Frontiers of Psychotherapist Development

At the Bleeding Edge of Development, Reaping Benefit for Our Clients.

Tag: professional development

Develop First Principles Before The Methods

Develop Principles before the methods

The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.

 ~ Josh Kaufman, Personal MBA

As a field, we were obsessed with methods, approaches, tools, theoretical orientations, and schools of thought. Money poured into establishing treatment efficacy differences have not yield much fruit; therapists investment in time, effort and money to train in specific models have not demonstrated improvement in our results.

I suspect that one of our key mistakes is a failure to learn first principles, instead of methods.

First Principles Graph

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Develop Your Own Wealth of Learnings

Developing Your Own Wealth of Learnings-4


In a previous post, I talked about the iterative cycle that we can take in our professional development (click HERE to revisit it, and download the free infographic).


Here’s something that I’ve recently revisited that struck a chord:

“The theorists can only build his theories about what the practitioner was doing yesterday.

Tomorrow the practitioner will be doing something different because of these theories.”

~Gregory Bateson, 1951/68.


Most good theories that we develop in our practice derives after the fact, not before.

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Specific Ways to Build a Portfolio of Mentors

Specific Ways to Build a Portfolio of Mentors

In a previous post, I advocated the need to go beyond seeking the help from one individual.

It is up to you to Build a Portfolio of Mentors. It doesn’t happen to you; it’s what you do to make these mentorship work.

There are at least four types of mentors you can seek out.

1. Formal Mentors:

Seek out people that inspire you.

When I first reached out to Scott Miller, I didn’t think he would respond, let alone agreed to guide me in my development. Fast forward a decade later, he still is my someone that I turn to for guidance, even as we collaborate in our writings and teachings.

Another person I sought after at the tail end of my masters in 2005, was a highly perceptive and personable therapist, Juliana Toh who was teaching us systemic therapy. This was the ONE module that made all the difference to me. Near the end of the course, I asked Juliana if a few of us can connect with her for ongoing supervision. She agreed. And this set up another decade’s worth of consultation with her. Priceless. (One of the common practices she had that I adopted was for us to bring in taped-sessions).


2. Informal Mentors:

Seek out colleagues, friends, in and outside of your organisation to connect on a routine basis. 

Tell them that you’d like some guidance in some particular area of your work. Buy them lunch during your once a month meeting. 

Use these meetings as a check-in, a pit-stop, or even a form of accountability for the stuff that you are working on.


3. Seek Consultation as a Team:

While formal and informal mentors may not typically be a paid service (besides, I don’t think your friend should accept your money), another form of highly valuable professional guidance you can obtain is to seek consultation as a organisation.

This is typically more economical in cost. It is also beneficial if the agency wants to implement new changes in their organisation, and the leaders aim for everyone to be on board.

Consultations are much more powerful and effective, as compared with sending the team to a 1-2 day workshop. The reason is that ongoing routine consultations are aimed at a more SPECIFIC and SUSTAINING manner. Workshops typically ignite interest but fail to fan the flame.

So if you are a leading a team and them to a workshop, make sure you have a clear committed plan ahead on how to sustain the interest of implementing these new ideas.

I spend much of my time mentoring practitioners and consulting with agencies. Even though I offer a special extra value of connection in between, only a minority of people ask me questions between our consultations.

If you seek out a consultant, you shouldn’t feel afraid to bother them in between the formal consultations. That’s because most of the important challenges surface in-between!

In one agency, after an initial training they had with me, they had planned for the ongoing consultations to be once every three months. While they were trying to integrate the use of outcome measures into their daily clinical practice, several of the clinicians were struggling on how to introduce the measures. Thankfully, one of them emailed me on how to address this issue, as the next consult was 8 weeks away. And I provided them some tips and resources as they rolled out the implementation.


4. Instrumental Mentors:

Books and reading materials can be your “Instrumental Mentors,” if you approach this with a mindset of “Just-in-time” learning mentality.

Therapists complain that they do not have enough time to read, given their unending workload. “Just-in-time” learning can help to speed up the learning process but being highly focused and targeted with what you read. 

I’m currently enrolled in an online learning course with Scott H Young, called Rapid Learning. One of the things he advocated is to treat each thing that you are learning as a PROJECT. I think it’s a brilliant idea. It gives a handle, and projects can be broken down into parts with an overarching specific goal, along with a deadline, milestones and a week-by-week breakdown of how you plan to accomplish it. 

Here’s some examples: if you find yourself struggling with dealing with your client who has high self-criticism, you might persue reading materials from Leslie Greenberg’s work in emotion focused therapy. 

