A few weeks back I was extremely privileged, by global standards, to complete an 18 week part-time course in counselling skills (a Foundation or ‘level 3’ course). The course was held at the well-respected Heartwood Centre for Counselling and Psychotherapy, on the beautiful Dartington Estate near Totnes.
In this post I look at embedding my course experience in the unfolding context of my life, inseperable from the globe around me. I hope this will also serve to give feedback on the course, as promised to my tutors.
The heartwood of a tree-trunk is the dense inner part that yields the hardest timber. But it is the emotional heart of the human being in a soft and trusting state that achieves the growth and strength of healing; the heartwood of a tree only becomes so strong through the tree’s tender buds striving upwards each year. Vulnerable and open to the elements.
The Heartwood course tutor was very skilled at holding the space of the course, from week to week. This included managing the physical spaces of the learning and socialisation areas, and more importantly the collective and individual emotional spaces of us, the students, as we unfolded emotionally and scholastically during the course. This ‘holding space’ allowed us students (about a dozen) to learn in turn to hold space ourselves, for ourselves, for our peers, and in practice for potential counselling clients.
For every Monday that we studied, we would begin, as a group, with a ‘checking in’ practice, and finish the day with a ‘checking out’ practice. These were practices of revealing to the group what was going on for us emotionally and practically at those moments in time. These sharings deepened the holding of space for all of us, I think, by allowing us to calibrate to the group and encouraging openness and trust to develop between us all.
I highly commend the Heartwood tutors for the ways that they hold space and teach holding space. I would love to see these foundational counselling and group facilitation skills expanded outwards into all quarters of society. The ‘checking in’ practice in particular helped me develop a closeness to the study group over the weeks that I have rarely felt with groups of strangers. However I’m very aware that the Heartwood study room is in a rich, rural setting conducive to counselling study. Perhaps our experience would have been improved further if, just for one session towards the end of the course, it had been arranged for us to all meet in a rented study space in an economically deprived urban setting, to add a little socioeconomic perspective.
Since finishing the course I have been seeking to continue trustful relationship and space-holding in group settings. It has not been easy to replicate this experience. It is perhaps only by joining another healing or therapy based group (or starting one myself?) that I will find it again. This, to me, is a problem.
Basic group-nurturing practices such as checking in, and deeply listening to those check-ins (listening being the quintessential counselling skill) could easily enough be adopted by organisations in society at large, more than is currently the case. I think this is necessary and desirable because of the extent of mental illness in modern society, even in ‘productive workers’; as well as the often diseased attitude of humanity towards itself and the planet in general, which can be tragically amplified by digitally enhanced organisations of all kinds, even very well-meaning and charitable ones.
To enable these beginnings of group nurturing and space holding to happen, we need more in the way of counselling and psychotherapy consultancies which specifically advise organisations on holding space for their members. This must be clearly discerned from the more capitalist roles of occupational psychologists, to whom employee performance and productivity are central. These consultancies need to be able to offer services on a sliding payment scale, where small charities, groups and businesses are not left out.
Integral to the consultation process, larger enlightened organisations would be happy to fund level 2 introductory counselling training for many of their members; encouraging the beginnings of a culture of ‘active listening’ within the held spaces of organisations. Additionally a focus on finding funding for smaller groups to get this level 2 training would be key. This would all link in to a wider culture of seeking value outside the prevailing destructive capitalist model. (These statements presuppose an understanding of what counselling is -see my definition further below).
Since finishing the Heartwood level 3 course I have become involved with group political activism. Specifically, Kurdish Solidarity, meaning support of the Kurds’ efforts at self-determination in the Middle East, where they have long been persecuted by various state powers. It was interesting to note that at my first ever activist group meeting, at which there were 20 attendees or so who I had never met, I was able to speak up and share my views. I know that the Heartwood training experience directly set me up for this, having improved my basic trust of groups of humans, which due to various past traumas (common to many of us) had been lacking. I will be proposing to the activist network that we start to use check-ins at meetings, as this idea also happened to be voiced to me in private by a prominent voice in the network. I must remember that feeling comfortable in groups is based in continual practice. I intend to keep this up in whatever ways I can.
Counselling can be defined as a professional practice of compassionate listening to and reflecting of, a “client”, with the aim of facilitating positive life-change for and with the “client”. There are different therapeutic models which counsellors can work from. Heartwood uses an integrated model designed by the director of studies, Leigh Smith which incorporates Person Centred Therapy (PCT), Gestalt Therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). For the level 3 course we focused on the first two approaches within the model. The tutor Audrey Cooper did a fantastic job of simultaneously holding space, as described above, and facilitating learning in a directed but fluid way.
