056 – Spotting Subtle Themes in Counselling – Experiments in Gestalt Therapy – Skills in Existential Therapy
In episode 56 of the Counselling Tutor Podcast, Ken and Rory talk about how to spot subtle themes in counselling. ‘Theory with Rory’ discusses experiments in gestalt therapy. Finally, the presenters talk about useful skills in existential therapy.
Spotting Subtle Themes in Counselling (starts at 1.46 mins)
It is relatively easy to spot some themes in counselling (content: the actual story that the client brings) but how do we spot the more subtle ones (i.e. the client’s process)? Carl Rogers referred to this as ‘listening to the music behind the words’. Rory sees content and process as being like a two-lane road, with story and emotion running parallel; the client may open a door into their emotions now and again, giving the counsellor the opportunity to enter this level of their experiencing.
Ken and Rory have two key suggestions here:
- Try to look at the body language of the client, and whether there are any mismatches between this and their words. For example, a client may say that something is good yet look or sound sad while they do so. You could then point out this inconsistency.
- Just let the client speak, allowing them to take the lead in where they go. Just being there with the client – in their frame of reference – will allow the client to spot their own subtle themes naturally.
It may be harder to spot subtle themes in triad work in class, especially at the earlier stages of counselling training, as peers may be more guarded and show less emotion than do real-life clients.
Experiments in Gestalt Therapy (starts at 8.40)
Experiments are a key feature of gestalt therapy, encouraging clients to look at things in a different way. Rory describes a number of such experiments, for example:
- writing letters – to people with whom the client has ‘unfinished business’; the letter can then be sent, destroyed or kept
- staying with the feeling – encouraging clients to focus on their feeling and explore it fully
- taking responsibility – rather than blaming others for how the client feels
- playing projection – often used in a group context, allowing one participant to experiment with behaving in ways they don’t like in another group member
- exaggerating – purposely exaggerating subtle, non-verbal behaviour in order to better understand its meaning
- using the empty-chair technique – allowing the client to communicate with their perception of someone they are having difficulties with, or part of themselves (in topdog versus underdog work)
- examining dreams – including the client acting as the director and putting themselves into different roles within the dream, which is seen as a subconscious sign of what is going on for the client.
Rory has written a handout on these different experiments in gestalt therapy; this is free to download here, and also available through our Handouts Vault. He has given a lecture on an introduction to gestalt therapy in the Counselling Study Resource.
Skills in Existential Therapy (starts at 15.20 mins)
What skills aid practice for existential therapy? It is important first to understand what existential therapy is. Rory will soon be delivering a live lecture on this.
Existentialism is based on the idea that our lives as humans are finite: we are all going to die and must make sense of life’s meaning to us. Key books in this modality include:
- psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which was written following his experience in a Nazi concentration camp; Frankl went on to develop logotherapy
- Irvin Yalom’s Staring at the Sun, which looks at how people approach the end of life.
Another book of Yalom’s is Love’s Executioner, which illustrates how existential therapists work with clients. Other key names in this modality are Rollo May and Mick Cooper.
Existential therapy focuses more on meaning than on feelings. Useful skills may therefore include:
- Socratic questioning – to explore what experiences mean to the client
- silence – to support the client in looking within and finding their own meaning
- reflection – to help the client look for the meaning in their own words.