What is Relational Depth
Have you ever been in a room surrounded by people, yet within the same moment felt completely alone? If you have, it could be argued that you are surrounded by people you haven’t experienced any relational depth with yet as “The pain of loneliness is much less to do with physical absence of others and much more to do with a lack of genuine human contact.” – (Mearns and Cooper, 2005, P.19). Relational Depth is a term created by Dave Mearns and it is symbolic of “A state of profound contact and engagement between two people in which each person is fully real with the other, and able to understand and value the others experiences at a high level.” - (Mearns and Cooper, 2005, P.xii). It has been theorised in the past that human beings are individuals with individualistic ways of being, yet over the past century many philosophers and psychologists have argued that this assumption is incorrect. Instead suggesting that “we are fundamentally and inexplicably intertwined with others and that our being is first and foremost a 'being-in-relation'.” – (Mearns and Cooper, 2005, P.5). Which certainly reflects the author of this essay’s experience. Put me in a room with a crowd of friends, enemies, family, racists or pacifists and different configurations of self will be utilized depending on how I relate to those around me, plus other directing factors, such as previous experiences, state of mind and emotional sense of being. So it would be fair to suggest that I define myself as a human being in relation to the otherness I perceive surrounding me, blended with the otherness swirling around within. For example I wouldn’t wear my heart on my sleeve if I was surrounded by authoritarian, right wing type people, yet I would wear my heart on my sleeve around those of a more left wing, pacifist type nature. This is most probably manifested in this manner as a way to ensure survival; the primal role of the actualising tendency. So it could be argued we form closer connections with those who we can relate to in an authentic manner. When my truth is related to your truth I will naturally begin to feel closer to you, feeling safer to present my authenticity to you. So it is arguable that if a counsellor and client are able to relate to each other authentically, then an encounter of relational depth is more likely to be met. It is argued that it is at these meetings of relational depth that therapeutic change can be inspired. “To a great extent, founders of existential therapy movement, such as Rollo May, Medard Boss and R.D Laing were among the first practitioners to suggest that a genuine meeting between therapist and client lay at the heart of a truly healing relationship.” – (Mearns and Coop, 2005, P.14). So the concept of relational depth currently holds a prestige place when it comes to the development of therapeutic practice. Yet it is incredibly hard to objectify because ultimately relational depth is a completely subjective experience. “How does one describe for instance those moments of connection and intimacy with a client when each person's words seem to flow from the others and all sense of self-consciousness is lost? Such an encounter can feel beyond language, and to put words on to the moment can feel like cheapening the depth and profundity of the experience.” (Mearns and Cooper, 2005, P.xi). It has been suggested that relational depth from a therapist’s perspective is experienced as “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 relate 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 congruent in that moment.” – (Mearns and Cooper, 2005, P.36). Within this writing we will explore how relational depth can be created and what could possibly become a block to this process. I will also briefly reflect on my development as a counsellor.
I have no professional experience, as of yet, to reflect upon when trying to help facilitate a co-created meeting of relational depth. “An encounter at relational depth is not something that a therapist can create, or experience alone.” – (Mearns and Cooper, 2005, P.37). Yet I have worked with my peers which is where I will draw my inspiration from. In my experience I have noticed several things that could help facilitate a meeting at depth. When process Identification has been used on me I notice I automatically start sharing my process from a deeper more authentic level. It’s like my train of thought has tunnel vision and the noticing of my more subtle processes lifts the tunnel from around me and I enter a full-bodied clear and open landscape of my inner world. I have noticed time to seem to fly by almost instantaneously when I am in this sort of deep process, which is facilitated by my connection with the counsellor. “For instance, one of the therapists likened the experience of relational depth to being in a stupor, another talked about feeling physically lighter, and two talked about changes in their perception of time, for instance 20 or 30 minutes seeming to pass instantaneously.” – (Mearns and Cooper, 2005, P.41). This suggests the deep process and connection is also sensed by the counsellor, yet there is no way of really knowing that and I do wonder if it is a simultaneous and equally as powerful for both individuals