As human beings, we frequently engage in social interactions with other people.
We have an innate attachment need that drives us to seek contact and support with others; without it, we are more likely to feel lonely and depressed. It is evident that we need other people around us to survive and function well.
However, social interactions can work in the opposite direction at times. Interpersonal conflicts can arise in our family, romantic relationships, workplace, educational settings and so on. Having a small argument with a family member may seem trivial; however, prolonged or intense disputes can become very distressing and even harmful. Depression may arise because of the difficulties in our interpersonal environments.
Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) is an evidence-based psychotherapy that focuses on various aspects of interpersonal interactions. It is a time-limited treatment which provides relief of symptoms, improved interpersonal functioning, and helps to increase social support for the individuals. It views psychiatric symptoms as a product of the interpersonal difficulties as fuel; and the psychological reactions of the individuals as fire.
One of the main problem areas IPT addresses is Interpersonal Disputes. IPT does not only look at arguments; interpersonal difficulties such as neglect, bullying, and disagreements about responsibilities are all within scope.
Identify Interpersonal Problems
Therapy beings with identifying the key interpersonal difficulties that are the “fuel” for the individual’s current symptoms. Some examples might be continual conflict with a spouse; having a demanding boss; being bullied by family members, friends or colleagues; or not having enough support from loved ones during tough times. The identification lays the ground for the therapist to further explore the details of interpersonal difficulties to implement solutions.
Exploration and Clarification
The next step in the therapy process is to examine the mechanics of the difficulties in detail. This includes the individual’s perception of the problems, and the expectations of themselves and others around them. Sometimes our perceptions may not be an accurate portrayal of the communication patterns. For instance, a wife may feel she has been communicating her requests for support around housework well; when in fact her way of asking for help was by constant complaints. The wife expects her husband to understand her needs, while the husband only perceives a barrage of verbal complaints that he does not care for her. As a result, it turns into an argument instead of the assistance the wife hoped for. The therapist can help with identifying the specific communication problems, and help the individual explore other adaptive ways to communicate and convey their needs.
Brainstorm and Problem Solve
After this detailed exploration, the therapist works with the individuals to find solutions for interpersonal problems. The focus may be seeking support in a clearer manner; improving effectiveness of communication; promoting graciousness; or simply seeking support, because the individual had not done so before.
In the example given above, the therapist would explore with the wife, clearer, more gracious ways to directly ask for assistance from the husband. Instead of complaining, she may say “I would like to clean this room, but I’m feeling a bit tired from work today. I would really appreciate it if you wouldn’t mind giving me a hand”.
Before the implementation of proposed solutions, the therapist practices with the client, and troubleshoots the difficulties that arise. A common form of practice is roleplay; commonly the therapist would play the client first and then the other person (be it spouse, friend or colleague etc). The client then goes on to attempt the solutions proposed.
Monitor and Revise
There is no guarantee that the solutions discussed would completely solve the difficulties. The solutions might be helpful, but it is possible that the issue will not be completely resolved – or that new difficulties may arise in the process. Some individuals may be afraid to implement the solutions. The therapist can help the client review the process and outcome, and adjust as needed, allowing the client to implement new, revised solutions to deal with interpersonal difficulties.
Learning from the Past
The therapist also works to help the client maintain their positive changes in communication and skills learned in the process; this serves as future preventative mechanisms. The individual may have acquired more insight into reviewing ways of communication; learned more direct, friendly ways to seek help and decrease the level of hostility. When future interpersonal difficulties arise, individuals can use the skills learned in therapy to tackle the problems more successfully.
Author: Harry Hsieh, B Psych Sci (Hons), M App Psych (Couns), MAPS.
Born and raised in Taiwan, Loganholme Psychologist Harry Hsieh has lived in Australia for over ten years. He has an eclectic approach to psychotherapy, predominantly based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) approaches, and has a special interest is assisting individuals coping with long-term health conditions. Harry can provide therapy in both English and Mandarin.
To make an appointment with Loganholme Psychologist Harry Hsieh, please call M1 Psychology on (07) 3067 9129 or you can book online today.
- Cacioppo, J. (presenter). (2013). The lethality of loneliness: John Cacioppo at TEDxDesMoines [YouTube video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0hxl03JoA0
- Stuart, S. (2015). Notes for a presentation on Interpersonal Psychotherapy. IPT Institute.
- Stuart, S., Schultz, J., & McCann, E. (2012). Interpersonal Psychotherapy Clinician’s Handbook. Iowa: IPT Institute.