A couple and family therapist’s view of nondirectivity
Charles J. O’Leary

Denver, Colorado, USA
(Received 31 December 2011; final version received 21 May 2012)

To cite this article: Charles J. O'Leary (2012) A couple and family therapist's view of nondirectivity, Person-Centered & Experiential Psychotherapies, 11:3, 215-224, DOI: 10.1080/14779757.2012.696528

The author reflects on the foundation and importance of nondirectivity. Couple and family therapy are different from individual therapy and require directivity that may be in the service of client directivity. A couple and family therapist may be seen as Translator, Moderator and Host in order to align with client goals of dialogue and change rather than individual exploration. The author reflects on possible differences in style between his work with couples and families and Carl Rogers’s approach to individuals and groups. A brief case example ends the article.

Keywords: nondirective; couple and family therapy; client directivity;

Translator, Moderator, Host

I flourished in therapy with a very nondirective therapist (most influenced by Carl Rogers along with Carl Jung) who offered intense silent attention more than anything else. I experienced her presence as though it were an electric power plant while feeling the greatest freedom in my life to talk or be silent; to be wise or to be foolish – and to grow in any direction at all, knowing she had no agenda for my growth outside my choosing.

That kind of nondirectivity, however, may not be useful or even possible in couple or family therapy. Indeed, relationship researcher John Gottman (1999) has said that there is no support in the literature for couple and family therapy with an inactive therapist. "That is a pervasive finding in our field – that nondirective approaches lead people to quit the therapy" (p. 6). Relationship therapy is oriented toward dialogue as well as individual understanding (O’Leary, 2012, p. 18). Readers may imagine their father or partner, invited to therapy, finding a therapist who is silent or simply says "The floor is open to whomever wants to speak," desperately looking for the door or at their watch rather than feeling invited into a safe and useful meeting. A practice oriented toward conditions that facilitate client directivity rather than therapist nondirectivity would be more descriptive of my work. Clients looking for safety to speak with family or partner, release from conditions that make speaking frustrating or impossible, stuck in roles as the "talker" or the "not expected 216 C.J. O’Leary

Downloaded by [World Association for Person-Centered ] at 12:47 18 October 2013 to talk," would feel unsupported or invisible without an active therapist. I have argued elsewhere for structure that, while client-centered, does not privilege the more dominant or verbal over other clients (O’Leary & Johns, 2007; O’Leary, 2012.) For most clients considering the risk of dialogue with their intimates, a silent or inactive or initially nondirective therapist may well fail to offer at least the first and sixth conditions of the person-centered approach (Rogers, 1957). That is: such a therapist would be out of psychological contact with the clients and the clients would be unable to perceive or experience the therapist’s empathy or acceptance.

Rejecting nondirectivity, however, can open doors of therapist over-responsibility, control and adoption of the role of expert, and leave the client with little or no sense of ownership of sessions that are about relationships that have long existed independent of therapist understanding or experience. Peter Rober has highlighted the importance of recognizing dialogue that has preceded the therapy hour and will go on long after it (Rober, 2005). Person-centered elder Goff Barrett-Lennard (2005) reminded therapists to be aware of how client life is lived between sessions. (Without the therapist!)

Elke Lambers (1993) has written:

Non-directiveness as defined by Rogers, is, however, much more than a technique: it is the attitude which is at the core of person-centred (client-centred) counselling. This attitude is based on the principle of trust in the client’s capacity to determine her/his own constructive directions in the therapeutic process and in life. The therapist has no directive intentions in relation to the client.

Commenting on an early study (Porter, 1941) measuring directivity versus nondirectivity in counselors, Carl Rogers (1989) wrote and could well have written today that "there is a definite tendency for all counselors to consider themselves as being non-coercive and non-directive" (p. 85). Going farther, he wrote: "Most of th counselors who received high directiveness ratings did not believe that they took the lead in the interviewing, selected the goal, suggested what the client should do and persuaded him to do it." In my own case, I might say: "I direct the process and the clients direct themselves," and yet find myself involved on the side of one person or one approach that interferes with the client’s own self-direction. For example, with a current client, I suddenly noticed that I had gone from being an attentive translator of his position to becoming an advocate for that position before noticing that he was in process of changing his mind.

