VIDEO: Dafna Lender on Harnessing Your Social Engagement System

Strategies for Building the Therapeutic Alliance More Easily

We all know therapists who seem magically able to establish a powerful sense of trust and connection with even the most distrusting clients. But are there specific behaviors common to exceptionally gifted therapists that we can study, practice, and cultivate?

Luckily, the answer is yes. It turns out many of the skills that make these therapists so successful can be adopted easily, just by making small changes to your mannerisms during sessions.

In this interview with Networker Senior Writer Lauren Dockett, Dafna Lender, program director for The Theraplay Institute in Chicago, explains her work and shares how certain vocalizations, facial expressions, and gestures elicit more open and collaborative communication.

As Lender explains, much like a singer or poet, therapists can convey a message with more intention by adjusting the way they deliver that message. Don’t be afraid of pauses and therapeutic touch, either, she adds. Our brains, which register vocal changes and body language in milliseconds, are most receptive to new ideas when these elements are broken up by pauses. And therapeutic touch, when appropriate, can convey safety and earnestness, as if to say let’s carry this experience together.

“We’ve now moved past the point where we rely only on intuition to elicit trust and openness,” Lender writes in her recent Networker article. The good news is that when we lose the connection with our client, we can tap into the deep power of the social engagement system to find it again.”


Video filmed and edited by Dylan Hintz

Dafna Lender

Dafna Lender, LCSW, is an international trainer and supervisor for practitioners who work with children and families. She is a certified trainer and supervisor/consultant in both Theraplay and Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy (DDP). Dafna’s expertise is drawn from 25 years of working with families with attachment in many settings: at-risk after school programs, therapeutic foster care, in-home crisis stabilization, residential care and private practice. Dafna’s style, whether as a therapist or teacher, is combining the light-hearted with the profound by bringing a playful, intense and passionate presence to every encounter. Dafna is the co-author of Theraplay: The Practitioner’s Guide (2020). She teaches and supervises clinicians in 15 countries in 3 languages: English, Hebrew and French. Visit her website.

Lauren Dockett

Lauren Dockett, MS, is the senior writer at Psychotherapy Networker. A longtime journalist, journalism lecturer, and book and magazine editor, she’s also a former caseworker taken with the complexity of mental health, who finds the ongoing evolution of the therapy field and its broadening reach an engrossing story. Prior to the Networker, she contributed to many outlets, including The Washington Post, NPR, and Salon. Her books include Facing 30, Sex Talk, and The Deepest Blue. Visit her website at