This is the essay I was required to write at the end of the first term of a psychodynamic counselling skills course
Describe your understanding of the counselling relationship.
What helps it to develop and what might hinder its development?
Counselling. Well, there’s a misnomer for a start. It’s an axiom of psychodynamic counselling that advice—counsel—isn’t given.
So, what can clients expect from a counselling relationship?
From my personal and professional experience, I think that new clients expect that the counsellor is going to help them. I don’t think that’s what counsellors think they are going to do, and I agree with them. I suggest counsellors—certainly those adopting the approach which GCS teaches—seek to create, in DW Winnicott’s phrase, a ‘facilitating environment’ in which the client can thrive (or start to thrive, or thrive better). Winnicott says [*1],
The maturation process only takes effect in an individual infant in so far as there is a ‘facilitating environment’. [my emphasis]
(In an essay of this brevity I take it as read that we gain far more from extrapolating Winnicott’s work with infants to our work with adults than we lose.)
So, for the client to make progress, the counsellor will be intent on developing a facilitating environment. Of course, she cannot develop this facilitating environment all at once—like a mother with her new baby, she has to get to know her client and his boundaries and defences, his perceptions and triggers, and she has to adapt herself to them even as he is adapting to hers.
It is in maintaining this facilitating environment, this context—‘holding the ring’ [*2]—that the counsellor enables the client to help himself—to thrive.
How does she do this? I suggest there are several components which overlap and between which the counsellor and client slip and slide. In the following, the components are in green. In this exposition, I show the general direction, the ‘prevailing wind’ so to speak.
Before anything else, she is empathic. She doesn’t play at being empathic nor is she empathic only when a client is in the room: she’s simply an empathic person. Affected empathy soon leads to what Sartre called mauvais foi [‘bad faith’] [*3] and a little of that can go a long way to damage the relationship.
Paul Bloom, in his excellent book Against empathy [*4], manages to have his cake and eat it. I don’t think he would actually object to my previous paragraph, but he would counsel caution. He prefers ‘rational compassion’ and I like that phrase a lot. I see a danger that some people are so keen to be known to be ‘empathic’ that they create a special definition of empathy which, perforce, has to avoid the everyday understanding of the word which Bloom investigates and which they too find troubling.
But, empathy it is for the purposes of this essay.
And the counsellor should be trustworthy. While she needs the client to trust her, whether he does or not is outside her control. So, she should certainly be trusting, without being unnecessarily credulous (as is one counsellor I know).
Given these two attributes, I suggest the first work of the counselling relationship is characterised by the counsellor listening. And by being experienced by the client as listening, not just hearing. As Stravinsky pointed out [*5],
To listen is an effort, and just to hear is [sic] no merit. A duck hears also.
There are a number of behaviours (in blue) that can assist in listening. Again one has to be wary of mauvais foi: of being a person playing the role of a listener. [*6]
Mirroring is the judicious selection of a few key words of the client that the counsellor repeats back to him.
Her body language will always communicate something, so she should take care that it authentically demonstrates her awareness of, and attentiveness to, his pain.
Of course, there will be clients—a minority?—for whom not being listened to, or even not being heard, in the past will be a substantial problem in the present. The counsellor may have to work hard to kindle a belief in the client that she can and will listen to him.
I suspect that most clients have some notion of what counselling is and will expect the counsellor to be able to listen to them. It is therefore important for the counsellor not to screw up. Saying less than she might want to—being happy to allow silences, being happy to admit she didn’t understand something—is probably a wise counsel. If the client has an expectation that the counsellor is going to listen to him, best for her not to disabuse him through some clunky learnt interventions. (I was once the ‘client’ in a long role play exercise—in threes, as does GCS—and the ‘practitioner’ repeated back to me what I said so mechanically it became irritating. I had to ask her to stop.)
As Frank Zappa has observed [*7],
Just because somebody hears something you say, or reads something that you write, doesn’t mean you’ve reached them.
The second main work for the counselling relationship is understanding. I think most people assume that you understand what they say to you in most situations, including the counselling room. Yet, it is surely the case that,
The meaning of a communication is what the recipient makes of it. [*8]
It is necessary for the counsellor to test her understanding, and to be seen by the client to be testing her understanding by asking clarificatory questions.
So, paraphrasing is useful: one feeds back—I always suggest in one’s own words—an important idea, or thought, or experience that the client has offered.
Listening and understanding always continue, but they are essentially preparatory to the main work of the relationship: investigation. The counsellor, through open-ended, often incomplete questions, encourages the client to investigate his situation and, thereby, gain insight into it, into what led to it, how and why he responded in the way he did and, ultimately, what he might do, feel or think differently to obtain a different outcome.
As the zen proverb has it [*9],
A person stands in their own shadow and wonders why it is dark.
Carl Rogers describes the client as moving from the stuckness, where he was when he started, to a state of process at the end stages of therapy. [*10]
In my personal experience and from observation, the counsellor who seeks to be a full-on Counsellor (capital C) from the first moment is likely to spook her client and that will be the last she sees of him. There’s a risk it becomes about the counsellor’s need to be a ‘proper counsellor’, to be right. [*11].
Winnicott also wrote [*12],
The good-enough mother… starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure.
I suggest the most productive relationship between a counsellor and her client would therefore be one in which she initially seeks to adapt herself closely to meet his needs, as she perceives them, and then—only then—, as time proceeds, she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to his growing ability to deal with the increasingly challenging conversation in which she seeks to engage him.
*1 DW Winnicott, ‘A theory of psychiatric disorder’ in Maturational processes and the facilitating environment, p 239 (Hogarth press/Institute of psycho-analysis, 1965)
*2 Darren Shirlaw, private communication
*3 Jean-Paul Sartre, L’être et le néant, chapter 2, passim (Gallimard, 1943; current English translation, by Hazel Barnes, Being and nothingness—A phenomenological essay on ontology, Routledge, 2003)
*4 Paul Bloom, Against empathy—The case for rational compassion (Vintage books, 2016)
*5 Quoted in Stephen Walsh, Stravinsky—The second exile: France and America, 1934–1971, p 339 (Pimlico, 2007)
*6 For an example of mauvais foi, try this: Jeremy Marchant, Network better, topic 120, p 190 (PIP, 2018). An older version is here: ‘Roles, rules and duties’, in http://www.emotionalintelligenceatwork.com/resources/stages-of-a-business-relationship-3/
*7 Dave Rothman, A conversation with Frank Zappa (Oui magazine, april 1979).
This is also here: http://www.afka.net/Articles/1979-04_Oui.htm
*8 This is my correction of an NLP supposition
*9 For example, see Ken Wilber, The spectrum of consciousness, p 71 (Quest books, 1977)
*10 Carl Rogers, ‘A process conception of psychotherapy’, especially pp 151-158, in On becoming a person (Constable, 1961)
*11 The need is to differentiate purpose from outcomes. See Jeremy Marchant, Network better, topics 43-44, p 68 (PIP, 2018). An older version is here: http://www.emotionalintelligenceatwork.com/resources/purpose-outcomes/
*12 DW Winnicott, Transitional objects and transitional phenomena—A study of the first not-me possession, Int J Psycho-Anal, 34:89-97 [in the section, ‘Illusion—disillusionment’].
Also here: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/a56f/ba056a21039574e5b2371f4ad01728b54366.pdf
© 2019 Jeremy Marchant . image: Free images
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