Counselling Skills: An inseparable aspect of therapeutic relationships

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Heather Godfrey PGCE, BSc, FIFA, MFHT

Published in the Aromatherapy Times (International quarterly journal of the IFA) Volume 1 no. 55 p 28-31: 2002

To be conscious is to be inwardly awake to something. It always includes being awake to oneself as the experiencing and perceiving subject, and paying attention to some thing or event external to oneself, or which is internal, such as one’s own sensations, cognition, emotions or thoughts.  P D Mehta

 

Introduction

This (paper) is a reflective account of Carl Rogers (1902 – 1987) humanistic approach to counselling skills, viewed from the particular perspective of an aromatherapist and teacher. Working with clients in both a learning and therapeutic environment, I have come to value the benefit, insight and awareness that the application of such counselling skills affords and it is the purpose of this paper to share something of this understanding and learning experience with others.

Examining person centred counselling, I will first attempt to place Rogers’ theories into the context of therapeutic relationships, initially examining his theory of personality and the therapeutic relationship from the perspective of the counsellor. Then, expanding from this perception, I will relate Roger’s theories to the practical application and experience of my role as an aromatherapist and teacher.

 

Carl Rogers Theory of Personality

Rogers acknowledged the personality as an expression of the essential ‘being’ within each individual: a mirror that not only reflects the essence within, but the individual’s perception of themselves and their consequent relationship with their external ‘world’.

Although recognising the multifaceted influences that appear to shape the personality and self-perception, paradoxically, Rogers underpinning concept appeared to be simple. That is, an individual’s fundamental aim in life is to reach a state of self- actualisation, a state that enriches their ability to experience and appreciate their existence; a goal (in consciousness or not) that the individual is instinctively attracted to, like shoots from a seed reaching and growing towards the sunlight (Rogers, 1995). Rogers acknowledged this aim as being uniquely driven by the individual: we develop at our own pace, in our own way, in accordance with our own perception, understanding and willingness (mentally and spiritually):

The only reality you can possibly know is the world as you perceive and experience it at this moment. And the only certainty is that those perceived realities are different. There are as many ‘real worlds’ as there are people.  Rogers 1995

Everyone appears to be at a different point in the progression of self-development. From the moment we are born we begin to receive positive and negative feedback from our environment, other people and our social circumstances, which influences our internal frame of reference in relation to our perception of self and others.

Rogers’ advocated that we accept our selves with a clear, honest and uncluttered view; that we accept our strengths and weaknesses as being equally important parts of our whole being; that we own our behaviour and attitudes; that we remain open to the learning process; that we equally allow others this ‘way of being’ too.

In his book, ‘Client Centred Therapy’ (1995), Rogers presents a number of propositions in relation to his ‘Theory of Personality and Behaviour’. The impression that Rogers appears to reflect is that, like an onion, we need to peel and discard, layer by layer, the misperceptions and distorted values that may have been collected during our lives, until we reach the essential heart of our being. Having done so, in acceptance and self-honesty, we may then freely experience and appreciate life’s journey, realising our potential free from inhibition.

Said one oyster to a neighbouring oyster, ‘I have a very great pain within me. It is heavy and round, and I am in distress.’

And the other oyster replied with haughty complacence, ‘Praise be to the heavens and to the sea, I have no pain within me. I am well and whole both within and without.’

At that moment a crab was passing by and heard the two oysters, and he said to the one who was well and whole both within and without, ‘Yes, you are well and whole; but the pain that your neighbour bears is a pearl of exceeding beauty.  Kahlil Gibran 

 

The Therapeutic Relationship

Rogers appeared to view Person Centred Counselling as an opportunity to facilitate a client’s (persons) ability and potential to review their behavioural traits and perceptions. Not in the Freudian sense, however, where behaviour is judged and labelled according to the particular ‘scientific’ analytical framework it may fall into, and where solutions are sought and answers selected. Rogers preferred to provide a climate in which the client themselves are given ‘permission’ to go on a voyage of self-discovery.

The person centred counsellor’s role is not to offer solutions but to reflect or mirror to the client the picture they themselves paint, providing a window into their self-perceptions and ‘world’. This process may be likened to providing glasses for blurred vision to bring the sight back into focus. Of course, this analogy only works if the right ‘lenses’ are used otherwise the picture may become more blurred and potentially even distorted. So, Rogers placed great emphasis on providing the right conditions to nurture this clarity of vision:

My garden supplies the same intriguing questions I have been trying to meet in all my professional life: What are the effective conditions for growth? But in my garden, though the frustrations are just as immediate, the results, whether success or failure, are more quickly evident. And when, through patient, intelligent, and understanding care I have provided the conditions that result in the production of a rare or glorious bloom, I feel the same kind of satisfaction that I have felt in the facilitation of growth in a person or in a group of persons.

