Three Roles for Other: Encouraging Systemic Therapy with Individual Clients
by: John Souza and Jeremy Faus
As family therapists we (John and Jeremy) value the systemic and contextual (as opposed to linear and decontextualized) aspects of a client’s symptoms or presenting concerns. In our experience an expedient path toward development of this systemic-contextual perspective has been to invite into session relevant others. And while ultimately we privilege the client’s definition of an other as “relevant”, we also consider part of our role to include the expansion of the client’s awareness of who might be impacting his/her presenting concerns. When encouraging MFT interns to practice this aspect of their role, I ( John) have often been met with the same question: “How?” One response to this question is to first consider the “Why?” Inviting others into session invariably causes clients to behave differently and enables therapists to more directly observe changes in content and processes. These observed changes may quickly reveal previously obscured parallel processes between therapist and client thereby increasing the likelihood of identifying underlying relational dynamics that may be maintaining a client’s presenting concerns. As to the “How?” I offer the importance of being clear on the possible roles an other may take in session.
Know the Options: Three Roles of Other
In my ( John’s) experience it has almost always been easier to switch from working with couple and family systems to working with indi- vidual subsystems. The reverse however, has often been more difficult as a client seeing me one-on-one may develop a sense of ownership (e.g., you are my therapist), which to the client can feel like a loss when an other is brought into session. Some clients may outright refuse to consider allowing an other into therapy, citing concerns about how s/ he may be treated by the other (either in therapy or at home following the session). Conversely, some clients may want an other to be part of therapy, but believe this other will be unwilling to or uncomfortable participating. In response to these valid concerns, when discussing with a client the possibility of an other coming into session consider the following roles and their functions, which we offer here in rank order from least to most ideal:
Role 1: Observer.
An other may be invited into session as an observer who is expected only to watch. With the observer present in session a client is free to choose what to discuss. For therapists having the observer present can bring about changes in a client’s verbal and non-verbal presentation, which can reveal systemic and contextual aspects of a client’s presenting concerns. This role may also allow an other to experience the content and process of therapy without having to self-disclose, which may facilitate him/her becoming a full participant in future sessions. When working with couples an observing other may develop a deeper appreciation (i.e., empathy) for the client’s intra-psychic dynamics, which may also prompt him/her to become a full participant in future sessions.
Role 2: Collateral contact.
Role 3: Full participant.
About the Authors
Initially Published in MAMFT News, Vol. 32, No. 1, Spring 2014