The Alliance Lab: Learning what makes the therapeutic alliance tick.

Gabriella Tabib on Jun 05, 2018

Being invested in research is so important for new and novice counselors. It allows new-to-the-field professionals a chance to see theory applied before their first contact with clients. As a master’s student in counseling, I have found my research home in the Alliance Lab at Florida Atlantic University. This lab, primarily consisting of doctoral-candidates and a league of masters and undergraduate volunteer coders, cranks out some of the most innovative and exciting research for the field of counseling. The Alliance Lab conducts research on the therapeutic alliance (hence the clever name) using emotion coding systems such as SPAFF, the Turning System, and Who’s Talking. 

Emotion coding systems track behaviors, both physical and verbal, to describe the underlying context of the relationship. An emotion coding system attempts to identify what the participant's perceptions are based on what they say and do. Physical behaviors can be anything from posture shifts to facial expressions. Verbal behaviors include both what words the person is saying, and the underlying goal of those words.

Each research coder is heavily invested in the lab. I started my lab involvement almost four years ago during my undergraduate studies. Dr. Paul Peluso and Dr. Freund (who at the time was doctoral-candidate-Freund) came into my seminar class to present their research. At the time, the research conducted involved comparing master counselor, Dr. Jon Carlson, to training counselors at the university counseling center. They showed 2- and 3-dimensional graphs that indicated whether the alliance was positive or negative. I had always neglected mathematics because my interest was in the qualitative arts, you know, reading, writing, the human condition. But seeing social physics applied in such an intuitive and easily digestible way sparked an interest that keeps me in the lab to this day.

I immediately started training in the Alliance Lab using the SPAFF coding system. For those unfamiliar with the Gottman Institute, the Love Lab, and the Mathematics of Marriage, Dr. Gottman and Dr. Krokoff created SPAFF as a way to quantify and code the interactions between married couples. Essentially, couples who were seeking counseling participated in talk therapy sessions where they would be “hooked up” to heart monitors, pulse oximeters, and on chairs that recorded weight shifts. Coders in the Love Lab would also pay attention to the verbal and relational cues; essentially, pairing up the physical affect with the verbal to understand the overall intention of client behaviors, and the behavior’s overall goals. This was all really important in distinguishing if the readings were positive codes or negative codes…

Lots of jargon! (And I haven’t even gotten to the math yet!)

But the basic premise of this research was to be able to see if the Institute could objectively assess a marital relationship. Many counselors hear that word “quantify” and think that in using SPAFF, we are not paying attention to the clients. Well, that’s bologna. Some forms of therapy utilize objective gauges in behavior to show their clients where they need to be (think in CBT using a heart monitor to help a client learn how to bring their pulse back down from an anxiety attack). SPAFF has spent many years going through rigorous mathematical and experimental tests to ensure its validity. Don’t believe me? Take it up with Gottman. 

What the Alliance Lab is doing—and already has done!—is look at the therapeutic alliance, note the differences between novice and master counselors, with the overall goal of creating assistive technology for training or reforming counselors. The doctoral students, now Ph.d.s in their own right (Dr. Andrew Baker, Dr. Patricia Diaz, and Dr. Rob Freund) under the tutelage of Dr. Peluso, essentially re-weighted and adjusted the codes in SPAFF so that they could be used to indicate affect in the therapeutic relationship rather than in married couples. For example, one of the positive SPAFF codes is “affection.” The intuitive understanding of what affection looks like makes it easy to indicate this in a marital relationship. Expressions of “I love you,” and exhibiting “warm, dreamy” interactions are examples of what you’d hope to see in a couple. This is very different to client-counselor relationships…hopefully.

Elements of SPAFF affection applied to the therapeutic alliance include compliments, common cause, and empathy, which are seen in the different theoretical approaches to counseling. There is one beautiful example of affection that I coded eons ago that I still cherish. The client was exhibiting sadness and had been crying throughout the session. The counselor had shifted to mirror the client’s posture (hunched shoulders, pulled into their core), the counselor was silent, and had a downcast expression on their face. After a few moments of silence, the counselor said “I feel your pain. I can see this is really hard for you. How can the two of us work together so you don’t have to feel like this any longer?” 

Ow Baby!

My nerdy counselor hearts flutters every time I think about it. (Didn’t yours?)

The counselor exhibited the common cause, the empathic mirroring of the client’s affect, and was even tender. The counselor did this to show the client that they were working together; that the counselor could feel the client’s pain and wanted it to go away as much as the client did. 

The research in the Alliance Lab is so valuable to me. Before I had even decided to pursue a degree in counseling, I watched counselors work through ruptures with their clients, I watched sessions where the alliance was incredibly strong, and others where the counselor failed to meet the needs of their clients. I learned what it meant to build rapport before even knowing the theoretical basis of rapport. 

So, earlier I talked about some of the goals that the Alliance Lab has for the future. The two that I’m most excited about are predictive technology for therapy sessions, as well as creating a coding system specifically for the therapeutic alliance. First, the technology. As smart watches and other body monitoring technologies are becoming more common, the lab has been wanting to make its own “Love Lab” of sorts. Our hope is to acquire smart watches that measure not only pulse and blood-oxygen content, but also with built in gyroscopes to gauge hand and body gestures. Paired with this and the lab’s ever-growing theoretical knowledge, our hope is to either further adjust SPAFF to meet the needs of the therapeutic alliance or make our own Alliance Coding System. Then! During therapy sessions when both the client and counselor are wearing these smarty-smart watches, the counselor can get a notification:

“34:20 Client exhibited high blood pressure levels paired with a physical shift. Return to topic if necessary.”

More seasoned counselors may have been able to pick up on this information without the technology. However, for newer counselors and those who have never conducted a session before, these cues may be neglected. This technology could be incredibly useful for helping counselors develop those soft skills of therapy. 

AND! Like I said before, these readings are also helpful in showing clients legitimate and visual reads of their movements and behaviors so that they can be addressed during or after the session. This can work with clients who are more concrete in thinking—treating Autism Spectrum Disorder for one—or clients who just learn more effectively with visual graphs. 

The Alliance Coding System is such a dream to me, but it’s much closer than we think. Already, Dr. Freund is looking at the Turning System and making it more descriptive to the therapeutic alliance…stay tuned for that. Dr. Diaz’s work found that there is a significant difference in levels of tension (negative SPAFF code) that novice and master counselors exhibit. Novice counselors exhibit more tension than master counselors. This suggests that our coding system should retain tension as a code, and perhaps other codes that are more descriptive of types of tense movement (self-consoling, face-scratching, posture shifts). 

My own passion as a coder is looking at the negative codes in SPAFF, specifically when they cause ruptures and if and when they add to the therapeutic goals. I think it’s important not to think a behavior is unhelpful just because it’s labeled as “negative”. If it’s a natural process in a relationship, at the very least it’s something of value to the person who said it.

Gabriella Tabib is a graduate counseling student at Florida Atlantic University. Other than researching the therapeutic alliance, Gabi is invested in understanding family systems within the context of race and gender. She is deeply invested in advocacy work both on campus through her position as co-facilitator of a sexual assault prevention class, as well as in the greater south Florida community. In her spare time, Gabi likes to visit art museums and botanical gardens as well as read books to her old cat, Pip. Gabi currently maintains a blog "Listening to Learn" at . You can also follow her on Instagram at @gabstresss.

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