Wanted: "Family Therapist, Not a Coach"


I was recently approached by a family business seeking family communication help. The request detailed what the family was looking for. The family consists of two parents, three adult children, their spouses, and young grandchildren. The person who reached out to me was the mother, “Gretchen.


I suggested that the entire family interview me as a group before deciding whether it made sense to work together. Gretchen liked that idea, but the children did not; they wanted to work with “a widely published, licensed family therapist, not a coach.” So she nixed the plan, strongly stating, "Everyone has to buy in."


I have no problem with a family making a selection of their choice. In this case, though, Gretchen’s “Everybody has to buy in” comment alerted me that something was off: The mother seemed wholly consumed by getting everyone to agree. Her hyper-focus on family togetherness made her own wishes invisible.


Gretchen asked me for a referral that would satisfy her children. I share my response here because it might be useful to other families looking to improve family relationships:


Dear Gretchen,


Thanks for updating me with your family’s response to my suggestion of a group interview.


I would like to recommend someone wo can help you, but I don’t know of any professional who could meet all of your conditions.


The problem in my field, as in many fields, is that those who are licensed and published on a given topic do not necessarily have a track record of hands-on work with families.


I would suggest adding an additional criterion to your search.

If I were in your shoes, determining the extent to which a facilitator has “done their own work” would be at the top of my list. Have they devoted time and energy to their own family processes, as part of their long-term commitment to self-responsibility and emotional steadiness?

Unfortunately, there’s no known correlation between credentials and emotional maturity.

Who is best equipped to help your family members become more self-revealing and curious? Who can best assist members to turn their focus away from others and onto themselves – particularly their reactivity – through rigorous honesty?

The ideal facilitator to lead a family’s effort to improve relationships would be one actively committed to “doing their work.” This facilitator would also possess deep knowledge about family relationship processes and the skills to connect with the involved family members over a series of sessions – without absorbing their anxiety.

The family sessions would ideally include “teaching moments” that enlighten members about family emotional processes. The focus would be on personal reflection and thinking, deepening understanding of others, regulating anxiety/worry, and collaborative learning.


A skilled facilitator will not allow a family session to devolve into cathartic emotional expression laced with blame.

Even if you could find the ideal family facilitator, it would be rare for all members of a family to uniformly share an interest in “doing the work” at the same moment in time.


Some family members might opt out. That’s not necessarily a problem. Readiness and willingness is more important than consensus.

In my experience, “All for one and one for all,” usually becomes a dead-end premise.


Family leaders (commonly, the parents) sometimes find it hard to accept that each person has their own life to manage however they see fit. Not everyone is in the same place and not everyone needs the same kind of “work” at the same time.


I have tried to follow the motto: “Work with the most motivated family members, even if there is only one.” One or two persons “doing the work” often shifts the emotional temperature in a family system.

If your plan to get all of your family members on the same page fails, Gretchen, you might consider engaging an experienced outside coach who can help you focus on you. Others need not join in.


If you find a good match, you can start “doing the work” to improve family communication by noticing how your anxiety about other family members affects your beliefs about them and your functioning with them, improving how you communicate with individual family members, and adjusting what you expect of them.


You will not have to broadcast what you are doing, family members will know it. They will see a difference and be impacted by it.

I didn’t intend to go this long, but I wanted to be thorough in my response.

Best regards,

John