If you don’t know your client’s strengths, how can you capitalise upon them? Client factors account for 40% of the variance in outcomes and a wise therapist will play to their client’s strengths.

Clients are often defined solely in terms of their difficulties. “I’m seeing my obsessional woman this afternoon.” “When that guy with MS turns up, tell him I’m running late.” “Can someone attend to the broken leg in cubicle three?”

Modern medicine has come to be construed as an interaction between a physician and a disease rather than between a physician and an ill person striving to get well. (Scovern, 1999)

From a rigidly biological standpoint, the efficacy of a medication or other treatment should not depend upon the personal history of the client, but upon the nature of their disease. I once heard an eminent psychiatrist and researcher argue that a disease has no narrative: if he had a broken arm, he wanted his arm splinted, not to have tell the story of his life; if he had depression, he wanted an antidepressant, not to have to tell the story of his life.

Even within this narrow perspective, there is a role for client factors. The client who can be relied upon to take medication as prescribed is more likely to benefit from antidepressants than one who can not. A therapist who does not think in terms of their client’s strengths may end up wasting costly resources, not least of these being their own time.

Focussing upon the problem and then considering how client factors might impact upon treatment is insufficient. Gassman & Grawe (2006) found that successful psychological therapists focussed upon their clients’ strengths from the outset. Unsuccessful therapists tended to focus upon the problems and consider the client’s strengths only at the end of the session (if at all).

What strengths are relevant to therapy? At the very least, any therapist should know something of their client’s home, family, work and leisure interests, all of which can be enlisted to facilitate therapy. I’ve found that a healthy curiosity about a client and their circumstances always seems to throw up something which can facilitate therapy, whether it is a religious conviction, a talent for mechanics, an interesting friend or a flair for poetry.

So how do you start focussing on the client’s strengths? I’ve tried to get into the habit of asking myself what is it about my client, their personality, circumstances and supports, that has prevented their problem (whatever it is) from being worse than its is. Bearing this question in mind gets the session off to a good start.

4 Responses

  1. Completely agree. I make sure that strengths is a question I ask somewhere in an intake, and I’m amazed sometimes at how many of my clients can’t answer the question. I’ve had some of them enjoy taking Seligman’s Signature Strengths survey online off the Authentic Happiness site.

  2. I am an Speech & Language Pathologist and I have found this to be true in my profession as well. I not only find that therapy is more effective, it is more fun for all of us if I work with the unique, interesting, and sometimes surprising strengths of children and their families.

  3. Good article! As a practioner for over 30 years, I believe that clients are the experts of themselves and often I interview the client to find out when the “problem” is not evident or does not take place. I find that externalizing the problem (Narrative therapy-Michael White) is often helpful to clients in promoting whether they want a relationship with the “problem”. My sense is that client strengths and skills is what psychotherapy is about.

  4. I liked this article and will check in regularly on the website. I do practice the art of relying on client’s strengths daily (online). It does make a big difference. Skeptical scientists should make narrative therapy bedtime reading.

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