By Dr Kate Owen
Clinical Family Therapist & Clinical Psychologist
I love a good metaphor when I teach family therapy concepts. It really helps to create a visual image and story that enhances the learning experience. One of my favourite metaphors when talking about building an alliance with families is that of “the therapeutic host” as written by Roger Lowe (2004).
Roger writes, “I like to extend the metaphor of hosting to include the ways in which a good dinner party or social host behaves. Good hosts find ways to greet each guest as though they are special. They find ways to set people from different backgrounds at ease, and to facilitate conversations with other guests. They work hard to establish a certain kind of mood, perhaps through a combination of theme, environment and music. They work hard to anticipate and pre-empt foreseeable difficulties and keep an eye and ear on the emotional temperature of the evening. They do not take centre stage, but work unobtrusively to create and maintain an environment where guests can feel free to enjoy themselves” (p43).
In workshops I want the participants to reflect and connect with this idea and so I ask them about their preferences in their personal life: to be the host or to be an invited guest. I am always surprised that more hands in the room go up for option number two. Perhaps that is because I love hosting and get so much joy and satisfaction from creating positive experiences for people.
For those who love to host, I acknowledge the time, thought, preparation, and effort that is involved. There is the menu to be decided, sleepless nights as the menu is revised at least 10 times, the groceries to be bought, the house to clean (and don’t forget the toilet!), ensuring there are enough chairs for everyone and good music to play.
Then as the event starts the host greets each guest with smiling eyes and an inviting warmth, ensures that guests feel comfortable through conversation, setting them up in a comfortable space, and assisting connections with other guests.
For those who love to be an invited guest, I acknowledge the thrill of finding out what is on the menu, having the eyes light up when you notice the ‘good’ Mersey Valley cheese on offer, appreciating that the toilet has been cleaned, finding a comfortable chair to sit in, and enjoying the ambiance created by the music.
Not only that, as an invited guest the experience is far more enjoyable when you are greeted warmly, made to feel physically comfortable, when you are asked questions about how you are travelling in life, as well as made to feel emotionally comfortable with others.
Imagine if an invited guest turned up and they had to stand all evening, felt lonely, left feeling hungry, and decided that they would wait to use the bathroom once they got home!
This story is to help those who work with families appreciate that creating a safe therapeutic space is important, and a sense of safety can be conveyed by the approach and presence of the therapist, the physical environment, and the interactions experienced within that environment.
So take a moment to reflect on these questions:
How do you invite clients into your office and service?
How do you greet clients when they enter the therapy space?
When you greet the client, what words do you use, in what tone of voice, and what does your facial expression portray?
How is your therapy room set up?
How does the therapy space “feel”?
Do you have plants and nature in the room, as research shows this has a calming effect on people.
Do you have relaxing music playing softly, or sounds of nature in the background? Again, another proven method for inviting calm.
Do your clients feel "hosted", and physically and emotionally comfortable?
How do you end sessions?
Is this the type of experience that you would like to have if you were attending therapy?
Is this the type of experience that your family would appreciate?
In my systemic family therapy framework, being a therapeutic host is a concept that continually guides my practice as opposed to being an activity that occurs once in the initial stages of meeting a client and family. As Roger reflects, “…the therapist’s role is not merely to create a safe space for inquiry but to monitor and maintain it throughout the subsequent conversation” (p53).
Lowe, R. (2004). Family Therapy: A Constructive Framework. Sage Publications.
Please note that this article is educational in nature and does not constitute therapeutic advice.