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Gurus aren't magic. They just tell a persuasive story.

Updated: Jul 12, 2022

So you wanna be a better therapists?: Part 9


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Every professor, trainer, or therapy guru will say that their model is superior to other models. This is not true. The research is clear. No model outperforms another model. One day we will find a model that does, but as of right now the idea of a magic model is a myth.

It’s a myth propagated by a charismatic leader's ability to tell a persuasive story. See the superpower of gurus is NOT that they are better therapists than you, it’s that they are more persuasive than you. One of the main tactics they use is the ability to tell a persuasive story. As one of my favorite writers says “the best story wins.”

The lady who’s really done the research on this is Nancy Duarte.

Nancy Duarte and the psychology of persuasion

Duarte spent years coding inspiring speeches of great leaders in history and discovered they all followed a story based framework. Star Wars, for example, starts with Luke as an ordinary kid living an ordinary life. Until he meets Obi Wan who shows him the power of a Jedi and Luke begins to see what could be possible. Then Obi Wan, Luke, and friends go through a bunch of ups and down until the destroy the death star and a huge ceremony is thrown in honor of their overcoming evil. Duarte’s genius was seeing how the greatest speeches in history follow the same pattern.

The basic structure is to first describe the problems we all know exist. This is called “The world that is.” Basically your setting the scene in a way that the audience knows is life as normal for them. Then you then talk about how things could be different if they followed your ideas. You play Obi Wan showing them, “What could be.” Then you bounce between “The world as it is” and “what could be” deepening and reinforcing the contrast. Finally you end with “New Bliss,” a vision of utopia to come after the world adopts your ideas.

Once you see it, it’s everywhere, Gandhi uses it. MLK uses it.

Heck even Sue Johnson uses it. Check out Johnsosn’s article on Aeon. Her opening paragraphs are classic “What is”:

... Until the turn of the century, one definition {of love} seemed to be as good as any another. This despite the fact that, in the past 50 years, love has become the basis for long-term adult commitment, which is now an emotional rather than an economic enterprise. (Most women today put a man’s ability to explore his feelings ahead of his ability to ‘provide’.) The basic building block of family stability – love – is recognised as a source of happiness and life satisfaction, a key to physical health and resilience, and a primary life goal. This mystery you fall into is critical but all too often fleeting: popular consensus holds love as a sexual force with a best-before date.

For someone like me, who practised the most difficult kind of psychotherapy with distressed couples seeking to mend their relationship, all this was problematic. As a young doctoral student trying to be helpful in the face of all shapes and sizes of relationship distress, the one thing that rapidly became clear was that no one, no poet, philosopher or psychologist, had cracked the code of the drama that played out in my office every day, leaving me as overwhelmed and distressed as my clients.

She’s making the case that the world as it is, doesn’t understand love.

Next, she hints at what could be:

Gradually, I found, to my amazement, that I could not only reduce the fights in my office, but move my couples into more loving, secure conversations. The one rule of couple therapy was to avoid the partners’ most upsetting emotions. However, I counterintuitively found that by plunging into that difficult territory, I was increasingly able to guide my couples into new emotions and different ways of speaking to each other.

She spends the rest of the article bouncing back and forth between what is and what could be. And ends with New Bliss, how the world and society could change if we all adopted her ideas:

What does all this mean for science and society?

It means that we can have a science of close relationships that enables us to shape them. This is the key, not just to more harmonious connections, but to more stable families and more emotionally resilient children. On a broader level, the attachment perspective tells us who we are and what we need to thrive. It offers a corrective to the impersonal, isolated culture we seem to be creating. Even our invulnerable superheroes, the epitome of self-sufficiency and individualism, now seem to be getting together in teams and calling to each other for support.

She’s basically saying, “if you follow my vision of attachment theory we’ll have happy children, warm families, and understand our meaning as the human species.” She’s making the case that if we adopt her vision we’ll be heralded into utopia.

It’s a masterful use of the persuasive story pattern. Among Gurus, Sue Johnson is the queen. She uses it so well I’d have to wonder if she’s had training.

