Silence to Slow Things Down
Skill: Sitting in Silence
Practice saying less. Keep your responses short, and develop comfort with sitting silently with clients. Give your clients quiet space to contemplate creation. Honor the depth of pain by not saying soothing phrases that may seem trite. Slow down the session with silence, making it acceptable to say the unsaid, feel what has been numbed, and express shame and vulnerability while receiving unconditional positive regard.
Sometimes, you want to be silent to slow down what is happening. Maybe you need time to catch up with the client to reflect accurately. Maybe the client needs a few more seconds to think.
Maybe what they just communicated was powerful and you both need a little time to absorb it. Sometimes silence invites the client to stay with something longer instead of rushing past what might be important. Silence slows.
Rogers’ Core Conditions of the Therapeutic Relationship
Carl Rogers, the father of the person- centered theory of therapy, maintained that, “If I can provide a certain type of relationship, the other person will discover within himself the capacity to use that relationship for growth, and change and personal development will occur” (Rogers, 1989, p. 33). That was his hypothesis regarding the facilitation of personal growth during a speech at Oberlin College in Ohio in 1954. He defined the characteristics for providing that certain type of relationship as empathy, genuineness and unconditional positive regard.
A therapist who is genuine is aware of his or her own feelings and willing to experience and express those feelings. This means not hiding behind a professional mask. Rogers wrote, "It is only by providing the genuine reality which is in me, that the other person can successfully seek for the reality in him” (Rogers, 1989, p. 33). This means that the therapist can be her real self while also creating a safe space for the client to be her real self, too. Rogers believed this was the first condition because it is so important.
We are often asked about the boundary between being completely genuine and wholly professional. Should a therapist cry in front of a client? What if the therapist is shocked by what the client says? Would the therapist tell a client that he is bored? Clearly there is a place for maintaining a professional space. Yet, in Rogers’ theoretical approach to counseling and psychotherapy, he would argue that it is essential to the relationship to be real. We suggest this question to help you determine what or how much to share:
'Is your response about you or the client?'
As long as it is client-centered, it is probably appropriate to share. That means that sobbing out of your own sadness, appearing appalled by a client’s choices because they disagree with your own values, or yawning out of boredom are inappropriate because they are about you. However, at times you may cry with a client as an acknowledgement beyond words of their sorrow. You may honestly say that you are surprised, and, yes, you may challenge a client by noticing that you are bored with the client’s narrative and inquiring if the client has noticed that reaction from others.
We have found that this concept of genuineness is very freeing. It allows us to be fully present without the distraction of tamping down who we are as the helper in the room. It also frees us to use our most valuable tool to the fullest, the person of the counselor. Being highly effective at genuineness is predicated on two things. First, therapists must know themselves well enough to identify what they are feeling. Second, therapists need to identify whether their responses are about them or the clients. In addition, therapists need to determine those two things quickly in the moment. Like the other core conditions that Rogers identified, these are learned skills even though some are naturally better at it than others.
Unconditional Positive Regard
The next core condition is what we describe as believing that all clients have inherent worth simply because they exist. Rogers described unconditional positive regard early on as acceptance and wrote that,
By acceptance I mean a warm regard for him as a person of unconditional self-worth - of value no matter what his condition, his behavior, or his feelings... This acceptance of each fluctuating aspect of this other person makes it for him a relationship of warmth and safety, and the safety of being liked and prized as a person seems a highly important element in a helping relationship.
(Rogers, 1989, p. 34).
When the therapist truly has unconditional positive regard for the client, it frees the client to explore areas that are unsavory or shameful, whether those feelings are real or perceived. It creates a relationship where clients can share thoughts, feelings and behaviors that would risk censorship in other relationships. It is essential for a safe therapeutic working relationship.
We believe that Rogers’ final condition, empathy, is the most important of the three core conditions, but it is built on the foundation of the first two. Empathy is trying to understand the client’s world from the client’s perspective. There is a cartoon that shows this well. It has two characters looking at a number from opposite sides. To one, the number looks like a nine and to the other it looks like a six, even though they are looking at the same thing. Empathy is working with the client to understand how what you believe to be a nine is a six from the client’s perspective, and during your therapeutic time together, it is indeed a six.
In practical terms, it might mean reflecting back what seems like an affirmation of truth when a client shares that the childhood abuse was her fault, even though you clearly know that it was not, because you understand how she came to that conclusion. You are validating her perspective, not the truth of it. (Do not worry. When you truly understand the client’s perspective, you make space for change, including the client being able to say or show you that maybe it was not her fault. That shift is more powerful than you challenging her conclusion before you understand how she came to believe it.)
It is only as I understand the feelings and thoughts which seem so horrible to you, or so weak, or so sentimental, or so bizarre - it is only as I see them as you see them, and accept them and you, that you feel really free to explore all the hidden nooks and frightening crannies of your inner and often buried experience .
(Rogers, 1989, p. 34).
Much of the work that begins to shift into change in Creative Play Therapy happens in the creation and expressive stages, which are often much less verbal or even nonverbal phases. This is why we maintain that talking is supplemental. To facilitate the work in those stages, therapists must become adept at active listening, reflective responses, and sitting in silence. These skills need practice to sharpen them, but they greatly enhance the therapeutic working relationship and improve outcomes. After all, is that not what we want, to be highly skilled and highly effective in our work?
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