The Within, and the Between

The Art of Relationship Counselling

In all counselling the key element is the quality of the relationship that is formed between client(s) and counsellor.

In my lifetime the art of counselling has grown to become a major profession. As with all growing movements there is a lively debate in place concerning the nature of this work and the theories that support it. As a counsellor of over thirty years experience I have moved with and/or resisted many of the trends as they have emerged with their varying emphasises between behaviour and feeling, individual and family, language and psyche, mind and body, science and spirit. Through this journey my own emerging model has been slowly forming. As with all models, this can only be provisional and always open to change. It remains paramount that counselling be recognised as a craft in which the counsellor is a skilful artisan using the self in relationship to create opportunities for change in the life of clients. The counsellor's tools are the self and the ability to use that self in forming creative relationships. Theory, research and skill are all components of this, but only as they impact and shape the developing person of the counsellor.

From a distance counselling may be viewed as a mysterious respectful process of interaction between people that seems to have the potential to heal, cure and bring change. From a closer perspective it may be defined as a skilfully directed process of interaction, usually conversation, in which, through the establishment of a relationship, a counsellor and client(s) explore together the client's experience with the goal of creating more effective ways for the client(s) to activate personal and relational resources to overcome specific problems and establish greater competence for life.

When we let our attention move beyond the physical presence of a couple we notice that there is a complex interplay of communication at many levels between the two individuals [the between]. At the same moment we may wonder about the internal dynamics within each individual [the within].

Workers in the relationship-counselling field often find themselves, like spectators at a tennis tournament, moving back and forth between these two orientations deciding where, at each moment, to fix their attention.

Some emphasise the between, the interactions between these two individuals. They make use of systems and communication theories to attempt to understand the couple relationship as a functioning unit.

Others emphasise the within, the intrapsychic factors influencing the behaviour of each individual. These place their emphasis upon the internal effect of past experiences, and the meanings ascribed to them by each person.

While in theory it may appear possible to isolate these two, in practice the relationship counsellor is working with both at every intervention. These two worlds, the inner world of the individual and the outer world of the relationship dynamics, combine to form the purposeful unit that we call the couple relationship.

The counsellor is also a person who is struggling with aspects of her own inner life and maintaining fulfilling relationships. To be able to maintain an appropriate therapeutic stance that allows genuine contact with each individual and the couple, the counsellor needs a high level of self and other awareness to develop the ability to respond to both "the within" and "the between" and remain aware of three levels of human relationships;

• The relationship with each individual
• The couple relationship
• Triadic or three person relationship

In counselling the counsellor is the third person intervening in a marital situation that could involve a child; an in law; an extra marital affair; a good job or hobby as the other third party.

The skilful therapist will be able to move freely between, and maintain therapeutic contact at, each of these levels. If either one of the marital partners feels that the counsellor is not in touch with their particular individual need then couple intervention will probably fail. Counselling skills and theory need to be developed in the areas of individual, couple, and family therapy as well as constant maintenance of self-awareness in relationship.

In the early stages of a counselling relationship the counsellor will need to make good use of individual based skills to create and maintain rapport and trust with each of the partners. These skills can be easily modified to function effectively with one person in the presence of the other. In each interview the counsellor will be rapidly moving back and forward between individual and couple focus.

Because counselling is based on the building of a creative relationship, the "self" of the counsellor is a key factor in the formation of a therapeutic alliance. An effective counsellor is in harmonious relationship within his/her own self. This does not mean he/she is without problems. On the contrary, some of my best work with clients has been done when I have been in some personal chaos. It means that the counsellor is able to live his/her relational life in a way that allows for the important qualities of "self - other awareness" and self differentiation.

A counsellor's capacity for the "self - other awareness" necessary for empathic connection provides the client(s) with a real sense of "presence". When a client perceives that the counsellor is truly with them, sharing deeply in their experience of experience, the client begins to feel safe. This empathic ability on the counsellor's part says to the client, "I am with you and for you in this moment of meeting. You and your life, your concerns, and your desires for yourself are the focus of my non invasive caring attention."


Alongside the ability to form an aware relationship the counsellor must also be able to 'self differentiate'. Self differentiation allows for the counsellor to enter deeply into relationship (therapeutic alliance) with the client while maintaining a clearly differentiated sense of self. Objectivity in any human relationship is a myth. In the intensity of a counselling relationship the task is not to be objectively present as this is impossible. The task is to be 'self' in relationship with this 'other', to share in the creation of a mutually shared arena, 'between', that has a healing life beyond each individual. Self-differentiation requires the counsellor to continue working on his/her own growth as well as be committed to ongoing clinical supervision in maintaining the self as a whole person in relation to others. This minimises the likelihood of the counsellor becoming lost in the client's reality or subsuming the client's reality into his/her own.

Helping profession interventions can be seen as being on a continuum between "Doing To" and "Being With". "Doing to" interventions, such as certain types of medical intervention, Chiropractic or massage, apply a process to the patient or client to bring about a result determined by the professional. "Being with" interventions seek to create an environment of presence within which the client is invited to allow his/her own process to arise and be followed to conclusion. The "being with" end of the continuum supports the client as responsible for, and having the resources within the relational environment to find, her/his own unique way. The counsellor's task in "being with" is to provide the security of an empathic focussed relationship with carefully selected interventions, brought forth in collaboration with the client, that assist the client to explore, become aware and facilitate his/her own change process. It is recognised that in any helping relationship there will be components of both approaches. The art of effective counselling requires an ability to bring "doing to" interventions into the counselling process within a "being with" frame. This is achieved by the collaborative nature of the counselling. The "being with" counsellor always informs the client of the counsellor's awareness and of the possible options for interventions that arise for the counsellor in the moment by moment process. The client in having the freedom to select and reject from a number of options is always in charge, consequently the occasional "doing to" happens in a "being with" way. I have found that being with focus is an effective person centred approach to counselling, and the most likely to engender lasting client change.

Counselling arises out of a compassionate response to human suffering . While the academic tendency is to objectify and analyse the client as an object of scientific intervention, counselling is in fact a disciplined exercise in compassion aimed to assist clients deal with the pain of human suffering. Acknowledging this fact challenges the academic assumption that the counsellor can be a professional persona without being personally touched by the relationship with a client. The counselling relationship always has the three components elucidated by Gelso and Carter, The Transference Relationship, The Therapeutic Relationship and the Real Relationship. The "Real Relationship" obviously has an intersubjective effect upon the life, person and relational world of the counsellor. Counsellors need to acknowledge and constantly give attention to themselves as also suffering human beings that are themselves in need of support and appropriate clinical supervision.



Posted on 02 August 2005 in - Library - Therapy

Doug Sotheren


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