Working at relational depth in counselling

18 Jul 2018 |  for counsellors | by Bill, writer at UK & Ireland Counsellor Directory

The concept of Relational Depth is a development from Carl Rogers’ work in person-centred counselling and the core conditions of counsellor authenticity, empathic understanding and client acceptance, as some of the necessary and sufficient conditions for therapeutic change.

But where Roger's approach focussed on providing those conditions for the client, with perhaps a sense of “doing” something for them, Relational Depth emphasises the shared experience, the I-Thou encounter that the relationship embodies.

A definition

Therapists Dave Mearns and Mick Cooper, in their book "Working at Relational Depth in Counselling and Psychotherapy" explain it as follows:

"A feeling of profound contact and engagement with a client, in which one simultaneously experiences high and consistent levels of empathy and acceptance towards that Other, and relates to them in a highly transparent way. In this relationship, the client is experienced as acknowledging one’s empathy, acceptance and congruence – either implicitly or explicitly – and is experienced as fully real."

The Role of Self-Disclosure

Working at relational depth doesn’t necessarily mean disclosing more to the client about one’s personal life but it does require the therapist to have courage to be more open and honest about their experience of the relationship, and its effect on them personally, than they might be otherwise.

Some characteristics:

  • A strong sense of therapist acceptance, empathic understanding, and congruence;
  • A letting-go by the therapist of goals and techniques - maintaining an awareness of their aims and goals, but not focussed on furthering them in the moment;
  • A focus on the client in the here and now;
  • The therapist's openness to admitting how they are affected by the client and by the relationship;
  • The therapist's willingness to explore the relationship and to share how it affects them

The reality in the counselling room

As a therapist, there can be a risk of getting caught up in concerns over whether one is "in"or "out" of this way or working, or to feel inadequate in comparison with the more profound examples of this state in the literature.

But in practice it's usually more practical to think of it from moment-to-moment as a way of being-in-relationship that may be less or more present, and to keep in mind that it's something that can only be co-created with the client. One can only create the conditions in which it might arise, and trust to providence.

Working this way can be daunting for practitioners, as it means entering more fully into the relationship, but therapists who do so tend to report that the therapeutic work feels more powerful.

Hiding behind the role

The reverse situation is the temptation is to hide behind the "therapist" façade, some reasons for which might be: fear of the client’s negative feelings towards them; defensiveness in relation to client criticism; concerns around being boundaried (although sometimes those can be rationalisations of other fears); tiredness; and the therapist being troubled by issues in their own life which may be colouring their feelings in the moment.

Some ways of working with the relationship

For therapists who adopt a relational approach as their theoretical model, often the relationship is the therapy, and this can be an overarching principle, into which diverse theoretical aspects and approaches can be subsumed.

Examples of approaches that involve a focus on the client-counsellor relationship are:

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