To see the big need for counselling in society in general, one just has to contemplate how frequently people act destructively around others, due to unresolved emotional and psychological issues. The language of psychology and therapy has entered mainstream society enough for this perspective to be no great surprise to most people -but unfortunately that doesn’t seem to translate often enough into people seeking counselling when they need it. Or it may not be available to them. I see the problems as largely systemic in society (see further below) meaning it is difficult to address them within the counselling and psychotherapy professions alone.
The Heartwood course was comprised of different intersecting elements. There were various written assessments throughout the course to test our knowledge, as well as a skills assessment to assess our counselling skills in practice, one-to-one between us and our practice clients i.e. our peers on the course. The teaching material was divided into learning theory and learning practice. We also had plenty of time during the course to practice our skills in client-counsellor mock-ups.
Whether learning theory or learning practice, we often began exploring concepts as a group in the morning sessions. These group discussions were for me the ‘best bits’ of the course, as we felt empowered as students to understand concepts and practices from a very personal as well as a group co-creative perspective. This was totally in line with the core theory of both Gestalt Therapy and PCT which states that the individual during counselling must be trusted to unfold to healing and self-understanding in their own way, and facilitated to do this.
In general, I cannot fault the content of the course in terms of what was included, and I hope to return to Heartwood to train at level 4 when the time is right. (After successfully training at level 4, a two year part-time course, the student can practice as a counsellor). There was too much course content to describe in detail here. However I can summarise many of the main elements, as well as the parts I found particularly enjoyable and useful:
- Essential counselling skills taught in a cumulative way, including holding space, managing silence, active listening, reflecting back, minimal encouragers, open questions, empathic listening, paraphrasing and summarising (I may have missed a couple out).
- Boundaries work, including ethical and essential professional boundaries and legal obligations.
- The importance of self-care and self-development as a counsellor, including working on becoming more self-aware and less actively judgemental of self and other.
- PCT and Gestalt Therapy models discussed in depth;
- Roger’s Core Conditions of PCT;
- Self-actualising tendency, integral to PCT and Gestalt theories.
- Introjects and projections (Gestalt theory)
- ‘The masks we wear’ (Gestalt exploration)
- ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ (core Gestalt theory)
- The treating of the whole self in the here-and-now including the mind as embedded in the physical body (a Gestalt focus)
If I had one small criticism of how the course was delivered, apart from the idea of moving the venue one week (mentioned above) it would be to fit in just a couple more short videos as learning aids; another ten minutes here and there during the course. We did watch one humourous and effective video about the difference between sympathy and empathy. It would have been great if we had watched a couple more similar, perhaps in a way that linked in to topical events going on in the world around us. There are plenty of reputable therapy-based Youtube videos from respected therapists which could be utilised for this, perhaps in combination with short News features, to show what doesn’t happen daily in the way of therapeutic contact! Multi-media teaching materials are known to be effective for learning, and keeping on the ball with a couple of the latest uploaded short therapy-themed videos during the course could pep things up a bit. Just a thought!
Ideally, I would like to see included in a level 3 course some elements which begin to address, just a little more than we did, the divide between the counselling and psychotherapy professions on the one hand and the extent of people that could actually benefit from counselling on the other, if only they had a little good education offered as to what counselling is, and if there was more access to counselling for low-income clients and other demographics. (Notwithstanding that there are some great services out there). Some truths to consider as a whole: there is a high correlation between poverty and mental illness: ethnic minorities are twice as likely as caucasions to live in a low income house in the UK; men are more likely to kill themselves than women; counsellors and therapists are predominantly female, white and middle-class. Clearly we need more male and BAME counsellors, for starters. I think it would be good to raise these issues in a specific discussion towards the start of any level 3 course, maybe as an extension of the excellent study days on boundaries. Perhaps this could be considered a duty towards social justice. [please note that I will add sources for the statements I’ve just made, at a later date].
On the other hand, I was grateful to have the freedom within a Heartwood course assignment to touch on feminist and ecological approaches to therapy which would be included in my ideal therapeutic model, especially considering that Rogers and Perls, originators of PCT and Gestalt Therapy, were white middle-class men with ingrained privileges in their worldviews. (But I am no different!) Despite my seeking of the ‘perfect therapeutic model’ (I definitely want to keep the PCT and Gestalt) I think that enough freedom of discussion and practice is given within the Heartwood training at level 3 that I am pretty sure I would be able to move forward my ideal way of practising alongside level 4 training in a way that strengthened that training for me personally, and was strengthened by it.