when meeting at depth? “Ultimately, an encounter at relational depth is not one that can be neatly partitioned into the experiences of the therapist and the experiences of the client. There is an interpenetration, a complex gestalt of interweaving experiences and perceptions that make it impossible to entirely disentangle who feels what towards whom.” – (Mearns and Cooper, 2005, P.46). I know when I was counselling one of my peers and we encountered at depth I was left changed by the encounter. I had used self-resonance as a bridge to meet her, she was sharing content about her child with special needs, and with my own experience of caring for a child with special needs I had access to relatable material. The client was searching for a word to symbolise her child’s professional care givers and I offered the word bastards. It seemed to symbolise her meaning and our connection became more authentic and real. I lost all sense of time again, and after that encounter my attitudes to my own child with special needs altered slightly, inspiring some new behaviours. “Hence, there is no guarantee that the therapist who encounters a client at level of relational depth will be exactly the same person as she was when going into the encounter.” – (Mearns and Cooper, 2005, P.42). To keep with the same example, during my encounter of depth with said person I found myself actively and consciously prizing them. I think this was inspired by the personal resonance I was experiencing, intertwined with a mixture of empathic and self-resonance I imagine. Either way I felt like this prizing was having a positive, encouraging impact on my client. “What we want to empathize here is that, at the start of relational depth the therapist is actively 'prizing' (Rogers 1957) the client (Rogers favourite term for unconditional positive regard): it is far more than simply refraining from judgement or holding an attitude of 'however you are is all right by me'.” – (Mearns and Cooper, 2005, P.43). I think resonance can be a very powerful influence on the possibility of developing relational depth. Self-resonance can be seen as a bridge to meet a client, to take one’s own experience and offer it to the client in relation to their experience, to help strengthen and maybe deepen the connection. Empathic resonance is a good resource for checking one’s understanding of a client’s offered experience. Possibly helping them to feel heard and understood, loosening up some of those well used defence mechanisms that we can have in place to defend ourselves from the vulnerability deep process can provide. Then personal resonance, how we feel in relation to our client can help develop a real solid and dependable otherness for the client to work with. “Meeting at relational depth is not achieved by being incongruently nice to the client but by being real with him and continuing to work with the difference.” – (Mearns and Cooper, 2005, P.126). Self-Resonance is my world, empathic resonance is their world and personal resonance is our world. – (Mearns et al, 2013). So resonance and process identification can be helpful things to communicate if we hope to facilitate a deep encounter. Process direction is pretty much a direct invitation for deeper process, yet some clients may find it slightly confronting, which could have an opposite effect. There isn’t a map or a certain list of questions that could guarantee a relationally deep meeting. The road towards a meeting at depth is a lot more complex and complicated than following the well-treaded path, there are often times leaps of faith are required. Each relationship is symbolic of being on a different terrain with a different weather system whilst being equipped with different tools, especially when the concept of phenomenology is taken into account. Some terrains we’ll be able to navigate beautifully and meet the other at depth with almost an ease. Other terrains we might get a bit lost, take a few wrong turns, fall over and develop a few cuts and bruises, yet still eventually be able to meet the other at depth. Some terrains we might not be able to manage and that’s ok, as long as we try to maintain an awareness of what we are and are not capable of navigating. Different counsellors and therapists master different terrains, weather systems and acquire different tools. Working together they try to explore these terrains and create maps and beaten pathways for others to follow and explore alongside. It is an ongoing process of professional development where relational depth has just crossed the horizon. It should almost go without saying that it’s the core conditions that enable a counsellor to search another’s terrain, without them it’s easy to imagine relational depth to be an impossibility.
I have a fairly good understanding of the sort of conditions I can hope to provide and the gentle noticing’s I can offer my future clients that could possibly invite a relational deep encounter. Yet I am aware of potential blocks to this immediacy and openness as well. The initial thought that comes to mind is cognitive function, any moment I am aware of my ego I will not be alongside my client. Also external distractions can break the psychological contact required to meet at relational depth.