In this article, I will reflect on the meaning and values of nondirectivity and their relationship to client-centeredness and useful therapy. I will then discuss the unique conditions of couple and family therapy and reasons why therapist directivity, at its best, may be paradoxically facilitative of client self-agency and self-actualization. In the next section I will offer theory and examples of how a couple and family therapist, though rarely nondirective, may facilitate client directivity. I will continue with a brief case discussion and concluding reflections on the continued importance of Rogers’s emphasis on client self-direction as well as its different expression in work with couples and families.

Foundations of nondirectivity "It began to occur to me that unless I had a need to demonstrate my own cleverness and learning, I would do better to rely upon the client for the direction of movement Person-Centered & Experiential Psychotherapies 217 Downloaded by [World Association for Person-Centered ] at 12:47 18 October 2013 in the process," wrote Carl Rogers (1961, p. 11). The new innovative therapy Rogers described and researched in the 1940s and 1950s emphasized listening to clients process exactly as it unfolded, understanding the world as the clients experienced it, and being a companion to the clients on the path they chose to change as they defined it. "My associates and I have come to realize," said Rogers at age 80 in a television interview with Keith Berwick, "that whatever advice we offered would not be as useful as that which the client came up with himself."

To be nondirective means, among other things, to carefully attend to and reflect back the client’s moment-by-moment expression of experience. Carl Rogers (1989) felt that technique mattered and that all counselors were not alike. Citing a study comparing counselors on the measure of directivity (Porter, 1941), Rogers identified the following most common activities of nondirective counselors (nondirective counselors exercised these nonintrusive activities less than directive counselors):

(1) "Recognizes in some way the feeling or attitude which the client has just expressed."

(2) "Interprets or recognizes feelings or attitudes expressed by general demeanor, specific behavior, or earlier statements." [I "interpret" little or not at all, despite my high activity.]

(3) "Indicates topic of conversation but leaves development to client."

(4) "Recognizes the subject content of what the client has just said."

(Rogers, 1989, p. 83) Rogers also identified what a nondirective counselor will not door do far less than a directive counselor. "Asks highly specific questions, delimiting answers to yes, no or specific information," [I almost never do this] or "Explains, discusses, or gives information related to the problem or treatment" (Rogers, 1989, p. 83). [I do this frequently but in the manner of a person lightly offering rather than imposing relevant information. For example, I consider it important that new parents know that 66% of couples experience deterioration in their relationship after the arrival of a baby – that they are not alone in their frustration (Gottman & Gottman, 2007).]

Commenting on the same study (Porter, 1941) comparing nondirective counselors with directive, Rogers stated that directive counselors "used on the average six times as many words as the non-directive . . ." (p. 82). The most sobering sentence I have ever read.

Reflecting on the writing of contemporary couple and family therapists, especially those who identify as "postmodern" or "dialogic," I find a consistent intention that the therapist never direct the therapy but be a partner in "conversation" (Anderson, 1997). Far from being directive, family therapists such as Harlene Anderson live with a "not knowing position" (Goolishian & Anderson, 1992), a position of openness to clients as their teachers and collaborators rather than their own expertise.

In her book Family Therapy: An Intimate History, family therapy elder Lynn Hoffman wrote of the "stillness of Carl Rogers" describing his attention on nothing but the client and the perception by that client of "enormous compassion and warmth" (2002, p. 181). In a chapter that reflects on a collaborative person-toperson meeting between therapist and clients, Hoffman singles out this quality of Rogers: "‘he spoke in order to listen’ as opposed to ‘listening in order to speak."’(Lyotard, 1996, cited by Hoffman, 2002, p. 181). 218 C.J. O’Leary

Downloaded by [World Association for Person-Centered ] at 12:47 18 October 2013 Perhaps the practice of stillness may be a bridge between nondirectivity and the therapist actions that facilitate client directivity. With a family, therapists may not only be still themselves but must find a nonintrusive way to request stillness from others in the room for each person who speaks.

Below, I will advocate for necessary therapist directivity in relationship therapy, even while realizing that much will be lost if the therapist privileges their ownncontributions over the words and intentions of the clients.

The need for directivity in couple and family therapy Here is a truth: I cannot say that I am at all nondirective in my work with couples and families. What, then, am I doing in the person-centered approach?

