In my years of counselling, I listen to many opinions I disagree with. I have to listen to them – it’s my job. A client can say anything they like to me, however strange, awkward, difficult or distasteful, and I will hear it with something as close to equanimity as I can muster. I don’t find it hard to do. Frankly, I find it harder to gather an opinion, in this world of multiple perspectives. So I let the client speak their truth, because that’s what matters.
When you go to counselling, you get a chance to explore. This involves letting out thoughts, feelings and opinions that you may not even know you had. Did you know you disliked that relative so much? Did you know you were so terrified of that particular action or person? Did you know that you held two completely opposing views at the same time?
At first, it doesn’t matter whether your truth is right or wrong. It simply matters that you let it out for a walk, so that you can stand beside it, and see how it feels. Often, a client subtly changes their view over time. They may start with a firm opinion that their partner is behaving abominably, and progress to the gentler thought that their partner is suffering. They may start with the view that the world owes them a living, and modify that to the thought that the world is a little bit blind, and a little bit unjust, and they need to take action to secure their next job.
Telling our truth is not the final thing we often think it is. We are sharing our temporary blueprint of the world, offering it up for examination by ourselves and others. Only then can we explore and develop. Unfortunately, we often spend years spouting out things we call truths, but are in fact darts of poison, attempts to hurt and disable anyone who gets in our way. ‘I was only telling the truth!’ we say, when we have just hurt someone by saying they are ugly, or bad, or stupid.
So when I hear a client, or a friend, tell me something, I hear it like a story. They are sharing something about themselves and their world. I ask myself: ‘Where are you coming from, and where are you trying to go?’ ‘What need is it that makes you say such a thing?’ ‘What are you trying to make me say back? Do you see me as a judge? Are you trying to win my approval?’ Sometimes I join the client in looking at the world with their point of view. I learn to see how harsh it looks, or how frustrating, or how beautiful. Sometimes I bathe in it, with them. And sometimes I stand a little apart, where it might help them if I show some dissociation and independence.
Above all, I am interested in knowing what world the other lives in, and how that world impacts upon their ability to feel whole. Are they surrounded by demons who persecute them? Are they bored, and unable to find a next action that works for them? Are they afraid, hiding themselves and restricting their movement? If I can be there with them, for a time, at least they have a companion.
To hear another’s truth is not to condone it. But if we’re going to help each other develop ourselves, then we have to learn to enter each other’s worlds with some kind of empathy. We need an ability to see with others’ eyes, and to generate an understanding from what we see. If someone is suicidal, instead of making them ‘wrong’, we can (if we can bear to share their world for a while) give them a fellow person to link up with. If someone is angry, instead of making them ‘bad’, we can show them that we are not afraid of that anger, and are interested in what it means. Instead of dividing the world into right and wrong, we can find meaning in it.
Presence is the ability to find meaning in practically anything, just by experiencing it. In counselling, useful presence is the ability to engage with a client’s experience in a way that they find meaningful and useful. Otherwise, however ‘in the right’ the counsellor may feel, for the client the counselling is meaningless and useless. The same is true of friendships. If we are too concerned with ‘being right’, then we forget to ‘be with’.