Please Understand Me

Does personal temperament impact the therapeutic relationship?

Therapy involves disclosing parts of us which we don't reveal to anyone - hurts from the past, thoughts that are different to others', feelings which seem "wrong" or inappropriate. For most people, talking about their deepest fears is quite a big deal. A significant degree of trust in the therapist is necessary for the client to open up. So it's not simple looking for a therapist, we want more than their expertise - we want to know they are a person we can relate to and who can understand us.

The therapy relationship is different to a friendship or family relationship, and is not (usually) the kind we would have with a casual acquaintance. It is personal and often involves deep self-disclosure. The client looks to the therapist for guidance and structure. Therapy is a special relationship and choosing the right therapist can be just as serious as choosing a life partner.

Therapists have training to assist clients feel comfortable disclosing personal feelings and thoughts. Carl Rogers, a key theorist in psychotherapy, identified three conditions therapists need to provide for clients - empathy (understanding and caring), congruence (being yourself, being genuine) and unconditional positive regard (seeing the client positively despite their history and "wrongdoings"). Rogers thought of these conditions as being both necessary and sufficient for the client to change. Other therapeutic orientations would agree that these are important pre-requisites, but not always sufficient.

Much of the literature on therapy revolves around technique and skill - ie what the therapist will do to help the client. For example, cognitive behavioural therapists focus on the techniques of setting goals and teaching the client skills such as monitoring their mood and relaxation. Psychodynamic therapists interpret client behaviour with the aim of raising client awareness and capacity for self regulation.

But what about who the therapist might need to be in order to help a client?

Therapists not only have different therapeutic techniques, they are human and have different personalities. Just as personality drives behaviour generally, it can also be an indicator of their preferred approach to therapy. The work of David Keirsey on Temperament provides a framework for thinking about personality and the different approaches to therapy. Keirsey based his work on the earlier extensive theories of Carl Jung (Swiss Psychologist) and identified four basic temperaments. Keirsey holds the belief that Temperament is inborn and remains constant throughout life. Temperament underpins personality and gives rise to certain personality features and therefore, styles of behaviour. Following this line of thinking, therapists of different temperaments will probably have different therapeutic styles, even with similar technique and training. The four basic temperaments Keirsey identified are the Artisan, the Guardian, the Idealist and the Rationalist.

The Artisan is action-oriented, flexible and spontaneous. They value freedom and tend to be tolerant and easygoing in most situations. As a therapist, the Artisan will take a pragmatic and practical approach. They will generally see the problem presented to them as the problem, and be less likely than other temperaments to seek underlying causes or meanings. They will help with practical solutions or offer alternate helpful viewpoints early in the therapeutic process.

The Guardian is responsible, reliable and dependable. They value tradition, fairness and serving others. Guardians excel at establishing the rules by which society runs and their behaviour is guided by their sense of duty and obligation. The Guardian therapist takes their role very seriously and may portray an air of concern. They will create a stable, consistent environment for clients. They will probably prefer to develop a plan for therapy with the client, including measurable goals and points at which progress is measured.

The Rationalist is the "visionary", focusing on the future and the patterns that exist in all things. They value knowledge, competence, and quality and enjoy the challenge of solving a difficult problem. The Rationalist therapist will be highly perceptive and quickly hone in on the issues at the core of the clients problem. They portray a manner of confidence and clients will feel as though they are in expert hands. They will be skilled at pointing out patterns in their clients' behaviours, feelings and thoughts, and thereby raising the client's awareness of themselves.

The Idealist lives their life to make the world a better place for people. They value personal growth for themselves and others and see life as a process of self-realization. Everything has personal meaning and significance for the Idealist and their behaviour is guided by their values. The Idealist therapist is likely to focus on creating a comfortable friendly atmosphere, allow the client a lot of time and space to communicate their concerns and show their care and concern before thinking about what to do. Clients would feel comforted and cared for as they find their way through their problems. Some idealist therapists would actively suggest solutions whilst others may support the client to come up with their own solutions. The Idealist is not likely to just focus on solving problems, they work with the client to change themselves.

What does all of this mean for your choice of therapist? Some people will prefer to work with a therapist of a similar temperament as themselves. Although this is not necessarily a recipe for good therapy, it may mean you instantly feel comfortable and familiar with the person, making the start of therapy smoother. Other people will make their choice based on the type of issue they have or the way they want to deal with the issue. The Artisan and the Guardian are more likely to focus on here and now problems and on seeking immediate solutions. If you want short term therapy and you like sharp, smart solutions, an Artisan therapist will probably be most suited. If you'd prefer to deal with the here-and-now problems but like a plan of where you are going and what you'll cover, a Guardian therapist might suit best. If you are looking for "expert" knowledge in a particular field and are ready to be challenged, you'll more than likely do well with a Rationalist. If you have a variety of issues that have been around for a long time, the Idealist will explore with you possible background causes.

I'm not suggesting that Temperament locks a therapist into a certain approach, but Temperament is an indicator of the therapist's likely preferred approach. Temperament gives us a framework from which to identify differences among people and therefore from which to assess, "is this person / therapist the one for me?"

Recommended reading:

Understanding Yourself and Others, An Introduction to Temperament
Dr Linda Berens

Please Understand Me II
David Keirsey



Posted on 30 March 2005 in - Library - Personality and Identity - Therapy

Kristen Bayliss


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