Here is another truth: I am interested in clients having the same freedom to be their congruent selves in relationship therapy as they do in individual therapy. I wish for them to say what they like in an atmosphere free from conditions of worth and to get in touch with what they truly would like their intimates to understand. Paradoxically, with my activity, I am attempting to facilitate the selfdirected process that clients discover when in the presence of a nondirective therapist.

Clients come to family or couple therapy to learn how to change their relationships for the better or to solve a problem that is usually felt quite deeply. For example, an endless state of battle that won’t go away or a child’s predicament that seems to threaten the very existence of a happy present or future. Such dilemmas must be explicitly acknowledged as the therapist facilitates the initiative of the persons who must live with them. At the same time, the family therapist must manage to not get caught in four attitudes that make therapy impossible: feelings of "urgency, anxiety, over-responsibility and pessimism (Duncan, Hubble, & Miller, 1997) that can lead to the kind of directivity that frustrates true learning or change.

Clients often come in accompanied by a power struggle (Collins, 2010, personal communication), which, if the therapist is not active, can dominate the session. Facilitation of clients’ encounter with one another requires a context in which new feelings and thoughts may be expressed and heard. Distressed families need a therapist to clear a path through an undergrowth of assumptions, automatic rebuttals, instinctive arguments and sudden hurt feelings based on misunderstanding.

Eventually new words can emerge and the therapist can step aside.

Do I trust clients as much as less directive therapists do? This, surely, continues to be an area for lifetime growth. Sometimes, however, I trust clients but I have what I consider a healthy awareness of the power of a rigidly established pattern of moves and counter-moves that distract from or block client awareness or capacity for contact with the other. (I trust skiers, so to speak, but I’ll do anything to release them from the grasp of an avalanche.) For example, I do not consider a "fight" between two or more people to be the expression of feelings but more often a state of high arousal that overshadows all feelings except for anger and fear. I sit in the presence of a fight for only a very short time before inviting the participants into an exploration of the important feelings and thoughts that are contained in and by the fight (O’Leary, 2012).

I believe that without therapist direction the dominating can continue to dominate the quieter or more withdrawn as clients slip into the roles that frustrate them at home. The therapist’s empathy, congruence and unconditional positive Person-Centered & Experiential Psychotherapies 219 Downloaded by [World Association for Person-Centered ] at 12:47 18 October 2013 regard as well as clients’ attempts at a different kind of conversation will be unnoticed.

Sprenkle, Davis, and LeBow (2009) have identified "common factors" in all effective couple and family therapy. One of those factors, "slow the process down," may illustrate a way that therapist directivity can encourage client directivity and initiative. I slow down client processes in these three ways:

  • The first is to listen to what is said and take the time to reflect back to each speaker to make sure that I understand what was said to the speaker’s satisfaction. The persistently practiced reflective listening of the nondirective therapist can in itself change the direction of a session. (Family therapist Harlene Anderson has remarked (1997) that just this process, listening to one person in the presence of their intimates, can open a door to communication in a family.)
  • The second is to ask other persons present what it means to them that the other person has spoken as they did and what they might want to say in response rather than begin an unrelated topic.
  • The third is to comment or invite comment on interaction among my clients, introducing the possibility of reflection and perspective regarding exchanges that are otherwise predictable and discouraging.

Nondirectivity in couple and family therapy may be more usefully seen as an achievement rather than as a starting point. When clients are safe enough to speak directly and listen with interest to one another, the therapist becomes a nondirective witness.

Translator, moderator and host: The therapist facilitates client directivity

Couple and family therapy requires the activity of a Translator (O’Leary, 2008), a Moderator and a Host. These activities embody an attitude of wanting to learn each client’s direction and of wanting to be a voice for each client’s permission and discovery – often in the face of patterns that prevent that from occurring.

The role of Translator may be a way to reconcile both nondirectivity and therapist skill and activity. Translators are of no use if not faithful to the intentions of each speaker. They are also very useful if able to translate spoken words so that others can understand them as the speaker meant them, not as the listeners expected them to be.

