Twenty-five years ago, when we began publishing the Networker, the age of the therapist-as-charismatic-guru was in full swing. Our very first issue featured a black and white drawing (we didn’t have the money for anything fancier) of Milton Erickson and an article about him by Jay Haley, writing that Erickson “exuded” personal power. At the time, there were many stars in the therapy firmament who “exuded personal power”and, incidentally, challenged the way psychotherapy had been done for decades. Indeed, there were almost too many of these luminaries—Salvador Minuchin, Carl Whitaker, Murray Bowen, Virginia Satir, Mara Selvini Palazzoli, R. D. Laing, and others—for the Family Shtick, the cramped little newsletter that preceded the Networker, to contain the enthusiasm that the field felt for them. In expanding from a newsletter to a magazine, we wanted not only to have room to report on all the ferment and excitement going on in the field then, but also to introduce our readers to the real, living personalities engendering it. We also wanted to produce a well-crafted and professional magazine that was a lot more fun to read than the average, bone-dry academic journal.
This issue is, in some ways, a throwback to those earlier days, as it features the results of our special anniversary survey of the 10 most influential therapists of the past quarter-century. But while our survey offers a fascinating look at the role models who continue to shape therapeutic practice and, perhaps, the place charisma still plays in the drama of the consulting room, this issue is at least as much about the science of psychotherapy, both its strengths and limits.
When we began publishing the Networker, it seemed that every new kid on the block was announcing to great fanfare an amazing, if not miraculous, new theory or intervention that promised to make all other kinds of therapy obsolete. However, in his piece on the 10 top research developments of the past 25 years, contributing editor Jay Lebow dashes that fond hope once and for all. He writes, “Empirical research during the past quarter-century has disproven the idea that there is any single method that’ll work for everybody. Under rigorous examination, no one therapy has ever been demonstrated to achieve results that are consistently better than those of any other.” What’s more, research has now unequivocally demonstrated something therapists Jerome and Julia Frank suggested 50 years ago (but without the evidence to back it up), that all therapies share certain “common factors,” such as the warmth and compassion of the therapist, feelings of hope, and positive expectation. Without a positive therapeutic alliance, Lebow writes, “virtually any psychotherapy is ineffective.”
So, here we are, a quarter-century, hundreds of therapies and therapy fads, highly touted clinical “advances,” and volumes of empirical research later, and wouldn’t you just know it—we’re right back where we started. “Despite all this scientific hoopla, there’s still no compelling evidence that therapists are achieving better outcomes today than they did 25 years ago,” writes our skeptic-in-chief, Jay Efran in his article, “Defining Psychotherapy.” He takes us back to what, in our quieter, wiser moments, all therapists know in their heart of hearts to be true: “If we look squarely at the fundamentals, it becomes apparent that therapy is neither science nor art—it’s conversation. Conversation is at once the most subtle and complex of all human activities, and our most important problem-solving tool.”
Is this a letdown, a measure of how little progress we’ve made? Not at all. It’s evidence what most of us have known all along: the good psychotherapist is someone who intuitively knows how to transform human conversation and relationship into a form of healing, and, transcending didacticism and advice-giving, helps clients discover not only that they can ask better questions of themselves, but also find the inner resources to formulate better answers.
Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.