Learning to be trustworthy II: learning to be reliable and competent

Trustworthiness is perhaps the most crucial characteristics for being a therapist¹. Trust is perhaps the most crucial characteristic for a therapeutic relationship. But what does it mean? Can it be learnt and, if so, how do you learn it?

In the first blog (https://www.thomasrowlandcounsellingservices.com/post/learning-to-be-trustworthy-1-learning-to-be-honest), I explored Charles Feltman’s² first condition of trust: being honest and the demands learning this puts on us in recognising our own untrustworthiness. In this blog, I consider the remaining conditions of being reliable and competent and how to learn these, particularly as a therapist.

Being trustworthy means reliability

Feltman’s second condition of trust is reliability: doing what we commit to. He notices, however, that we’re not always good at making it clear what we’re committing to or being clear about what others perceive us as committing to (e.g. when we offer something).

He suggests that we focus we’re being clear about:

  1. precisely what is expected or offered,

  2. when it is expected or being offered, and

  3. what success looks like to us.

In therapy, a lot of this is best done in the early sessions (we call this ‘contracting’). Taking Feltman’s three points encourages me as a therapist to consider and talk explicitly with my clients about:

  1. What do they expect from me and counselling? To be more challenging or supportive? To focus on feelings or thoughts? To focus on the past, present or future? To take their lead or to be more directive?³

  2. When do they expect me to be available? When do they expect to see improvements by? When do they expect therapy to be finish? What am I offering or able to offer? What needs negotiating or challenging?

  3. What is the client’s view of success for their counselling? Often the process for real change gets harder before it gets better: do they know and expect this too? Whilst they can have good reason to hope for progress, and some early on, do they also expect setbacks and struggles? Is success for them to be affliction-free, or to be able to manage their struggles in the normal ebbs and flows of life? What’s deliverable and when is it deliverable, and what’s not in all of this?

As I consider these, I’m aware of the demands on me if I am going to be trustworthy. You see, I often want to offer much more: to be that effective, expert-come-omnipotent-helper. I want validation or at least not to upset or disappoint others.

But all of this makes me less trustworthy. Learning to be trustworthy as a therapist has meant I’ve needed to:

  • realistically assess what is in my capacity and what is beyond it, what I am willing to do and what I am not, and what gives me energy and what drains me of energy - and to be OK with this. It’s not weakness. It’s not inadequacy. It’s being reliable and therefore far more helpful.

  • Learn to tolerate the (even possible) disappointment of others when I say ‘No’. This is hard when most of our sense of validation still comes from others and society. Equally, I’ve found that most people respect and even appreciate when I do.

  • acknowledge and practice the importance of self-care so that I can keep the commitments I have made. Again, this is me learning not to be omnipotent or superhuman - or like I should be.

  • hold my own anxieties around finances, doing enough, or proving myself, so that I do not overload my schedule or promise too much. This may also mean holding and tolerating the anxieties of those close to me. Being trustworthy means approaching, getting close to and feeling the anxieties that plague my life, so I know what might be driving my decisions, not silencing them.

Being trustworthy means competence

‘Can you help me?’ This is a fundamental question for possibly every client. There might be a touch of desperation, or understandable scepticism, or it might be masked by optimism. But it’s there: can I trust your competency?

The narrative around competency is important in therapy. Assessing our competency for working with a client is an important ethical commitment (BACP Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions). Further, the norm of advertising and working towards ‘specialisms’ further places therapist competency at the centre of attention.

But I’m not sure this is always helpful. I suspect this has tendencies towards the narrative of the powerful therapist helping a needy client. The answer is not so much, ‘Yes, I can help you/’ as, ‘Yes, counselling can help you.’. It is when I try to sweep in as a saviour to demonstrate my competency, insight, speciality or sage-like wisdom that I end up being most unhelpful.

You see, my competency - and the competency that is focussed on in training as a therapist - is around to what degree I can hold and facilitate the therapeutic ‘frame’: the regular, reliable and safe time and space (including virtual) where someone else can reflect on their life with me⁴. To the degree I am competent in facilitating that - in holding the boundaries of the frame well - to that degree counselling will be helpful.

This is not to say that specialisms or experience is insignificant. Training and experience in certain areas can help us hold the frame with certain types of clients to a greater degree. Yet, you could have all the world of training and still not be able to hold the frame very well.

The demand on me as a therapist, and what makes holding the frame difficult at times, includes everything I’ve discussed already that can come up in contracting above and in learning to be honest (see part 1). But it’s more than that too.

The demand on me as a therapist seeking to be trustworthy is to relinquish my ego's desire for control and to prove itself. In a way, it means giving up on the quest even to be trustworthy and instead to trust in something beyond me: to hold hope in the process that is allowed to occur (but that I am never finally in control or responsible for) within the therapeutic frame.

Learning to be trustworthy, then, means learning to trust.

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