A good translator is nondirective, that is: accurately following the meaning of the speaker; and is also skilled, that is: able to render that meaning in language meaningful to the listener. The therapist as translator inevitably affects the clients’ experience of the space between – the "interspace" (Gaylin, 2008) – that affects every word that is said or heard. For example: a woman asks how her partner feels. He responds to her with what she considers to be a thought. She responds with frustration in an irritated voice, referring to her experience of him as not listening to her and emotionally shut down. Her partner turns to the therapist: "See what I mean?" referring to his experience of her as always critical, always seeing him as in the wrong. The therapist, having a sense of the feeling behind the man’s thought, asks the man’s permission to share what he heard with his wife. "I feel like it’s hopeless to tell you what I feel – I am afraid you’ll just get 220 C.J. O’Leary

Downloaded by [World Association for Person-Centered ] at 12:47 18 October 2013 angry at me." The woman softens, accepting her husband’s message as conveyed by a translator who, not being part of the struggle, understands him and is able to speak to her in language that respects her. The therapist, with permission, then offers his experience of her words to the husband: "You just defend yourself. You never want to hear how I feel."

By slowing an interaction down so that each client utterance is noted and tentatively reflected – simply by being an active client-centered reflective listener, the therapist intervenes in a field where often feelings are ignored or actively denied, topics of discussion are changed without acknowledgment, and where interruption and contradiction are the expected seemingly irresistible conversational norm. By seeking permission to respectfully translate the emotions that underlie expression of accusation, sarcasm, or uninvited diagnosis of character deficiency the therapist allows clients a new opportunity to meet.

In couple and family therapy, the therapist may also be seen as Moderator.

The purpose of the therapeutic meeting is dialogue, not monologue (Seikkula et al., 1995, cited in Andersen, 1997). The therapist, therefore, engages each individual in the task to which they have committed rather than the unhappy cycle that has brought them into therapy (O’Leary, 2012, p. 38). A therapist interrupts interruptions (pp. 89–90); follows the direction of conversation and inquires about clients’ intentions when the direction has shifted; asks if clients are able to respond to the other(s) (p. 37). (They sometimes are not – acknowledgment of this temporary emotional state can signal respect for the other, self and the process. For example: "Would this be true? Right now you are so hurt and angry you can’t really listen to anything he might say?")

The Moderator facilitates client directivity by:

  • Noticing and seeking to understand and reflect back client intention and emotion;
  • Remembering earlier client words and stated goals and connecting them with current communication.
  • Noticing connection between different clients’ unacknowledged similar intentions.
  • Restating client words as distinct from other clients’ interpretations.
  • Setting the stage for conversation. For example, "It looks like we’re right in the middle of the money issue that has so much emotional intensity for both of you" or "Let me sit back quietly here and listen to your conversation. Later we can all reflect together on what happened here."
  • Acknowledging and asking about apparent mood changes in a suddenly tense atmosphere.
  • Openness to being surprised. (Rogers (1990) considered this a sign of the "I–Thou" relationship he considered at the heart of his therapy. For example, "I didn’t expect you to say that at all. Could you tell your mother more about that?" or "What does it mean to you that your son said that to you, today?"
  • Relating client conversation to spoken client goals. (Research supports improved therapeutic relationships if clients feel therapists’ alignment with their goals, Cooper, 2008, pp. 102–106.)
  • In couple and family therapy, the therapist may also be seen as a Host – who represents the usually unspoken rules and customs of the place of meeting and the Person-Centered & Experiential Psychotherapies 221

Downloaded by [World Association for Person-Centered ] at 12:47 18 October 2013 context of the meeting: that is, "Why are we together in this office or clinic?" Clients have deliberately left home to come to a place for therapy. The physical movement expresses the intention of psychological movement: "We want to move away from our home together the way it is now."

The Host facilitates client directivity by:

  • Offering welcoming activity and conversation, including answering client questions about what may be expected.
  • Going out of their way to connect with the apparently most reluctant clients while acknowledging the concerns of the apparently most willing.
  • Open-ended questions meant to facilitate client reflection and permission to explore.
  • Noticing positive nonverbal events without interpretation (not negative –clients notice those soon enough!) For example: I once said to a man: "Your wife is looking at you intently as you speak." She said, in the middle of a grim discussion of a difficult issue: "I like to look at him. He’s handsome."
  • directed, the client brought in a positive, gentle element that facilitated a warmer conversation.
  • Attending to time – leaving space for warming up – hearing from everyone – and winding down – summarizing themes and checking on resolved and unresolved issues.
  • Brief rituals – for example, inquiring at the end of a session what clients have most appreciated about one another during the session., A question asked not to impose positivity that is not present but to allow room in the place for therapy for the unspoken desire for better connection that is the reason for even talking about the negative. Clients bring trouble with one another to therapy – why else have the session? – but their coming at all signals caring and some level of valuing one another.

