Using Immediacy As A Way Of Discussing Your Relationship With The Client
Jan Sutton is an independent counsellor, trainer, author and personal development consultant. William Stewart is a freelance counsellor, counsellor supervisor, and author who has worked in nursing, psychiatric social work and as a lecturer and student counsellor.
Using immediacy as a way of discussing your relationship with the client
Immediacy is about open and honest communication. It’s about being aware of what is happening in the counselling relationship at any given moment, and reflecting this back to the client tentatively and sensitively. Immediacy can be defined as the skill of discussing your relationship with your clients, and is also referred to as ‘here and now’, or ‘you–me talk’. The aim of immediacy is to address lack of direction that might be having a bearing on the relationship, any tension experienced between client and counsellor, lack of trust, attraction and dependency or counter-dependency. Immediacy makes it possible for both client and counsellor to see more clearly what is going on between them. Immediacy includes perceiving what is happening and putting it into words, putting yourself on the spot about your own and the client’s feelings, and pointing out distortions, games and discrepancies which are going on in the counselling room – in the relationship – in the ‘here and now’. It helps the client look at the interaction within the relationship, as it is happening.
Clients often talk about feelings in the past (the then and there), rather than in the ‘now’. They also have a tendency to act (or ‘act out’) the very behaviours and feelings with which they have expressed having difficulty. They may try to set the counsellor up with the kind of relationships that are causing them difficulties in their everyday lives. Immediacy enables the counsellor to highlight these interactions.
People who rarely talk in the present often dilute the interactions by the use of ‘you’ instead of ‘I’. Clients may be helped to feel the immediacy of the statement when ‘I’ is used.
Examples of immediacy
- ‘You say that you have never been able to talk to your mother, and I wonder if you realise that whenever we start to discuss painful concerns, you give me warning signals to back off?’
- ‘I would like us to stop for a moment and see what is happening between us. We have talked freely so far, but now we seem to have reached a kind of “stuckness” which is leaving me feeling quite tense. I wonder if you share my feeling?’
- ‘I find it difficult, listening to you, to know how you really feel right now. You talk about everything as if you were talking about somebody else. How do you feel about what I’ve just said?’
- ‘When you talk about your employees, you sound as if you’re talking about little children. Just now you used the same tone with me. I felt really very small and put down. How do you feel about me saying that?’
- ‘When you were telling me about being burgled, you looked so calm yet I felt a great surge of anger within me. I wonder, was that my anger, or was I picking up your hidden anger?’
- ‘I just want to tell you that right now I’m feeling irritated. Whenever we start to talk about your relationship with your wife you clam up, cross your legs and fold your arms, which tell me to ‘keep out’, and I’m finding that frustrating. I’m wondering if that is how your wife feels when she tries to talk to you?’
Counsellors cannot change a third person, and cannot change a client. What counsellors can do is help clients to change themselves, and this can influence the relationship with third persons in a way that is most constructive. The relationship between counsellor and client therefore becomes a model, and an environment for testing out new behaviours.
As with confronting a client, and advanced empathy, immediacy is more appropriate when the counselling relationship is firmly established. As concreteness contrasts with generality, so here-and-now immediacy contrasts with ‘then and there’. The principal difference is that in the one, clients are encouraged to own their feelings and not to generalise; in the other, they are encouraged to own their feelings as they exist at that moment.
Examples of using immediacy
Let us see now how a counsellor might use immediacy with our five clients, Pat, Paul, Claire, Ellen and Danny.
Counsellor to Pat: ‘Pat, I see you smiling when you talk about being raped, and yet I feel enraged. I’m not too sure where that rage is coming from, but I wonder if I could be picking up the real feeling behind your smile?’
Counsellor to Paul: ‘Paul, when you talk about not being successful with getting a job, you sound pretty angry and as if you want to blame someone. It feels right now as if I am the target of your anger, like you want to blame me in some way.’
Counsellor to Claire: ‘Claire, when you were telling me about how you cut and burn yourself, I felt quite helpless and inadequate. It felt almost like you expected me to provide an instant cure, and because I can’t come up with one, I’ve disappointed you. How do you feel about me saying this?’
Counsellor to Ellen: ‘Ellen, when you talked about the habits Charlie had that irritated you, I felt really uncomfortable, and I’m not sure what this is all about. I wonder if I am picking up this feeling from you – like it somehow feels wrong to speak ill of the dead?’
Counsellor to Danny: ‘Danny, when you talk about your relationship with your father, I wonder if you realise that your voice gets louder, you clench your fists, and your knuckles go white. I’m feeling a bit threatened by it, and I wonder if that’s how your father feels when he tries to have a discussion with you.’
What immediacy involves:
- 1.Being open with the client about how you feel about something in the relationship.
- 2.Disclosing a hunch about the client’s behaviour towards you by drawing attention to discrepancies, distortions, avoidances, games.
- 3.Inviting the client to explore what is happening, with a view to developing a more productive working relationship.
