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BACP Senior Accredited Counsellor

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Counselling – and the unexpected

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In my most recent note I referred to what was then the forthcoming general election. As the dust settles on that contest, the main surprise of the election appears to be that the result was just that - a surprise!   The reaction of the parties, pollster and media immediately following the vote reflected a very real sense of the unexpected.  In fact there almost seemed to be in some quarters an indignation that things had not gone as expected.

This sense of disquiet will for some people reflect a disappointment that their particular political cause was not well served by the result. For others including some of no particular political persuasion, there may be an alternative uplifting feeling that the unexpected occurred once some voters were able to step into the privacy of the voting booth.

I drew attention in that earlier note to parallels between aspects of the political process and what goes on in the therapy room – and parallels are again reflected in this acknowledgement of the power of the unexpected.  

Within the counselling room the unexpected is the antithesis to what is assumed.  The unexpected can certainly provide a challenge for some counsellors. It is also a counterblast to the expanding volumes of rules attempting to dictate how the therapeutic process should be.

On a personal level I am never particularly comfortable with too many rules.  Of course there do need to be boundaries within counselling work. This is for sound ethical reasons and to ensure that clients are held safely within therapy and counselling work. 

Nevertheless these rules and boundaries should be contained and proportionate. Rules should not inhibit the client from being able to use the therapeutic space to express themselves in the way which works best for each individual.

There is though one overriding rule that I always try to follow. This may not be found in current ethical guidelines. It may not appear in those manuals of best practice which expand exponentially as the demand for regulation and orthodoxy continues to knock loudly at the door of the therapy room.

This rule is quite straightforward. It states that as a therapist I should never make assumptions about individual clients and their narrative. It insists that I should never assume ahead of any work, session or discussion, that I know what the client wants, what the client needs or what the client story is going to be.

Individuals are just that. Individuals, each with their own unique story. If we as therapists decide that we know what is coming, that we are sure of what the client wants and that we are certain as to how this story will unfold, then that is the time to consider stepping away from the counselling room.   

Of course it is right to think about what is happening with clients. We ought to be wondering what the next step may be. Of course we will reflect about what is likely to come next and we may even begin to anticipate a possible train of events. 

There is however a very marked difference between thinking about possibilities and making the mistake of assuming that one actually knows what is going to come next. The moment a therapist takes that step from conjecture to certainty, she or he has stopped listening to the client’s story and has started to lose that experience of the client’s world.

This may seem a fairly obvious statement for a professional counsellor to make. One may think that surely this rule is universal within therapy. Yet that may not always be the case. 

Some structured counselling methodologies adopt a prescriptive and formulaic approach to working with clients or patients. Some schemes can be seen to squeeze out or ignore aspects of the individual story which will not sit well with a specific counselling approach.  This can be detected in some initial sessions when the counsellor may be too quick to pronounce on what should and should not be covered in future appointments.

Work with clients should always follow the maxim of being in the best interest of the client. Of course at the outset the client may not always know what they want from therapy but the role of the therapist is to then encourage the client or patient to explore their story.

Client and counsellor can work together to consider what may be most helpful.  The initial assessment is a two way discussion. The counsellor may have professional expertise in therapy work but the expert on the client is the client – even if that is not readily appreciated.  It should not be the role of the therapist to take over that discussion, to assume responsibility and metamorphasise into some form of didactic instructor.

And so back to that election. The extent of the distress from the losing parties was surely exacerbated by the fact that some participants or observers just did not expect this voting behaviour. The media were already looking ahead to coverage of those weeks of debate about who would be in coalition with who. Suddenly there was a need for a readjustment.

Plans which had been made had to be abruptly revised. There is a lesson to be painfully learned for politicians and pollsters about not taking the public for granted and we are likely to see that reflected in the pollsters’ activity in five years’ time.  

I would like to think that the importance of not taking individuals for granted is something that we as counsellors are already very alert to.  I am not sure however that certain commissioning bodies or national institutions always reflect that view in some of the current guidelines which propose a rather formulaic approach to therapy and counselling.

Within the therapy room, the voicing of or the acting out of the unexpected can be a rich vein of insight to be explored. Unlike the world of the pollsters, counsellors should regard any unexpected detour by the client with much interest. For therapist and client alike, the unexpected is something to be embraced rather than avoided and to be welcomed not discouraged.




Geoff Boutle

added on 1st June 2015

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