Some different humanistic approaches to counselling

On the homepage of my website I explain a little bit about what Humanistic counselling is and include a list of five different Humanistic approaches to counselling which inform the way I work and which I bring together in a way which is unique for each new person I work with.

I thought it would be helpful to write a blog post which contains a bit more information about each of these approaches in order to give readers a better sense of the way in which I work. They are listed below, starting with Transactional Analysis, which is the core of my practice into which I weave these other ways of working.

Transactional Analysis (TA)

Transactional Analysis was initially developed by Eric Berne, author of the well known book Games People Play. Berne wanted to create a straight-forward and easy to understand approach to therapy, one which empowered his clients with knowledge and self-understanding. For this reason he utilised many common words to describe important aspects of his theories and ideas (e.g. games, rackets, scripts, strokes and drivers to name a few) in order to make them more accessible to his clients. However, he developed his theories in the late 1950’s and 60’s so some of the language he chose now seems quite outdated!

The deceptively simple models Berne devised for understanding human motivation and behaviour are in fact very sophisticated and powerful. These models are particularly useful for understanding the dynamics of our more challenging relationships and how we can take responsibility for changing these dynamics. His ideas have become so popular that they are now utilised widely by professionals working in the field of management training. Readers who have received this kind of training may be familiar with Berne’s Ego-state model which views communication between people as taking place primarily between either their inner Parent (critical or nurturing), Adult or Child (free or adapted).

Whilst acknowledging the importance of building a strong and trusting relationship between counsellor and client, one which is based upon the understanding that it is the client who is the expert in themselves, TA often takes a more didactic approach to therapy. This means that sometimes the counsellor takes the role of a teacher or instructor and so clients assume the role of pupil or student, learning tools and ways of seeing themselves and so hopefully enable them to change problematic patterns of behaviour which may have once been useful but which they have now outgrown.

Existential counselling

Existential counselling focuses on an exploration of the basic concerns of human existence. These are often referred to as the givens of existence: freedom of choice, responsibility, isolation, anxiety and death.

Many of us have experienced what we might call an existential crisis: a significant life event, like an illness or the death of a loved one, which rocks our world, shaking the foundations of everything that we’ve come to rely upon and often shattering our deeply held beliefs about ourselves and the world. At times like these, existential counselling can help to create new meaning in what can sometimes feel like a cold and meaningless world.

Existential counselling recognises the importance of anxiety as a guide to what it is that ultimately concerns us. Therefore the aim of existential counselling is to explore anxiety and get to the bottom of it rather than simply trying to make it go away. Despite the fact that anxiety is unavoidable, we all know that confronting it is a very difficult thing to do. Facing our fears is something which takes a lot of practice, which is the reason why existential counselling is sometimes described as lessons in the art of living.

Focusing-oriented therapy

Focusing-oriented therapy was created largely by the philosopher and psychotherapist Eugene Gendlin. It is often described as an experiential approach to counselling because of it’s focus on exploring how feelings and emotions are experienced in our bodies. Counselling often involves a great deal of talking and a great deal of thinking so it’s quite easy to forget the fact that all our experiences flow through our bodies as well as our minds. In fact, many people would argue that there isn’t really any way of meaningfully separating mind and body because they’re interconnected at such a deep level.

Focusing is a process which enables us to get in touch with what Gendlin calls our felt sense, a bodily process (often experienced in our stomach or chest) which underpins all our feelings and emotional responses. By making contact and exploring our felt sense of a particular situation (e.g. a difficult relationship with a friend or family member) we’re able to bring about movement in our feeling process and gain new insights into our understanding of what we’re really feeling deep down about the situation.

Gendlin’s 1978 book, Focusing: How to Gain Access to Your Body’s Knowledge, has sold more than 500,000 copies worldwide and has been translated into seventeen languages. Since the book was first published, Focusing groups and communities have been set up in many places around the world. With some basic training it’s quite possible for individuals to practice Focusing on their own although it’s also common to practice with a Focusing partner.

For more information visit the website of the Focusing Institute.

Gestalt therapy

Gestalt therapy has a particular focus on the client’s experience in the present moment in the therapy room, as opposed to trying to unearth important memories from their past. This is because the Gestalt perspective is that we live through our past difficult or traumatic experiences unconsciously again and again in the present. These are experiences which are somehow unfinished or incomplete because we were unable to fully process them at the time and so we are in some ways trapped by them in the present until they are able to find their full expression and we finally experience their closure or completion.

Often these trapped experiences can be accessed most directly through our bodies and so Gestalt therapy encourages the embodiment of feelings and emotions in a more active way than Focusing-oriented therapy, which has a few things in common with Gestalt, in that they are both experiential approaches to therapy. There are a variety of novel and dynamic ways in which Gestalt therapists help their client’s to access the important information stored (or trapped) in their bodies. Possibly the most well known of these is often referred to as the empty chair method, in which the client is invited to start a conversation with a significant person from their life (or an aspect of themselves) whom they imagine to be sat in an empty chair placed next to them. The client is then invited to swap seats and embody the other person in the conversation and to speak from their perspective.

As I’m sure many readers will appreciate, this can be a powerful as well as a challenging experience, and so it is very important that the counsellor is able to support the client in a way which enables them to feel safe enough to emotionally engage in the experience. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Gestalt therapy has been described as a safe emergency.

Person-centred counselling

The Person-centred approach to counselling is perhaps the most popular of the Humanistic therapies, and it’s originator Carl Rogers is arguably the most famous figure in Humanistic psychology. He was also a pioneer in the field of counselling research who set out to prove that it is the quality of the relationship which the counsellor offers their clients which is the single most important factor in the success of the therapy.

In his research Rogers identified six elements which are necessary in a counselling relationship for therapeutic change or growth to occur. Three of these elements are closely associated with the personal qualities which the counsellor brings to their relationship with clients. These are now famously referred to as the core conditions. The first of these core conditions is empathy, which has been described as the ability to feel what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, and is very different from sympathy, as this touching animation explains. The second condition is referred to as Unconditional Positive Regard (UPR) and it is perhaps closely related to unconditional love. UPR is connected to the counsellor’s ability to stay firmly alongside their client no matter what comes up, always keeping in focus the unique and loveable person, sometimes buried deep inside, who is striving towards growth and full expression. The third condition is called congruence, a profound and powerful honesty and authenticity on the part of the counsellor, an attitude which the client may have only experienced rarely in their everyday life.

Rogers’ research clearly demonstrated that the counsellor’s ability to embody these qualities as much as possible in their relationship with their client is a significant factor in whether the therapy is successful or not. For this reason, the Person-centred approach to counselling is full of warmth, acceptance, subtlety and nuance. Because of it’s wide appeal and proven effectiveness, many of Rogers’ theories and ideas have been significantly extended and developed since his death in 1987. Consequently the Person-centred approach to counselling is still very vibrant and alive.

Further reading