These are exciting times for clinicians. The pieces of the puzzle are falling into place. Researchers are finally beginning to understand what it takes to improve the effectiveness of psychotherapy. Shifting away from the failed, decades-long focus on methods and diagnosis, attention has now turned to the individual practitioner.
Such efforts have already shown a host of factors to be largely ineffective in promoting therapist growth and development, including:
- Continuing education;
- Therapist personal therapy;
- Clinical experience; and
- Access to feedback
In October, I blogged about the largest, longitudinal study of therapists ever conducted. Despite having access to ongoing, formal feedback from their clients for as long as 17 years, clinicians in the study not only did not improve, their outcomes actually deteriorated, on average, year after year.
Such findings contrast sharply with beliefs of practitioners who, according to other studies, see themselves as improving with time and experience. In fact, findings on all the practices noted above contrast sharply with beliefs commonly-held in the field:
- Supervision is at the top of the list of experiences therapists cite as central to their growth and development as practitioners. By contrast, the latest review of the literature concludes, “We do not seem to be any more able to say now (as opposed to 30 years ago) that psychotherapy supervision contributes to patient outcome” (p. 235, Watkins 2011).
- Although most clinicians value participating in continuing education activities—and licensure requirements mandate attendance—there is no evidence such events engender learning, competence, or improved outcomes. Neither do they appear to decrease disciplinary actions, ethical infractions, or inspire confidence on the part of therapy consumers.
- Therapist personal therapy is ranked as one of the most important sources of professional development despite there being no evidence it contributes to better performance as a clinician and some studies documenting a negative impact on outcome (see Orlinsky & Ronnestad, 2005);
If any of the research I’ve cited surprises you, or gives you pause, there is hope! Really. Read on.
Doubt, it turns out, is a good thing–a quality possessed by the fields’ most effective practitioners. Possessing it is one of the clues to continuous professional development. Indeed, several studies now confirm that “healthy self-criticism,” or professional self-doubt (PSD), is a strong predictor of both alliance and outcome in psychotherapy (Nissen-Lie et al., 2015).
To be sure, I’m not talking about assuming a “not-knowing” stance in therapeutic interactions. Although much has been written about having a “beginner’s mind,” research by Nissen-Lie and others makes clear that nothing can be gained by either our feigned or willful ignorance.
Rather, the issue is about taking the time to reflect on our work. Doing so on a routine basis prevents us from falling prey to the “over-claiming error”—a type of confidence that comes from the feeling we’ve seen something before when, in fact, we have not.
The “over-claiming error” is subtle, unconscious, and fantastically easy to succumb to and elicit. In a very clever series of experiments, for example, researchers asked people a series of questions designed either to engender a feeling of knowledge and expertise or ignorance. Being made to feel more knowledgeable, in turn, lead people to act less open-mindedly and feel justified in being dogmatic. Most importantly, it caused them to falsely claim to know more about the subject than they did, including “knowing” things the researchers simply made up!
In essence, feeling like an expert actually makes it difficult to separate what we do and do not know. Interestingly, people with the most knowledge in a particular domain (e.g., psychotherapy) are at the greatest risk. Researchers term the phenomenon, “The ‘Earned Dogmatism’ Effect.”
What to do? The practices of highly effective therapists provide some clues:
- Adopt an “error-centric” mindset. Take time to reflect on your work, looking for and then examining moments that do not go well. One simple way to prevent over-claiming is to routinely measure the outcome of your work. Don’t rely on your judgement alone, use a simple measures like the ORS to enhance facts from your fictions.
- Think like a scientist. Actively seek disconfirmation rather than confirmation of your beliefs and practices. Therapy can be vague and ambiguous process—two conditions which dramatically increase the risk of over-claiming. Seeking out a community of peers and a coach to review your work can be helpful in this regard. No need to leave your home or office. Join colleagues in a worldwide virtual community at: iccexcellence.com.
- Seek formal feedback from clients. Interestingly, research shows that highly effective therapists are surprised more often by what their clients say than average clinicians who, it seems, “have heard it all before.” If you haven’t been surprised in a while, ask your clients to provide feedback about your work via a simple tool like the SRS. You’ll be amazed by what you’ve missed.
- Attend the 2016 Professional Development Intensive this summer in Chicago. At this small group, intensive training, you will the latest evidence-based steps for unlocking your potential as a therapist.
Best wishes for the Holidays. As always, please leave a comment.
Scott D. Miller, Ph.D.
International Center for Clinical Excellence