Communication in Therapy

How have your observations of others’ behavior shaped your current ways of interacting? When one observes behavior and then imitates the behavior, they are modeling the behavior. Albert Bandura, a well-known social cognitive psychologist suggests that observation and modeling are primary aspects of social learning.

Who was your early role model for behavior? For most people, it was a parent or primary caretaker. Young children learn through observation and imitating responses within play and language. They may “pretend” to do similar things as grownups such as “dress up” or “go to work”. Children pick up on language used within the home. They may show similar emotional responses such as fear and even display similar personality-traits. Of course, there are also other important factors such as the environment and genetics as these both shape personality.

As children get older, parents continue to play importance as role models. As adults, the things that we pay special attention to and remember, as well as the behavioral patterns that we learn and are reinforced tend to be most prominent.

Understanding social (or observational) learning and social-learning-theory can help clients in therapy by exploring how environmental and cognitive factors interact to influence learning and behavioral patterns into adulthood. According to social learning theory, we do not learn solely be reward and punishment but by observing and imitating others.

Attention, retention, motor reproduction, and reinforcement are four behavioral and cognitive processes that are part of social learning. Here is an example of how these concepts may be applied in therapy.

Let’s say you and your partner struggle with communication. One partner tends to shut down and avoid conflict whereas the other becomes reactive. In individual therapy, you may explore the influence of early attachment figures and social learning to better understand relational dynamics. You may also focus on learning new skills in individual and/ or family therapy such as effective communication skills. The therapist may start off by utilizing psychoeducation to provide information about communication skills and model specific skills such as active listening for the individual or couple to practice during and outside of the session. These are then reinforced by positive reinforcement such as praise. Over time, with practice and repetition, new communication patterns can be learned. It is exciting to know that new skills can always be learned (or re-learned).

Written By: Charlotte Johnson, MA, LPCC

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