New York-based Dr. James D. Sterling has worked with some of the foremost experts in the field of psychotherapy. For more than twenty years, Dr. James D. Sterling studied with one of history’s greatest group psychotherapists. Dr. Louis Ormont, who died in 2008, was a luminary in group therapy, and Dr. James D. Sterling uses many of the techniques he learned from Dr. Ormont in his practice today. Dr. James D. Sterling, Director of the New York Center for Psychotherapy, recently spoke with Presentation Solutions about his work with Dr. Ormont.
Presentation Solutions: You specialize in couples therapy. How did working with Dr. Louis Ormont help shape your theory of therapy today?
Dr. James D. Sterling: Dr. Ormont was a celebrated mind in group psychotherapy. One of his most inspiring virtues was his kindness, warmth, great understanding of people. He was always supportive and encouraging. He recommended what has become the great maxim of my therapy practice with both individuals and couples: Before you say anything to a person of significance, the first thing you must ask yourself is, “How will what I’m going to say going to affect the relationship?”
Presentation Solutions: He actually used the group as part of the therapy experience, from what I understand.
Dr. James D. Sterling: Yes. Dr. Ormont believed that the group was the agent of change. His theory is that the therapist acts as a catalyst to promote and facilitate group members to interact with each other in a very specific manner.
Presentation Solutions: How does the therapist do this?
Dr. James D. Sterling: First, it’s important to understand Dr. Ormont’s five theoretical pillars. These are the observing ego, the insulation barrier, generative communication, immediacy, and the group as a maturational agent. Most of the theoretical pillars are useful in individual and couples therapy and that’s where I usually employ them.
Presentation Solutions: Could you describe these in more detail?
Dr. James D. Sterling: Absolutely. The observing ego is an individual’s ability to sit back and watch group interactions. The insulation barrier is a person’s personal boundaries that, when healthy, protect the ego, even when surrounded by extreme negative stimuli. Generative communication is the ability to communicate with great psychological maturity, and immediacy is the belief that interpersonal communication can create positive change. Finally, Dr. Ormond described a belief that a group could be used as a maturation agent to promote positive change in each of its members.
Presentation Solutions: And the therapist works with all of these?
Dr. James D. Sterling: The therapist, understanding each of the five pillars, uses the pillars to build techniques that strengthen a group.
Presentation Solutions: I have read that Dr. Ormont also talked about a “group contract.” Can you explain what that is?
Dr. James D. Sterling: Dr. Ormont always developed a contract with a group. Each member agrees to follow the terms of that contract at all times. Presentation Solutions: When group therapists speak of Dr. Ormont’s bridging techniques, what does that refer to?
Dr. James D. Sterling: Bridging is an intervention used by a group therapist to “bridge” interactions between group members to better facilitate a session, like asking another group member to comment on the expressed concern of a different group member. This strengthens the emotional ties between members, helping them to “identify and resolve one another’s resistances to making personal discoveries and establishing new relations,” rather than attacking group members and tearing them down.
Presentation Solutions: There are several different techniques for doing this…
Dr. James D. Sterling: Yes. The techniques a therapist may use when bridging are individual member support, energizing the group, increasing participation by individual members, building cohesion of the group, and ensuring each member feels safe throughout the session.
Presentation Solutions: What do you mean when you say “safe?”
Dr. James D. Sterling: Safety in this context means making sure interactions are constructive and positive, nurturing growth in group members, rather than tearing group members down. It can be a tricky balance; the job of the therapist is to help facilitate this for each member of the group.
Dr. James D. Sterling regularly puts his years of training to use at New York Center for Psychotherapy. Additionally, Dr. James D. Sterling passes on his knowledge by supervising young psychologists and psychiatrists in their practice through his work as an Assistant Clinical Professor at Mount Sinai Medical School in New York.