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Meeting at relational depth: outline of a 'research' workshop

I'm booked in for a course today with Professor Mick Cooper of the University of Strathclyde entitled "Meeting at relational depth: a research workshop".  The publicity blurb reads "This experiential workshop, which Mick Cooper has been running nationally and internationally since the publication of 'Working at relational depth in counselling and psychotherapy' (Sage, 2005), will give participants an opportunity to explore their experiences of relational depth, and to look at how it feels to meet others at this level of intensity - in both their therapeutic practice and everyday life.  Through practical exercises, pairs-work and small and large group discussion, the workshop will help participants develop a greater understanding of this encounter, and how they can come to deepen their levels of relating in their therapeutic work.  As a 'research workshop' ... participants will be invited to give consent for (fully anonymised) data to be collected during the workshop exercises, and this will be analysed and used in publications to help develop an understanding of relational depth". 

The pre-workshop information sheets go on to say "To enrol for this workshop, participants should be practitioners or trainees in the psychological therapies field.  Therapists from any orientation are welcome."  And a description of the workshop programme notes "The workshop is focused around four experiential exercises, exploring different facets of relational depth and how it can be facilitated in therapeutic practice:

  1. The experience of relational depth:  Participants will be invited to work in pairs to describe, verbally and through images, their experience of encountering others at a level of relational depth.

  2. 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.

  3. Strategies of disconnection:  Participants will be invited to take some time, in pairs, to discuss the ways in which they may tend to disconnect from others.  There will then be time to explore the relevance of this to therapeutic practice.

  4. Personal characteristics that facilitate, and inhibit, interpersonal connectedness:  Working in small groups, participants will be invited to reflect on the qualities of fellow participants that might draw them in to, and make them wary of, establishing interpersonal contact.  They will then have an opportunity to feed this back to colleagues, and to hear from colleagues how they, themselves, are perceived.

As part of each of these exercises, participants will be asked to write down a range of perceptions, experiences or ratings on anonymised forms.  As a 'research workshop', participants will be invited to give their consent, at the commencement of the workshop, to these forms being retained for analysis.  Participants will be provided with copies of their forms on request.

I like the look of this workshop.  I feel a little awkward about the term 'relational depth', but the general subject area certainly seems interesting.  In their book (see above), Mearns & Cooper's working definition of relational depth is "A state of profound contact and engagement between two people, in which each person is fully real with the Other, and able to understand and value the Other's experiences at a high level."  Amongst many thinkers who they mention in their book, one of several I was struck by was the existential-humanistic therapist James Bugental.  I've slightly adapted one of Mick Cooper's handouts linking with Bugental's ideas in a subsequent post "Meeting at relational depth: a model"

There's a lot of research data out there that's relevant, but there are also great expanses of this 'close relationship' territory that are scientifically uncharted.  Questions I ask myself include "There's pretty strong evidence that closeness in our key relationships is of central importance for stress, health & wellbeing.  But does it matter if we're really close rather than just quite close?" and, more professionally, "The therapeutic relationship is of huge importance when working to help people struggling with difficulties in their lives.  Again is it only important to have a reasonably warm, empathic therapeutic relationship with one's clients or is their real added value in a relationship quality that's a good deal deeper than this?" 

There's some very interesting research out there.  For example three studies published this year all lean towards valuing genuine depth in close relationships.  In "Eavesdropping on happiness" the researchers used portable digital recorders to randomly sample conversations of happier and less happy people.  It was clear that happier people are more social and have more "deep social encounters".  Similarly in last month's paper "A four year (1996-2000) analysis of social capital and health status of Canadians: The difference that love makes" the researchers wrote that they " ... examined the importance of multiple forms of individual social capital for the functional health status of adult Canadians."  They were interested in potential health benefits from loving relationships which they saw as " ... an emotional form of social support, (which) might well have the greatest subjective intensity ... as such, it may well produce psychological and physical benefits not available through other forms of social support."  And sure enough, they did find that relationships with what they saw as "the greatest subjective intensity" produced the most benefits.  They concluded "In our final model, the key aspect of social capital affecting changes in health status is being loved by someone." 

In the third paper "Friendship, need satisfaction and happiness", again it was closeness that was of particular importance with the authors finding that " ... needs satisfaction in best and two closest friendships mediated the relationship between the quality of all friendships and happiness".  The associated self-determination theory "Relationship needs satisfaction scale" doesn't pull its punches - the questions ask about love, care, closeness & intimacy as well as respect & support for autonomy.  See questionnaire details further down the "Wellbeing, time management & self-determination" page of this website.  While back in 2000, in their paper "Daily well-being: the role of autonomy, competence, and relatedness", Reis et al looked at seven major types of social interaction and particulary highlighted deeper interactions as being most strongly linked to greater wellbeing.  

With therapeutic work there is evidence that there may be very real benefit associated with going beyond a "reasonably warm, empathic therapeutic relationship with one's clients" to a relationship level that, at times, can feel more profound.  The well-known "Experiencing scale" certainly suggests that deeper emotional sharing is often of real importance for better outcome.  My earlier blog post on "Therapeutic alliance in the treatment of depression" and the talk "The alliance is crucial.  What are the implications?" also both point towards the probability that increased depth of therapeutic alliance tends to be associated with increased benefits of treatment.  It will be very interesting to see what emerges from today's workshop that's relevant to this $64,000 question - how can therapists become more helpful for their clients?

So how was the workshop itself?  See my next post "Meeting at relational depth: what does it involve?"



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