Interpersonal Therapy: Techniques & Definition

Instructor: David White
Interpersonal therapy can be a very effective short-term treatment for episodes of acute depression or anxiety. Through this lesson, you will learn how to define interpersonal therapy and explore some of the techniques used in the process.

What Is Interpersonal Therapy?

Thinking about mental health treatment probably conjures up all kinds of images and ideas based on your experiences. People who haven't ever engaged in treatment probably picture the kind of psychotherapy they've seen portrayed in popular culture: one-on-one, short-term talk therapy to curb anxiety or mild depression.

This type of short-term therapy is known as interpersonal therapy, and it can be very effective for learning coping mechanisms and developing better self-awareness. In general, interpersonal therapy comes to an end after about a year. The purpose of this particular therapy is to help the individual see the connections between their interpersonal skills and the state of their mental health.

For example, someone might begin their first session by telling the therapist that they're depressed because they feel like they have no friends and nobody likes them. Over the first few sessions, the therapist begins to get the sense that the individual tends to be argumentative or combative when dealing with others, which could explain why this person doesn't have many friends.

From this point, the therapist would explore with the individual how their communication style affects their relationships with others. Focusing on changing the argumentative behavior, the therapist and client would work together to develop new skills and techniques for good communication that would likely solve the problem.

Origins of Interpersonal Therapy

This particular model of therapy emerged during the 1960s from studies conducted at Yale as a way of addressing low-grade symptoms of depression or anxiety that didn't require long-term therapy. Using the existing model of cognitive behavioral therapy as a framework, the researchers altered the focus solely to interpersonal skills and communication to improve the symptoms of patients.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a treatment modality that addresses a person's behavior and thought patterns to improve their lives and help them to develop skills to manage their own symptoms. Although the structure worked well for developing interpersonal therapy, CBT may include addressing things like a person's familial history or other things that are chronic or beyond their control.

Instead of using the wide scope of CBT, the team at Yale turned to what is known as psychodynamic interpersonal theory to develop their model. Rather than address past traumas or chronic mental health issues, interpersonal theory evaluates a person's communication skills and relationships to gain insight into their emotional health and potentially solve mild emotional challenges.

Because the interpersonal model focuses on the person's interpersonal skills in the present, it makes it an effective tool for treating short-term problems that could be caused by an inability to appropriately interact with others. Moreover, this area can also include how the individual perceives other people and subsequently reacts.


It's important to keep in mind that more often than not a person's relationships themselves are not the cause of their depression. It is more likely that there are circumstances around those relationships that are causing problems. For example, if a person has a difficult time controlling anger or frustration, that would likely lead to poor communication with others and negatively affect their relationships with others.

The fact that interpersonal therapy identifies the health of personal relationships as a major contributor to mental health means that communication and emotion are an area of significant focus. The first step in the process is to address symptom formation, or what has led to the depression. For example, if a woman begins her first session by saying she's depressed and doesn't know why, the therapist would begin by exploring the state of her personal relationships. Through this process, the two might discover that her depression stems from a communication breakdown between her and her husband.

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