I set an exercise for my counselling students this week to guess how long a minute feels. Inviting them to close their eyes, I then asked them to raise their hands when they felt a minute has passed, encouraging them not to count in their heads!
Interestingly the average time all my students raised their hands was 32 seconds. Every single student had raised their hand before 45 seconds had passed.
Why did I set this task?
When I was first training as a therapist, providing space in the session was really challenging and both my students and therapists in supervision sessions comment frequently on this aspect of the therapy process and I have a few thoughts as to why this might be the case.
Firstly, as professional therapists we are usually very aware that we are being paid to provide a service and pay equates to performance, performance equates to doing something, so we “do!”
A counsellor, new to the profession, once told me she felt like a performing monkey. She felt that she had to keep providing her clients with strategies, resources and techniques, as much as she could give, each moment of every session. When I inquired as to why she felt compelled to do this? she swiftly answered, “because they are paying me to help them!”
OK, so does this mean doing = being professionally valued? Possibly.
I have no issue with giving my clients a resource, an approach to try or an idea to reflect on, all useful contributions to provide, but the question I think on first, is this useful to the client? And the timing of when this might take place, is it purposeful, not a filler, driven by my own professional insecurities.
As therapists, I believe we need to create space for our clients to truly connect with what they are needing to tell us. Sometimes our clients are conscious of this and sometimes not. If we create pressure on ourselves to “do” throughout the whole session, are we truly connecting with and providing space for our clients to “do” also, such as reflect and connect, which is more important, our agenda or theirs?
The fear of not being good enough, being found out that you aren’t competent as a therapist and you are a phony, runs deep for a lot of us in the helping professions, and filling up time and space can often be a symptom of this fear.
Another aspect is being aware of the pacing of our sessions by providing space, has in my view become more important than ever. The franticness of our society and the instant gratification in our Western world has impacted on our capacity and willingness to pause… just. wait. to. see. what. happens.
So, if we can model and allow our client and ourselves to pause during our session, what may be revealed, heard and understood? In my experience a lot!
However, space is a skill it takes awareness, both in the context of therapy and outside of it. As therapists I think we need to become comfortable with providing space and embracing silence, both purposeful and awkward, because with it comes the gift of clarity! Space enhances your ability to actively listen, understand, connect and build your therapeutic relationship with your client and isn’t that in part what we aim to do?