When it comes to gaining client trust in the marriage-family therapy field, credibility begins with the question: what are couples and families looking for?Firstly, though it may seem obvious, clients are looking for someone helpful. And they look for this quality from the get-go.In the first session, was something accomplished or was a timeline established so that accomplishment is foreseeable or expected? Giving clients the ability to look forward to progress will keep them coming back to make progress and will ultimately build a trusting client-therapist relationship.Susan Heitler, Ph.D., wrote 3 Ways a Therapist Establishes Trust in Therapy and points out:
Clients generally regard their therapist as helpful if, right from the first session, the therapist offers them to see their situation in a new, non-blaming manner. […] Couples also begin to trust that treatment will be helpful if, from the outset, the therapist shows them a sample of what they will do in treatment that will lead to an improved relationship.
Without the solid ground of trust, credibility is impossible. As Deborah L. Jacobs of Forbes Magazine says in Boost Your Credibility at Work, “Words have to match actions. In addition to meeting your deadlines and hitting all your goals, it’s vital to establish trust.”Secondly, clients are looking for someone emotionally safe. Many therapy-seeking couples and families are looking for conflict and communication resolution. A trustworthy therapist controls the conversation and establishes a safe space for fair fighting. Heitler says:
In couples therapy sessions clients need the therapist to keep a tight hold on the reins by shepherding mutually respectful talking and eliciting responsive listening. The therapist needs to train combative spouses each to look for what they themselves can change rather than to seek to change each other. Zero tolerance for blaming or arguing in the session is essential. When clients get out-of- bounds, the therapist needs immediately blow the whistle and stop the action.
Establishing boundaries within conflict resolution creates a space for all parties to be heard and helped. Credibility is naturally born of such a trustworthy environment. Lastly, clients are looking for someone who can make them hopeful that they will continue to make progress and that their conflict is not in control of their progress. Heitler says this can be done through affirmation.
When a therapist shares positive comments, appreciation, enjoyment, etc. to clients, clients’ self-esteem grows. Genuine appreciation, admiration, acknowledgement of clients’ growth and focusing on their strengths also helps clients to relax so that they can learn more. Appreciation often teaches clients as much or more than feedback about their areas of difficulty.
Ultimately, being the MFT that families and couples are looking for boils down to being trustworthy.