|"As I was sitting in the traffic in Liverpool city centre recently, the dulcet tones of the Today programme were drifting around my car. Murder here, war there, financial crisis over there – that depressingly familiar start to the day" |
|"Throughout the three decades I’ve plied my trade in the counsellor’s chair, I’ve been required to submit to regular one-to-one supervision. I am now on my eighth supervisor, all bar one of them, women." |
|"The doorbell cut like a starter pistol through our Friday morning lie-in. My wife looked up from her novel and I sneaked a glance across at her from beyond the sports pages, our silent stares issuing the identical message: ‘Well, are you going or do I have to?’" |
To me, beginnings are as fascinating as endings, although I’ll save comment upon the latter for some future column. I find it intriguing how couples meet and, at some point in their first counselling session, I usually ask about that first encounter.
In practice - Beginnings
To me, beginnings are as fascinating as endings, although I’ll save comment upon the latter for some future column. I find it intriguing how couples meet and, at some point in their first counselling session, I usually ask about that first encounter. Bland replies such as, ‘at work’, or ‘at a party’, cut little ice in couple therapy. I want to know who spotted whom first, what caught their eye, or ear, and what grabbed their heart.
‘He was over in the corner by himself; he looked intelligent, thoughtful… sad.’
‘I clocked her as soon as she arrived: sophisticated, sexy, way out of my league. Two guys homed in on her like bears scenting honey. Later, she came and sat down beside me; she called them ‘‘jerks”!’
Seven years later she says he’s boring and he calls her a slut. I suppose it was there in that first meeting: the pearl in the oyster, the decay in the bud. These days, of course, many couples meet online, where words create the first impression, rather than looks.
Words. Chosen and arranged as carefully as any outfit, and woven to conceal as much as they reveal.
And what of the first meetings of therapy? The client who arrives for their first session ridiculously early, or right on the dot, or so late as to wrong-foot us at the very outset? One of my first marriage guidance clients, a middle-aged professional man, was already ensconced in the counselling room when I arrived at the centre. At the appointed hour, I entered the counselling room, whereupon he rose, proffered a firm handshake, and declared: ‘Ah, you must be Kevin; do take a seat…’ and with a sweep of his arm indicated the vacant chair opposite his own. Gestures and rituals are powerful, and I duly found myself in his hands, rather than he in mine.
One of my early counselling trainers, Kathleen Smith, used to tell her raw students, ‘It’s all there in the opening two minutes if you really look for it.’ I remember thinking: ‘So why do I keep missing it?’ A few weeks later, in she walked, the new client, who settled herself purposely in the chair, carefully drew back her topcoat like plush curtains, before looking me in the eye, and announcing: ‘Mr Chandler, you’ve come very highly recommended.’ And then she paused, just long enough for my ego to collide with the ceiling. ‘The problem is,’ she continued, ‘the men in my life always let me down!’
Hmm, that Kathleen Smith knew a thing or two.
In couple therapy, I’m always interested to know which of the two makes the initial contact and, when they turn up for their first session, which one claims (or is allowed) the opening move as the bell sounds for round one. As so often, process hails over content: ‘You start,’ he says, with a shrug, ‘… after all, it was your idea.’
But of course, it is not only clients who fashion and shape the beginnings of therapy. We counsellors/therapists have our opening gambits, our favoured gestures and rituals of meeting and commencement. Irvin Yalom, that wise old therapist and author of wondrous tales of the therapeutic encounter, famously starts each first session with a new client by asking: ‘What ails?’ Admirably to the point, almost Shakespearean on the ear. I (being way too wordy) was highly impressed – so much so, I tried it myself. The first new client said, ‘Pardon?’ The second simply looked bemused; turned out he thought I was enquiring after his taste in beer. What works in Palo Alto clearly doesn’t go down well in West Yorkshire. After that I reverted to my favoured, ‘Welcome… what do you want from coming here?’ In subsequent sessions I drop the follow-up question. Back in my early days, I’d start those by enquiring, ‘How have you been?’ but all that encouraged was a resume of the week since our last appointment, therapy thereby reduced to a pattern of report-talk. The way we begin tends to shape what follows.
I used to ponder why we say we are going for (or having) counselling, yet speak of entering (or being in) therapy. I put the latter down to pretentiousness, therapists eager to cast themselves as higher order beings, oracles, ensconced in the inner sanctum of the therapy room. Nowadays, I find the notion of entering therapy quite appropriate, for what begins with that first knock on the door is a relationship and, despite therapists clinging to their chosen map that charts the terrain, and clients focusing on their desired destination, neither knows quite where the journey will take them, or what will be asked of each traveller as the adventure unfolds. Beginnings are almost as daunting as they are enticing. Oh, yes, dear reader, I almost forgot… ‘Welcome.’
Kevin Chandler is a therapist and supervisor in private practice, and author of Listening in: a novel of therapy and real life.