Psychotherapy Bulletin

Psychotherapy Bulletin

Drawn from “The Person of the Therapist”

“When the wrong man uses the right means, the right means work in the wrong way” (Stevens, 1970, p. 7). Looking beyond what now would be considered her sexist language, we might appreciate that Barry Stevens had a knack for stating wisdom in down-to-earth terms, terms so simple and clear that the truth shone through and illuminated. I once stood silently with her on a clear and cool morning at daybreak, watching the sun emerge over the peak of a Colorado mountain and flood the valley with light. This is how she was. A few hours later, I watched Barry Stevens lead a session with a volunteer in her sponsored seminar. She worked slowly, gently, respectfully. As she demonstrated her style, her way of Gestalt therapy, I felt certain that she was, to use her phrase, the “right man.”

Beyond the systems of psychotherapy, with their philosophical underpinnings, their underlying theories, their methods, there is something more, something of an entirely different plane. There is the plane of abstraction, and then there is the plane of lived events. Consider that techniques, as well as philosophies and theories, are abstractions. As abstractions, techniques are made concrete only through their expression by a therapist. That is, techniques come alive through the person of the therapist. “The technique only becomes a lived event as it is brought to life through the therapist’s personal expression” (Smith, 2000, p. 44).

“I suggest that no given technique, however objectively pure it seems in the abstract, when read about or talked about, is ever the same when given life by different persons. The personal is, here, vital. It is the individual, personally mediated expression of the technique that is real and present for the person in therapy” (Smith, 2001, p. 73). Based on their review of the research, Michael Lambert and Allen Bergin (1994) concluded that “despite careful selection, training, monitoring, and supervision, therapists offering the same treatments can have highly divergent results” (p. 174). Furthermore, it should be emphasized that the therapist factor prevails even when therapists are following an explicit protocol. Different therapists evidence different levels of efficacy, even when they do therapy “by the book,” (manualized psychotherapy).

The techniques of a school of psychotherapy, as well as its philosophical underpinnings and its theoretical base, can be taught, of course. However, in order for a psychotherapist to transcend a superficial-cum-artificial application of techniques, it is her or his personal resources that are crucial. My onetime mentor and longtime colleague, Irma Lee Shepherd, expressed her doubt that psychotherapy can be taught! She explained that being a psychotherapist may not be able to be taught in the same sense that being an artist may not be able to be taught. She wrote that it is the “power and authenticity of the person,” which is needed for one to be a therapist and not just do therapy (Shepherd, 1992, p. 239).

When we look at the empirical research concerning the relationship between therapist variables and the efficacy of psychotherapy, we find a wealth of data. As important as these data are, looking to some of the masters may help to create a more coherent description of what is meant by the personhood of the effective therapist. I reviewed both of these in The Person of the Therapist (Smith, 2003). Avoiding the plethora of references that would be necessary, some of the masters’ views can be summarized as follows:

Good will (Barry Stevens); empathic ability, unconditional positive regard, and genuineness (Carl Rogers); power and authenticity (Irma Lee Shepherd); non-duplicity and the desire to establish straightforward communication with relatively uncommunicative persons (Helmuth Kaiser); a willingness to be totally and subjectively involved and thus risk vulnerability and the revelation of one’s own “patient vectors” (Carl Whitaker, Tom Malone, Richard Felder, John Warkentin, Avrum Weiss, Earl Brown); full presence (Virginia Satir); willingness to be transformed (Carl Jung); willingness to enter into an “I –Thou” relationship (Fritz Perls, James Simkin); humanness (Joen Fagan); awareness and authenticity (Patricia Baumgardner); freedom from “emotional plague” (Wilhelm Reich, Elsworth Baker); courage to engage the predicament of the person in therapy (Ken Bradford); communicative intimacy (James Dublin); authenticity (James Bugental). We may add to this list the advice of Plato that those who treat the mind possess knowledge, benevolence, and boldness.

The above list may well give a felt sense of the person of the therapist, and yet one must be cautious, lest one force a reduction to a few prime factors. Each of the nuances implied by the above words and phrases may be essential. Overlapping in places and nearly synonymous in others, these words and phrases nevertheless deserve honor for whatever degree of uniqueness each holds. Perhaps we would do well to continue to marvel at the ubiquitous yet elusive quality of the person of the therapist, as we keep to the advice of Rilke, and love the question.

Edward W. L. Smith, Ph.D. taught at Georgia State University for seven years, then pursued a full-time psychotherapy practice in Atlanta for 18 years. Returning to academia, he was the founding Director of Clinical Training for the Psy.D. program at Georgia Southern University, where he is now Professor Emeritus. He has been elected fellow of the American Psychological Association through four divisions. For nearly 40 years, he led continuing education workshops nationally and internationally. His 10 books include The Body in Psychotherapy, The Person of the Therapist, The Psychology of Artists and the Arts, Embodied Gestalt Practice, and The Echo of Odin: Norse Mythology and Human Consciousness.

Cite This Article

Smith, E. W. L. (2020). Drawn from The Person of the Therapist. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 55(3), 12-13.


Lambert, M. J., & Bergin, A. E. (1994). The effectiveness of psychotherapy. In A. E. Bergin & S.L. Garfield (Eds.), Handbook of psychotherapy and behavior change (4th ed., pp. 143-189). Wiley.

Shepherd, I. L. (1992). Teaching therapy through the lives of the masters: A personal statement. In E. W. L. Smith (Ed.), Gestalt voices (pp. 239-240). Gestalt Journal Press.

Smith, E. W. L. (2000). Toward the meaning of ‘the person of the therapist.’ In B. J. Brothers (Ed.), The personhood of the therapist (pp. 43-49). Haworth.

Smith, E. W. L. (2001). The person of the therapist: Research findings. Voices, 37(2), 73-79.

Smith, E. W. L. (2003). The person of the therapist. McFarland.

Stevens, B. (1970). Don’t push the river (it flows by itself). Real People Press.


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