Counselling in Oxford

Bill Imlah :: Counselling in Oxfordshire

Blog » Working at relational depth in counselling

18 Jul 2012

As an integrative counsellor who utilises relational therapy models, I will sometimes explore the relationship between you and me, and what's going on between us in the counselling room.

The notion of engaging and working together with this "real" relationship, rather than the therapist just hiding behind a professional facade and working with what you bring from "somewhere else", is related to the concept of Relational Depth.

Relational Depth is a development from person-centred counselling, in which counsellor authenticity, empathic understanding and client acceptance is highly prized as necessary, and perhaps even sufficient to do powerful work with clients.

But where the person-centred approach focussed on providing those conditions for the client, with perhaps a sense of “doing” something for (or to) them, Relational Depth emphasises the shared experience, the I-Thou encounter that the relationship embodies.

A definition

Therapists Dave Mearns and Mick Cooper, in their book "Working at relational depth in Counselling and Psychotherapy" explain it as follows:

"A feeling of profound contact and engagement with a client, in which one simultaneously experiences high and consistent levels of empathy and acceptance towards that Other, and relates to them in a highly transparent way. In this relationship, the client is experienced as acknowledging one’s empathy, acceptance and congruence – either implicitly or explicitly – and is experienced as fully real."

The Role of Self-Disclosure

Working at relational depth doesn’t necessarily mean me disclosing more to the client about my personal life but it does require me to have courage to be more open and honest about my experience of the relationship, and its effect on me personally, than in other ways of working.

Some characteristics:

  • A strong sense of therapist acceptance, empathic understanding, and congruence;
  • A letting-go by the therapist of goals and techniques - maintaining an awareness of their aims and goals, but not focussed on furthering them in the moment;
  • A focus on the client in the here and now;
  • The therapist's openness to admitting how they are affected by the client and by the relationship;
  • The therapist's willingness to explore the relationship and to share how it affects them


The reality in the counselling room

As a therapist, there could be a risk of me getting caught up in concerns over whether I'm "in"or "out" of this way or working, or to feel inadequate in comparison with the more profound examples of this state in the literature.

But in practice it's usually more practical to think of it from moment-to-moment as a way of being-in-relationship that may be less or more present, and to keep in mind that it's something that can only be co-created with you in our relationship. Either one of us can only create the conditions in which it might arise, and trust to providence.

Working this way can be daunting for practitioners, as it means entering more fully into the relationship, but in my experience it also tends to work more powerfully.

Some ways of working with the relationship

For therapists who adopt a relational approach as their theoretical model, often the relationship is the therapy, and this can be an overarching principle, into which diverse theoretical aspects and approaches can be subsumed.

Examples of approaches that involve a focus on the client-counsellor relationship are:

Images used in this blog.