Opening channels #18 The Walk

the-walk

 

The Walk

I’m wondering if other counsellors have a similar difficulty?

If you, like me, meet clients in a waiting area then walk together to your counselling room, what do you talk about? I have tried all of the usual topics – travelling and the idiosyncrasies of public transport, questions about the quality of directions and ease of location and, of course, The Weather, as the mainstay of all British small-talk. At one agency, ours is quite a long journey through a public area then up the stairs and, as there is no space to walk side by side, I find myself shouting over my shoulder. These small conversations are essential to client care I believe – Desmond Morris (2002) calls these ‘grooming signals’– smiles, eye contact, small elbow touches, questions about travel and the weather – which show the other that we are caring for her/him. I know from personal experience that, when I am nervous or anxious, these small conversations can really help me relax so I try to use The Walk as a precursor to the counselling session.

My difficulty is during The Walk back. After the session, despite our work to negotiate an ending that suits the client, she or he is, at best, thoughtful or contemplative and at worst, sad, tearful, embarrassed, angry, uncomfortable. We know that much of the change work done in counselling frequently happens towards the end of the session with the familiar ‘door-step comment’ and more is done after the session on the journey home when the client begins to process her new understanding or senses around the issues she brought to counselling. With this in mind, The Walk takes on new significance and I wonder what works best. Do we chat again or stay quiet?  In the interests of balance, do I resume the small talk that I started with on meeting?  Walking in silence obviously allows the client some quiet time and enables her to start or possibly continue processing. It also allows me a pause to get ready for the next client. Does the client need the fuzz of the small conversations to detract from where she is at the moment? I wonder if it is better to allow the client to walk out alone and whether she needs me to see her to the door.

Separating after the counselling encounter feels difficult. I understand cognitively that we are alone in our experience of the world and that the counselling relationship allows me only a small glimpse into the experience of the other. There is an intimacy though in witnessing another human’s innermost thoughts, hopes and fears and it feels cold to step away from that abruptly at the end of the hour. I am aware however, that the client remains alone with her experience and will continue to exist even after I have stopped witnessing. I cannot be there for every moment and this is why I must stick with my boundaries and take care with time to make sure that the client returns to her aloneness with a comfortable sense of ‘ending’. My challenge is for me to accept the comfortable sense of ending.

Any counsellors/therapists out there with any advice? How do you do The Walk?

 

Reference:

Morris, D. (2002) Peoplewatching. London, UK: Vintage

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Opening channels #15

warhol-wait

I’m sure this is painfully familiar to every counsellor and therapist – the client that doesn’t arrive.  I’ve made a number of appointments for clients; I’ve spoken to them over the phone, checked that the date and time works for them, given them a number to cancel the appointment then sat and waited for them in the Centre, only for them not to show.  There are a myriad of reasons for clients not attending – the women I am working with have numerous challenges to their time management and organisation.  Some are fleeing abusive partners and are vulnerably housed – often sofa surfing with friends or family.  Most have children and often cancel our appointment because of childcare falling through or because a child’s appointment at school or the doctors takes precedent.  Some women are still with their partners and make the appointment with full will to attend but find themselves locked in the house or fearful of explaining where they are planning to go.

I sit and wait (we have a 15 minute rule at the Centre) then I try to phone, if it’s safe to do so and usually leave a voicemail asking if the client wants to rearrange. It is a rare treat if the client rings back.  I get what’s going on and I empathise with each woman’s difficulties in attending and I have tried to use the waiting time to check out my frustration and test how patient I have to be.  I’m not good at waiting – I have a real horror of being late and I’m frequently irritated by people who have a more relaxed idea of punctuality.  I have to consciously convince myself that the client will have a reason.  So during those long fifteen minutes, I find myself wondering what the client might be like – tall or short? Hair and skin colour? Sad or angry? What she might bring to the session.  Then I wonder how I can start the session – contracting and business-like or friendly and informal?  Should I ask straight away for permission to tape the sessions?  Shake hands or just smile and say hello?  Those fifteen minutes are full of possibilities and uncertainties and I feel the butterflies.  As sixteen minutes pass by I feel the cold certainty of a ‘Did Not Attend’ creep in but I ignore it, thinking about town centre traffic and missed buses.  By twenty minutes, it’s all over and I’m acknowledging my frustration as I’m firing up the computer to record DNA in the notes.

Waiting is work for me but counselling is harder work for the client.  I know that not everyone is ready for that work – facing the reality of choices and consequences, the uncertainty of change and progress, spilling your darkest thoughts in front of another person.  It is my work to wait – those testing fifteen minutes are practice for the waiting I’m obliged to do in the  counselling room while the client is trying out her possibilities and uncertainties.   This placement is pushing me to become patient and work at another person’s time frame instead of mine.