Recommendations for Developing and Using a Positive Working Alliance

Although Freud started the conversation, he might not recognize contemporary models of the working alliance. This is because Freud advocated analyst emotional distance and a detached psychoanalytic stance, whereas today’s working alliance involves therapists initiating a process of collaborative engagement with clients.

Therapists who want to develop a positive working alliance (and that should include all therapists) will integrate strategies for doing so during initial interviews and beyond. Based on Bordin’s (1979) model, alliance-building strategies would focus on (a) collaborative goal setting; (b) engaging clients on mutual therapy-related tasks; and (c) development of a positive emotional bond. Additionally, feedback monitoring within clinical interviews is recommended.

Initial interviews and early sessions appear especially important to developing a working alliance. Many clients who enter your office will be naïve about what will be happening in their work with you. This makes including role inductions or explanations of how you work with clients essential. Here’s an example from a cognitive-behavioral perspective:

For the rest of today’s session, we are going to be doing a structured clinical interview. This interview assesses a range of different psychological difficulties. It is a way to make sure that we “cover all of our bases.” We want to see if social anxiety is the best explanation for your problems and also whether you are having any other difficulties that we should be aware of. (Ledley, Marx, & Heimberg, 2010, p. 36)

Asking direct questions about what clients want from counseling and then listening to them and integrating that information into your treatment plan is also important: In cognitive therapy this is often referred to as making a problem list (J. Beck, 2011).

Therapist:    What brings you to counseling and how can I be of help?

Client:         I’ve just been super down lately. You know. Tough to get up in the morning and face the world. Just feeling pretty crappy.

Therapist:    Then we definitely want to put that on our list of goals. Can I write that down? [Client nods assent] How about for now we write, “Find ways to help you start feeling more up?”

Client:         Sounds good to me.

Engaging in a collaborative goal-setting process—and not proceeding with therapy tasks until it’s clear that mutual goals (even temporary mutual goals) have been established

Therapist:    So far I’ve got three goals written down: (1) Find ways to help you start feeling more up, (2) Help you deal with the stress of having your sister living with you and your family, and (3) Improving your attitude about exercising. Does that sound about right?

Client:         Absolutely yes. If we can climb those three mountains it will be great.

Soliciting feedback from clients during the initial session and ongoing in an effort to monitor the quality and direction of the working alliance. Although there are a number of instruments you can use for this, you can also just ask directly:

We’ve been talking for 20 minutes now and so I just want to check in with you on how you’re feeling about talking with my today. How are you doing with this process?

Making sure you’re able to respond to client anger or hostility without becoming defensive or launching a counterattack is essential to establishing and maintaining a positive working relationship. In our work with challenging young adults, we apply Linehan’s (1993) “radical acceptance” concept. For example, an initial session with an 18-year-old male started like this:

Therapist:    I want to welcome you to therapy with me and I hope we can work together in ways you find helpful.

Client:         You talk just like a shrink. I punched my last therapist in the nose (client glares at therapist and awaits a response) (J. Sommers-Flanagan & Bequette, 2013, p. 15).

Therapist:    Thanks for telling me about that. I definitely want to avoid getting punched in the nose. And so if I accidentally say anything that offends you I hope you’ll tell me, and I’ll try my best to stop.

In this case the therapist accepted the client’s aggressive message and tried to transform it into a working concept in the session.

Having specific therapy tasks (no matter your theoretical orientation) that fit well with the mutually identified therapy goals. For example, if illuminating unconscious processes is a mutually identified goal, then using free association can be a task that makes sense to the client. On the other hand, if you’ve agreed to work toward greater self-acceptance and greater acceptance of frustrating people in the client’s life, then engaging in intermittent mindfulness tasks will feel like a reasonable approach.


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