• Sharon Cunliffe

The Power of the Therapeutic Alliance

“A person is a fluid process, not a fixed and static entity; a flowing river of change, not a block of solid material; a continually changing constellation of potentialities, not a fixed quantity of traits”.


Carl Rogers (founder of Person-Centred therapy)


The ability to establish a good therapeutic alliance, is a fundamentally important part of your recovery process. For some clients, seeking therapy can be a daunting experience and even for clients who are more open and comfortable with the idea, the prospect of talking about their presenting issues or sharing their most intimate thoughts and feelings, can be very frightening.


When I work with clients, I am always very mindful of what it feels like to be in the client chair. I had my own therapy during my earlier years and again as part of my training as a psychotherapist. It is encouraged that trainees in the profession embark on their own therapy, as a means of enhancing both their personal and professional development. Although, there are no guarantees this makes you a better therapist, I believe that a lot can be learnt from the personal experience of therapy, that can’t be fully appreciated from textbooks or lectures alone.


In order for you to make positive changes to your life, the therapeutic alliance is regarded as one of the most important therapeutic tools. It refers to the professional relationship between yourself as the client and your therapist and how you connect, behave and engage with each other during the therapeutic process.


Although the knowledge and expertise of your therapist is a crucial factor in your progress, it shouldn’t by any means been seen as the basis of an unequal relationship. The word “alliance” should be seen as a collaborative relationship between you and your therapist. You have the potential to change and the therapist works as a guide to support and facilitate that change.


According to Carl Rogers (1940’s), the founder of Person-Centred therapy, there are several elements therapists need to provide in order for clients to achieve personal growth in therapy. Firstly, although professional boundaries need to be abided by at all times, any air of professional superiority or authority on behalf of the therapist needs to be avoided. It is important your therapist remains warm and genuine and presents to you a transparent self, enabling you to sense authenticity in the therapeutic relationship.


Also, regardless of what you bring to the session, you must experience a sense of unconditional positive regard from your therapist at all times. This means your therapist should genuinely care for you and accept you without judgement or criticism. By providing a warm, accepting and empathetic environment, you should be able build up a sense of trust in your therapist and see it as a safe place where you can express your true feelings, without negative implications or fear of rejection.


One of the aims of therapy is that you should be experiencing a sense of accurate empathetic understanding from your therapist. An important component of this, is that your therapist recognises that each client brings to therapy, their own unique perspective and experience of the world. Although you may present with issues/difficulties your therapist has seen many times before, your therapist should avoid a ‘one mould fits all approach’ and tailor each session to your unique requirements.


A good therapeutic relationship should equip you with a sense of trust in the alliance, which in turn can provide you with a safe foundation for you to be honest and open about your true thoughts, feelings and values. This helps the therapist to develop a clearer understanding of your situation, enabling them to employ the most suitable therapeutic methods and strategies for you.


Nevertheless, there can be times when, despite a therapist actively listening, being empathetic, non-judgemental and accepting of you, you may still feel like the therapeutic relationship isn’t working. A good therapeutic relationship, goes beyond merely liking your therapist. Like any other relationships, there are many factors that need to be considered. Firstly, it may be a good idea to talk to your therapist about how you feel. I can assure you, a good therapist would certainly encourage this. If the therapist is using a specific technique or style that isn’t working for you, be honest, they should be able to either use an alternative technique or style, or refer you to either another therapist more suitable to your needs, or back to the counselling directory.


When it comes to therapy, my advice is to just trust your gut instinct. If your therapist unintentionally reminds you of an annoying family member or and ex-partner (and this can occasionally happen), it is more likely to trigger negative emotions within you or an emotional block, which either way doesn’t lay the foundations for a good therapeutic alliance to develop.


You have chosen to seek therapy because there is some area of your life that is causing you some sort of discontent, therefore you deserve to get the most out of it. At the end of the day, the therapy sessions are about you and how you work with your therapist. So, if you feel, for whatever reason the therapeutic relationship is not working for you, you are under no obligation to continue with your sessions and a good therapist will understand this and support you with your decision.


“Being empathetic is seeing the world through the eyes of the other, not seeing your world reflected in their eyes”


Carl Rogers

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