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I saw ‘The King’s Speech’ last night and it has me all stirred up. It is easily my choice for Best Picture this year. What I loved about the movie was the beautifully warm relationship between the King, played by Colin Firth (who WILL win Best Actor) and his Speech Therapist, the marvelously entertaining Geoffrey Rush. It struck me that this relationship depicts a truly great therapeutic relationship better than any movie I’ve ever seen, including Good Will Hunting (the therapist did grab the client by the throat and threaten to kill him in the first session in that movie after all). Go see this movie. The life changing power between therapist and client is what effective therapy looks and feels like.
I didn’t plan this, but a writer sometimes just has stuff come out in patterns so you are forced to go with it. Let me share with you the twelve C’s of a great therapeutic relationship as so artfully expressed in the movie. Actually I am going to focus on the qualities of the therapist here because that is what made all the difference. The future King had been to many healers to no avail before he showed up at therapist Lionel’s door. The healing dance that they danced all started with the strength and rhythm of the masterful dance instructor. A truly gifted therapist can make all the difference in the world. They can certainly be the difference between a happy marriage and a bitter divorce. At times they can be the difference between life and death. The magic of Berty (the therapist’s affectionate family name for the King) and Lionel evolved from the therapist’s solid, mischievous, unshakable sense of self. Now, on with the C’s…
#1 A great therapist is extremely Confident. They know who they are. They know the extent of their healing powers (given the right client). When the future Queen showed up at Lionel’s dodgy (I love the word dodgy here – sounds so British, don’t you think?) office to scout out his talents he humbly informed her that he could without a doubt heal her husband’s speech defects. This rang true to her. Lionel believed in his gift. He had seem it work many, many times. He had been through war and he had defeated even its ravages. You want a humble, extremely confident therapist, not someone with a shaky voice themselves.
#2 A great therapist is Clear. They have solid boundaries. They have their ways of healing and those ways are non-negotiable. Lionel was not awed by the prospect of working with the King. He would pass on the opportunity if the King would not come to his place for the work. He would not come to the King. There would be no smoking. First names would be used. For a client to be helped, they first have to respect the therapist. No one can respect a wishy-washy healer who doesn’t respect themselves enough to set down the rules from the very first contact.
#3, #4 & #5 A great therapist is Creative, Clever and Cute in his or her work. Lionel kept Berty off balance from the very beginning of their relationship. He used rye humor, unorthodox techniques and a refreshing, playful demeanor to engage a very resistant client in the work. Mind games need to be played at times to penetrate stubborn psychological defenses so it might as well be fun. At times it takes the spirit of a child to reach the child deeply buried in the core of some wounded people. Lionel joyfully played cat and mouse with his hurting but nearly unworkable new project. Trust is earned. It isn’t handed out to just anyone. To engage resistant, untrusting souls in the vulnerable and painful dance of effective therapy a skilled therapist needs to bait the line with interesting, shiny objects that catch the client’s attention. Lionel knew his stuff and he knew how to play the game in a way that would enliven Berty. You’ll enjoy watching the process of how Lionel, the wise old owl used all the guile and cunning he could muster to reach Berty.
#6 A great therapist Cares a great deal for his or her clients . Lionel seemed like a kind and loving father with Berty even though there weren’t too many years that separated the two men. His eyes quite literally shown with sincere empathy and grace. This is not lost on the client. My therapist, Rick Gustafson is a very similar caring soul. I have benefited greatly from his encouraging words, his affirming man hugs and his genuinely liking of me. The therapy books call this ‘unconditional positive regard’. Being a great therapist is like being a great parent – it all starts in the heart.
#7 A great therapist is Childhood focused. From the first few minutes of therapy Lionel was trying to get deeper than techniques and tools. He asked Berty what his earliest childhood memory was. He knew that the stuttering problem had its roots in Berty’s childhood wounds. Since Berty was a high and mighty buttoned up Englishman he certainly had no intention of sharing such private information with this odd stranger who probably couldn’t heal him anyway. It is all about your childhood folks. That is what your marital issues are rooted in. Your marriage is a re-enactment of your most painful childhood wounds. A great therapist isn’t about fixing the here and now even clients beg and demand such game plans. Healing the deepest wounds can actually change who you are as a person. It isn’t about trying harder or being good – it is about having the gift of healing our most primal and hurtful wounds.
#8 A great therapist is Confidential. They do not need to impress others with the prestigious names of their clients. Lionel had never told his wife that his challenging client was none other than the King of England himself. He hadn’t bragged to his kids about his relationship with the King. He always put the King’s privacy and best interest in front of his own needs for self-esteem or importance.
#9 A great therapist is occasionally quite Confounded. Therapy can hurt for both the therapist and the client. When clients get defensive, angry or reactive a therapist can certainly feel some pain as a result. When clients abruptly drop out of therapy as Berty did on several occasions it hurt Lionel a great deal. He cared about his famous ward and the sudden cruel rejections cut like a knife. When Berty exploded at Lionel on their walk, the therapist had his head handed to him. That hurt deeply. Therapy is a strange business. It isn’t friendship, but friendships can and do develop. Trust cuts both ways. A therapist who only sees his clients in a purely business manner is too much about business. He or she doesn’t come from the heart enough and they aren’t great therapists.
#10 A great therapist is quite Contrite when they make mistakes and they do make mistakes. They are capable of recognizing when they are wrong and they are able to humbly apologize. Lionel showed up at the King’s palace, literally with hat and umbrella in hand and he was sent packing. Therapy is often enriched by the foibles and the weaknesses of the therapist. Therapists are mere humans. We are all quite flawed. Since most often their parents could never humbly admit fault and apologize, clients are touched and astonished when their therapist unashamedly apologizes. Lionel had a humble heart and his reaching out to Berty no doubt started the thawing out of their broken off relationship.
#11 A great therapist is almost Clairvoyant. They can predict your future unerringly. Lionel knew that Berty had greatness in him. He knew that he was going to become a great and courageous King. He believed in Berty long before Berty believed in himself. Sometimes it takes someone else envisioning our bright future before we can grow into that notion ourselves. This works in reverse as well unfortunately. I can usually spot a doomed marriage in just a few minutes. Certain characteristics mitigate against personal and marital growth and accountability – defensiveness, a victim mentality, reactivity, entitlement and having abandonment issues ranking high on the list. A great therapist unearths destructive weeds such as these and seeks to uproot them immediately. Lionel saw the potential of a great King with a inspiring voice in the broken, beaten, voiceless Berty. This naming out of great future things that come true is one of the great joys of being a therapist.
#12 A great therapist is most certainly consistently Courageous. I believe this one characteristic is the one that holds most therapists back from being more life changing. In movies and on television therapists are usually depicted as beard stroking pacifist sissies who sit back and let you figure your stuff out by yourself. A great therapist has the confidence inspiring voice of a prophet. They are Charlton Heston’s Moses. They know of which they speak so they speak with quiet yet booming assurance. Lionel gave Berty a swift kick in his Royal Highnesses behind. He pushed him to greatness. He was not intimidated by him. He told Berty the truth. Great therapy is always about getting the client to choke down as much truth as they can about themselves. An edgy, truth telling therapist who can put his or her fingers on your blind spots and then get you to see is worth their weight in gold.
Go see the movie. You’ll love it. And I hope that you will open your heart to the healing powers that can come from a relationship with a confident, clear, creative, clever, cute, caring, child-focused, confidential, confounded, contrite, clairvoyant and courageous therapist!