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?’!