Interview with Jonathan Kanter: Using the power of the therapeutic relationship to promote change


Jonathan W. Kanter, Ph.D., is Director of the Center for the Science of Social Connection at the University of Washington.  Dr. Kanter’s current research focuses on human closeness and connection, hypothesized to be a trans-diagnostic dimension that mediates outcomes with respect to broad domains of human functioning, such as individual suffering, group cohesion, discrimination and racism, and he is very involved in working cross-culturally and disseminating research findings and evidence-based treatments to the world-wide community.  He has published over 50 empirical publications, co-edited or authored six books, and conducted over 50 invited workshops and talks to diverse audiences around the world on these topics.  Dr. Kanter has developed a reputation for providing engaging, compassionate, and scientifically precise workshops that blend intense experiential learning with behavioral principles to produce transformative individual and group experiences.

We had some questions for him that he kindly agreed to answer.

What made you decide to study psychology and how was your first contact with FAP?

One of my first clients was a young woman who identified as a lesbian. Half-way through our work together she told me that she was falling in love with me.  My next client, half-way through our work together, told me that he identified as a “nazi-youth.”  I am Jewish.   These were difficult moments for my clients, and for me. FAP gave me a way forward with both of these clients, to not just survive these situations but to use them to create beauty, meaning and growth for my clients.  The ultimate success and personal growth that both of these clients shared with me convinced me that FAP is a powerful tool, for myself and for my clients.  At that point, I dedicated my career to understanding how FAP can result in transformative therapy experiences  – how moments of vulnerability and discomfort are central to connection and growth.

I have always been interested in psychology.  I have always cared deeply about my relationships and the people around me.  I have not, however, always been good at acting on these values, showing those feelings and succeeding in relationships. I am a work in progress and I love how FAP allows me to be myself and connect with others in our common humanity and in the exquisite sensitivity of intimate relating.

How does FAP differs from mainstream psychotherapy?

On the one hand, FAP is a relationally intense, process-oriented psychotherapy approach.  On the other hand, FAP has, unlike many other psychotherapy approaches, a deep foundation in behavioral science and behavioral principles.  These principles have been established over decades of research and theory, and are fundamental to psychological growth and well-being and to the relationship between the client and therapist in FAP.  This combination of a powerful psychotherapy relationship and a solid scientific foundation is unique to FAP.  It is a   modern behavioral science approach to how you can create genuine, powerful social connections with clients and in life.

What’s the most challenging part about being a therapist? What is the most rewarding part?

As a contextual behaviorist, for me the most challenging part about being a therapist is when I see the client working very hard to change and improve his or her life, but the client’s context is overwhelmingly problematic and constrains growth.  This happens with all kinds of clients, but it is more likely when I am working with a minority client who experiences a lot of racism and discrimination in our society which makes success more difficult.  For me, the reward comes in the moment of connection with a client, when I am aware that we have created a special moment and that this moment will be healing for the client.  I am exquisitely aware of all the suffering in this world, and when my relationship can be a source of healing and growth, I feel great rewards.  

Considering that every client is different and taking a bigger perspective: What do you think seems to be the biggest obstacle for clients in therapy?

To truly be present to another human being, without defense, without hiding, with full acceptance of all of the emotion, pain, fear and yearning that we share, is difficult for many of us.  It is easy to avoid, to pretend, to hide.  What we pretend, how we avoid and how we hide may look very different from one person to another, but we all do this. Not just our clients.  The biggest obstacle is awareness of how we do this and acceptance of who we really are, flaws and all.  From this place of awareness and acceptance, we can step into courage and love.     

In your opinion: which are the most important qualities of a therapist?

Awareness, courage, and love.  And humility.

FAP targets interpersonal relationships and social connections.  What is the main goal of FAP in this area? And how does that relate to mental health?

Research is clear that having high quality relationships is not only extremely important to mental health, but to overall health…as important as stopping cigarette smoking, reducing obesity, and reducing alcoholism.  FAP can be seen as using behavioral science principles to create a high quality, authentic therapy relationship and using that relationship to help the client create other high quality relationships, and through this process improving quality of life, mental and physical health, and overall well-being.  And by using therapy to improve relationships, we not only use our expertise to help our clients, but to help the communities they, and we, live in.   

How can FAP integrate with other approaches? Including ACT but also other non-third wave therapies.

Although FAP uses behavioral principles, you do not need to be an expert in behavior analysis to understand FAP!  Because FAP focuses first on creating an authentic and healing therapy relationship, FAP training can potentially be helpful with any psychotherapy approach that involves a client-therapist relationship.  There is research, for example, showing that FAP improves the psychotherapy alliance and improves outcomes in cognitive-behavior therapy for depression.  FAP training may be helpful when you are stuck with a client, regardless of what therapy you are conducting, and FAP training may result in more powerful psychotherapy relationships across different psychotherapy approaches.  

How do you think FAP can impact others fields outside psychotherapy?

This is an area of active research and interest.  I personally am very interested in exploring the potential for FAP to help reduce racism and discrimination.  The basic idea behind this interest is that, for many people, racism is unintentional and a product of a social context that produces fear and unconscious negative bias towards those who are different from us.  This social context also enables those born with power and privilege to maintain their privilege, and in fact to have difficulty seeing it.  This is not the fault of those in power but is a function of context.  I am hopeful that FAP can facilitate increased awareness of these issues and create more courageous and loving interactions between different people, resulting in increased connection that both celebrates our cultural differences and finds common humanity.

In your opinion: What is the most exciting research being conducted in the functional-contextualism field at the moment?

There is much exciting research, too much to summarize!  I am very excited about all of the positive research on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.  Regarding FAP, we are beginning a series of studies that I hope will be very important and will help explore the full potential of FAP.  We recently have founded the Center for the Science of Social Connection at the University of Washington, which is devoted to conducting research on FAP.  I am very excited to be Director of this Center and I am optimistic that over the next few years we will produce meaningful research on these topics.


Thank you Jonathan!