The ‘core conditions’ that Rogers said facilitate personal growth are empathy, unconditional positive regard and congruence, qualities that must emanate from the therapist to encourage and allow a positive and productive outcome to the counselling interaction. Rogers likened the presence of these core conditions to the warm sunshine, rain and earth in relation to the nurturing seed (Rogers, 1995).

Empathy is more than simply understanding someone. It is often so easy to superimpose our values, expectations and experiences onto others, to see others through our own frame of reference. Empathy appears to be about putting aside our own visions, views and concepts, seeing others as they are, listening to them with an open ear, allowing them to write on a clean sheet of paper. This does not mean, however, that the therapist should lose themselves in their client’s concepts or become ‘one’ with their client. The therapist needs to remain conscious of their own boundaries and ‘earthed’ in their own reality, without transferring their personal perceptions onto their client, and vice versa:

The ‘as-if’ quality of empathy is a crucial aspect of the professionalism of the person centred counsellor. She is able to work in this intense and feelingful way with her client and yet not become overwhelmed by those feelings. This control by the counsellor is crucial for the client: it offers him the security of knowing that although he may feel separate and lost in his world, the counsellor will be someone who remains reliable and coherent, as well as sensitive.  Mearns & Thorne 1999

Empathy may be reflected in the therapist’s body language as well as their reflective words; e.g. by maintaining eye contact, nodding and gesturing where appropriate and by ‘being there in the moment’ with their consciousness. Perhaps it may be useful to view empathy as the ability to walk beside someone as they journey; sharing their experience for that moment in time, offering companionship and a sense of not being alone, yet at the same time maintaining a non-possessive acceptance of each other that allows each to go their own way when it is time to part.

Unconditional Positive Regard furthers the empathetic gesture by giving the client a sense that they are accepted for their essential selves. Projecting unconditional positive regard may serve to break through the negative percepts held by the client (like peeling the onion layers), ultimately helping to bring into focus feelings of value and self worth which may assist and enable the review of the clients personal frame of reference.

The counsellor who holds this attitude deeply values the humanity of her [his] client and is not deflected in that valuing by any particular client behaviours. The attitude manifests itself in the counsellor’s consistent acceptance of and enduring warmth towards her client.  Mearns & Thorne 1999

 The negative attitudes held by a person may sometimes be insidious and hidden from conscious awareness, especially if they live in an environment that reinforces this perception. It is said that ‘like attracts like’ and in this respect it seems to be true that people ‘attract’ situations they feel they ‘deserve’. The child who is verbally abused by their aggressive father, may superimpose this distorted reality onto the value they hold of themselves, often later marrying a person they feel they are ‘worthy’ of rather than the person they truly deserve, or taking on the role of aggressor themselves as adults. So the abuse continues and the negative self-image is perpetuated (Rogers, 1995; Redfield, 1995).

Congruence is the most challenging of the core conditions. It requires that the therapist is honest and genuine and true to them selves and their feelings:

Congruence is the state of the counsellor when her outward responses to her client match the inner feelings and sensations which she has in relation to the client.  Mearns & Thorne 1999

 A sense of genuineness is required in relation to the therapist’s responses to their client. This sometimes involves risk taking, when the therapist might reflect back not the words that they are hearing but the feelings they are experiencing (perhaps the hidden agenda). Or conversely, when the client or therapist refrains from saying what they genuinely feel, using language that deliberately masks or diverts attention from their true experience, this is being incongruent. The ‘realness’ of congruence appears to be an essential ingredient of the therapeutic process, having an impact or influence on the client’s feelings of trust and confidence, influencing the client/therapist relationship and ultimately the potential successfulness of the outcome of their interaction.

When you meet your friend on the road side in the market place, let the spirit in you move your lips and direct your tongue.

Let the voice within your voice speak to the ear of his ear;

For his soul will keep the truth of your heart as the taste of the wine is remembered.

When the colour is forgotten and the vessel is no more.     Kahlil Gibran

Person centred counselling is a ‘way of being’ that permeates all aspects of life. The therapist is as much involved in their own personal development as that of their clients as this learning process often cuts both ways. To apply the core conditions requires self-discipline, skill and sincerity. Counselling is a process that requires the participants to be present, consenting and prepared to be honest. It may not be a therapy that will suit everyone’s needs, especially for those who are not willing, or ready, to be open to such a personal experience. When used in the right conditions and circumstances, person centred counselling can be both a potentially painful yet fulfilling and liberating experience.

