Experiences of Counselling in Action


Edited by: Dave Mearns & Windy Dryden

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  • About the Series

    Series editor: Windy Dryden

    Counselling in Action is a series of books developed especially for counsellors and students of counselling which provides clear and explicit guidelines for counselling practice. A special feature of the series is the emphasis it places on the process of counselling.

    Feminist Counselling in Action

    Jocelyn Chaplin

    Gestalt Counselling in Action

    Petrūska Clarkson

    Transcultural Counselling in Action

    Patricia d'Ardenne and Aruna Mantani

    Key Issues for Counselling in Action

    edited by Windy Dryden

    Rational-Emotive Counselling in Action

    Windy Dryden

    Psychodynamic Counselling in Action

    Michael Jacobs

    Experiences of Counselling in Action

    edited by Dave Mearns and Windy Dryden

    Person-Centred Counselling in Action

    Dave Mearns and Brian Thorne

    Transactional Analysis Counselling in Action

    Ian Stewart

    Cognitive-Behavioural Counselling in Action

    Peter Trower, Andrew Casey and Windy Dryden


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    Counselling is one of the more intense human experiences for both client and counsellor. For the client, the counselling hour may represent an oasis of meaningful communication amidst a life filled with manipulative relationships, unexpressed feelings and a sense of hopelessness. Counselling can also be a frightening experience with the client finding himself coming face to face with difficulties he has pushed aside for many years. Client' experiences in counselling are as varied as the clients themselves, but the intensity of the experience tends to be a common feature—as a client of one of the editors said: ‘Counselling is like living with your finger on the “fast-forward” button—you can go through an enormous amount of living in just one hour.’

    The experience for the counsellor is different but it too carries an intensity and immediacy which is matched by few professions. The counsellor, regardless of her specific counselling approach, is being a ‘supportive challenger’ to the client. She is working in the midst of the client's thoughts and feelings, trying to retain her coherence even though those thoughts and feelings seem hopelessly confused and desperate. As one counsellor involved in the investigations for this book said, ‘The difference between counselling and “real life” is that you have to be more “alive” in counselling.’ Added to these feelings in the client and counsellor is the whole unpredictability of the experience. The client rarely knows what is going to happen in the next hour and the counsellor never knows. This intensity and unpredictability of the counselling experience may in part explain its attraction for both client and counsellor.

    This book samples counselling in action as it is experienced by both clients and counsellors. Apart from the chapters on research literature, all the authors were asked to write as personally as possible about their experiences of different aspects of counselling. The first half of the book is devoted to the experiences of clients and begins with John McLeod's review of the research literature, including the fascinating recent work by Rennie (1984, 1985a, 1985b and 1987).

    Chapter 2 is the shortest in the book, yet the editors will not be surprised if it is the chapter that many readers find to be most evocative. In this chapter Laura Allen provides a unique account of the experience of failure in counselling from the client's perspective. Laura describes two experiences which failed for quite different reasons. In the first her experience was of being abused and in the second it was of working with an ineffectual counsellor. The power of Laura's writing comes in part from the fact that she is able to analyse these failed experiences in a critical way which is disturbingly convincing for practitioners as well as other clients.

    In Chapter 3, Myra Grierson addresses the experience of success as a client. She also describes two quite different counselling experiences which were both important to her at different times in her life. The first ‘kept her alive’ while the second helped her to tackle conflicts left over from childhood. In both cases Myra gives an enlightening account of how she found her own ‘power’ in the context of these relationships with her counsellors.

    Writing about the experience of couple counselling carries the added complication of trying to reflect the experiences of both partners. Rosanne and Paul accomplish this by agreeing on many parts of the experience in Chapter 4 but also representing their own individual reactions to the same events.

    Chapter 5 represents a bridging chapter from the client's experience to the counsellor's experience in that its author, Brendan McLoughlin, had two experiences as a client on his way to becoming a counsellor and psychotherapist. Our request of Brendan was that he should examine how these experiences of being a client influenced him in his later work as a counsellor. It is quite common in counselling and psychotherapy training to invite the trainee to be a client—in fact on some training courses it is seen as essential that the trainee has experience in the ‘other seat’. Brendan's chapter gives some personal insights into why this should be important.

