The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

‘The Therapist-Client Relationship’

The second chapter of Eve Lipchik’s (2002) book Beyond Technique is entitled ‘The Therapist-Client Relationship’ and in that chapter she defines ‘the therapist-client relationship’ as ‘a structure coupling between two unique human beings in complementary roles’ (p25). However in the course of that chapter Eve Lipchik (2002) subsequently refers to the need ‘to establish and maintain a relationship with clients that makes them feel supported while they adapt or change’ (p25). She adds that ‘the underpinning for therapist-client relationships, regardless of orientation is trust’ (pp25 – 26) and that ‘the therapist-client relationship should create an emotional climate in which therapy can take place as smoothly as possible’ (p26). So what she begins to share with us are some of her answers to the perfectly legitimate question, from a minimalist perspective of course, ‘why bother?’ Why should we bother to think about, let alone take the trouble to construct a ‘relationship’? Of course the latter question suggests that it might be possible not to construct a relationship, which is doubtful however little one might choose to think about relationships or to pay attention to their development. A relationship, if we accept a definition of a relationship as a patterned series of interactions over time with rules and regularities, will take shape during the course of our interaction with our client whether we like it or not, whether we trouble ourselves about it or not.

However let us pretend that it might make sense to ask the question ‘why bother?’ anyway, what is the point of the therapist-client relationship and how could we tell the difference between a functional and a dysfunctional therapist-client relationship? We might perthaps ask ourselves the solution focused question ‘so what difference might a (good) relationship make?’ One way to answer this would be to say that a (good) relationship is intended to construct a context within which clients are more likely to be successful. Clearly the relationship is not for us, and actually it is not for the client, it is for the work. A good, or therapeutic relationship is intended to facilitate the client in doing their work, and their work is to be able to reflect on the questions that the worker asks in a way that makes a difference. Following this line of thinking the therapist-client relationship is not something that is pursued for itself but rather as a vehicle, a way of facilitating the interactional process that leads to change. So what is it that many solution focused practitioners find ourselves doing (normally and without even thinking) that has the effect of facilitating the process?

Typically we:
Listen to the client and in framing our follow-up questions we use the clients own words
We work hard to work within the parameters of what the client can do, learning about the client’s ‘responsive capabilities’, and we continually adapt to our those capabilities
If we ask questions that the client does not seem to be able to work with, we apologise and change the question or reframe it, or normalise the difficulty
We take responsibility for the progress of the conversation with a view to the client feeling a competent ‘conversational partner’
We ask questions that are based on the client’s previous response in a way that the client is likely to feel ‘taken account of’ in the conversation
We choose to believe that whatever the client is doing is the best that s/he can do right now, and so we cooperate with that
We acknowledge and validate the client’s experiences
We ask the client questions which are likely to be experienced as evidence of the worker’s interest in clients and in their well-being.

In addition we might:
Invite the client to let us know if our questions make little sense or seem to be going in a ‘wrong direction’
Ask clients if there is anything that they need to know about us to feel at their ease
Check out from time to time ‘is this making sense’, ‘are we talking about the right things’
Share some of our own experiences (sparingly) in a way that is likely to normalise the client’s own lived response.

Now when we do some, many, most or indeed perhaps all of these things when we are working with clients the client may describe themselves experiencing a ‘good relationship’ with their worker and they might, if asked, state that they have valued this ‘good relationship’ and even, if we ask after the end of the therapeutic process, that the ‘good relationship’ was an important element in the change process. But as a Solution Focused practitioner I do not find it useful to think in terms of ‘relationship’. This seems to me to represent a reification of a number of things that we do as practitioners, and that in this process of reification the therapist’s task becomes less clear, indeed is obscured, somewhat mystified. Many of us will remember Steve de Shazer (1991) writing ‘Therapy needs to be described in such a way that therapists understand what to do and how to do it.’ (p 26) Talking in terms of relationship does not seem to me to help therapists to ‘understand what to do’. So when with clients I am never trying to build a relationship, all that I am trying to do is to ask good questions in a way that makes it possible for the client to work with those questions. Indeed if we begin to think of building a relationship as an end in itself I would predict, well guess anyway, that it would lead to longer term therapy and that before long we will be talking about ‘working through endings’! Back in 1995 Bill O'Hanlon and Pat Hudson wrote 'Love is a verb'; in the same way relationships are, in my view, best thought of as 'things' that we do.

de Shazer, Steve (1991) Putting Difference to Work. New York: Norton.
Lipchik, Eve (2002) Beyond Technique in Solution-Focused Therapy. New
York: Guildford.
O'Hanlon, Bill, Hudson, Pat. (1995) Love is a verb. New York: Norton.

Evan George
September 2016