As with the participants in the gala and Greenberg 2002 study of the therapist that we spoke to said that to prepare the ground for a relationally deep in counter it was important that they try to clear their minds from distractions. These distractions could be of an external nature: sounds from The street, a glimpse of people walking past the window, noises from an adjacent room; or they could be of an internal nature, for instance thoughts about what one is going to have for dinner or whether one will make one's train. – (Mearns and Cooper, 2005, P.127)
It is important to try and stay present and with the client to welcome relational depth. Immediacy, openness and authenticity are best communicated organically from the heart, rather than mechanically from the mind. I generally feel like I’m really good at staying present and alongside my clients, at times when cognitive function becomes a distraction, I will rub my thumb and finger together to try and anchor my present moment awareness. I’m aware of a block to this immediacy though. I have fairly deep, painful, unresolved issues with many members of my family. The problem with this is the self-resonance I could experience when clients are speaking about their families could become quite a distraction, a barrier or block to encountering my client in a completely neutral manner, especially if it is content revolving around mothers. This is a concern because I feel if I don’t hold this concern in my conscious awareness it could become a hidden driver possibly subtly influencing me to work from an agenda, and this can also become a block to relational depth. “One of the things that often gets in the way of a relationally deep encounter is the desire to do something to our clients; for if our attention is orientated towards the outcomes of our work, then it will not be on the client and his experiences.” – (Mearns and Cooper, 2005, P.114). I am currently working on these issues myself through therapy. These aren’t the only blocks I can imagine though, I could feel out of my depth with a client, threatened by a client, angry with a client, there are many scenarios that could become a block to encountering at relational depth. As I encounter these blocks I will ultimately encounter an opportunity to grow and develop.
My development as a counsellor has been subtle but quite far ranging. I have gone from wanting to advise and offer solutions to clients, from back in my level 1 days. To understanding providing the core conditions can be considered necessary and sufficient in facilitating therapeutic change. I am aware of felt-senses and the theory of focusing. I initially had difficulties with process identification, yet have got more comfortable with it recently. I have only just felt comfortable with experimenting with process direction. I am comfortable with my understanding of relational depth and can see how the classical approach to person-centred counselling could be an initial welcoming step to developing a relationship of such depth reaching capabilities. Yet I feel process identification and other methods could enhance the therapeutic relationship. I feel in very small amounts, bringing myself and what I can perceive in relation to my client could help facilitate a relational deep encounter. “A meeting at relational depth requires the therapist to be the unique, genuine human being that they are: a solid and grounded 'Otherness' with which the client can interact.” – (Mearns and Cooper, 2005, P.39). I have learnt that the core conditions are a necessity for therapy in my mind, yet they can be enhanced through gentle noticing’s and by being as authentic as possible. If the environment is right and the client is open for the encounter, then I shall relate as deeply and as authentically as possible and through that we should hopefully have a relational deep encounter. Yet this may not always be possible, at times I may miss my client but as long as I always keep the core conditions at the forefront of my practice my hope is it won’t be to detrimental to the therapeutic relationship.
Relational depth is a completely subjective experience so it’s incredibly hard to objectify. For instance what I could consider a fairly shallow encounter, could actually be experienced as an encounter of depth by the other individual. It’s important to be aware of this because in my experience of deep encounters is that there runs the risk of feeling rejuvenated and revitalized, or vulnerable and exposed, depending on the message received from the deep offering. The deeper one is in process the more careful one must tread, the only way one can tread careful in these moments is to be fully aware of them by being attuned to the client’s full sense of being.
In this mode of embodied attunement the therapist is not resonating with specific thoughts, emotions or bodily sensations, but with the complex gestalt-like mosaic of her client's embodied being, that initial primal thrust of the client's experiencing as it emerges into the world. At this level the whole of the therapist's body is a live in the interaction, moving and vibrating in tandem with the clients experiencing. She experiences an all over unity and a most basic sense of being there in the world with another. – (Mearns and Cooper, 2005, P.40)
This seems to be the optimum state of consciousness to be in when it comes to trying to develop relational depth with another, to be completely attuned to their sense of being, yet it could also feel quite invading with certain clients. Relational depth is argued to be incredibly powerful, and like all things with power, there comes risk. As I develop professionally I intend to rely on my empathy to inform me how to work with my future clients. I feel able to meet others at a deep level and share my sense of self underneath my presentational self. I am happy to show clients my truth, yet I am also happy to put my truth to one side so they feel free to express theirs. As long as the client is willing, I feel confident in my ability to help facilitate a meeting at relational depth.
Mearns, D. Cooper, M. (2005). Working at relational depth in Counselling and Psychotherapy. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Mearns, D. Thorne, B. Mcleod, J. (2013). Person-Centred Counselling in Action. 4th ed. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.