If you are working with a couple who are struggling with rekindling their sex life, you might turn to Ester Perel’s work.

If you are working with a family who is facing power struggles with their teenage daughter, you might turn to Salvador Minuchin’s work in structural family therapy.

The key to using Instrumental Mentors via a just-in-time learning approach is to develop your FOCUS.

Here’s how:

1. Block out 30mins to an hour per week within your work hours (yes, you heard me right. Keep it at work, because this form of deep work DIRECTLY addresses your clinical work);

2. Identity the ONE THING that you need to work on at this stage.

3. Read with a just-in-time learning mentality, which means you have to read with the SPECIFIC OBJECTIVE in mind (and avoid Facebook during this blocked out time, AT ALL COST).

4. Keep a learning log. I’m sure I’m not alone; all of us have experienced this thing called Professional Amnesia. That is, we learn something so important at one point in time, but we forget these perennial learning, and instead, get enamored by what’s new and shiny.

By keeping a learning log, you can (and should) revisit them. I’ve been using a free Simplenote to archive my weekly learnings over the past five years. Every so often, I’d open the app, look at a past learning title and test myself, if I can recall what I learned in the past. I’m often shocked at the experience of Professional Amnesia. “Did I write that?”

(I love simplenote. It’s by the creators of wordpress-the platform I use for my website. I’ve used several note taking apps. Evernote has a ton more features, and I use evernote more for web clippers. On the other hand, What I love most about Simplenote is the constrain. You can’t change the font or font size, you can muck around with the formatting, etc [unless you use markdown symbols]. And that’s really helpful to capture your learning ideas down quickly. PLUS, it’s super quick to retrieve your notes, especially if you tag them. I tag my weekly learning log as “TherapyLearnings”. It all syncs across platforms and devices seamlessly. All that… for free! 

This is also a good way to stave off our allure towards the timely things, and return to the time-less matters that count.

Don’t forget that the people who write those inspiring materials are also actual human beings. Reach out to them if they spark something in you. Email them, chat with them. Seek them out to be your formal mentors, or seek consultation with them as a team. The world is no longer divided into authors and readers. Every true author is an avid reader, and every reader is capable of becoming an author. So let’s connect.



1. “Show Your Work”: If you seek out a paid mentor/supervisor/consultant, make sure you do not just “talk about your work.” Instead, “show your work” with the use of audio/visual recordings, so that your mentor knows your work (eg segments of your therapy recordings + outcomes). What good is gossiping even with a good theory in mind?

2. Before and After: What’s crucial is what you do before and after a mentoring session.

Do the Prep work…

and then…

Do the reflection. 

Maximise the sessions and time you devote to the mentorship connection. It’s not just the hour or two that you spend that counts. It’s what you do for the prep, and what you do at the end to pull it all together, so that it sticks.




Anything worth building requires more than an individual.

Your development requires this team approach.



The Iterative Pathway of a Psychotherapist’s Professional Development

Click here to download a free INFOGRAPHIC on The Iterative Pathway of a Psychotherapist's Professional Development


  There is no doubt, psychotherapists value professional development. After all, we are in the business of human development. We prize growth and change not only in our clients, but in ourselves. But the truth is, we seem to be hopping from one workshop to another, one therapy model to the next, without a clear map of where we are going. More worryingly, we aren’t sure if all these activities actually do translate to improvement in our client outcomes. It feels like we are walking in the dark, and we have no clue if we are getting any better with practice. In theory, we feel like we’ve learned so much. In practice, the needle hasn’t moved in our effectiveness.[1] And deep down, there’s this nagging practice anxiety, AM I any good? Is what I’m doing helping me not only to feel like I’m growing, but actually translating into better outcomes for my clients?  

In our attempts to deal with our professional neurosis, we think we need to settle for one or two approaches to psychotherapy, so that we can get better in those ways of thinking and working with our clients.


  I argue that this is inadequate. The evidence is clear: Model adherence leads us to no better outcomes. [2] Instead, what I propose in this 5-step “iterative pathway” is to encourage the following: 1. To assist practitioners in IDENTIFYING where they are at in their journey of professional development, and 2. To encourage dynamic MOVEMENT in their exploration. The second point requires some explanation. Gleaning from various domains, developmental psychologist Daniel Stern points out the importance of developing forms of vitality.[3] Here I’ve made a distinction between Forms of Lifelessness and Forms of Vitality:


Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 3.59.11 PM


  In this 5-Step Iterative Pathway of a Psychotherapist’s Professional Development, I propose for movement and a sense of directionality. (click here or the image to download a full-sized pdf of the INFOGRAPHIC).  I’d spell out what these 5 steps are and provide you with some quick tips along the way. (Click here to download the Infographic for yours to keep.)


