I went to a strange boarding school where – mixed in with the dreadful teachers – there were others who were kind, supportive and intellectually curious. Late one night, aged 17, I managed to entrap one of them in my study on the pretext of asking about an essay I was writing. I’d never talked to anyone about the personal stuff that was bugging me at the time, so I was circumspect, wary of how he might react, and hoping that he’d guess at stuff I wasn’t necessarily telling him but needed him to understand nonetheless.
He listened. He asked a few questions. He let me talk. All of which was fine, except that I wanted more. I didn’t want to be told what to do, but nor did I just want attentive, careful listening. I wanted some perspective, some way of contextualising my experience. He was, after all, someone I admired, someone older and more experienced, someone who’d probably been through similar experiences and who, I imagined, would have drawn his own conclusions along the way. I knew that I didn’t necessarily have to share those conclusions, but I wanted to know what they were.
I didn’t ask and he didn’t say. Had I asked, he’d probably have deflected my question like a good listener, keen for me to come to my own conclusions, keen for me to develop my own understandings of the world.
He was undoubtedly a good listener. He gave me space. He didn’t interrupt and didn’t embarrass me. He helped me find words for some of the things I was struggling to say and, by not asking, respected the things I didn’t want to say. But I wanted more!
Now, 45 years later, I’m running a training day for counsellors who work with young people, and it’s time for us to turn our earlier theorising into practice. One of the counsellors has volunteered to be a young person arriving for a first session. Another has volunteered, somewhat reluctantly, to be herself in the role of counsellor.
Relieved that the two of them have volunteered, the rest of us watch from the safety of the audience as the counsellor and young person begin to talk.
The counsellor is trying her best, paying close attention to everything that the young person is saying, and doing what I imagine she’s been taught to do: reflecting the (imaginary) young person back to himself, scrupulously keeping herself out of the equation in order to allow the young person to explore things for himself. And yet he’s clearly not getting something from the counsellor. Their conversation flags, becomes more stilted. The energy level drops.
Before long, things get stuck. I intervene and ask the counsellor what she thinks is happening.
‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘I don’t really know where to go with this.’
Members of the audience suggest possibilities. Some of them think that the counsellor could be giving a little more of herself.
‘I know,’ says the counsellor, ‘but we’ve been taught to keep ourselves out of it.’
I suggest to her that most young people – indeed, most people – are looking for a relationship, for a connection, for some kind of exchange when they go to see a counsellor. They want their counsellor to be as real as possible.
She looks alarmed. ‘I can hear my tutors telling me not to do that, though,’ she says. ‘It might be what I want to do, but we’ve been taught to let the client do the talking.’
I say that I doubt whether her tutors intended their trainees never to connect or interact, never to dare to have a point of view. They were probably just warning against counsellors taking over the conversation, and this might have been heard by some trainees as ‘I mustn’t say anything about myself for fear of saying everything about myself’.
I ask what she happens to be thinking about the young person sitting opposite. She shares with us her perfectly sensible, perceptive insights into the boy’s situation. ‘But I couldn’t say any of that,’ she says, ‘because that would be imposing what I think.’
We ask the boy, still in role, how he’d feel about the counsellor saying some of what she’s been thinking.
‘It’s actually what I want,’ he says. ‘I’m beginning to run out of things to say and I’ve got no idea if I’m making any sense, going on and on about my parents. And,’ he says, turning to the counsellor, ‘what you just said makes total sense, so I wish you’d go ahead and say it.’
Wisdom is not advice
I think there are times when it’s necessary for counsellors to offer their wisdom for the benefit of the other person. I don’t mean mindlessly dishing out advice without listening to the other person, nor do I mean offering containing statements that simply give back to the other person understandings of whatever he or she has been saying. Occasionally there’s a place for advice if, having thought about it, the counsellor decides that it’s really what the client most needs at that moment. And often there’s a need for containing statements that assure the client that he or she does make sense and is understandable, at least to the counsellor.
But what I mean by ‘wisdom’ is neither of these things. What I mean is a slightly detached perspective, based on the counsellor’s own learning from life, that’s relevant to what the other person has been talking about. It’s a perspective often prefaced by the phrase, ‘In my experience…’ It’s a perspective that a teacher might share with a 17 year old at boarding school: ‘In my experience, it’s really difficult when our love for someone isn’t reciprocated, and often there’s nothing we can do but wait and hope and accept that it might never be reciprocated…’ It’s a perspective that a counsellor might share with a roleplaying boy struggling to make sense of his parents: ‘In my experience, people are often disappointing,’ the counsellor might say. ‘They’re never as bad as we fear, but nor are they usually as wonderful as we want them to be.’ It’s a perspective never offered as any sort of conclusion or solution to a problem and never offered as an alternative to letting a young person talk.
