Working at relational depth
Published 19 July 2023. Written by Alex Corcoran.
Relational depth in person-centred counselling refers to a profound level of engagement, connection, and understanding that occurs between the therapist and the client. It's a key element of the therapeutic relationship, and it's been studied extensively within the field of humanistic psychotherapy, especially in the context of person-centred therapy.
The concept of relational depth was developed by Dave Mearns and Mick Cooper, who define it as a state of profound contact and engagement between two individuals, in which each person is fully real with the 'other', and able to understand and value the other’s experiences at a high level.
Relational depth is characterised by qualities such as authenticity, openness, and a mutual sense of value. This depth of engagement is not static but is a dynamic process that can vary from session to session.
How does it differ from a typical encounter?
Relational depth and surface-level counselling represent two ends of a spectrum in therapeutic encounters.
Surface Level Counseling: As the term suggests, this approach tends to deal with immediate or more visible issues, symptoms, or behaviours. For instance, cognitive behavioural techniques may be used to address specific problematic behaviours or patterns of thinking. It can be more focused, structured, and problem-oriented, often aiming at symptom reduction and the development of coping strategies.
While the relationship between the therapist and client is still important in surface-level counselling, the primary focus is more on the techniques or interventions being used than on the depth of the therapeutic relationship.
Relational Depth in Counselling: On the other end of the spectrum, relational depth refers to a profound level of engagement, connection, and understanding between the therapist and the client. This is characteristic of person-centred and other humanistic therapies, where the therapeutic relationship itself is seen as the primary vehicle for change.
The aim is not just to relieve symptoms but to foster deeper self-understanding, self-acceptance, and personal growth. In this type of therapy, the connection between the therapist and the client is characterised by authenticity, openness, empathy, unconditional positive regard, and congruence.
While both surface-level counselling and counselling with relational depth can be effective, they have different focuses and are used for different purposes. The choice between them would depend on various factors, including the client's needs and preferences, the therapist's training and orientation, and the nature of the issues the client is dealing with.
How do I develop relationship depth?
To reach relational depth, the therapist needs to display empathy, unconditional positive regard, and congruence, which are core conditions of person-centred therapy as defined by Carl Rogers. This helps to build an environment of trust and openness, which fosters deep understanding and connection.
Therapists can facilitate the development of relational depth by being genuinely present and engaged during sessions, responding authentically to clients, and actively fostering a non-judgmental, accepting therapeutic environment. The experience of relational depth can lead to significant therapeutic change for clients, including increased self-understanding and self-acceptance.
Developing relational depth in counselling requires a consistent, empathetic, and genuine approach. Here are some tips:
- Empathy. Show a deep understanding of your client's feelings and experiences. This helps the client feel seen and understood, which can foster a deeper connection.
- Congruence: Be genuine, open, and honest in your interactions with your client. This helps to build trust and create a safe environment where the client feels comfortable expressing themselves.
- Unconditional Positive Regard: Show respect and acceptance towards your client, no matter what they say or do. This can help to foster a sense of self-acceptance in the client.
- Active Listening: Truly listen to what your client is saying, without judging or interrupting. This helps to ensure that the client feels heard and valued.
- Presence: Be fully present and engaged during sessions. This means being aware of your own feelings and reactions, as well as paying close attention to the client's verbal and non-verbal communication.
- Validation: Acknowledge and validate the client's feelings and experiences. This can help the client to feel understood and accepted.
- Continual Self-Reflection and Personal Growth: Therapists should engage in regular self-reflection and seek supervision to ensure they're aware of their own feelings, biases, and potential blind spots. This is key to maintaining authenticity and congruence.
It's also worth noting that relational depth is not always appropriate or achievable in every counselling relationship. It depends on many factors, including the nature of the client's issues, the client's readiness for deep emotional work, and the therapist's capacity to engage at this level.
How do I know if I am working at relational depth?
Recognising whether you're working at relational depth in a counselling setting can be a bit subjective and requires self-reflection, but there are several signs and experiences you might notice:
Authentic Engagement: You and your client are deeply engaged in the therapeutic process, with an authentic and genuine connection. Both parties feel able to express their thoughts and feelings openly and honestly.
Shared Understanding: You have a profound understanding of your client's subjective experiences and you feel that your client perceives this understanding.
Presence: You are fully present and immersed in the therapeutic process, experiencing an intense focus on the here-and-now of the therapeutic relationship.
Sense of Connection: You experience a strong and deep connection with your client, and you feel that this connection is reciprocated.
Emotional Resonance: You find yourself emotionally attuned to your client, experiencing emotions that mirror or respond to your client's feelings.
Mutual Valuing: There is a sense of mutual respect and appreciation within the therapeutic relationship.
Fluid Dialogue: Conversation and dialogue flow naturally and in depth, covering not only surface-level issues but the core underlying concerns and feelings as well.
Transparency: You feel able to be your genuine self within the therapeutic relationship, rather than putting on a 'professional' persona. Your client similarly feels free to express their true self.
Shared Journey: You feel that you and your client are travelling together through the therapeutic process, rather than you leading and the client following.
However, it's important to remember that working at relational depth isn't always necessary or appropriate in every therapeutic relationship. Some clients may not be ready or willing to engage at this level, and some therapeutic approaches may focus more on specific strategies or techniques rather than the depth of the therapeutic relationship.
To summarise, relational depth is a cornerstone of person-centred counselling, signifying a profound connection and understanding between counsellor and client. This stands in contrast to more surface-level counselling, which primarily addresses immediate symptoms or behaviours.
Enhancing relational depth requires several key approaches. These include empathetic understanding, congruence, unconditional positive regard, active listening, being fully present, appropriately timed self-disclosure, validation of the client's feelings, respecting boundaries, and consistent self-reflection.
Recognising relational depth in practice involves noting signs of authentic engagement, shared understanding, presence, a strong sense of connection, emotional resonance, mutual valuing, fluid dialogue, transparency, and a sense of shared journeying through the therapeutic process.
However, it's crucial to bear in mind that the depth of connection suitable for each counselling relationship can vary. Depending on a client's readiness and the specific therapeutic approach, a more solution-focused, surface-level approach may be more appropriate. Therapists should adapt their approach according to the unique needs and context of each client, balancing relational depth with the specific objectives of the counselling process.
Mearns, D., & Cooper, M. (2017). Working at relational depth in counselling and psychotherapy. Sage.