If you go to a counselor, you’d probably prefer that person to be awake versus asleep, to pay attention to you versus check their smart phone, to respond to what you are talking about versus make non sequitur responses. As I’ve noted here before, it is probably better to have a counselor who cares about you than one who has a big bag of techniques–though most of us would prefer our counselors to care AND be competent.
Therapeutic presence is a way of talking about the act of being with our clients in such a way as to build safe, trust-filled relationships where clients can grow and change. I think most people can easily identify failures of therapeutic presence. Try these on for fun:
CLIENT: I’m just so depressed.
THERAPIST: You think you are depressed? Let me tell you about depression. I have a client who just lost job, family, church, home. Now, that is something to be depressed about. You just had a bad day, that’s all.
CLIENT: I don’t understand why God would take away this job from me.
THERAPIST: Well, theologically speaking, God does things for all sorts of reasons. He sometimes does this to cause us to trust him more, to reveal some sin, to give him glory.
Notice how both responses fail miserably to be either therapeutic or present with the person in the moment of counseling. Not hard to miss, right? So here’s a question: Why do so many of us counselors, even seasoned ones at that, fail the “presence” test?
My answer? When we fail to be present in helpful ways, it reveals a lack of preparation and a lack of attention to purpose.
Shari Geller and Leslie Greenberg (in Therapeutic Presence: A Mindful Approach to Effective Therapy. APA, 2012) define the building blocks of therapeutic presence as
how therapists prepare for being present (in personal life and in session)
the process (or therapist activities) of being present (aka purposingto be present)
the experience of being present
Sound like mumbo-jumbo? Here’s another way of putting it. What does a counselor need to do to be ready to be in tune with their clients? What do they do to stay in tune when with clients, and are they aware of when they are failing to be in tune? (If I am unaware, then I am likely to get out of tune.)
Here are some things counselors ought to be asking themselves:
Do I have adequate space to move from my private life to being present with my clients? Do I have enough space between clients? The answer is not always an amount of time, but what we do during the space between.
As I prepare for sessions, what am I meditating and praying about? For example, if I pray for clients to be free from something that has them bound up, I could accidentally encourage myself to push for change or to talk about a subject that the client is not able or ready to talk about. I’m all for praying for healing. I just think we have other prayers to pray as well. “Lord, help me to be with the client today and not focused on my own personal goals for them.”
Am I staying present with their mood, their cognitions, their silences in such a way that it is as easy to talk about what is happening in the session as it is to talk about what happened in the past or might happen in the future?
When I sense a disconnect, am I quick to invite dialogue and learn (vs. avoid or defend/explain away)?
Therapeutic presence isn’t everything. I could be present with someone and no healing might take place. But without therapeutic presence, I will only be a barrier to whatever growth is taking place. When I do it well, I imagine that I might see just a tiny glimpse of how Jesus was with the woman caught in adultery, the Samaritan woman, or with Peter after he had abandoned Jesus.