A therapist with the intent of not directing clients can accept facilitative roles that can create opportunites for clients to find their own voice and direction and hear the voices and intentions of their significant others.

Case example

Riley and Meghan, who have lived together in Riley’s small house for over a year and who each say that they have found their life partner, came to therapy in a not uncommon crisis. Meghan discovered that Riley’s use of internet pornography had gone farther than her level of tolerance and trust. Riley, additionally had promised to stop one activity and then was discovered to have lied by a Meghan torn between ending the relationship and her deep desire to stay with him and continue their usually very happy relationship.

Riley: (After expressing shame and regret.) I know I lied and she has a reason not to trust me. I really don’t think what I did was a big deal. I’ve stopped all kinds of things for her. I’m sick of this whole business – all this fighting. If she won’t trust me – OK! It’s over! Move out!

Therapist: You are hurt. You are sorry but you feel that her anger and mistrust goes too far. You can’t stand this state of things. You go back and forth between being sorry about how she feels and angry at her for feeling it.

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Meghan: It’s not just the pornography. I accept that. It’s this one site. I used to feel adored and now whenever I think of it, I just feel like – what does he think of me? How can I trust him? And I don’t like being so mad at him over it. I wish I could get OK with this as much as he does.

Therapist: You really hate this state of anger between you. You really do want to trust Riley and you are sad you cannot. You really want to find a way to get past this but you have to share how you feel with him.

The therapist allowed each person a hearing – attending to their sense of loss of their closeness as well as their anger. Insofar as the meeting would be seen as congruent for both of them, the therapist needed to minimize neither the importance of their trouble nor the loss both felt of their relaxed connection. The first session ended with my requesting that each write the answer to two questions: What is that you really want your partner to understand about you? And, What is it that you understand about your partner’s feelings and situation?

Their answer to both questions (read aloud facing the other) showed more empathy for the other and disclosed a more complex truth about themselves than anything the therapist could have said. The directive request facilitated a client direction that was congruent and communicative.

Riley and Meghan had a conversation that belonged to them but would have gone differently had they been alone or with a silent therapist. If the therapist had imposed an agenda they would have been frustrated; if the therapist had not found a way to describe their connecting words as well as their accusatory words they would have left trapped in stagnant positions; if the therapist had not offered an opportunity for communication that bypassed their fight, they may have left feeling unheard and unloved.

The spirit of nondirectivity in an active facilitator Carl Rogers is my model for the expectation that nondirectiveness is a positive, creative force in a dynamic relationship with clients. It is about being present with high trust in witnessing how people choose to speak and act as they unfold. He was convinced that therapists’ efforts to be helpful were less valuable than attention to clients as they find their way. He was active in his therapy but his primary objective was "trying, as sensitively and accurately as [one] can, to understand the client, from the latter’s point of view" (Raskin, 1974, cited in Rogers, 1980, p. 146.), rather than adding anything as an expert.

In couple and family therapy, the practice and spirit of nondirectivity may coexist with the practice of being an active moderator, translator and host which relates to client intention in choosing the medium of couple/family therapy.

I have often asked graduate students or workshop attendees to describe the kindof person they would choose as therapist for their family of origin. More than anything else, they answer "someone who is strong." They also frequently answer "someone who allows me to be heard." Asked their meaning, the students talk about safety for everyone to have their own voice with no negative consequences forsharing.

Client self-direction may require a therapist who can protect, facilitate usually unheard voices, and create an atmosphere for a different kind of communication that clients can use in their own way.

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Being strong enough to facilitate safety for every voice while being humble enough to privilege every person’s voice over my own – this is the balance I never completely have but always seek. Some days my nondirectivity fans flames of client long-familiar habits of competition, carelessness and disrespect; some days mybdirectiveness makes client interactions flat, inauthentic and nondisclosing. Some days my clients and I get it right and they feel they have met each other well.


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