Blog Post No.146
10th July 2016
Dr Jim’s Counselling Blog:
The Best kept secret of counselling and therapy: The decisive role of the client
Copyright (c) Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling
One of the best kept secrets of counselling and psychotherapy is this: The qualities of the client are at least as important as the qualities of the counsellor, in terms of determining the outcome (positive or negative).
But how can we refine this insight, this secret, so that it becomes clearer and more helpful or useful?
Defining client qualities
The first thing we could do is to try to define some of the most important client qualities. Here is my own attempt to do that:
- If the client knows they have a problem that they cannot resolve for themselves; and they realize that they are committed to resolving it nevertheless; and they twig that somebody else might have some kind of expert knowledge which could help them to solve their problem; and they realize that a counsellor or therapist could be just such a person: then they have a fighting chance of being able to access counselling, and to make good use of a counselling relationship and related processes.
- If this person then becomes a willing counselling client, and they have had the kind of experiences of being parented – when they were a child – which allows them to ask for help, and to take advice and guidance – then they have a good chance of being able to find out what their counsellor has in their toolbox which they could use to resolve their own most important problem(s).
- The more developed the client’s emotional intelligence, the better they will be able to able to manage their relationship with the therapist, as well as their own perceiving/feeling/thinking involvement in the therapy.
- The wiser the client is, the more they are going to be able to benefit from whatever they can learn from their counsellor or therapist. We are thinking here of the insight from Lao Tzu’s book, the Tao Te Ching (pronounced Dao-Day-Jing). In this book, Lao Tzu writes about the ‘way of the world’, or insights into the nature of reality. He goes on to say that, when a wise person hears about the ‘way of the world’, they follow it absolutely. When a middling person hears about the ‘way of the world’, sometimes they follow it, and sometimes they don’t. And when a fool hears about ‘the way of the world’, they laugh out loud. Clearly a fool will gain little or nothing from counselling and therapy; and a middling person will lack the self-discipline to optimise the opportunities for learning from their therapist. But a wise client will learn well from a good therapist.
- The Arabic Apothegm (or saying, or maxim), which I discovered at the age of fourteen years (while rooting through a mound of second-hand books, outside a Dublin bookstore), suggests that there are four kinds of people.
5(a) The person who is ignorant, and is unaware of their ignorance: They are seen to be a fool, and the advice is to shun them. (A counsellor could [almost certainly] never help them!)
5(b) The person who is ignorant, but is aware of their ignorance. They are seen to be in need of teaching, and they may prove to be teachable.
5(c) The person who is substantially enlightened, but who is unaware of their enlightenment. They are seen to be asleep, and are potentially able to be awakened. (A therapist could do a good job here).
5(d) And finally: the person who is enlightened, and who is aware that they are enlightened. They are seen to be wise; and the advice is to follow them.
Type 5(d) individuals make good therapists. Types 5(b) and 5(c) can obviously gain from counselling and therapy. But type 5(a) is unlikely to gain anything from counselling and therapy.
Understanding the barrier
There are at least two or three ways that we can come to understand the barrier that prevents particular kinds of individuals benefiting from counselling and psychotherapy.
Firstly, from Zen Buddhism, we learn something about individual perception. There is a Zen saying to the effect that, “When a thief meets a saint, all s/he sees are pockets!” Thieves are interested in pockets, and the rest of us are driven to focus our attention on whatever our personal past taught us to focus our attention upon. For examples:
(a) A person who has a particularly difficult kind of childhood will develop what is called ‘an avoidant attachment style’. They will strive to operate in a remote and distant way with others, because of lack of trust, or fear of control, or expectation of rejection or hurt. Such an individual is highly unlikely to seek out a counsellor or therapist, and if they do, they are likely to be too remote to benefit.
(b) A person who is prone to operate from what is called ‘Critical Parent ego state’ – which is to say, a person who engages in negative judgements of other, and who tends to put others down; to play a game of ‘Top Dog- Under Dog’ with others – such a person is highly unlikely to come to counselling or psychotherapy; and if they do, they are unlikely to be able to learn well from their counsellor.
