Language Style Matching in Psychotherapy: An Implicit Aspect of Alliance

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In an attempt to operationalize an implicit aspect of the therapeutic alliance, this article proposes the use of the innovative, objective, and time-efficient analysis of language style matching (LSM; Niederhoffer & Pennebaker, 2002). LSM, defined as the degree of similarity in rates of function words in dyadic interactions, is thought to reflect the extent to which conversational partners are automatically coordinating language styles to achieve a common goal. Although LSM has often been researched in the context of everyday conversations, little is known about the matching of clients and therapists’ language style in the psychotherapy process. To demonstrate the clinical usefulness of the LSM approach in psychotherapy, 2 exploratory examples of the application of LSM in long-term psychoanalytic treatments are provided. First, LSM analyses per session and per speaking-turn are described for psychotherapy data of 140 sessions of 7 long-term psychoanalytic treatments in relation to outcome measures. Then, a case study is described in which LSM is triangulated with an observer-rated measure of working alliance in relation to outcome measures. These 2 demonstrative empirical examples were explorative in character and illustrate how LSM might tap into an implicit aspect of the therapeutic relationship, different from the working alliance measured by observers, and relevant for treatment outcome. Future larger-scale psychotherapy studies into the relationship between these implicit aspects of the alliance and treatment outcome and relevant clients and therapists’ variables are warranted.

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Aafjes-van Doorn K, Porcerelli J, Müller-Frommeyer LC. Language style matching in psychotherapy: An implicit aspect of alliance. J Couns Psychol. 2020 Jul;67(4):509-522. doi: 10.1037/cou0000433. PMID: 32614231.