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Meeting at relational depth: what intrigued me most

I've already written a couple of blog posts about the workshop I went to on Saturday - "Meeting at relational depth: outline of a 'research' workshop" and "Meeting at relational depth: what does it involve?".  However it was the second exercise we were asked to try out that I found the most intriguing aspect of the day.  This was described as "Matching in the experience of relational depth.  Participants will be invited to work in pairs as 'client' and 'therapist' to undertake a short counselling session, and to complete forms on the level of depth they are experiencing, and on how the therapist is perceived.  After the 'session' these will be compared and discussed so that the match between the therapist's and client's experiences and perceptions can be explored."

So to describe the bare bones of what happened in this exercise: we paired up and were asked to role play a 20 minute counselling session.  Both the person acting as therapist and the person acting as client were given a sheet of paper with a grid on it (see below).  At the end of each minute, Mick stopped us momentarily so that we could quickly jot on the chart approximately how deeply - during the previous minute - we had felt connected with our partner.  We were asked to try not to look at our partner's estimate, but make our judgement just from our own experience of what had been happening.  I role played the client in my pair and the chart below shows the increasing depth estimates I made over the 20 minutes of the session:  

Meeting deeply, workshop chart

To download an unscored copy of this chart, click on Powerpoint or PDF file.

So far so good.  An interesting question that emerges is that, despite the complexity of overlapping ideas thrown up by our earlier discussion of what "relational depth" involves (see yesterday's "What does it involve?" post), none of the two dozen or so of us doing this exercise queried our ability to make a series of snap judgements about our experience of the previous minute's "relational depth".  What's going on here?  What is this overall "flavour" that allows us to make such a quick estimate of what appears to be quite a complex multi-faceted experience?  Maybe, for each of us, we have our own particular take on this experience, just as different people might be able to make different personal judgements about the quality of a developing piece of music or our moment to moment enjoyment as we eat our way through a meal.  However there's a big fly in the ointment of the "we're all just making idiosyncratic personal judgements" point of view.

At the end of the 20 minutes we showed each other our charts.  My partner and I, who had never met before, had charted an extremely similar series of 20 estimates of connection depth.  What's going on here?  What is it that we're both tuning into that seems to be a 'public' quality, something that we both had a remarkably similar sense of?  Fascinating.  Relational depth may be made up of quite a complex mix of ingredients, but the 'fragrance' of the overall 'meal' seems to be something one can get a quick overviewing sense of.  And a further puzzling, interesting aspect of what had just happened was that my partner - as counsellor - had hardly said anything. Yet I was reporting feeling as strong a sense of interpersonal connection with her as she was with me.  What's going on!? 

Interestingly Mick took away the dozen or so pairs of charts completed during this exercise and number-crunched them over lunch to see which pair had posted the most similar set of depth estimates.  My partner and I 'won the prize' for similarity, or 'in-tuneness'.  So what was my inner experience here and could this give clues as to how or why we were so in step?  Well, when it came to choosing a partner for this exercise, I looked round the room and walked across to the person I felt best about.  We know that our first impressions of people can be surprisingly accurate, so maybe one thing that helped our rapid rapport was that I'd selected a 'good counsellor' out of a pool of experienced therapists via quickly-assessed, minimal cues.

I then offered to be 'client' and chose a real problem that I had real feelings about.  I told the 'back story' in the first 10 or so minutes (with relational depth estimates running from 2 to 4), and then quite deliberately dipped down into what I felt about the situation emotionally (now depth estimates went from 4 to 7).  My estimate is that I went down to about level six on the seven level "Experiencing scale".  And I think I'm easy to connect to.  I'm told by others that my face, body & voice show my feelings pretty transparently.  And I trusted my partner to hear me with kindness and understanding.  And I trusted myself to 'dance naked', to be emotionally vulnerable.  But even so, why did we share such similar estimates of interpersonal connection?  I can understand my partner feeling she got to know aspects of me pretty quickly and deeply.  My sense is that what I experienced and made my estimates on was - to an extent - the mirror of this.  I felt 'seen', 'known' at a pretty deep level and this feeling known & accepted led me to make quite deep estimates of how connected I was to the other person even though I had found out very little 'content' about her.  But maybe 'content' is often only a minor part of what one needs to know about another person when one wants to be listened to and 'cared for' by them.

Some years ago I decided it was high time I experienced psychotherapy from the client's chair.  I selected a series of therapists who people had recommended and went along to have two or three initial sessions with each of them (before choosing who to work with more deeply).  I would recommend this experience to pretty much any health professional - go and be the patient with colleagues who do similar work to you.  I pretty much guarantee that it will throw a lot of light on your own work and help you review how you meet with new clients and what they might be picking up (or not) from these early impressions of you.  I've been a doctor and psychotherapist for decades.  I found the experience really eye-opening.  One key aspect was how 'childlike' I felt - how at some deep level I was very rapidly feeling "Do I trust this person to hold me emotionally if I need it?", "If they were my mother (or father), would they be a good mother (or father)?", "Do I feel this person is truly competent?  Do they really seem to care?  Is this just a job that earns them money, or are they working from a deeper place than this?".  And for some of these experienced therapists, I knew very quickly that there was no way that I wanted to work with them deeply and over time.  Bluntly I felt they would be likely to "drop me" emotionally from lack of confidence or some other distancing quality.  Certainly the person I eventually chose to work with was superb at being present, warm, real.  I didn't really want or need a lot of 'knowledge' on her part - although I realise that I was a client who came in with a rather different background to many people.  

But the key messages of this fascinating second workshop exercise for me were firstly that, although feeling deeply connected with another person may be made up of a complex mix of factors, the overall 'fragrance' of the interaction is often pretty easy to pick up and assess.  And secondly that this 'fragrance' seems not necessarily to need much 'content knowledge' of the other person.  It's maybe more about the honesty and vulnerability and acceptance in the interaction - with both client & counsellor (or friend & friend, etc) contributing to the depth of this connection.  I extend these ideas further in tomorrow's post "Meeting at relational depth: links to attachment"


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