 

Application of theory to practice

My teaching practice involves working with groups and dealing with the dynamics involved in collective interaction. By applying the Core Conditions to my application of skills an atmosphere of trust and comfort is potentially encouraged. Teaching aromatherapy includes physical contact and it is very important that the students feel safe in the knowledge that we can all trust each other, so I begin each course by inviting them to set their own ground rules in terms of our collective behaviour and attitude. These rules may include things like ‘a right to privacy’, ‘respect, ‘tactfulness’, ‘not speaking outside of the group about personal details disclosed’, and ‘non-judgement’. I have found that doing this helps to break down potential barriers and assists in creating a relaxed and trusting atmosphere that helps the learning/teaching experience to be enjoyable and productive. Putting the theory I teach into practice, my role as an aromatherapist also benefits from the application of counselling skills.

A person’s emotional and mental frame-of-mind are inseparably entwined with their physical wellbeing. This fact is accepted and documented in the texts and practices of many long-standing methods of healing, currently gathered under the collective umbrella of complementary medicine, as well as within aspects of orthodox medicine. When engaging in any kind of healing process, complementary or orthodox, emotional feelings or memories sometimes begin to surface. I have observed in my own work, that this experience may be equally releasing or disturbing, depending on a persons ability to face what ever the feeling or emotion holds for them. During aromatherapy treatments, clients are sometimes silent and reflective, sometimes talkative, and occasionally emotional. Most often clients feel elated and/or relaxed and calmed as a consequence of their treatment. Being the first line of contact during this potentially ‘healing’ experience in my capacity as a therapist I feel I must be tentative, yet supportive. Often clients come to me with stress related conditions. Aromatherapy encourages comfort and relaxation, which instils a sense of security, and sometimes in these circumstances clients feel safe to ‘open up’, disclosing their personal thoughts, feelings and ‘problems’. Consequently, I have sensed an enormous responsibility and an awareness of my limits in terms of not always knowing how to deal with this potential facet of treatment appropriately, which ultimately acted as my own catalyst, leading me to the study of counselling skills.

Beyond the boundary of the therapy I provide, or my role as a teacher, I recognise that I cannot be expected to provide answers, in spite of being prompted to do so. However, employing my counselling skills, I am generally able to reflect rather than absorb, which encourages my clients ownership of their thoughts, insights and decisions with out superimposing my own. I realise that this process is actually an inevitable and significant aspect of any healing action and may in itself presents a catalysts for the healing process to begin (physically and emotionally). So, in this respect, as with my teaching, I view myself as a facilitator in a learning process (very often as much my own as my clients) as well as viewing myself as a pragmatic agent engaged in the perpetuation of my client’s physical well-being and healing.

Should you open your eyes and see, you would behold your image in all images. And should you open your ears and listen, you would hear your own voice in all voices.  Kahlil Gibran

 

Conclusion

Carl Rogers believed in the intrinsic goodness of a human ‘being’. He believed that given the right conditions a person’s emotional, intellectual and spiritual potential may be liberated and realised. He made it his life’s work to share this ‘enlightenment’, openly presenting himself as ‘human’ – revealing his strengths and weaknesses, throwing his cards on the table, offering his experiences to others. His students in this respect became his fellow travellers. He based the principles of Person Centred Counselling on these values. The practice of these skills have permeated many aspects of our social behaviours; in teaching, management, health care, social work, as well as counselling. I believe that my practice as an aromatherapist and teacher have been enriched in developing and nurturing these skills.

This paper merely reflects one aspect or perception: counselling per sae will involve many possible scenarios and therapeutic approaches. However, the fundamental humanistic belief held by Carl Rogers, essentially expressed in these particular counselling skills, appears complementary to many therapeutic practices and processes.

 

References

  • Gibran, K.: (1989) The Prophet: Pan Books: p 72
  • Gibran, K: (1995) The Voice of Kahlil Gibran: Arkana Penguin Books: p 59, 122
  • Hough, M.: (1998) Counselling Skills & Theory: Hodder & Stoughton: p 97 – 120
  • Mearn, D., Thorne, B: (1999) Person Centred Counselling in Action: Sage Publications: p 6, 7, 41, 64, 84
  • Mehta, P.D.: (1989) Holistic Consciousness: Element Books: p 79, 80
  • Redfield, J.: (1995) The Celestine Prophecy – An Experiential Guide: Bantam Books: p 142 – 163
  • Rogers C.: (1995) Client Centred Therapy: Constable London: ch 11 p 481 – 533
  • Rogers, C.: (1995) A Way Of Being: Houghton Mifflin Co.: p 22, 23, 34, 39, 68, 107, 133, 270, 271, 277