The second in our occasional series of refreshers in some of the fundamentals of a person-centred approach to therapeutic work.
The following examples from Dave and Brian cluster around the central theme of building trust, and which core conditions may be the predominant need in specific circumstances (not, of course, to the exclusion of the others). The writer had a ‘Ah yes, I know that one’, for each of these.
Empathy – the client in crisis
‘The client in crisis needs above all else to know that his feelings are received and understood, and that he is being taken with the utmost seriousness. This does not mean, of course, that the counsellor will be swept into the crisis herself. Indeed, the very activity of empathic understanding often has the effect of diffusing a crisis, or slowing down the pace and relieving to some extent the crippling sense of anxiety and dread that the client may be undergoing.
The experience of being deeply understood and the sense of companionship that springs from this are in themselves powerful antidotes to the overwhelming feelings of panic and powerlessness that can be the concomitants of crisis. If the client in crisis is to endow the counselling process with trust, he is more likely to do so if the counsellor’s empathic ability is well to the fore from the opening seconds…..
It is likely that an opening session beginning with….a dramatic and empathic interchange will quickly develop an intensity of relationship leading to a high level of client self-disclosure. Indeed, the more the counsellor empathises accurately, the more likelihood there is of this occurring. There is a danger when a relationship accelerates at such breakneck speed that the client will subsequently feel that he has exposed himself too shamelessly and with indecent haste. The skilled counsellor will be alert to this possibility and may well attempt to forewarn the client of such feelings: “We have shared a lot today and you have been very open with me. I want you to know that I feel fine about that just in case you feel later that you’ve said too much. I’m sure it was right to jump in at the deep end.” The establishing of trust in a relationship is a delicate and complex process and inappropriate feelings of shame can be a major stumbling block to its consolidation.’
Congruence – the ‘hardened’ client
‘…the “hardened’ client who may well have visited a whole gamut of psychiatric and helping services challenges the counsellor… Such a person is likely to be swift to discern inauthenticity and to be well accustomed to the application of mechanistic counselling techniques. In short, he will be concerned to gauge the counsellor’s genuineness and willingness to engage in a non-defensive way. Not surprisingly such clients can sometimes seem cynical and aggressive…..
To such clients even genuine empathy may be seen as contrived and stilted, and the counsellor will do well to stay firmly in touch with her own feelings and to be ready to express them even if they seem combative or unaccepting. Hardened clients have often experienced helpers who had no real interest in them, or helpers who constantly ducked behind the helping role and disappeared into frightened anonymity. Above all they are seeking a counsellor who is prepared to be open and straight with them and whose identity are strong enough not to be shaken by their apparent aggressiveness or overt cynicism.’
UPR – the deeply self-rejecting client
‘Some clients are so deeply self-rejecting when they first cross the counsellor’s threshold that they are close to self-destruction. They feel worthless, rejected, without hope. In such cases it is the counsellor’s attitude of unconditional positive regard that comes to the fore. This is not to say that empathy and congruence are irrelevant; simply that, for the deeply self-rejecting client, the most active ingredient for the fostering of trust is likely to be the counsellor’s warm and unconditional regard. What is more, it may well be that such an attitude will have to be maintained over many weeks before the client can begin dimly to sense that it is strong and enduring. Such clients are often fearful that it is only a question of time before the counsellor’s patience and warmth will run out, and they will be asked, politely, to seek help elsewhere. When it eventually dawns on them that this is not going to happen, then the scene is set for them to make the first tentative move to climb out of the pit of self-negation. They begin to catch at least a germ or two of the counsellor’s acceptance of them. One of the writers used to have on his wall – out of sight of all but the most inquisitive clients – a remarkable poem by Richard Church that begins ‘learning to wait consumes my life/consumes and feeds as well”, and this discipline of “learning to wait” is a prerequisite in the face of the self-rejecting client. Without such a discipline, based on the deep belief in each individual’s inner resources, there is little likelihood that the person centred counsellor will be able authentically to maintain the consistent warmth and unconditionality of regard which alone can bring some of the most deeply distressed clients to the point of trusting the counsellor and the relationship she is offering.’
Person-centred Counselling in Action: Dave Mearns & Brian Thorne
Here’s the book link – this is a readable, useful basic text, well worth a place on the bookcase:-
Palace Gate Counselling Service, Exeter
Counselling in Exeter since 1994