Counseling Techniques

What is a working alliance in counseling? What does a healthy therapeutic relationship look like?

What is a working alliance in counseling? What does a healthy therapeutic relationship look like?

  • A working alliance in therapy, otherwise known as the therapeutic relationship, is simply the relationship that exists between the client and his or her therapist.
  • In this alliance, both parties have the same goal: for the client to make improvements and benefit from great change throughout the therapeutic process.
  • It’s important that the therapeutic alliance is rooted in a judgement-free zone, in which the client feels comfortable opening up to their therapist without feeling shamed.
  • Two other key elements are communication and collaboration: the client should practice communication skills in therapy and the relationship should be collaborative in that it is based on teamwork.
  • Finally, when the work has come to an end, it is important for the therapist to model what it means to close a chapter and end a relationship, all whilst appreciating all that it brought.

In counseling, a working alliance is the relationship between therapist and client, in which both parties strive to work together and achieve positive change for the client. This therapeutic relationship is perhaps the most important and powerful factor when it comes to making progress in therapy. Licensed Psychologist Giulia Suro, Ph.D., CEDS, further explains the elements involved in a positive working alliance below:

A Judgment-Free Zone

The therapeutic alliance must first and foremost be based on safety and non-judgement. In order for a client to achieve any of their goals in therapy—whether this means finding self-acceptance or healing from a trauma—it is critical that they know they can share any of their thoughts, feelings or experiences without fear of being judged or shamed. Frequently, it is the internalized judgement or shame that has been experienced at the hands of others that is the fuel for many of the issues that may bring someone to therapy to begin with. Therefore, it is the job of the therapist to establish trust by meeting the client where they are, not pushing before they are ready and going at the client’s pace. This can be difficult for the therapist who wants to jump in to the juicy work.

Communication Skills and Feedback

Additionally, therapy is an important space to practice the communication skills that may be difficult in other relationships such as being assertive and giving feedback. Thus, in a healthy therapeutic relationship a client will feel safe and empowered enough to let the therapist know if and when they said something that was hurtful or did not sit well with them. I feel excited and proud whenever a client has the courage to give me feedback or let me know that I inadvertently hurt them as I recognize how difficult this can be. Practicing this in therapy sets the stage to feel comfortable doing it in other relationships. It also demonstrates that therapists are human beings, not super humans, who sometimes make mistakes. When this happens, this does not diminish the therapist’s care and investment for their client.

Collaborating for Success

Finally, it is important that a therapeutic relationship is collaborative and based on teamwork rather than a power structure where the therapist holds all the answers. This reinforces that real work in therapy belongs to the client, and the therapist is there to hold the space safely and provide guidance and feedback. I often describe the therapeutic relationship using the metaphor of going back to a childhood home and trying to find something you left there in a drawer or closet. Unfortunately, the power has been cut off and the house is pitch black. The client knows what the goal is (i.e. finding the object) and has the best idea of how to achieve the goal as it is their house. The therapist is there to provide support (because walking through a dark house can be scary), but also to hold the flashlight and illuminate all the nooks and crannies where the object may have been left.

The Final Destination

Once a goal has been achieved, the client may have uncovered another goal they would like to work on, or they may be ready to let the therapeutic work kick in without the structure of sessions. It is the final, and often most important job of a therapist, to model healthy termination and demonstrate what it is like to end a relationship without avoidance that is honoring of all the work that has taken place.

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