Disclosing self to facilitate communication
Immediacy and disclosing self often go hand in hand. Frequently it is the disclosure of a behaviour or feeling by the counsellor which starts this way of communicating. A strategy for disclosing self is to use ‘I’ statements: ‘I sense that ...’ or I feel that ...’, rather than ‘you said ...’ or ‘you did’. By using ‘I’ statements the client is not attacked, and can respond appropriately, either denying or accepting that she feels the same way. It can also encourage the client to use ‘I’ statements and thus take responsibility for their own thoughts, feelings and behaviour.
Disclosing self is the process by which we let ourselves be known to others, and, in the process, we enhance our self-awareness. Disclosing self means that the counsellor makes a conscious decision to reveal something to the client. Essentially it means we share with the client a similar experience to the one that is causing her present difficulties, and use the common denominator to work with.
Disclosing self is only useful if it encourages the client to self-disclose and open herself up to the counselling process. Accurately used, disclosing self can be helpful and positive, but inappropriate and mistimed disclosures may increase the client’s anxiety, particularly where it shifts the emphasis from the client to the counsellor. The client comes with her own set of problems, and it doesn’t help her to know what problems the counsellor has. Another danger of disclosing self is the impression that it may give of ‘If I have overcome it ...’ or ‘This is the way I overcame it ...’, the implication being that the client can do the same.
Disclosing self is only appropriate if:
- 1.It keeps the client on target and doesn’t distract.
- 2.It does not add to the client’s burden.
- 3.It is not done too often.
Recognising appropriate disclosures
Appropriate disclosures involve sharing of:
- reactions to the client
Disclosures should be:
Reasons for disclosing self
- 1.Using self as a model.
- 2.Showing genuineness in helping.
- 3.Sharing experiences.
- 4.Sharing feelings.
- 5.Sharing opinions.
- 6.Modelling assertiveness.
Not all counsellors agree with disclosing self. It is embraced in humanistic therapies, but seldom in psychodynamic therapies, where it is believed that to disclose self can get in the way of constructive counselling.
Examples of disclosing self:
- 1.Peter was talking to Roy about his father’s recent death. Peter was having difficulty expressing himself until Roy said, ‘My father died four years after my mother. When he died I felt I’d been orphaned. Maybe that is something like how you feel.’ Peter sat for several minutes in deep silence before saying, ‘You’ve put into words exactly how I feel. May I talk about my childhood and how Dad and I got on together?’
- 2.Janet, a nurse, was working with Sheila, one of her patients, when Sheila said, ‘Janet, you’re very quiet today, and seem on edge, have I upset you in some way?’ Janet said, ‘Sorry, Sheila, it’s not you. Simon and I had an argument before we left for work, and it’s still on my mind. Thank you for drawing my attention to it. My feelings could easily have got in the way with you and others. Let’s think about you, now.’ Having made this disclosure, Janet moves on and returns the focus to the client.
Disclosing self – important points to remember
- Although counsellors should be willing to make disclosures about themselves that might help clients understand some part of their problem more clearly, they should do so only if such disclosures do not disturb or distract the clients in their own work.
- Disclosing self is more appropriate in well established relationships, and should reflect the needs of the client, not the needs of the counsellor.
Examples of using self-disclosure
Let us return now to our five clients, Pat, Paul, Claire, Ellen and Danny, and see how a counsellor might use self-disclosure to reflect the needs of the client.
Counsellor to Pat: ‘Pat, I would like to share something with you if you don’t mind? I was raped when I was 15, and I can remember feeling dirty and contaminated. I also blamed myself because I felt I should have tried harder to stop him. I wonder if that’s anywhere close to how you are feeling right now?’
Counsellor to Paul: ‘Paul, when you talked about all the application forms you have sent off, it took me back to when my job was made redundant. I can remember sending off loads of application forms, and feeling very rejected when I didn’t get any replies. It nearly destroyed my self-confidence. I wonder if you can identify with any of those feelings I experienced?’
Counsellor to Claire: ‘Claire, would you mind if I shared something with you? When I was a teenager I was fat, and I used to get called horrible names at school. I’ll never forget them because they hurt so much – names like “ugly”, “grotesque”, “fatso”, “freak”. I heard these names so often that I ended up believing that I was some sort of worthless monster, who should be annihilated. I wanted to murder the kids who said it, and then I felt guilty for having such evil thoughts. I hated myself so much I just wanted to die. I wonder whether you can relate to any of those feelings I experienced?’
Counsellor to Ellen: ‘Ellen, I can remember feeling incredibly guilty when I formed a new relationship two years after my husband had died. It felt almost as if I was having an affair behind his back and that left me feeling as if I had betrayed his trust in me. I wonder if you are carrying around any feelings similar to those I had?’
Counsellor to Danny: ‘Danny, when I was about your age I had a scrape or two with the law. Each time it was when I’d had one over the eight, which made me boisterous and rowdy. I remember thumping my mate once because he’d been chatting my girlfriend up, and then feeling terribly guilty, remorseful and ashamed of myself when I sobered up and realised what I’d done. I wonder if any of those feelings I experienced are ringing bells with you.’
Counsellor self-disclosure is only helpful if it:
- keeps the client on target
- serves the needs of the client
- moves the client forward to self-understanding.
It should be used with tact and sensitivity and only when a relationship of trust has been established between client and counsellor.