A difficult lesson to learn when first training to become a person-centred counsellor is how unhelpful it is to try and 'help' your clients.
If by 'help' you mean providing a therapeutic relationship that gives them the safety and security to explore those areas that they might find difficult but might ultimately lead them to work through these obstacles, well then, yes.
If, however – and this is very common at the start of training – by help, you mean offering practical suggestions or making subjective assertions about situations or scenarios the client raises, then no.
It's hard. It goes against everything we learn from friends, family, and society. How many times have you heard advice like this.…
"Well, if I were you, I would…."
"That happened to meet once, so what I did was..."
"I read about this in an article once; what it said you should do is.."
How many of the thousand times you heard these or some variant of these responses did you find them helpful? I suspect, actually, not very often. If we ever found these responses helpful or comforting, it was because it felt like someone was listening, and I suspect the words had very little to do with it. Sitting in council with another person, the rest of the world shut out, was the thing that was comforting and not any responses they gave us.
Because honestly, none of those types of responses is listening in the true sense, in a PCT sense. They are simply responses that operate from the listener's frame of reference. Suppose I tell you I am sad that my dog has just died. When you tell me your dog died three years ago, that fleeting sense of surface solidarity evaporates because my just-died dog's grief must be diluted to accommodate this historical loss. It might only be felt unconsciously as a sort of unsatisfactory social transaction. But somewhere, some part of me recognises that before I came to you, I was grieving my dog; now, I have your dead dog to think about too.
Solution-providing is the worst of these responses because it is based on many flawed assumptions.
- My problem and yours are not the same, they may have similarities, but they will only ever be surface at best
- You may know how you felt about your problem but couldn't possibly understand how I think of mine.
- The solution you had for your problem is not universal. You can't cookie-cut. It was forged for you from the unique fires of your experience.
- Everything about your solution was tailor-made for you, weighed up using a complex array starting with the phenomenological processing of the experience through your thoughts, emotions and feelings filtered through your richly symbolic and cognitive hinterland.
- Then there's language. The words you used, their impact, importance and symbolism have a completely different meaning for you than they do for me
Giving advice or solutions is pointless at best and, at worst, damaging to the therapeutic relationship, as a client who has spent their whole life feeling unheard and talked at once again finds that they have to take on board yet another opinion.
If you operate in a non-directive manner, you instinctively recognise that none of these responses are helpful. It can be a real shock to realise this when you first start training. When you see clients presenting with issues that have such a 'simple' solution, our clients' lives could be made so much easier if only they considered 'x' or 'y'.
It can leave you feeling powerless and frustrated; you think that if a client comes to me in a state of anxiety or incongruence, I must have to do 'something'. The mistake is believing that action is doing something and that just listening, providing the core conditions, is inaction. As the learning continues, doing 'nothing', not providing solutions but simply working with a client in a non-directive way, is the only logical and effective way to work.
Once you make this shift and see it, you can't unsee it. And I have reached the stage where I feel no anxiety whatsoever about not offering solutions or advice but simply going wherever the client wants to go, just providing the safety and the security of the core conditions.
There's one ramification that training in this way throws up. It is the gradual realisation that many people in your life, your friends, family, colleagues etc., do not listen well. It can seem like a shock at first, especially as you discover that people you may have previously thought of as good listeners may be quite the opposite.
How do you deal with that?
I have concluded that it all depends on the spirit in which this listening is offered. Our friends and families are not counsellors. The proffering of bad suggestions or bringing up similar experiences that they have had is not necessarily poor listening; it might be people simply trying to connect. Often that's the only way they know how to connect, either through habit or societal convention. I look for what is underneath. Suppose a listener tells me about their dead dog because they are trying to connect. In that case, I see it as background noise and mood music for a deeper connection. If I feel that they are using their dead dog to keep from the focus being too long on someone else - or more rather an attempt to move attention back to them - then I see this as a sign not to seek counsel with them. We can naturally develop this skill to find people we can and can't have meaningful, in-depth conversations with. I think training in a PCT way strengthens that skill.