The following is an interview with Gareth Holman, PhD, a psychologist, trainer, and writer living in Seattle, Washington. He is the lead trainer for online functional analytic psychotherapy (FAP) trainings and works closely with the Center for the Science of Social Connection at the University of Washington to develop FAP research and trainings. He is author of the forthcoming book FAP Made Simple: A Guide to Therapeutic Relationships from New Harbinger Publications.
On February 1, 2017, Gareth is presenting an eight session online course on FAP. Tune in and ask your questions!
Praxis: Let’s start with the basics. What is functional analytic psychotherapy?
GH: Functional Analytic Psychotherapy, or FAP, is a behavioral and experiential approach to being effective in your therapy relationships. The unique focus of FAP is in helping clinicians bring the precision and clarity of a behavioral approach to their therapy relationships.
The precision of the behavioral principles—rather than being a distancing or intellectual thing—helps you discipline and deepen the way you implement all these more mushy things that we all know are crucial to being an effective therapist: self-awareness, empathy, self-management, authenticity, transparency, courage, compassion, and so on.
Praxis: What are some of the ways people get stuck in therapeutic relationships and how does the FAP approach address them?
GH: Great question. One thing is, FAP helps you get specific about what’s happening in your therapy relationships and how you are getting stuck. This is the assessment process at the core of FAP—functional analysis.
A lot of people who seek my consultation have a case where they are stuck and they say, “I just don’t know what to do. It’s impossible. I dread seeing this person on my calendar.” And so I ask, “Well, what is happening?”
I don’t want to hear that your client is resistant, or narcissistic, or lazy. I want to know what you are perceiving in the moment when this started. What was your client perceiving? What did you feel, and think, and do next? How did that impact your client? And so on.
The assumption here is that everything that happens makes sense, even when it’s hard to see that clearly in the moment. Your job as a therapist is to get beyond your own perspective. Let go of being right. Let go of controlling your client or getting them to “see.”
Your job is to relate in a more a flexible way, so that you and the client learn how to move therapy forward together, by sharing your perspectives, taking risks together, and caring for what matters.
Usually, being stuck boils down to one or two specific things that you or your client is doing in the interaction. Functional analysis helps you find those stuck points. This is not unique to FAP, but this commitment to talk in specifics about all relevant aspects of what’s happening between us is central to FAP.
Next, I think functional analysis of this kind tends to challenge us as therapists to look more closely at ourselves, at our personal blind spots and unworkable assumptions or reactions. Anytime you look deeply at how you’re stuck in therapy, you’re going to learn something about yourself. That self-development is a really important part of FAP. And it’s constant.
In the past year, for example, I’ve learned more about my tendency to assume that it’s my sole responsibility to know what to do when my client doesn’t know what to do. Also, there are times when I assume that I will do my client harm if I share my perception that they are doing something ineffective. And my tendency is to hide my own weaknesses and shortcomings. The list goes on . . .
The FAP Model
Praxis: How are awareness, courage, and love important to FAP?
GH: Awareness, courage and love—or ACL, for short—is a way of thinking about what happens when two people connect and influence each other.
Personally, I think models are a dime a dozen. There are a lot of valuable models, but their value arises when you put them to use. As you practice with a model over time, there’s a discipline and depth that emerges. The ACL model gives you three concepts to attend to when relating to another person.
Am I aware of what is happening right now in this moment?
Am I aware of what’s happening in me? In you?
And am I aware of not just what shows up here, but to the extent possible, what it means for me and for you?
Am I moving toward what matters, even while I am uncomfortable, or afraid, or uncertain?
Am I sharing myself vulnerably?
And just as important, am I willing to make another person uncomfortable in order to be compassionate and useful to them?
Am I responding to myself and the other person in ways that create safety, acceptance, and responsiveness?
Am I responding to my own needs and the others’?
These concepts are really practices. You don’t master them and then stop practicing. You keep practicing.
You’ll notice that there’s a ton of overlap, conceptually and practically, between ACL and the various ACT-based models, as well as CFT. And that overlap is a good thing in my view.
Where FAP Meets ACT
Praxis: How does FAP enhance acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)?
GH: You know, I wish we had data on the question of whether FAP enhances ACT work. We don’t have that data. Maybe we will in the future. So I can only talk about this in terms of my experience and what others have told me. And I guess it’s worth saying that I’m a big fan of ACT but I am not an ACT expert.
FAP and ACT share a basic set of assumptions about how we can effectively understand and influence human behavior. Those assumptions make up the perspective of Contextual Behavioral Science.
Not everyone sees it this way, but I think it’s quite possible to think of FAP as an application of ACT principles to those present-moment, interpersonal processes. You don’t need FAP to focus on those aspects, of course, but that is where FAP has put its focus. You can see FAP as a method for how you can implement ACT, moment-by-moment, in your interactions with clients.
Praxis: Are there notable divergences between ACT and FAP?
One divergence between ACT and FAP is that ACT was built deliberately on a foundation of RFT, and so ACT integrates more readily with the RFT perspective. FAP hasn’t quite made that leap to integrate RFT in a fundamental way yet.
Why does this matter? Well, from my experience, RFT work helps us make more precise sense out of a lot of things that we know we should do clinically but were not clearly explained in the older behavioral accounts. For example, when we work with metaphor in a FAP interaction, what is happening? Why are metaphors so powerful? You can get at that with RFT.
Praxis: Can you offer us a couple of examples of how FAP works to deepen the effectiveness of our relationships with clients?
GH: Sure. One way is that it helps you to talk more skillfully and openly about issues in the therapy relationship that might have seemed undiscussable before, or at least issues that you procrastinate on addressing.
For example, you will be able to talk about it if therapy doesn’t seem to be working, or if you or your client are not following through on your commitments, or if your client is doing things that are pushing other people away, including you. You will be able to have these conversations—not without discomfort—but with skill and confidence, you will achieve a useful outcome.
Another way I’ve seen FAP deepen effectiveness is in the practice of responding openly, courageously, and directly when a client shares something vulnerable or really needs to experience your presence and support.
It’s tempting to assume that our facial expression or a few minimal words of support say enough—provide enough reassurance or safety to our clients. But by saying more, sharing what you feel in your body as you listen to this person’s pain or perseverance, sharing what inspires or moves you, you can offer a rare and valuable gift.
Here you are, a trained and compassionate observer of the human condition, who knows this person deeply. How wonderful for them to hear more about how they are experienced, to receive the gift of your caring, authentic, and complete response.
That kind of loving response is usually reserved for the way an author describes characters in a novel. But we can give that to our clients in therapy if we build the skill and courage to do so. We can offer the care of deep description and meaning-making. It’s a very rewarding practice to learn how to share your perceptions and appreciation for others in a deeper way.
Gareth Holman is presenting an eight session online course on FAP beginning April 6, 2017. Tune in and ask your questions!