I sit with my client, who is clearly agitated. She tells me how her manager treated her and how it felt to be bullied. She is devastated and has been signed off work sick. Feeling frightened and stuck, she cannot see how she can challenge what has happened to her at work. A sense of powerlessness is palpable in the room, as she can’t see a way forward or herself ever being able to return to work.
If you’ve worked as an organisational counsellor for as long as I have, such a scenario is probably all too familiar to you. Bullying at work is so often about power in relationships, when a person uses their power or position, strength or personality to dominate another. Clients bring their experience of workplace bullying and we need to use our relationship to help them recover and find strength again. It’s challenging work, and as an EAP affiliate, we will usually be working with a six-session model, offering support at a time that can trigger old wounds.
This article explores how we use our power and authority in our client work when the client brings an imbalance of power in their workplace setting. How can we best help a client who may have experienced an abusive relationship in the past, either in childhood or in their relationships with their partners? How can we help the client to connect with their own power through the counselling relationship, when they feel so devoid of personal power?
Prior to becoming a counsellor, I worked in HR, specialising in equality and diversity issues. I supported organisations to develop fair processes, to have good management practices and to enable staff to feel safe, to be able to work productively or creatively, and to develop themselves. Key values for me have always been fairness, justice, and support for staff at all levels and I worked extensively with harassment and bullying issues. After my counselling training, it made sense to take my experience from working inside organisations and combine it with my therapeutic work with EAPs and workplace counselling services.
Not unusually, early in my career while in my 20s, I also experienced harassment from a manager and so I knew first hand how it felt to feel helpless and powerless at work. Bringing all this to bear in my counselling work, a focus for me has always been about how I can use the counselling relationship to help those who have been bullied to feel safe again, to trust and to find their personal power again.
Power to choose
If you think about it, it’s clear that as counsellors, we hold a lot of power. For example, the choice of room that we meet our clients in, our chosen models of working and our training or philosophy that frames how we work with our clients. If the client accesses counselling via their EAP, the client won’t actually choose us – they are simply referred to a counsellor and are asked to trust the process and that we will be able to help them. So, the power rests with us – and how we choose to use it.
Power can be defined as the ability or the capacity to act, to direct or influence the behaviour of others to react in a particular way. Authority is defined as the power to influence others, especially because of one’s commanding manner, or one’s recognised knowledge.1 Using these definitions, it’s easy to see how bullying or a misuse of power can occur. However, when we are working relationally, we can work so differently with power and authority, as we work towards our clients understanding and accepting our intent and presence to begin to access their own power. It comes through us maintaining our own strength or balance, which allows the client to move forward through our sense of grounding and centredness.
As counsellors, finding our own confidence and self-esteem can often mean identifying our own personal power, and learning to be comfortable with it. Our supervisors often need to draw on their own authority to support their supervisees to gain insight, to challenge or facilitate change. Both power and authority are seen or felt in relationship with another – as dynamic forces able to diminish others or gain us emotional depth with one another. It’s about our presence, strength and courage as well as compassion, empathy and insight. These two relational forces (power and authority) can undermine or define us, and we are often afraid to own them. As counsellors, we can often be the wounded healers coming into this work. The majority of the counselling profession is female, just as the majority of harassment occurs towards women in the workplace. Our own journeys in training and our work, our reflective practices and strength as counsellors, can model and help other women that we work with. This aspect of gender is often not overtly explored but it is a source of power in the therapy room. Of course, I also work with men, but early gender constructs, cultural dynamics and history all play a part in how we hold and use our power and authority in the counselling relationship. ‘
I’m being bullied at work’
Being bullied at work is confusing. It can leave clients feeling worthless, seen but not valued, and it can erode their self confidence and self-esteem. The workplace can be one place where we feel strong, where we have an identity and a sense of purpose, and so to be treated badly by another there, can take us to a bleak place.
Bullying and its causes are complex issues, and our experience as children can influence our experience of management styles as well as our reactions to behaviour in the workplace. The writers and researchers, Anna Baldry and David Farrington,2 suggest that both bullies and victims can come from homes where ‘authoritarian’ styles of parenting were employed. As adults we can immediately sense this power over us and so can view power and authority negatively while not owning our role in relationship, and how relationships can be constructed over time.
