At the May 2017 ‘Fells & Dales’ meeting, we welcomed a new BACP-accredited member to the group, and discussed the paper on ‘Fragile Process’ by Margaret Warner (2011?) from the Illinois School of Professional Psychology.
We began by considering what we understand ‘fragile process’ to mean, and how prevalent this is amongst our clients – whether aspects of fragile process are frequently displayed, or whether it is a specific phenomenon experienced by relatively few. It was agreed that it is closely related to early attachments and a client’s past experience of being understood (or not). The discussion focussed on what we as therapists are empathising with :- content or process? – what is actually being expressed, or what we sense might be difficult to express? – or what might be felt but for which words have not yet been found? In other words, communicating with that which is fragile. For example, we might empathise with the emotion a client appears to be suppressing, or with the client’s need to suppress it. We also asked ourselves if we give evenly suspended attention to all that a client is experiencing, and the extent to which we are necessarily selective in our responses. It was a salutary lesson to be reminded that clients might not feel properly heard by us, when we pride ourselves on being good listeners! As Margaret Warner says, ‘Clients usually need more than an accepting presence.’ They crave our accurate understanding, and the validation of their experience, to help them to see that they have a right to have it (a recurring theme of Warner’s).
One of our members was able to recount first-hand experience of meeting Margaret Warner, describing the very slow, considered pace of her talking (and presumably her way of working with clients), thereby allowing herself time and space to pay meticulously close attention to her client’s moment-by moment experiencing, and an apparent ability to empathise with all of it, and modelling the ‘non-intrusive empathic relationship’ with which she concludes the paper.
As an interesting side-issue, we wondered whether clients might detect a ‘fragile process’ in us, and whether they sense a need to protect us, or to protect themselves from us?
We concluded by reflecting on how fraught a therapist’s task is, and asking ‘Who would do it?’!
A reflection on the role of the unspoken elements of communication and on the dimensions of verbal communication beyond the literal meaning of words.
Westland, G. Considerations on Communications – both Verbal and Non-Verbal in Body Psychotherapy (2009) Movement and Dance Psychotherapy 4:2: 121- 134.
The theme of the meeting of the Fells and Dales Counsellors was based around this paper by Gill Westland that focused on verbal and non-verbal communication. Although this paper was written through the lens of a body psychotherapists we explored the relevance within our own therapeutic modalities.
This paper opened with the notion that communication and experience involves a verbal element and a non-verbal element. Both have equal value in therapy. The paper went on to reflect on language and how it is used to convey emotional communication to try to elucidate our inner world or conversely how language can serve as a defence against therapeutic contact with our inner pain and distress. There is emphasis beyond the verbal meaning of words to the ‘energy’ communicated, the pitch, the tone and the context that surrounds the verbal and that this carries meaning. Members of the group related this to Roger’s – ‘Music beneath the words’.
The paper then went on to explore how aspects of our neural systems might influence elements of our communication and how we may refer to these within therapeutic settings. Westland notes the ‘dance’ between left and right hemispheres processes that may manifest as a client moving between factual (left-brain) and what Westland considers more unconscious, inner-process (right-brain). This is also apparent between the sympathetic (arousing emotions such as rage and frustration) and parasympathetic (calming emotions such as sadness and joy) routes of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and is useful in working with what Westland terms as therapeutic presence and resonance.
The discussions that emerged through the meeting were varied.
In one thread we further explored the way in which the left and right hemispheres influence the way we perceive and interact in different relational encounters and several interesting texts were noted Ian McGillorist The Master and his Emissary (Left and Right Brain).
We pondered on whether it was possible to offer interactions with clients that may help to build more balance between left and right processes and in emotional regulation or whether this tip-toed into leading clients or presenting an agenda in our work. There was a shared sense that while we strive for those moments of resonance, we appreciate it is not always possible. Questions then surfaced around whether the duration of work (mostly with the increasing need to adopt more focused-based approaches) would impact on the ability to truly achieve resonance/presence in the way described by Westland.
This left us with the on-going question of whether we align to a client’s stated verbal goals or whether we should address emerging needs that arise on a more subtle level in therapy, that are perhaps less consciously noted by the client themselves – particularly if working to a designated time scale?