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Apr 2016 by PCI College

Bite-Sized Book Review: Working at Relationship Depth in Counselling and Psychotherapy

Andrew McLellan PCI College Lecturer Reviews " Working at relationship Depth in Counselling and Psychotherapy" by Dave Mearns and Mick Cooper

“It’s the relationship that heals” is a frequently repeated maxim within the field of counselling and psychotherapy. But what does this really mean? What kind of relationship are we talking about? And what can help us as therapists - in training, in supervision, throughout our working lives - to become the kind of people who are able to offer such a relationship to our clients? These are the essential questions addressed by Dave Mearns and Mick Cooper in their book Working at Relational Depth in Counselling and Psychotherapy, reviewed this month by PCI College Lecturer Andrew McLellan.

Although written by leading practitioner-researchers from the person centred (Mearns) and existential (Cooper) schools, this little book will inspire trainees (and their trainers and supervisors) as well as experienced, open-minded practitioners of all theoretical orientations who have grasped the fundamentally relational nature of therapeutic healing. Indeed the authors highlight how the central focus on relational depth is a major point of convergence among advocates of the growing ‘relational’ branches of all the major schools (including Gestalt, psychodynamic, and so on), who strive to reach “the parts that other therapies do not reach” (p.51).

In the words of a documentary filmmaker quoted here: “we humans are… desperate to really meet each other and s*** scared of doing that” (p.152). Mearns and Cooper argue passionately that relational depth must be the central focus of therapy “because relationship is fundamental to the existence of the human being – we are governed and defined by relationship. Even the person who appears pathologically to reject relationship… [is so governed by it that he] feels the need to protect himself from it” (p.160).

Defining relational depth as “a state of profound contact and engagement between two people, in which each person is fully real with the Other, and able to understand and value the Other’s experiences at a high level” (p.xii), the authors bring this somewhat dry definition vividly and richly to life in the 164 pages of this often provocative work, into which they somehow cram cogent argument and key insight from decades of empirical research and therapeutic practice.

The first two chapters offer an impressively concise and useful summary of developments in both one-person (self-relating) and two-person (relating to others) psychology, assessing the insights of Carl Rogers, Martin Buber, Margaret Mahler, Donald Winnicott, Colwyn Trevarthen and Daniel Stern, among others. The authors also consider the relational aspects of common presenting issues, such as depression, anxiety, loneliness, and even psychosis, as well as the obvious ones like interpersonal conflict, although their fundamental approach is to “‘people’ and ‘processes’… [not] ‘problems’ and ‘treatments’” (p.160).

Theory is illustrated throughout in short clinical vignettes, as well as in two chapters dedicated to longer case studies of work by one of the ‘gurus’ of person centred practice, Dave Mearns. These accounts of therapy with “a ‘partial’ drunk” (p.71) and a severely traumatised soldier are, by turns, honest, humble, challenging, shocking and profoundly moving.

Throughout the book, the authors interrogate Rogers’ (1957) concept of ‘congruence’, which is often poorly understood or avoided - by trainees and experienced practitioners alike - in favour of the ‘softer’ conditions of empathy and acceptance. They question what it really means for a therapist to take the risk of being fully ‘real’ with clients - indeed this book could almost be subtitled ‘adventures in congruence’.

Their inspiring conclusion is that such therapists: “… in reaching out [to clients…] are not deterred by fear – of the other; of how they are seen; of ‘getting it wrong’; of losing themselves. They are utterly committed to congruence – to be transparent as well as self-aware – to show the Other what is going on in the therapist; why they are trying; and the feelings they are experiencing in the act of trying” (p.136).

Andrew McLellan MIACP,
BSc (Hons.) Counselling & Psychotherapy,
P.G. Cert Gestalt Psychotherapy.

Andrew McLellan MIACP is a part-time lecturer with PCI College and a humanistic psychotherapist with a busy private practice in the Harold’s Cross and Rathgar area of Dublin.

Rogers, C.R. (1957). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 21(2): 95-103.

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