Thursday, 2 September 2010


In 2007 Dave Mearns and Mick Cooper wrote a book called ‘Relational Depth’ a minute part of which covered Mearn’s counselling work with the client ‘Dominic’. One sentence between Means and Dominic went like this:

“Dom, be here, be here drunk, but don't play fucking games with me.”

and small bomb went of in the Person Centred counselling world. You can read the rationale for the opposition to this way of being here:

Objections were founded in theory and as such are sound and worthy of discussion but in the midst of the debate was the unspoken, something indefinable, and for me it came down to issues of who counsellors often are, who clients often are, the ways in which we define ourselves and most importantly, the terror that many counsellors have of actual connection. Connection is the primary concern of the book and the work of the counsellor.

In reply to my previous piece Amanda commented:
I found myself absolutely tongue tied when I spoke to her for the first time after the event. We do not share a spiritual path, but even if it were so I do not know what I could have said to her. I am not a mother, I cannot begin to know the pain of losing a child. This is one area that troubles me as I consider continuing on the path to fully involved pagan clergy... will I ever be able to find the "language of mystery" to help with this very particular kind of grief with no knowledge of that relationship myself?
which touches on an important aspect of counsellor or clergy training: how do we empathise with people who have had an experience that we have not?

The pat answer is that we all share similar experiences and can use them to empathise with the experience of the client. There’s some truth in this but the existence of specialist support groups speaks to the importance of the truly shared experience. People can communicate in intimate shorthand without having to explain or pull their punches for the sake of the listener, a shared journey with close companions, people who don’t need to be told everything for there to be a sense of kinship.

Connection has been categorised and simplified, codified and reduced to a technique. “You can empathise with a woman who’s lost her baby because your dog died.” Not really. One of my peers wanted to prove that online counselling was able to provide Buber’s I-Thou relationship between client and counsellor. That this person wanted to prove anything in research was a measure of her need. Despite discussions she went off and did the research which, astonishingly, showed that an I-Thou relationship was possible in online counselling.

Buber spoke of moments of I-Thou relationship, brief (but timeless) instances beyond speech touching the realm of mystery; fragile, unrehearsed, attuned to agape. This goes beyond empathy into the realms of perfect love and perfect trust, connection rather than relationship, existential meaning-making and life purpose.

Buber is wonderful to read: dense, rich and complicated it takes time to absorb his wisdom. There are many other authors who build on his work and create their own whose writing is accessible and not in the least mystical without losing any gravitas or wisdom. I entirely recommend Working at Relational Depth by Dave Mearns and Mick Cooper which brings together the philosophy and research into connection of many of the most important modern voices on the subject – and builds beautifully on their foundations. Try anything by Peggy Natiello, Brian Thorne and Irvin Yalom.

Immerse yourself in their writing, try feelings on for size, respectfully experiment with your friends – see how it is to truly attempt to move into their frame of reference, see what, if anything happens. But here’s the magic ingredient: expect nothing to happen.

A very respected Pagan leader recently expressed his disgust with someone we’ve known for many years: “I've tried for years to make her less miserable. I don’t care any more.” How awful of this woman to not do what he wants. Who knows what she needs to do, or why? One thing is certain, she doesn’t exist for people to change, to make her easier to be around, to heal and Paganism is veritably heaving up with healers. Physician, heal thyself. When I’m made queen of the world all counsellors and clergy shall be made to repeat this every month, and best it be when the moon is full: “I am attempting to heal myself when I work with clients.” For better or worse.

If we have an agenda it can only come down to “Let me do no harm and let me be truly of service to this individual.” Not to heal them. Not to make them feel better. Not to stop their pain. Not to make contact or do the I-Thou thing. But to be available and worthy of contact.

So much of the time I don’t know what I’m doing with clients and ironically if I can be comfortable in the not-knowing, trusting the process, then I know something is going well.

1 comment:

Amanda said...

Thank you for this. Both the recommendations and the timing. I just drove 36 out of the last 72 hours to attend a funeral for my husband's aunt.

It was exhausting and heartbreaking (she was not yet 60) and your words settled in while making the long drive out. Instead of my usual desire to *do* something (anything?) to make people feel better, I just tried to make myself available. It was more acutely heartbreaking and yet less emotionally taxing than I would have expected. Watching a recently bereaved husband break down over a hastily gathered take-out dinner in the hotel common room is not something anyone can be prepared for, but it is something we can bear witness to. Sometimes, that may be enough.