(c) A person who is arrogant and harsh, or whose mind is closed to new learning, will not be open to any inputs from a counsellor.
Secondly, a person may be ‘sent’ to counselling; or ‘dragged along’ by a parent, or couple-partner. They are not enrolled into the value of the counselling process. They are coerced to go. So they have no understanding of what is possible in the counselling process. Therefore, they cannot use the counsellor’s toolbox (or relationship support); and so they cannot benefit from being there.
Thirdly, there is a therapeutic understanding of personal change in which a person is seen to proceed through the following stages:
3(a) Pre-contemplation: The person is not thinking of changing anything about their way of being; their life; or their relationships.
3(b) Contemplation: The person is aware of some discomfort or unworkability in their way of being, or the circumstances of their life. And so they are beginning to think about the possibility of changing something. So they might be willing to read something on the subject, or to ask questions, to think about the problem and how it would be good to change it.
3(c) Preparation: The person begins to plan some kind of action, to ameliorate their problem. This could include looking for an expert to help, including the possibility of looking for a counsellor or therapist, or a coach, etc.
3(d) Action: The person begins to take action to change their unworkable situation.
3(e) Maintenance: The person makes some gains or improvements; but now they have to keep remembering what they changed to produce this improvement in their life, and to keep maintaining that, in whatever ways may be necessary. They may slip back, and then repeat the helpful change process, to move forward again.
A person at stage 3(a) may be sent to see a counsellor, but they cannot benefit, because they are not contemplating any kind of change.
Fourthly, a counsellor may try to persuade such a pre-contemplator that they could benefit from some particular kind of personal change, but that will not have as much impact as many counsellors assume. Why is this? Because:
(a) As Postman and Weingartner, two great educators, wrote many years ago: “No question, no teacher!” That is to say, if the student has no question, then there is no call for an educator. Education only occurs reliably when the student is open to instruction. (The exception to this rule is in the basic moral teaching that goes on in families and schools. We have to instruct the young in good, pro-social tendencies and behaviours, and penalise them for breaking the rules, if we are to live in a civilised society!) But in terms of broader learning goals, it is better to wait until the individual is curious before presenting any knowledge inputs. And:
(b) Postman and Weingartner’s perspective is supported by that of Marilyn Ferguson, who wrote this statement:
“No one can persuade another to change. Each of us guards a gate of change that can only be opened from the inside. We cannot open the gate of another, either by argument or emotional appeal”.
Again there are exceptions to this rule: Advertising, ideological memes which take over the mind, and political rhetoric. But what is true in Marilyn Ferguson’s statement is this: You cannot reliably open the gate of learning of a fellow adult, in a counselling or therapy context. The client has to be there because they want to be there; and they have to be open to learning something if any learning is to be achieved.
(c) Carl Rogers had a way of expressing this, which goes like this: “I know I cannot teach anything to anybody. I can only create an environment in which people can learn”.
A good counsellor, therefore, knows that s/he depends upon having a good client – a keen learner – if anything good is to come out of the counselling and therapy encounter.
Certainly, we can try to teach the client (meaning creating a favourable learning environment for them) – but if their ‘gate of change’ is locked from the inside, there is nothing we can do about that!
Postscript: I would like to thank my wonderful clients – almost 900 of them – who, over a period of almost eighteen years (as at July 2016), have come to see me; worked hard on their problems; used my toolbox of models and techniques, and my relationship skills (as a secure base); and figured out how to build a better life for themselves. Many of you have sent me testimonials*** about how well I served you, and what you gained, and how much better you now feel. What has been missing up to now is this:
I hereby publicly acknowledge that you were at least half of the solution of your own problems. Without your openness to change, there would have been nothing I could do to help you. Without your willingness to look at painful aspects of your past history, nothing would have changed. Without your courage, and you fortitude, your resilience and commitment to change, we would both have been wasting our time sitting in the same space. Thank you for making my work productive; and for making my life meaningful. Go well!
That’s all for now.
Dr Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling