Collaborative therapy, a treatment approach developed by Harlene Anderson, focuses on the development of a collaborative and egalitarian relationship between a person in therapy and their therapist to facilitate dialogues that lead to positive change. This method is significantly influenced by postmodernism, and it is used to treat individuals, families, groups, and even organizations.
Collaborative therapy was developed by Harlene Anderson over the course of her work as a therapist and through informal research with those she worked with in therapy. Interested in understanding why therapy worked for some people and not others, Anderson sought to discover what facilitated the transformation process of therapy and the types of conversations therapists could have with people in therapy to help them feel hopeful. Anderson conducted part of her informal research by engaging in discussions with conversational partners, including colleagues, people in therapy, and students. Through these dialogues, she developed the postmodern collaborative approach that collaborative therapy is grounded in.
Find a Therapist
The foundation of collaborative therapy is postmodernism, a philosophical approach advocating both a skeptical attitude toward knowledge and the belief that knowledge is a socially constructed concept, not a universal truth. There are two key concepts of postmodernism fundamental to collaborative therapy. The first is the idea that knowledge is fluid, created as language evolves, and thus the process of growth and learning happens through dialogue with others. The second postmodern concept influencing collaborative therapy is the idea that multiple realities exist, so there is no single correct way to see a situation. In collaborative therapy, the perspective of the person in therapy is considered equal to the therapist’s.
Anderson considers collaborative therapy more of a philosophy rather than a theory or model. The two key principles of this approach are developing a collaborative relationship between therapist and the individual in therapy and engaging in dialogues that encourage growth and change. Anderson believes collaborative therapy facilitates transformation for both the person in therapy and their therapist. As meaningful conversations occur and various perspectives are explored, both parties may acquire new knowledge and understanding.
During the collaborative therapy session, the therapist and person in therapy develop a partnership in which they talk with each other, not to each other. Individuals can tell their story while a therapist actively listens and seeks to understand their perspective. To facilitate dialogue, the therapist might ask questions, comment, and make sure they accurately understand what the person in therapy is saying. By forming a cooperative relationship, they work together to create a new understanding of the individual's experience, allowing for transformation.
A crucial part of collaborative therapy is the therapist’s recognition that a person in therapy is the expert on their own experience. The therapist does not act as an authority figure or as if they have greater knowledge or understanding. They may offer their own suggestions or perspective, but they avoid imposing their own ideas on the individual in therapy.
Specific techniques a collaborative therapist may use include inviting the individual to tell their story in their own way and at their own pace and demonstrating genuine interest in their experience. The therapist may attentively listen and respond, pay attention to verbal and nonverbal communication, ask the person in therapy whether their own interpretation of the experience is accurate, and pause, using silence to create space for reflection.
Because collaborative therapy is considered a therapeutic stance and not a model, there is no specific issue or diagnosis it is designed to treat. Rather, it is an approach that may help people make positive transformations and address many types of issues and concerns. The therapist can focus on nearly any need or agenda presented by the person in therapy. The collaborative approach between individual and therapist may be particularly helpful to those experiencing issues with power differentials in relationships or those who have difficulty trusting others, especially figures of authority.
Collaborative therapy can be used with individuals or groups, whether those groups are couples, families, or other types of social systems. The collaborative relationships and dialogues fundamental to collaborative therapy can occur in groups of many sizes.
While there is no specified certification for collaborative therapy, Anderson does offer consultation and training. She sees training in collaborative therapy as an ongoing process in which the therapist is continually learning. Learning to conduct collaborative therapy is often less about learning specific techniques and more about learning a specific philosophical stance, or way of interacting, with those seeking therapy.
No single therapeutic approach is appropriate for everybody. While some individuals may respond well to collaborative therapy, others may prefer a more structured or directive approach in which the therapist uses more specific tools or techniques. Additionally, because collaborative therapy is conceptualized as a philosophical stance rather than a specific treatment model, the way it is practiced can vary widely. Collaborative therapy does not offer a manualized training or certification process, making it difficult to ensure the therapists using it adhere to its principles.
- Anderson, H. (n.d.). Consultations and training. Retrieved from http://www.harleneanderson.org/index.html
- Anderson, H. (2001). Postmodern collaborative and person-centered therapies: What would Carl Rogers say? Journal of Family Therapy, 4(23), 339-360. doi: 10.1111/1467-6427.00189
- Anderson, H. (2007, October 5). The therapist and the postmodern therapy system: A way of being with others. Retrieved from http://www.europeanfamilytherapy.eu/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/anderson.pdf