Effective Talk Therapy Strategies for Therapists

Thoughts and emotions are two of the most powerful forces that shape human behavior. When they align in healthy ways, thoughts and emotions can fuel positive change that results in a more balanced way of being in the world. But when these twin motivators fall out of alignment, they often lead to problematic behaviors. As a result, clients can experience feelings of frustration and failure, leading to a cycle of repeated behavior.

Talk therapy is a proven way of helping clients to understand how patterns of thought and emotions work together to influence behavior. This type of intervention comes in a variety of forms, each with its own philosophical framework and methodology. In this post, we’ll overview effective talk therapy strategies within CBT, DBT, Humanistic Therapy, IPT, and MBCT. For each one, we’ll cover simple, actionable strategies you can use in your own practice.

CBT Strategies

Cognitive Behavior Therapy is probably the most well-known methodology on the list. CBT blends elements of both psychotherapy and behavioral therapy. It emphasizes the importance of the personal meaning that we attach to things. It also explores how thought patterns often have their basis in childhood experiences. CBT explores the interconnected nature of our problems, behaviors, and thoughts. The following strategies form the backbone of CBT.

Cognitive Restructuring

This talk therapy strategy involves asking clients to describe the thought processes they experienced during a specific, problematic situation. As the client recounts what they were thinking, the therapist helps by pointing out negative patterns of thought. Together, the client and therapist work to create new, healthier thoughts to replace the old, less helpful ways of thinking.


Practice makes perfect. Role-playing capitalizes on this wisdom by targeting problem areas such as a deficit in social skills or feelings of anxiety in certain situations. Together, the therapist and client practice how to best respond in challenging circumstances. 

Behavioral Experiments

Behavioral experiments effectively counter the catastrophic thinking that often accompanies anxiety disorders. The therapist asks the client to describe what they think will happen during an anxiety-producing event. Then, after the client has experienced the actual event, they evaluate whether any part of the prediction ended up being correct.

DBT Strategies

Dialectical Behavior Therapy works in the psychosocial realm. DBT is most helpful for clients who react in high-intensity ways to emotional stressors involving relationships. This methodology is especially helpful in treating individuals diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. But it can also assist with a variety of other challenges. DBT offers strategies that can help clients better understand and manage their intense emotional responses. Here are three that are especially effective.

Mindful Breathing

Providing mindfulness training as part of DBT helps clients to recognize what’s happening in their minds. Mindfulness allows them to slow down and focus enough to use positive coping techniques to get through a difficult situation. Mindfulness techniques like mindful breathing help to foster a sense of calm. A calm state of mind makes it easier to avoid falling into negative patterns of thinking or acting impulsively in the moment.

Putting the Body in Motion

This technique can be used to help a client to more skillfully deal with the force of intense emotions on thoughts and behaviors. The client engages in some form of movement as a way to counter the effects of acute emotional distress. For example, going for a walk or running up and down a flight of stairs forces the emotions to follow after the body’s movement.


This simple acronym can help teach the skills needed to improve relationships and encourage productive communication. It involves the following steps.

  • Gentle — Avoid verbally attacking or threatening others. Suspend judgment.
  • Interest — Take interest in what others are saying, actively listening without interruption.
  • Validate — Recognize that other people’s feelings and thoughts are just as valid as your own.
  • Easy — Try to have an upbeat, light way of being.

Humanistic Therapy Strategies

Humanistic therapy is founded on the belief that humans are basically good and able to make the right choices when fully resourced. Humanistic-trained therapists seek to help clients better understand their own world view and fully accept themselves as they are. It holds that a poor view of the self and the world, in general, will result in negative feelings and actions. Under the broad umbrella of humanistic therapy rests the trifecta of gestalt, client-centered, and existential therapies.

Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt focuses heavily on a client’s personal experience in an attempt to tap into areas of unresolved personal conflict. Clients are encouraged to use their own words to describe what they’re experiencing, within the safety of a therapeutic session. Role-playing is a popular form of gestalt therapy. During role-play, the therapist may ask the client to reenact a conversation or situation with someone they’re experiencing conflict with. This role-play helps the client gain further insight into sources of conflict.

Client-Centered Therapy

A client-centered approach focuses on the therapist’s unconditional acceptance of the client, regardless of problematic beliefs or actions. Client-centered therapy sessions are led by the client. The therapist serves primarily as an active listener. The development of a strong, trusting bond between the therapist and client is a hallmark of this approach.

Existential Therapy

This type of treatment seeks to help clients gain a clearer view of how their concept of themselves impacts the way they view themselves and the world around them. An existential therapist’s role is to help the client comprehend and make meaning from what happens in life. Life holds greater meaning when you accept responsibility for your own actions. You gain a sense of empowerment from making positive changes. 

Interpersonal Therapy Strategies

Interpersonal therapy is primarily used in treating mood disorders like depression. But it also is successful with eating disorders, bipolar disorder, and drug and alcohol addiction. IPT offers strategies designed to improve interpersonal relationships and social performance. By solving interpersonal crises, clients can experience a reduction in symptoms and an improved quality of life. Here are two popular techniques.

Communication Analysis

This strategy involves a detailed analysis of a real-life conversation the client had with a family member or partner. The client explains what was actually said, the context of the conversation, and non-verbal interactions. The client and therapist process the event together, with the therapist using either role-playing or coaching to encourage the development of stronger communication skills.

Exploration of Options and Decision Analysis

Frequently, people experiencing depression play a passive role in advocating for their own needs and wants. When discussing a relational conflict, the therapist asks the client what options they’d like to explore for resolving the issue. Once the client has created a list of options, the therapist and client determine how realistic each choice is. They then develop a plan to execute the option that the client selected.

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Strategies

Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy comes from a union between cognitive therapy and meditative practices. It combines modification of dysfunctional thinking and an emphasis on the continuous awareness of emotions, thoughts, and feelings. There are many ways that mindfulness can supplement CBT. Here are two specific strategies from a resource created by Positive Psychology.

Three-Minute Breathing Space

This strategy involves three minutes of slow, meditative breathing. During this exercise, the therapist instructs the client to ask themselves how they’re doing in the moment, while paying attention to thoughts or feelings that arise. The therapist also encourages the client to focus on the movement of the breath and bodily sensations. Initially, the therapist may guide the client through this practice, but the goal is that the client learns to do it on their own.

Mindful Integration into Daily Life

The foundation of mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment. This exercise can be practiced in a variety of ways, including mindful eating, mindful exercising, or mindfully driving to work. Although the therapist doesn’t typically lead these activities, they may process experiences related to this strategy with the client during sessions.

Mix and Match Talk Therapy Strategies

While each type of talk therapy has a unique approach to addressing mental health challenges, you can combine the strategies to better target a client’s specific situation. Feel free to mix and match based on your professional assessment of each client’s needs.

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