Humans as Relational Beings
People are built to be in relationship with others. “We hunger and thirst insatiably for nurturing, for care, concern, compassion, longing to find someone, somewhere, who will love us for the frail person we are, and not for what we do and not for what we have” (Freemesser, 1985, p. 32). We learn best, we heal best, in the presence of support and feedback from others. The counselling relationship is a special one of supportive listening. I am not in the judging or fixing business.
We are changed by love. “Think not that you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course” (Gibran, 1926/1993, p. 14). This change comes through relationship to self, to others, and to God. Relationship is hard work. Love can be nothing else but work (Rilke, 1975). It is no wonder that change takes time.
Significance of the Counselling Relationship
The counsellor-client relationship is a major component of the change process that takes place within counselling (Raskin & Rogers, 2005). This relationship is more than a collaborative alliance for the work of therapy (Gelso & Carter, 1985), although the working alliance is important. (If counsellor and client are not in agreement as to the direction to take in counselling, the process will be jeopardized from the beginning.) It is the real relationship, deepening as counselling progresses, that has been shown to affect counselling outcome favourably (Gelso & Carter, 1985).
My role as counsellor. I act as confidant, teacher and guide, but also as fellow pilgrim on the journey. The counselling relationship is unavoidably unequal in nature (Cummings, 2000), not least because the client is typically at a point of vulnerability in life. I strive to minimize the power imbalance through such aspects as a relaxed physical setting, honesty, and relevant personal disclosure. “Counselling is a being-with rather than a being-over” (Freemesser, 1985, p. 15). I need to facilitate the active role of the client in guiding his or her own change process. There is a mutuality of sharing and caring that develops. “It is fundamentally about caring for the other person; being really interested” (G. Freemesser, personal communication, March 17, 2000). “In any thoroughgoing analysis the whole personality of both the patient and the doctor is called into play” (Jung, 1963/1989, p. 133). Thus we as counsellors cannot be playing a role, but must be ourselves (Freemesser, 1985).
The single biggest thing that I can do for the client is to listen, conveying empathy. How often in relationships or in life does one really feel listened to, really heard? One needs to be able to listen with one’s whole being, taking the other person in (G. Freemesser, personal communication, March 17, 2000). “The good listener hears you even when you say nothing” (de Mello, 1989, p. 120). R. D. Laing feels that this kind of listening allows clients to re-integrate themselves with their experiences (Cooper, 2003).
Necessary Conditions for Change
Since we are relational beings, “the most important element of the whole process is the relationship between the therapist and the client. Nothing will happen without that” (G. Freemesser, personal communication, March 17, 2000). Why go to counselling otherwise? Why not work through things on one’s own with the wealth of help materials available? We want to know that there is another live person there. The counselling process is a dialogue demanding two partners (Jung, 1963/1989). Rilke (1975) acknowledges our existential reality that ultimately we are alone, but also believes that for brief healing moments we stand in the presence of the other, free from judgement and seen for who we are. It is at moments such as these in counselling that transformational change can occur (Mahrer, 2005).
Cooper, M. (2003). Existential therapies. London, UK: Sage Publications.
Cummings, A. L. (2000). Teaching feminist counselor responses to novice female counselors. Counselor Education & Supervision, 40, 47-58. Retrieved March 19, 2006, from the Academic Search Premier database.
de Mello, A. (1989). The heart of the enlightened: A book of story meditations. New York, NY: Image Books.
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Gibran, K. (1993). The prophet. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. (Original work published 1923)
Gelso, C. J., & Carter, J. A. (1985). The relationship in counseling and psychotherapy: Components, consequences, and theoretical antecedents. Counseling Psychologist, 13, 155-243.
Jung, C. G. (1989).Memories, dreams, reflections (Rev. ed.). New York, NY: Vintage Books. (Original work published 1963)
Mahrer, A. R. (2005). Experiential psychotherapy. In R. J. Corsini & D. Wedding (Eds.), Current psychotherapies (7th ed., pp. 439-474). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.
H. H. (2005). Adlerian psychotherapy. In R. J. Corsini & D. Wedding (Eds.), Current psychotherapies (7th ed., pp. 52-95). Belmont,
Raskin, N. J., & Rogers, C. R. (2005). Person-centered therapy. In R. J. Corsini & D. Wedding (Eds.), Current psychotherapies (7th ed., pp. 130-165). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Rilke, R. M. (1975). Rilke on love and other difficulties: Translations and considerations of Rainer Maria Rilke (J. J. Mood, Trans.). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
You asked how we can know when our clients are ready to be challenged or pushed. I’m not suggesting I have an expert response, but I do think it’s an excellent question you ask, and one that elicits different responses depending upon one’s perspective. I can well imagine, for example, that Albert Ellis or Fritz Perls at one extreme would lean toward challenge, and Carl Rogers at the other end would err on the side of support.
To me, it’s all about two things: where the client is, and if trust has been established.
If we as counsellors have the skill and awareness to gauge accurately what the client is ready to hear, that makes all the difference. Saying the right thing at the wrong time likely pushes someone right out the door, especially early in the relationship.
However, once a level of trust has been established, clients give the counsellor a fair bit of leeway. As Sue Johnson (creator of Emotion Focused Therapy) said last week at a workshop, “You don’t have to be right all the time [as a counsellor] as long as you are with people.”
I would add a corollary: If you aren’t with people, being right is of little value.
Also from 615, touching on the importance of client factors in outcome, and on the importance of relationship and a supportive environment:
Both the Common factors in psychotherapy and relationship patterns in solution-oriented therapy (n.d.) handout and What works (n.d.) allow that the majority of variance in therapy outcome is accounted for by client factors outside of therapy. This is consistent with my own experience, and the situation discussed by my chat partner. What was also intriguing was that both of our change processes were fortified by some of the people nearby whose discouraging responses produced the opposite effect, spurring us on.
Moreover, for me a large portion of the benefit I perceived from counselling had to do with the warm and supportive relationship I experienced there. The change was happening in and around me. I was ready for it. My counsellor affirmed and fortified me, and helped guide me through.
One revelation I had today, thanks to my partner’s probing, is that at this key juncture in my life, I benefited from a consistently supportive environment. I was surrounded by people and situations that facilitated the changes I was attempting to bring to reality. I was fortunate.
I wish to add that this exchange between my partner and I has been the highlight of this course. Just as in counselling relationships, we draw strength and insight from supportive dialogue with each other.