The Role of the Counsellor

That seemingly straightforward question, “What do you do?” is one of the hardest for a counsellor to respond to. The answer is likely to be either too simple—“I listen”—which sounds like an insult to the intelligence of the enquirer, or too long-windedly weighed down with developmental theory, which in most cases can’t even be illustrated with case material, as that, of course, is confidential.

The simple answer remains fundamentally the true one: counsellors listen. But they listen with a very deliberate and structured agenda that is essentially different from the agenda most of us have in our daily conversational exchanges. Two friends chatting at a bus-stop, for example, are listening to each other for cues that enable each to contribute, to affirm the similarities in their experience, or perhaps to playfully compete by ‘trumping’ each other with exciting bits of news. The listening in a counselling relationship is much more one-sided. As a counsellor I use my curiosity about my clients to help create a setting in which they will feel safe to explore the deeper dimensions of their experience. This is partly achieved through making clear that I do not require them to ‘look after’ me by providing me with conversational openings. I am content to put all my other personal concerns aside in order to concentrate my attention just on them, so that, in effect, what is personally concerning to them becomes the sole focus of what is also personally concerning to me while we are together.

Another way of achieving this atmosphere is by not forcing the pace of the session with a lot of questions. Offering a response that is reflective, even meditative at times, can help deeper concerns rise to the surface, and can gradually inform the client that this is not a setting in which I’m going to be making judgements about right and wrong. Counselling is a form of psychological treatment, and as such focuses on what is true and important for the individual client; it is not a moral courtroom in which the client’s history or behaviour will be used as evidence to assess their personal value. This is easy to describe as a theory, but as you can imagine, or perhaps know from your own experience, clients coming into counselling for the first time often have quite a contradictory reaction to this approach. They can feel blissful relief at receiving such full and much-needed attention on the one hand, while also feeling anxiety-ridden that what may come to be revealed about them is too shameful and worthless to warrant such attention, and may lead to their losing it. For some clients resolving this paradox can be the work of many years. It is the primary focus of many counselling contracts, and the result can be permanently life-changing, if worked through successfully.

Very quickly, as you can see, we’ve arrived at the notion of how the basic act of listening can be profoundly therapeutic. In order to make more sense of this we need to look at the beginnings of life, to the relationship between a mother and her baby. ‘Listening’ at this point in development is not about decoding the intellectual messages of speech at all. A mother is listening for the subtler meaning in her baby’s many gestures, physical and vocal, and she has an inbuilt intuitive mechanism that enables her to do this with amazing accuracy. What we now understand is that this intuition derives from the right hand side of the brain. As the right side of the brain develops first in babies (the left side doesn’t significantly catch up until about 18 months, when language begins to move forward quickly), the mother is biologically programmed to tune into her baby from this part of her own brain. We believe, from many years of infant observation research, that being accurately responded to by the mother at the very start of life is the first building block towards the development of a baby’s healthy sense of self and of self-worth. What we also understand is that a mother’s intuitive response to her baby can be impaired if she herself was not successfully responded to by her mother when she was a baby.

So, the core issues at stake here, which arise constantly in counselling, are around trust and self-esteem. It is my job not just to listen to the actual words spoken by the client, but to also read the hidden meanings, verbal, intuitive or physical, that s/he is communicating, and to feed them back in a form this is not experienced as humiliating or judgemental, but empathic and understanding of the real, original cause of the presenting problem.

Another aspect of counselling that can seem extraordinary to new clients is that the session itself, the time it starts and finishes, where it takes place, are just as essential to the unfolding of the work as the relationship between counsellor and client. In fact the mechanics of the session form an integral part of the relationship. Regularity, consistency and reliability in both the emotional and physical environment are the pillars on which trust will be built.

Reading back over what I’ve written I can see afresh the dilemma of trying to describe, from one moment to the next, what I actually do in the consulting-room. But perhaps it has become clearer now why that is a good rather than a bad thing. If I meet a client loaded with my own agenda, wishes, expectations or ideas about what should be happening in their session, I become just like the competitive friend at the bus-stop – I won’t really be listening to the client at all. Being alert and present to what each moment brings is the essence of the counselling activity.