Pacing in Counselling
Feltham and Dryden (1993, p. 128) define ‘pacing’ as ‘the clinical judgement and skill involved in delivering interventions at a rate at which the client will best benefit’.
Pacing takes place both within an individual session and over the arc of the whole series of counselling sessions.
Variables in Required Pace
The pace that each client needs in their counselling sessions depends on a range of variables, including:
- the nature of the underlying issue (e.g. trauma may well require a slow pace so that it does not become overwhelming)
- The strength of the therapeutic relationship (e.g. a young relationship may need slower pacing than a more established one)
- the client’s coping strategies.
How to Know What Pace Is Needed
The person-centred approach asserts that clients know best themselves what pace they need. This means that if the counsellor allows the client to choose their pace and is willing to work accordingly, then this is likely to bring the greatest benefit to the client.
Person-centred therapists do not try to force or interrupt the pace of the client in any way, since doing so may be disruptive of the natural flow of their thoughts and feelings. Allowing the client to set the pace is also thought in this modality to be important to building the therapeutic relationship, which is seen as key to the success of counselling.
John Shlien, one of Carl Rogers’ students, spoke of visiting a poppy field to watch the flowers open in the sun, observing that he could force the petals open in an effort to speed up the process, but that doing so inevitably damaged the beautiful flower within (Sanders, 2003, p. 1).
A more explicit way to assess the pacing needed by a client is to use the reflection process (‘the counsellor-initiated practice of inviting feedback’) to ask the client for their views on the pacing of their sessions and therapy overall (Feltham and Dryden, 1993, pp. 128 and 157).
Managing the Pace
Therapists in some other modalities that take a more active-directive approach might seek to influence the pace. If so, they would be looking at how intensely the client is experiencing emotions during the sessions, and how they express them.
The client may need a slower pace if they are:
They may need a faster pace if they are:
- highly motivated
Managing Client Expectations
Some clients may try to move at too fast a pace for their own wellbeing. For example, the disinhibition effect can lead to this happening in telephone and online counselling. If you, as the counsellor, feel that this is happening, you need to use congruence and immediacy to highlight this to the client, and to explain to them your reasons for seeking to slow the pace. This is part of professional responsibility for clients.
Another example of when clients may try to move faster than is right for them is when they have a desire for fast results – perhaps through a wish to avoid painful emotions or for practical reasons (e.g. knowing they have access only to a limited number of sessions).
Some clients will naturally need longer-term therapy – for example, those with a history of abuse or neglect, or with borderline personality disorder. This can be difficult if an agency imposes a maximum number of sessions. In these cases, onward referral is likely to be a safer and fairer approach than to try to move fast in a limited number of sessions.
As a counsellor, it is important always to consider how pressure from clients makes you feel, and to separate client expectations from our own desire to meet those expectations. Taking any difficulties in this regard to clinical supervision is key.
Counselling Clients with Traumatic Experiences
Ferentz describes how – in the past – psychotherapists allowed clients to vent and be fully caught up in emotional expression when describing traumatic experiences. She sums up the results of this approach as follows:
In the short-term clients felt relief and a cathartic release. But as soon as that passed many clients were left in a state of emotional overwhelm, often lacking the external support or the internal resources to get rebalanced and soothed … They were dysregulated and at times re-traumatized. There was a high incidence of clients needing to be hospitalized after opening the door to their trauma narratives in outpatient therapy.
These days, trauma therapists will always ensure there is a ‘safety net’ in place before allowing clients to speak about their trauma. This will comprise ‘strategies to help keep them grounded, fully present, and comforted’ (ibid.) as well as pacing. In this situation, pacing allows:
- the therapist to track the intensity of the client’s emotions
- the client to increase their awareness of their feelings relating to what they are saying.
While it may seem paradoxical, slowing down the pace where needed will actually bring about faster healing than allowing the pace to run away. It’s rather like Aesop’s fable of the hare and the tortoise.
Being able to control your pace is an important skill to have when in the therapy room. The key things to remember when it comes to pacing yourself in counselling and helping your client to help themselves are as follows:
- Keep your pace slightly behind the client, allowing yourself time to think before you intervene.
- Remember the skill of silence – make sure the client is leading the session.
- Trust that the client will find their own way when given the space and patience they require.
- Recognise that change is a struggle, and you cannot do it for them.
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Skills and Techniques in Pacing
Feltham, C. and Dryden, W. (1997). Dictionary of Counselling. London: Whurr.
Ferentz, L. (2016). Putting on the Brakes as You Move Ahead: The art of pacing therapy. [online]. Psychology Today. [Viewed 29/10/21]. Available from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/healing-trauma-s-wounds/201604/putting-the-brakes-you-move-ahead
Sanders, P. ed. (2003). To Lead an Honorable Life: Invitations to Think about Client-Centered Therapy and the Person-Centered Approach. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.
Resource created: 29 October 2021