Using our power as counsellors
There are breakthrough moments in the counselling relationship, and I find John Heron’s six categories of interventions model,3 which explores aspects of power and authority, helpful in understanding what takes place when we are in relationship with our clients. Heron identifies authoritative power – which can be seen as prescriptive, informative or confronting – as what can sometimes be pivotal moments in our work, whereby we may step into being directive, give an opinion or challenge our client to increase understanding or explain what we think is happening. This can take courage, as we are moving towards reciprocity – two people resonating in equal partnership and respect. Heron also identifies facilitative authority which can be cathartic, catalytic or supportive. This occurs when we share empathy, use silence to let feelings emerge, create new perspectives or receive valuing collegial support. All of these aspects of power and authority sit firmly within our work, but we are not always comfortable with the above interventions because it can mean stepping into the work, towards our clients, which fits perfectly within a relational model of working, but not always so comfortably within other models of working.
I was interested to see a model developed by Karl Gregory and Judy Hemmons,4 from the Relational School of Therapy, based in Gloucestershire. They identify a number of key elements in this dance with power and authority, namely our intent and presence when in relationship, the resonance with our client, the reciprocity that can be gained and how we stay attuned to our client in each session so that we stay in balance in our work.
With Susan (case study 1), I only had a few sessions to build trust, and my intent was clear from the start – to offer a supportive space that would enable her to explore how she was feeling, and how she wanted to move forward. In EAP work, we have a four-cornered contract of allegiance – the client, the EAP, with the organisation behind them, and ourselves. We need to be ethical and professional, but we also need to provide a safe, non-judgmental environment for the client, so that they gain support and rebalance again.
After being bullied, I find that clients are vigilant about who they can trust, and so the first greeting and presence in session are so important for establishing this relationship with them. This is about expressing an authentic presence, using our own power or authority in relationship with our clients, not over them, trying to achieve an end that satisfies us. Owning our authority (authorship) and modelling this, helps the client to reclaim theirs. Resonance helps our clients to have an embodied sense of how useful this space is for them, whether they can use the space and trust us, to feel how we respond to them and how we actively listen and attune to where they are in the moment. Being aware of our power and authority is central when clients such as Dave (case study 3), bring a fear in their present workplace situation which is firmly rooted in their past experience. It is about being relational with authority, using moments to deepen our work, rather than diminishing it. It means we need to stay in balance in our work, and realise when we are positively using our power, and therefore our intent, and when it may be inappropriately used.
EAP work gives us a short, defined space to support clients and so we need to work ethically, at their speed and relationally to maximise the value of the sessions. When bullying is the presenting issue, we need to be sensitive to how we use our own power and authority, as there is the potential to recreate patterns in our clients’ lives, to balance and attune to what they need, to help them sense power with or through someone, rather than power imposed over them. The counselling relationship may be different to any other relationship that our clients have ever experienced and this is just one element of what we hold as counsellors when we begin our work together, helping them to access the support that we offer.
I came into counselling with a belief in its potential to heal, enable and empower. With a commitment to fairness, when I work with clients who have been bullied or harassed, I am aware of my own thoughts, responses and intention that they experience a relationship that they can trust. To do this, I have had to develop my own inner strength and awareness, sensitivity to relational interactions in the counselling room, and a commitment to offering a clear sense of the client being able to be safe with me. The growing body of research into intersubjective approaches, emphasises the importance of our own self-awareness and growth, while developing an acute sensitivity to the client’s process. With each new client who walks into our counselling room, the work offers the potential for shifts in self-understanding, growth and for the client to step up and into their power – but, it remains a dance for even the most experienced therapist.
All of the case studies in this article are comprised of anonymised composites and are not actual clients.
Sarah Anderton is an integrative relational counsellor, supervisor and trainer, based in Gloucestershire. She is an accredited member of BACP, and MCIPD with her HR background. She is a member of the Relational School of Therapy in Gloucestershire.
1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Power_(social_and_political).
2 Baldry A, Farrington D. Bullying and delinquents: personal characteristics and parental styles. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology 2000; 10(1): 17–31.
3 Heron J. The complete facilitator’s handbook: volume 1. London: Kogan; 1999.
4 Hemmons J, Gregory K. Working relationally. The Fulcrum 2018. 73: 11-17.