Thursday, July 01, 2010

SPR Asilomar 2010

Entry for 28 June 2010:

In 1980, The Society for Psychotherapy Research’s annual international meeting was held at Asilomar, a retreat and conference center in Pacific Grove, California. This was familiar territory for me, because I had been there many times before as a child and teenager. The first time I was 10 or 12 when my grandmother brought me there to hear an author speak.

In 1980, Mardi Horowitz, as president-elect, was program chair (I talked to his son, who was very proud of his dad). Ed Bordin gave the presidential address, “Of human bonds that bind and free”, laying out his now-famous universal model of therapeutic relationship as comprised of three components: bond, goal agreement, and task agreement. I presented an early version of Elliott, Barker, Pistrang & Caskey (1982), on the helpfulness of different therapist response modes.

This year’s international SPR meeting returned to Asilomar, 30 years later. Like SPR itself, the place has grown over the years, to a large, rambling complex of dormitories and meeting rooms. It took a while for me to connect my memories to the present site, but the dining hall (now expanded with an additional dining room), the social hall, and the chapel eventually clicked into place, on three sides of the meadow of sand and beach scrub vegetation.

Louis Castonguay led off with a stimulating presidential address on different kinds of theoretical and research-practice integration, and the conference itself was a rich mix of sessions on the diverse aspects of psychotherapy research in different theoretical orientations and research methods. I was especially struck by the new generation of committed and talented psychotherapy researchers that has emerged. I find this reassuring and heartening.

I came to the conference exhausted from an intense two weeks of work that had followed after Diane flew to Seattle to see our new granddaughter. I’d been hard at work revising the chapter on empathy for the second edition of Norcross, Psychotherapy Relationship that Work; Bruce Wampold had taken exception to the primitive statistics (ANOVA) that I’d used in the empathy-outcome meta-analysis, and so I had had to learn newer statistics (Cochrane’s Q in particular) and concepts. This entailed completely rewriting the methods and results sections and occupied me all across the Atlantic and up until the day before SPR started.

My main activity for this conference was acting as discussant for three different panels. Over the past couple of years, I have been increasingly called upon to do this, and I have been honing my skills as discussant. In general, I seem to do best if I don’t over-prepare, which is good because it is usually difficult to find time to read through long presentations beforehand, on top of everything else. I take acting as discussant as a kind of extreme sport calling for quick integration of information. It reminds me of the extemporaneous speech event in the speech tournaments that I competed in high school. In a couple of panels that I was discussant for, I think I managed to nail the essence of what the researchers were trying to do, balancing praise with stimulating but constructive critique. It’s a really nice feeling to see the faces of these younger psychotherapy researchers, knotted in thought and at the same time pleased to have their work engaged with seriously and in depth. In the process, I came up with the following:

Robert’s Recipe for a Successful SPR Panel

1. New data

2. Interesting phenomena

3. Multiple methods

4. Videos!

As always, the high point of this year’s SPR was reconnecting with old friends and making new friends. For example, this year Mardi Horowitz and Bill Pinsof returned to SPR after many years’ absence, and it was good to catch up a bit with them, along with regulars Karla Moras, Les Greenberg, Adam Horvath, Irene Elkin, Lynne Angus, Sandra Paivio, Jesse Geller, Barry Farber, and many others. The conversations were far-ranging, from statistics, to qualitative research, to colleagues, to health, to the World Cup, to EFT training. For me, the spirit of Ed Bordin hovered over the conference, but also Lester Luborsky, who died this past year, as well as others who were here in 1980, the last time we met in this place: Ken Howard, Hans Strupp, Sol Garfield, Laura Rice, and Enrico Jones; all of their spirits hovered over the meeting, a host of ghosts, their voices in the wind and fog that blew in from the sea.


Elliott, R., Barker, C.B., Caskey, N., & Pistrang, N. (1982). Differential helpfulness of counselor verbal response modes. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 29, 379-387.