Tuesday 12 January 2010


A colleague and I sat having lunch together, talking about how his training in counseling was going. He was an experienced Christian priest not new to chaplaincy and he knew that becoming a counselor could only benefit his way of being with people. This wasn’t a pressing debate over how models vary or the theoretical foundations of his system but I was surprised when he said, “It all aids our purpose, which is healing.”

As individuals we’ll have different skills, specialties and interests in our lives as as chaplains and as people, but I think it’s worth taking some time to discuss what we mean when we talk about ‘healing’ and what role it might have in chaplaincy.

‘Healing’ is not the same as ‘curing’, but often these words are used in the same way. Many of us do ritual to ‘heal’ the Earth when in fact the Earth is not in need of healing but could probably do with some very mundane tidying up. Once more, this is a matter of being aware of the power dynamics in a relationship. For healing to occur there must be someone with the special ability to heal and someone in need of healing and the potential for abuse of power is obvious.

In my own practice, I know that I am not able to heal anyone of anything. I see my role simply to offer a therapeutic relationship, the intent of this relationship being to allow the person I’m with the space and opportunity to be any way they wish to be, with a limitation of not causing harm to anyone. My belief that this is the optimum way to approach the way of being of a chaplain is based in the Person Centered Approach, a mainstream psychotherapeutic model widely used in counseling and psychotherapy. The creator of the Person Centered model, Carl Rogers, was a professor of psychotherapy who perceived the existing models of human behavior as restrictive and models of healing to often be punitive; always an expert telling a vulnerable person what they are thinking and what they should be doing.

‘In his clinical practice he increasingly became convinced that it is always the client who knows what hurts and in what direction he or she needs to proceed if healing is to take place. The therapists function is to aid the client in the exploration and discovery of his or her own inner resources; it is not to impose, however gently, external solutions, strategies, interpretations or explanations. ”
‘Carl Rogers’ Brian Thorne 1992 Sage Publications

Person Centered people know that we’re all born pretty much perfect and that things happen to us that affect the way in which we experience life. We know that, given the optimum environment, we can all be trusted to make good decisions about our own lives and about our effects on other peoples lives. It’s a truism that humanity seems to make an art form out of cruelty, yet how would it be if every individual person were treated respectfully and trusted from birth, with guidance coming through filters of loving-kindness? It’s unlikely that we’ll ever know but all the research demonstrates that in a one-to-one, couples or group formal therapy situation of any and all models, it is the relationship between counselor and client that makes or breaks the perception of the client that the work is beneficial. Further, the therapeutic relationship is most valued by the client the more empathy and authenticity the counselor can bring to it. These three qualities of relationship are those which are the bedrock of the Person Centered model.

It’s clear that training in the person centered model and calling oneself a person-centered therapist doesn’t mean that these qualities will automatically be embodied. Many therapists who have a different theoretical model will come closer to the person centered way of being than numerous person centered therapists who translate these rigorous requirements into being sweet and nice. Sweetness and niceness is not what a person who is facing the most critical moments of their lives needs. When we’re alone in a storm and there is no shelter to be had, it’s good to have someone with us, to walk beside and accompany us, someone who can weather the storm and won’t need us to carry them. This is the essence of a good therapeutic relationship.

Because the research so clearly demonstrates that this is the case, it’s worth spending some time examining these qualities in some detail.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Many of us do ritual to ‘heal’ the Earth when in fact the Earth is not in need of healing but could probably do with some very mundane tidying up.

I like this line. Very perceptive. As a longtime chaplain I appreciate your chaplaincy perspective. Thanks for the reflections.