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Uncommon Ideas for Therapists

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Influence in therapy and counselling

(or why the non-directive approach is non-sense)

“I had counselling but the counsellor just sat there occasionally nodding their head! I felt frustrated.”

“I wanted my therapist to give me some advice or at least some ideas but they wanted me to do all the talking!”

“I’ve had two years of counselling and now I think I know why I have panic attacks but I’ve still got the panic attacks!”

What’s is going on with psychotherapy? Why do some counsellors ‘just sit there’ without offering ideas or opinions?

In my own practice, about one in ten clients makes reference to a previous counsellor or therapist who has listened to them without making any suggestions or giving direction – which is usually why they end up coming to see me! Those in distress need direction –that is why they go into therapy. So how did this approach to counselling develop?

Person centered counselling and people as ‘flowers’

In 1928 a book called ‘The Child Centered School’ was published. This book was to determine US (and to some extent British) education for many years to come.

‘The Child Centered School’ borrowed many ideas from 19th century German and Swiss philosophers such as Fredrick Froebel who believed that children are like flowers in a garden (Kindergarten literally means ‘a garden whose flowers are children’).

Froebel felt that children, when given a ‘non-threatening’ environment would develop their potential through an automatic ‘self actualizing’ principle. Self actualization is an abstract term meaning the process of establishing oneself as a whole person able to develop one's abilities and to understand oneself.

Left to grow

Self actualization, he believed, could only occur if the child was left to develop in its own way. Too much discipline, direction and laying down of boundaries would impede this process. Nature should be allowed take its course and the ‘flowers’ left to grow unrestrained. (You can imagine what would happen if this approach were taken in a real garden!)

The self esteem industry ran apace with ideas of child centered education. It was thought to be potentially damaging to limit children’s ‘free expression’, to set boundaries on behaviour and to deliver punishment.

Rates of childhood depression, suicide and school criminality have soared since the 1920’s. Rates of educational attainment have dropped. Maybe flowers need skilled gardeners after all! Gardeners need to make judgment calls, set limits and when required, apply fertilizer!

Therapy clients as flowers

In the 1950’s, Carl Rogers borrowed principles from child centered education and applied them to psychotherapy. His idea was that if you truly listen to somebody with a problem by feeding back or ‘reflecting’ what they are saying then they have the opportunity, given enough time, to ‘self actualise’

On no account could the therapist influence the client. Any expression of opinion or hint of direction from the therapist was forbidden as far as client centered therapy was concerned. The therapist was to be a blank screen.

Certainly listening to someone in a safe environment is an essential part of therapy. However it is just a part. People who are depressed, anxious, angry etc need to learn skills to stop their suffering. Listening is important initially but people generally seek therapy because they do want to be influenced by someone in ways that help.

Just listening and reflecting back to a depressed client may deepen the depression. This is why person-centered counselling is contraindicated for treating depression (1)

Non-influence impossible

Is it even possible not to influence others? Michael Yapko, a leading researcher into the treatment of depression said: ‘It is not a question of whether a practioner influences a client but how they influence a client. They will influence them merely by being in the same room.’

Charisma and influence

Charisma is a measure of how expressive and emotionally infections we are. A charismatic person is likely to make you feel the same way as them. They lead the emotional atmosphere. High charismatics tend of course to be more expressive (often conveyed non-verbally through micro facial expressions). They have ‘something about them.’ A low charismatic’s mood is less ‘infectious’.

Contagious emotion

Emotion is contagious (2). If I smile at you, even a micro smile lasting no more than several milliseconds will influence you.

I may not be conscious of that smile. You may not be conscious I have smiled. However the emotion is still passed from me to you outside both of our conscious awareness.

Emotional ‘senders’

You may have noticed that certain people are accomplished at expressing emotions and opinions. Often, these people are more emotionally contagious than the rest of us.

Psychologists call these people ‘senders.’ Malcolm Gladwell in his revealing book ‘The Tipping Point’ writes about senders:

‘They are physiologically different. Scientists who have studied faces for example, report that there are huge differences among people in the location of facial muscles, in their form and even in their prevalence. It is a situation not unlike medicine. There are carriers; people who are very expressive and there are people who are especially susceptible. It’s not that emotional contagion is a disease but the mechanism is the same.’

Are you charismatic?

A psychologist at the University of California, Howard Friedman has developed a charisma test known as the Affective Communication Test. His test measures your ability to send emotion to others.

Friedman conducted an amazing experiment around his test. He picked a few dozen who had scored very high on the test, above 90 and a few dozen who had scored very low, below 60. He asked them all to fill in a questionnaire measuring how they felt “at this instant.”

He then put all the high scorers in separate rooms and paired each of them with two low scorers. They were told to sit in the room together for just two minutes. They could look at one another but not speak (remember the person-centered approach to counselling).

Then, once the session was over, they were asked, again, to fill in a detailed questionnaire on how they were feeling. Friedman found that in just two minutes, without a word being spoken, the low scorers picked up the mood of the charismatic high scorers!

If the charismatic person started out depressed, and the inexpressive person started out happy, by the end of the two minutes the inexpressive person was depressed as well. But it didn’t work the other way around. Only the charismatic person could infect the other person in the room with his or her emotions. And remember this occurred without any verbal communication.

Here at Uncommon Knowledge, we are of the opinion that psychological research and therapeutic practice need to be aligned so that psychotherapy can move away from personal opinion and toward a validated, supported methodology. Psychotherapists and counsellors need to know about psychological research. Many don’t.

1 Yapko, M (1992) Hypnosis and the treatment of depression. Danton, W, Antonucci, D and DeNelsky. Depression: Psychotherapy is the best medicine. Professional Psychology Research and Practice, 26, 574.

2 Emotional Contagion, Elaine Hatfield, John Capioppo 1994

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