Nor is it a judgment, though I think it’s important for counsellors sometimes to say what they’re thinking. I’ve written elsewhere1 about the myth of the non-judgmental counsellor, because I agree with Nina Coltart’s observation to Anthony Molino that ‘whatever [counsellors] say about being non-judgmental, or about being neutral on matters of morality is, of course, absolute bunkum’.2 The theoretical biases of therapists are usually rooted in their own life experiences. Like anyone, they can’t help but propound ideas that make sense to them in the light of those experiences, in the way that my own boarding school experience partly informs this article. At some level, all theorists are writing autobiographical stories, trying to generalise from their accumulated life experience for the benefit of other people, because without that life experience, they’d have nothing to say.
I suspect that many counsellors (like the well-meaning counsellor on my training day) try hard to remain neutral or ‘non-judgmental’, shutting out their own life experiences and ending up sounding a bit lifeless. At worst, they sound weird, repeating things that have already been said, summarising and then summarising some more. I think the idea of counsellors being ‘non-judgmental’ is simplistic. Of course, we don’t need a counsellor to make us feel worse about ourselves and we don’t need to be told what to do or think, but there are times when we need a perspective, a steer, a way of thinking about our lives and gauging how they compare with other people’s. We need our counsellors to be experienced people – not innocents, not people who’ve led sheltered lives – and sometimes we need the benefit of our counsellors’ experience.
Wisdom is not about age
I’m not suggesting that wise counsellors therefore need to be old counsellors. One of the very best counsellors I know began seeing people in her early 20s and was already very skilled at that relatively young age. Younger counsellors might feel less confident about sharing whatever they’ve learned from life, but they do have their own experience and – potentially – that experience is just as therapeutically helpful for a young person as the experience of someone much older. What matters is that we consider our experience before presenting it to other people. ‘Who am I about to say this for?’ we might ask ourselves. ‘Is it to satisfy myself in some way or because I judge that it’s what this young person most needs right now in order to develop some perspective?’
Aristotle uses the word ‘phronesis’ to describe the practical kind of wisdom I’m talking about: not technical wisdom (the ability to fix car engines) and not intellectual wisdom (the ability to understand black holes), but a worldly understanding born of reflection and experience.
With hindsight, I wish I’d interrupted my training session with the counsellors and asked each of them to think about these questions: ‘What practical wisdom have you learned in your life? How might that learning be useful to other people in counselling? And if you judged that your learning was likely to be useful, how would you go about offering it to someone?’
Recently, I’ve found myself saying things to young people like: ‘In my experience, hating the people we love is normal… In my experience, when someone dies or leaves us – even when it’s not their fault – there’s usually a part of us that’s angry with them… In my experience, life is usually a mixture of good and bad experiences, so beware of people pretending that everything’s bound to turn out for the best… In my experience, it’s useful to have a plan but it’s important to be able to change the plan if it’s not working… In my experience, it can be hard to know what we mean by love… In my experience, we sometimes focus on the little things in order not to think about the big things…’
OK, so nothing earth-shattering, and perhaps ‘wisdom’ is a pretentious way of describing whatever we’ve learned in our lives. (We can’t bear people who think they’re wise!) Yet – offered humbly – other people’s wisdom can be helpful. After all, we like aphorisms that we can remember and recite, sayings that encapsulate certain kinds of wisdom and provide us with a context to help us think about our own experience. These snippets of wisdom reassure us that other people have been through similar experiences – and sometimes, gently, they offer us ways forward.
Counsellors have wisdom. Sharing that wisdom is a skill.
Nick Luxmoore is a psychotherapist, supervisor, trainer and writer. His new book, The Art of Working with Anxious, Antagonistic Adolescents: ways forward for frontline professionals (Jessica Kingsley, 2019), is out in April. www.nickluxmoore.com
1 Luxmoore N. Practical supervision for counsellors who work with young people. London: Jessica Kingsley; 2017.
2 Molino A. Freely associated: encounters in psychoanalysis. London: Free Association Books; 1997 (p203).