The 1 thing you can do to be more persuasive

So Jordan, you say these magic model myths are propagated by gurus using persuasive stories, and maybe they are trained to do so. I get that, but I’m confused, are you saying this is a bad thing?

Yes and no. When gurus use this power to sell certifications which don’t endorse the big three you will not get what’s promised [2]. That is a bad thing. However as therapists persuasion is an incredibly useful way to avoid Alliance Ruptures.

Previously we talked about how the therapeutic alliance is the most important change factor in therapy. It has three parts, the client-therapist bond, the client-therapist agreement on goals, and the client-therapist agreement on steps to reach those goals. One way to avoid Alliance Ruptures to meet the client’s expectations of what therapy will be. But sometimes you want to go the other way. Sometimes you want the client to shift from their expectations to yours. This is where persuasiveness comes in.

So how do you get better at persuading clients? Use The Big Three. Some, like my friend and mentor Alex Vaz have already started doing research on this [3]. Alex contends that being highly persuasive is a common factor among expert therapists and that therapists should use deliberate practice to improve their skills, focusing specifically on the therapeutic alliance.

I don’t disagree. And the day he offers a training on this I’ll take it. You should too. Hands down. No questions asked. It will be the best money you spent that year.

However, until then I think our best shot is to build a brand. Businesses build brands to attract their “ideal customers,” customers whose ideas and values align with the businesses ideas and values. Apple has built a brand around creatives. Chic-fil-a has built a brand around Christians. Nike has built a brand around athletes. I think therapists should do the same. Not only does building a brain attract clients who already align with your values, it also helps you to change followers minds about what are the necessary steps to take to reach their goals. Essentially branding is a way of persuading potential clients before they even come to your office, which makes it easier to persuade them when they are in your office.

Think of it this way, when Nancy Duarte does consultations do you think her clients fight her advice? Do they say “yes, but,” to every suggestion she gives? Do they tell her, “hey I know you think this story structure idea is good, but I want to do something else.”? Probably not. Because she’s the guru. People go see Duarte because they want her specific expertise. They come wanting to adopt her goals and her steps to reaching those goals. They come wanting to be persuaded.

What might this look like for therapists? A while back I made the case that most couples need more than just once a week therapy. They probably need something like a 3 day intensive. At times I’ve tried to persuade my couples, especially affairs, that they need more than once a week therapy. I’ve never had them take me up on the idea. But what if I went a different route and built a brand around intensives for affair recovery. It would be hard, no doubt, but would it be more effective than trying to convince couples that they needed more than one hour a week? Probably.

New Bliss

Think of the personal difference it would make to you if you built a brand. How big of a difference would it make if your clients came ready to be persuaded? How much more dynamic would sessions be? How much more fulfilling would work be? It’s the kind of thing that could change your therapy practice forever. Not only would it change you, it would also change your colleagues, and most importantly your clients. I mean, if you really think about it, it you adopt my idea, it would change everything. 😉



1. You can watch Nancy's Ted Talk here.

2. The irony of all of this is people like Johnson become good because they inadvertently followed the Big 3. In Johnson's case, if you read her Aeon article she clearly watched her tapes and tracked her outcomes. And if you know the history of EFT it’s clear she got coaching from Les Greenberg. In fact the first book on EFT was co authored with him and he still owns the copyright. However, seeing as how she no longer mentions him, I’m assuming they’ve had some sort of falling out.

3. Alex actually wrote his dissertation on the role of persuasion in outcomes, and has since published an article on the role of persuasion in counseling. If your an armchair academic, it’s worth a read. Email me and I’ll send you a copy.


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207 views2 comments


Jul 16, 2022

The CEO of my company once asked me how my numbers for clients successfully completing treatment were so high. I told him (mostly joking) that I thought it was because I was good at being manipulative. In hindsight, I think it would have gone over better if I'd said "persuasive." Ironic.


Aug 20, 2022
Replying to

Rookie mistake

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