckiger, C., Caspar, F., Grosse Holtforth, M., & Willutzki, U. (2009). Working with patients’ strengths: A microprocess approach. Psychotherapy Research, 19(2), 213-223.
Fluckiger, C., & Wusten, G., Zinbarg, R. E., & Wampold, B. E. (2010). Resource activation: Using client’s own strengths in psychotherapy and counseling. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.
Tomasulo, D. J. (2014). Positive group psychotherapy modified for adults with intellectual disabilities. Journal of Intellectual Disabilities, 18: 337-350. doi: 10.1177/1744629514552153