Relational Psychotherapy
22 Feb 2016

connected rings 

Building on my last Blog post, I’d like to add a few ideas about how I believe we co-create the relationship in the counselling room. By that, I mean that it takes two to tango. A relationship is not just one-way. Both parties bring something to the table. And that includes the counselling relationship.

Intersubjective frameworks take this reality of a 2-sided relationship pretty seriously. I remember an experiential workshop I participated in at the first PACFA conference in Melbourne. We danced in response to a client issue, we wrote a poem in reaction to the session, we drew what was happening for us, and then we shared it with the “client”. All role-played of course. It was mind-blowing and very helpful to see that this could be used in an actual session. I even tried it a few times with a client. (It worked for those clients! Needless to say, I did NOT dance)

But what was more useful was the paradigm shift that took place for me. I knew from my own personal therapy how inter-active the process was, but now I had some frameworks for embedding that in my work with clients. Intersubjectivity is simple the notion that the space between me and the client, the “place where we meet in the middle” is a busy and fruitful place. It is where the action is. If I take that seriously then it invites me to be more present, more fully aware, more in tune with my own reactions, feelings, sensations in the session. My body is involved and I am less in my head and more with the client. We are both impacted by each session, and we might both learn. And that’s OK.

Some counsellors balk at the idea that our stuff is just as important as the client’s stuff, but how can we be in a session and not notice that we have been challenged by the client’s struggle with an addiction, or with grief, or the breakdown of a precious relationship? Further, we will exhibit to our clients that something is going on for us, even if we pretend otherwise. So an intersubjective approach suggests we use our reactions, our presence, in the service of the client’s goals. We use immediacy: “I noticed just now I felt a little flutter of fear when you spoke about your boss. Does that fit?”

Relational psychotherapy also takes seriously that our embodied reactions in session are important clues. Feeling sleepy? Be curious, rather than presume you are being unprofessional. Feeling angry? Step back as the session progresses and see if you can work out who the anger belongs to, or what provoked it. The whole process is to and fro, client and counsellor. It also moves in us: head-heart-gut.

I come back to the mantra: it is the relationship that heals. What was broken in relationship needs to be healed in relationship. But as therapists, we need focus, courage and commitment to work in this way.