Another in our series of person-centred fundamentals, this time Dave Mearns on power.
‘The issue of “power” is fundamental to person-centred counselling. Indeed, the essential principle of the person-centred approach is that the counsellor does not take responsibility for the client but encourages the client to find and exercise his own power.
Although power is so central to person-centred counselling, it is also an issue that is widely misunderstood. Often power is seen solely in terms of specific counsellor behaviours so the trainee person-centred counsellor become scared to make suggestions, offer interpretations, confront, theorise or offer advice, seeing these as the manifestations of taking power in the relationship. Such a trainee counsellor might be amazed to see an experienced person-centred practitioner in action with a long-standing client. The trainee would be surprised to see how assertive and active the counsellor could be, even at times offering suggestions, interpretations, theoretical observations and certainly being confronting. The trainee would also be surprised to see how those behaviours did not appear to usurp the client’s power – the client could consider these various offerings quite openly, taking what was relevant and discarding the rest. Both the client and the counsellor could be powerful and active within the relationship while the client remained not just the centre of attention but also the centre of his own evaluation. In this case the counsellor and client have achieved the appropriate “power dynamic” for person-centred work: The nature of power within the therapeutic relationship is such that the client has come to see himself as the most important judge and arbiter in his life, with the counsellor in the position of consultant creating a context where the client can review his options.
The aim of the person-centred counsellor is to establish this kind of power dynamic. Achieving this is not merely a question of the counsellor avoiding various “power behaviours”…..power is a relationship issue and the dynamic is only achieved if the counsellor is both able to resist imposing her own power and is able to help the client to explore any tendencies he may have to give his power away.’
Developing Person-Centred Counselling: Dave Mearns
An observation on this: in the writer’s view, the key working focus for the therapist is their own attitude/beliefs and awareness, including shadow – not their behaviours. In our experience, if the therapist:-
- genuinely experiences the other person as an equal, sacred human being;
- has a genuine and deep-rooted respect for that person’s self determination and ability to find their own way; and
- is able to support that person’s actualising through a relationship characterised by the core conditions,
that will communicate in the therapeutic relationship. Behaviours will largely look after themselves. Power imbalances will find no fertile soil in which to grow, arising in the moment, integrating in awareness, dissolving.
If the client brings a strong external locus, and expectations of ‘authority’, there may be a longer road towards the kind of ‘powerful and active’ interchange Dave describes, but it will come.
For us as a service, this all comes back to the appetite the therapist has for their own process work. There is cultural support for the therapist who relies on theory, ‘rules’ or ideas about ‘professionalism’. However, in our experience, truly effective therapy is offered by therapists who bring an alive, committed attention to their own emotional landscape and expanding awareness – those who first and foremost offer presence and the core conditions to themselves. We cannot accompany another human being to depths we have not ourselves experienced, nor meaningfully avoid behaviours arising from rejected, unowned and unexplored shadow.
We seek therapists who are up for this lifelong journey, and to support their making it at depth – through our in-house supervision, peer support and training. It is in this – and in this alone – that ethics and safety in therapy can arise.
Here’s the book link:-
Palace Gate Counselling Service, Exeter
Counselling Exeter since 1994