Counselling is often viewed as a therapeutic exercise undertaken as a medical treatment. However, the act of counselling may be used in a wider sense to address issues of social concern and to aid the development of relationships in a community setting. This is more than group therapy. What is required is a commitment from those involved to go with the flow, to be open and honest and to be assured that the outcome will be better than the starting point.
And it is rewarding. The people you meet will be attentive and interested. Valuable and productive working relationships will be established. But we’re racing ahead. The most important people are the community members. If they aren’t there then there’s no point in anyone being there. Plus there may be more than one side or there may be residents, employers, and council staff. As there are many sides to a community, so there are many sides to community counselling.
Here it’s important to realise that people’s words, actions and motivations may be understood in terms of the Scripts that they are following. These Scripts can give us a handle on their psychological make-up and an insight into their personality. From this we can understand how they view the world, what things mean to them, and what they value as important (Steiner, 1974).
This approach will allows us to explore the Games (in the technical sense) the community are involved in. Are they playing out a Game? Have they done this before? Perhaps they’ve involved others such as friends, ward councillors, or employers. It may also expose any impasses that are present that may slow things down or cause disagreements (Berne, 1964).
One thing we will need to consider is whether the people we are talking to are aware of what they’re doing. Do they know which Games they’re playing, even if they don’t use the word? If they are then how do they articulate this? Is this ‘them being them’ thereby discounting the importance of the Game? Maybe it’s something they want to be free from? Maybe I’m doing some or all of these things? Maybe we both are? So maybe it’s something to contract for?
So what do we say after we’ve said ‘hello’? How are we going to do something useful for the community in question? How can we be therapeutic in the general sense? If we’re going to do anything it’s going to be to help the people involved in terms of what they want to do and in terms of what others are doing. And that is quite a task! If problems were solved simply by talking then all we’d need to do is print off some cards and get those involved to read them out! There’s more to it than that. We need to know what they want to talk about and we need to help them to talk about it in the right sort of way, a therapeutic sort of way (Berne, 1972).
This means that it’s all about helping the people concerned, whichever organisation they come from, to come to the right sort of understanding in the right sort of way. And what is the right sort of way? Well, to put it generally, it’s about helping people to come to terms with things they have yet to come to terms with. Now that’s a clumsy sentence but one of the reasons it’s clumsy is that counselling can help all kinds of things, in many sorts of ways. To give three examples, it could be getting through a period of demolition, coping with loss of grant funding, or feeling that you haven’t done the thing you should have done and never will (Heathcote, 2009).
This is where things may start to go wrong. People may jump to conclusions, or miss what others are saying. They may read from Script, run along the lines of their Life Position and so on. But the important thing to remember is that therapy isn’t about being given a diagnosis and following a treatment plan. Therapy is, rather, about working together to reach shared understandings about what has happened, about what is important and about how to go forward. It’s about being in the here and now and it’s about adopting the Adult point of view. Then, and only then, can communities make fully informed decisions about how they are going to proceed. Only then will they be open to addressing their issues and discussing them in a therapeutic way. Once this space for discussion is opened they may choose to consider their Scripts and then they may come to reframe and redecide their thoughts, feelings and experiences (Culley & Bond, 2011).
Now why should a counselling approach succeed in engaging communities and officers in ways that other approaches have failed to do? Well, the counselling relationship is unlike any other discipline. First of all it’s not pedagogic or informative. The counsellor is not teaching the community to be happy! Nor is it advisory. The counsellor does not give the community solutions to the problems they are having. Rather it is based on mutual and level relationships. Furthermore and importantly the counselling relationship is based on attunement. The counsellor attunes to the community seeing the world as they do, feeling the emotions they feel and experiencing events in their life in the way that they do. This is much more than understanding their circumstances and sympathising with their positions (Geldard & Geldard, 2005).
Particularly important is the confidential nature of counselling relationships. This must be clearly stated before any counselling sessions take place. Those taking part need to understand and then sign an agreed contract. They need to understand not only the terms but the nature of the agreement (Bor & Watts, 2006).
Human relationships, however, are notoriously difficult and fraught with difficulties and dangers. It’s just so easy to offend somebody! Moreover, human beings are very different from each other. Not only do they come in different ages and genders but there are many distinct cultures, abilities and as many differences as there are similarities. Sooner or later there will be problems. These may be from following a false trail or talking about things they aren’t bothered about or they may come from being completely unaware of something very important. That’s why it’s very important to make sure that community counselling takes place in as safe and comfortable an environment as possible. And the key to coping with these issues is ‘understanding’. What a therapeutic counsellor needs to do is listen, reflect and then to listen some more; then and only then will they be in a position to understand and actively begin to help (Shadbolt, 2012).
The ethical codes of practice that apply to counselling allow the counsellor space to explore a wide range of difficult issues at the same time ensuring a safe and secure environment for both the counsellor and the community (BACP, 2010; UKCP, 2009). While this isn’t easy, it’s a question of setting out a clear field for acceptable practice with set boundaries. All counselling must take place on this field and within these boundaries. But that’s not all. The therapeutic imperative requires ground rules to be set that are clearly understood by all those involved. Once this is done a space is cleared in which productive relationships may be developed (Eusden, 2011).
Unlike physicians, or advisors, it is the task of the counsellor, my task, to assist the community members to come to their own views, set within their own perspectives. The things that are discussed may be other than those specifically contracted for as they may only arise once the counselling relationship has been established (Bond, 2015).
I don’t doubt that there will be some problems and some disappointments. But the successes and the positive relationships that are created will more than make up for these. I’m convinced about this because the counselling approach is mature and adult (and Adult) in a way that so many so-called community development activities are not. And in these difficult times for communities everywhere that is something worth holding on to (Yalom, 2003).
Berne, E. (1964) Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships. New York: Grove Press.
Berne, E. (1972) What Do You Say After You Say Hello? New York: Grove Press.
Bond, T. (2015) Standards and Ethics for Counselling in Action. Fourth Edition. London: Sage.
Bor, R. and Watts, M. (editors) (2006) The Trainee Handbook: A Guide for Counselling and Psychotherapy Trainees. Second Edition. London: Sage.
British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) (2010) Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling and Psychotherapy, Lutterworth: BACP.
Culley, S. and Bond, T. (2011) Integrative Counselling Skills in Action. Third Edition. London: Sage.
Eusden, S. (2011) “Minding the Gap: Ethical Considerations for Therapeutic Engagement.” Transactional Analysis Journal, Vol. 41, No. 2.
Geldard, K. and Geldard, D. (2005) Practical Counselling Skills: An Integrative Approach. London: Palgrave.
Heathcote, A. (2009) “Why Are We Psychotherapists?: The Necessity of Help for the Helper.” Transactional Analysis Journal, Vol. 39, No. 3.
Shadbolt, C. (2012) “The Place of Failure and Rupture in Psychotherapy.” Transactional Analysis Journal, Vol. 42, No. 1.
Steiner, C. (1974) Scripts People Live. New York: Grove Press.
UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) (2009) Ethical Principles and Code of Professional Conduct, London: UKCP.
Yalom, I. (2003) The Gift of Therapy. London: Piatkus.