STEP 1: GO BROAD Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 4.30.03 PM Like any introduction, educators generally encourage students to study the breath of different theoretical orientations in psychotherapy. This is an entree stage. Taste and see. Stay curious as you explore the landscape of our field.



1. Read a. Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy 10th Edition by Gerald Corey  b. Psychotherapy Networker (subscribe to their excellent magazine journal. I’ve been an avid reader for many years.)

2. Watch and Listen: a. Three Approaches to Psychotherapy With a Female Client: The Next Generation With Judith S. Beck, PhD, Leslie S. Greenberg, PhD, and Nancy McWilliams, PhD

This video series is expensive. But I highly recommend it (If you have a university library access, check if your institution is subscribed to Alexander Street Press. There are tons of counseling related video streaming in ASP database, including this one. Judith Beck, Les Greenberg and Nancy McWilliams also worked with a male client, demonstrating their approach.)

b. (go to the Approach section and see the various videos)

c. Check out David Van Nuys, Ph.D. Shrinkrap radio Dr Dave has been my instrumental mentor in exposing me to the other facets of psychotherapy I wouldn’t have known.



STEP 2: GO NARROW Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 4.30.34 PM Once you’ve a taste of the exuberant and diverse field of psychotherapy in Step 1: GO BOARD, zoom in on a vital few that you have a natural gravitation towards. Remember, especially at this stage, be “un-wedded” to the ideas that you gravitate towards. Many truths can co-exist. Treat your system of belief as a working hypothesis; ready to be proven wrong.



1. Read, any books on psychotherapy that you are drawn to. Don’t settle for what a textbook says. Pursue the source further. Hunt down what the authors cite. Chase the source and discover the roots.

Reflect on how these theories links with your beliefs about the psyche and human development. I vividly recall reading about Carl Rogers person centered work in some textbook, and thought nothing much about it. Everything changed when I pursued his writings in the two books A Way of Being, and On Becoming a Person. Somehow, watered down Rogers work to unconditional positive regard, congruency and empathy, just didn’t cut it.

In fact, if you watch closely any of his therapy sessions, Rogers is strategically brilliant and sensitive in his craft.

2. Watch and Listen: Watch, your favorite master therapist in action.

Go to Zeig,Tucker & Theisen Alexander Street Press (There’s a free trial) (more post-modern, strength based videos)


Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 4.30.41 PM After you’ve familiarised yourself with the landscape of psychotherapy (STEP 1: GO BROAD), and steeped yourself in a few schools of thought that whet your appetite (STEP 2: GO NARROW), explore other territories outside of psychotherapy. Join the dots with your existing knowledge (e.g., arts, science, sports, spiritual/religious traditions, philosophy, computing). For example, music (particularly improvisation) and contemplative practices have been a mainstay for me in thinking about the metaphorical parallels with therapy. Of late, I’ve also found it basic knowledge of computer coding to be an interesting source of how clear pre-meditative thinking can be applied to cognitive and behavioral interventions.

Biologist Steven Jay Gould coined an intriguing term, called exaptation. An exaptation refers to a trait developed for one purpose that is later used for another purpose. 



Pick at least 3-5 topics outside of therapy that interests you. Pursue them with depth, AND see how these domains can teach you more about the craft of psychotherapy.

(Warning: A side-effect of Step 3: GO LATERAL is that it can set you off to a different career path.)



STEP 4: GO NARROW (AGAIN) Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 4.30.48 PM Consolidate and integrate new learnings that you’ve picked up at Step 3: GO LATERAL. Connect them with what you’ve learned in STEP 2: GO NARROW. We know from studies that there’s significant differences between therapist who claim to do the same type of psychotherapy approach. In fact, there’s more therapist differences than orientation differences.[4] Your unique voice and perspective is now emerging.

Interestingly, the words of the great investor and teacher Benjamin Graham is highly relevant here:

“You can get in way more trouble with a good idea than a bad idea, because you forget that the good idea has limits… You’ll know you’re on to something when ideas start to compete with one another — you’ll find situations where Model 1 tells you X and Model 2 tells you Y. Believe it or not, this is a sign that you’re on the right track. Letting the models compete and fight for superiority and greater fundamental truth is what good thinking is all about! It’s hard work, but that’s the only way to get the right answers.”



1. Make time to join the dots: Reflection is key at this stage. Without drawing deliberate links to your work as therapist, these various domains remind EXTERNAL and not integrated into the way you see and do therapy. 2. I highly recommend writing down your learnings. Put a date on it. When your future self looks back at these, you will be surprised. Surprise is a good way to encode and re-learn stuff that you’ve forgotten.