    The second half of the book is devoted to the experiences of counsellors. In Chapter 6 John McLeod reviews the research literature on the counsellor's experience and includes a challenge to researchers and practitioners to explore the effects of communication at different levels in the counselling relationship. For instance, just as important as the counsellor's experience of the client is the counsellor's assumptions about how the client experiences her!

    Dave Mearns uses Chapters 7 and 8 to explore counsellor' experiences of ‘failure’ and ‘success’. Rather than give one practitioner's account of failure and success, Dave investigated the experiences of sixty-one practitioners on the issue of failure and forty-eight on success. These chapters explore how counsellors construe ‘failure’ and ‘success’ and give personal accounts of how they have experienced events such as a client's sudden discontinuation and indeed a client's suicide, as well as the more ‘successful’ endeavours of counsellors such as employing flexible working practices.

    In Chapter 9, Senga Blackie illustrates her experience as a counsellor through her work with two couples, the first for a brief three sessions and the second as a long-term commitment which saw her work first with the woman, then the couple and finally both partners separately. In this chapter Senga shows how her approach to work with couples is to regard the relationship between the partners as an entity in itself to which she must relate in the same way as with the individuals.

    In Chapter 10 the editors examine the kind of issues which recur in these experiences of clients and counsellors throughout the book and coin the term ‘the unspoken relationship’ to denote those aspects of the relationship between client and counsellor which are experienced by each but rarely addressed.

    The counselling approaches reflected in this book include Gestalt, Transactional Analysis and other humanistic approaches to counselling. However, the vast majority of client and counsellor experiences come from the person-centred and psychodynamic traditions. This is especially the case in Chapters 7 and 8 where Dave Mearns reviews the experiences of large numbers of practitioners. An interesting observation from results of that survey is that the differences in counselling approach were much less evident in the descriptions given by more experienced practitioners. This finding reflects those of earlier researchers such as Fiedler (1950) and Raskin (1974). Sharper contrasts among experiences of counselling might have been evident if this book had adequately canvassed the views of cognitive-behavioural workers, but this approach more than any other is underrepresented in the present text as it is in the field of counselling in Britain.

    In writing in this domain there is a perennial problem concerning the appropriateness of the terms ‘counselling’ and ‘therapy’. Sometimes it is felt that work which goes on for a lengthy period of, say, a year or more should properly be called ‘therapy’ rather than ‘counselling’. Yet the actual duration does not necessarily imply a difference in the processes or functions of the work, so this basis for distinguishing between them is rather weak. Sometimes workers will use the word ‘therapy’ when the issues the client is endeavouring to tackle are particularly deep seated, reaching back into expectations and patterns created in childhood, whereas ‘counselling’ might be used to refer to work on more transient problems such as may arise from changes occurring in the client's life or crises in relationships. However, this distinction is not as neat as it looks because a major part of the difficulty with changes or crises is that dealing with them will usually involve the client becoming aware of deep-seated expectations, patterns of relating and conflicts from earlier life which should properly be worked with by the practitioner whether she regards herself as a ‘counsellor’ or ‘therapist’. The question of the difference between these labels becomes even more spurious when we examine cultural differences—for instance, much that is called counselling in Britain would be therapy in the United States of America! Furthermore, the major traditions differ in their terminologies. The person-centred approach, for instance, deliberately does not distinguish between the terms on the grounds that the interpersonal processes are the same, whereas the psychodynamic tradition does offer a distinction in which dealing with the transference relationship is much more central to psychodynamic therapy.

    Since this series of books uses the term ‘counselling’ we have also followed that convention in most instances. An obvious exception to that is in the chapters on the research literature where the researchers themselves, often American, would tend to use the term ‘therapy’. Most of our chapter authors have referred to their work as ‘counselling’ although it must be said that a few of them would more often use the word ‘therapy’ to describe their work, particularly those with a strong psychodynamic influence like Brendan McLoughlin, and Paul and Rosanne, for whom the term ‘therapy’ would have been preferred on the grounds that their experience involved considerable work with unconscious material. Really, the question of whether the term ‘counselling’ or ‘therapy’ is the more appropriate term is not of crucial significance—indeed, clients sometimes devise other names for their practitioners like ‘my consultant’ or ‘my facilitator’. Much more interesting and important than terminology are questions like: ‘How does the counsellor experience what is going on?’ and ‘What is the client's experience?’ It is these questions that the present volume seeks to explore.

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