Thoughts on how all co-counsellors can work together

S. Lochrie, Thoughts on how all co-counsellors can work together, Good&New, no. Autumn issue, p. 1 page, 2008.

In light of recent dialogues on diversity in co-counselling networks, I have been asking myself:   How can I continue my wonderful co-counselling international journey  without fear of being thought of as “not quite doing it right“?  How can new co-counsellors and co-counsellors from all over the world continue to flourish and work together in sessions and in groups, while celebrating our many differences as people and co-counsellors?  I discovered the  article on the management of catharsis by John Heron which captures some of my thoughts, especially in the way he stresses the importance of “self-direction”.  (see next page) 

I have no difficulty in remembering how challenging everything about co-counselling was for me as a novice and  I am  grateful  for the support  I received in my struggle through  clumsiness and turmoil.  But then I came to realise that I was actually in charge of my session and learning to manage my emotions!  This was a hugely empowering event in my life and I still feel empowered fourteen years later by the concept of “self-direction“.    I am therefore able to be very specific about what I  am looking for as client and often ask for “free attention“ or “normal contract with minimal intervention if I get stuck”.  I note that this is in line with John Heron‘s description of the “normal contract“.

It seems to me that “normal contract” is taking on a broader meaning, with more interventions being offered than an occasional suggestion if the client is shut down and  counsellor skills being advocated as important and desirable, to the detriment of “self-direction“.   This ambiguity about what is meant by “normal contract” could be leading to mixed expectations and is a topic that I think could benefit from wider discussion and more clarity.   In the meantime I can  be clear and specific in asking for what level of intervention I would like, let unhelpful suggestions fly over my shoulder, and remember that I can ask for “free attention” at any time.

I do not infer from John Heron’s article that it is obligatory for the client to move through from “self-direction” to “needing additional intervention from outside”.  I hope this would be very much the personal preference of the client.    Similarly I hope it is not deemed obligatory for us all to become skilled at using specific intensive contracts as counsellor.  I would be very disappointed to discover that  CCI co-counselling had turned out after all to be a  hierarchy of co-counselling skills achievement and I would find that very disempowering.

How can we encourage new co-counsellors to continue in the network, with the diversity of approaches we know to be in existence?     One thing we can do is remember what it was like to be a novice and to be magnanimous  about the  surprises and maybe mistakes that come our way, inside or outside sessions.   And we can endeavour to be similarly open-minded and creative when these surprises emerge in our interactions with more experienced co-counsellors!  

For myself, if  I am taken aback by something said or done in a co-counselling session,  I can remind myself that the client is in charge and try to regain my balance of attention.  This will give me space to be curious, and to decide what to do or say without judging or putting down the other person.  I am now thinking about how I could deal with such an incident afterwards so that I can learn from the experience.

I think “client in charge”  and  “free attention”  (on its own or with minimal intervention ) support the  new co-counsellor to focus on becoming familiar with the client role, and thereby become steadily more at ease in the counsellor role.  I am glad John Heron seems to support this idea.   In this way new co-counsellors can feel confident in having sessions with a variety of people and  I think the same  basic ingredients  make it  possible for all co-counsellors to have sessions together, regardless of their background.   

Is it possible that we can keep it this simple?    If we can  enjoy being in charge as client, receiving that magical free attention, enjoy giving wonderful supportive free attention as counsellor, and at appropriate times be creative and specific in getting all our other co-counselling needs met, then surely we have a strong base to work from.  

I look forward to hearing your views!

Sheila Lochrie  -  September 2008

The Management of catharsis (extract)*

Two-way self-direction.
Two trained co-counsellors work on a reciprocal basis, each taking a turn as both counsellor and client.  The client is fundamentally self-directed applying cathartic techniques to herself, with the sustained, supportive aware attention of the counsellor.   Technical competence is in the hands of the client and applied by the client to herself.   This is the “free attention” or “attention only” contract in co-counselling.

It may be modified by a contract which invites the counsellor to make suggestions only when the client has lost her way, has shut down, is blocking:  but it is still the client’s privilege to reject these suggestions if she judges that they are inappropriate.  This is an “occasional intervention” or “normal” contract.

These two contracts constitute permissive co-counselling:  permissive in the sense that the client has freedom and space to learn how to make the techniques effective on herself.  It is essential in the start of co-counselling:  it breaks up dependency and creates a relation of interdependence between co-counsellors in which the creative skill of the client in working on herself is paramount.  It enables a person, qua self-directing client, to acquire a high degree of emotional competence, to take charge of and become self-reliant in the discharge of her distress emotions.   Skill in self-directed cathartic release needs to be well established before frequent non-permissive co-counselling is developed.

Two-way direction by each other.  
Two trained people work on a reciprocal basis and take it in turns to direct and facilitate the discharge process in each other.  This is equivalent to non-permissive counselling, the “intensive contract” in co-counselling.   This is particularly valuable at a later stage for trained co-counsellors when the client’s deep-seated systematic evasions and defences are to be interrupted and broached.   The counsellor supportively but persistently encourages the client to “hold a direction” against chronic distress, where the client tends to ease away from it, and avoid it.

Permissive co-counselling, in which persons are building up their skills as self-directing clients, may after a period lead over into non-permissive co-counselling.  The self-directing client can be effective in dissolving a wide rage of distorted behaviours through the discharge process, yet may thereby come to see chronic distortions that need additional intervention from outside - from a very sharp, insightful, persistent but supportive counsellor.

*Extracted from “Catharsis in Human Development“.  Chapter 3: Catharsis in Human Interaction.   A.  The Management of Catharsis.  John Heron, 1977, revised 1998.

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