1. Read Shinryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.



STEP 5: GO BACK Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 4.30.55 PM We have come full circles. It’s time to return to the fundamentals. We mistake fundamentals as something for the beginners. The accomplished and the enlightened knows that fundamentals are an advanced skill. A true musician knows that at the heart of a song, it’s rhythm, bass, harmony and melody. While we may get enamored by tricks and techniques, a discerning therapist knows that when he or she is in times of difficulty—or simply not sure of how to help a client— a useful heuristic is to examine our fundamentals. The amateur thinks he’s the expert, while the expert thinks like an amateur. This is the cycle of our development.


Return to STEP 1: GO BROAD.



1. Read these blogposts: a. Figure Out the “What” Before the “How” b. Signs That Therapists Are Barking Up The Wrong Tree 

2. Use the Taxonomy of Deliberate Practice Activities (TDPA) to identify WHAT to work on. (email me to receive a copy of this)

3. Watch and Listen:

Your Own Session Recordings: Once you’ve used the TDPA to identity the key area to improve on, watch segments of your sessions. Play, Pause, Reflect. What can you do differently to increase the impact for engagement in that particular point in the recording? Employ the help of a peer, a mentor, or consult someone.


The key isn’t to reach enlightenment. Rather, the emphasis is first to know where you are at in the stages of your professional development, and second, is to promote MOVEMENT and clear DIRECTIONALITY in this iterative process. It is motivating when you know where you are, and where to go next. True professional development not only inoculates us from burnout, it also lits a spark of vitality in your life. Now, it’s your turn. can you identify where you are in this iterative process of professional development? Share with us in the comments section below.



Very Best,




[1] Chow, D. (2017). The practice and the practical: Pushing your clinical performance to the next level. Prescott, David S [Ed]; Maeschalck, Cynthia L [Ed]; Miller, Scott D [Ed] (2017) Feedback-informed treatment in clinical practice: Reaching for excellence (pp 323-355) x, 368 pp Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association; US, 323-355. Miller, S. D., Hubble, M. A., Chow, D. L., & Seidel, J. A. (2015). Beyond measures and monitoring: Realizing the potential of feedback-informed treatment. Psychotherapy. doi:

[2] Webb, C. A., DeRubeis, R. J., & Barber, J. P. (2010). Therapist adherence/competence and treatment outcome: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78(2), 200-211. doi:

[3] Stern, D. N. (2010). Forms of vitality: Exploring dynamic experience in psychology, the Arts, Psychotherapy, and Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[4] Chow, D. (2014). The study of supershrinks: Development and deliberate practices of highly effective psychotherapists. (PhD), Curtin University, Australia.; Wampold, B. E., & Serlin, R. C. (2000). The consequence of ignoring a nested factor on measures of effect size in analysis of variance. Psychological Methods, 5(4), 425-433.

I Get the Goose Bumps…

I get the goose bumps when I hear the type of questions discerning therapists raise at my workshops.

FPD Focused Questions

Participants reflecting on their questions regarding their professional development

It strikes me every time not only because these are the questions I’ve been pondering about for awhile now, but also because of how universal these questions are.

Here’s what I’m discovering: 
When we provide a space for a focused inquiry [1], we create an opportunity to ponder, search, reflect. We step into a deeper sense of focus on the right questions, as we resist the urge for a quick answer.


“You know, if you know the answer, but you don’t know the question you are in a bad way. But if you have questions, you will find answers.”
~ Salvador Minuchin, 2000


Here are some of the examples of actual questions psychotherapists, counsellors, and other mental health professionals like you ask:

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Our Real Work

Our Real Work

“…In my early professional years I was asking the question: How can I treat, or cure, or change this person? Now I would phrase the question in this way: How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth?” ~Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person, p.32


What is our real work?

It’s easy to think that the role of a psychotherapist is to treat a person or help our clients change. Indeed, that may be the outcome we hope for. But it’s not the work that we need to put in.

Our real work is not to treat a person. We conflate the outcome we desire with the work that we need to put in, in order to get that outcome.

Our real work is more like a gardener than a builder. 

A builder builds, and when that’s done, the work is done. A gardener lays the ground work, and waits for the seeds to grow. A builder’s work is finite. A gardener’s work is never done. She continues to tend to the plants, nurtures and prunes its branches.


Like a gardener, a therapist real work is in the pre-work. 

It’s what we do outside of the therapy hour,

in order to get better at what we do in the ritual of therapy.

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