In From Conflict to Peace… Part 1, with a backdrop of the US elections, I introduced the notion of helping clients learn to adopt a listening supportive attitude towards all their inner experiences, rather than marginalising some and supporting others. This second part of two will introduce ideas for counsellors on how to incorporate these ideas into their therapeutic interactions. Here are some I’ve found helpful.
1. Reflect to capture multiple parts of the client’s experiences in a dignifying way: If a client is condemning a disapproved part, using an example of grief, one reflection might be, “So it sounds like there’s a part of you feeling like you should be over your grief by now, and there is another part of you that’s letting you know it’s still grieving.” This response acknowledges the voice of the implied frustrated part and the grieving part.
2. Invite exploration of the disowned parts: For example, if a client says “I have this stupid fantasy of freedom – of just selling everything up and travelling. But it’s unrealistic and I have responsibilities.” The counsellor might reply: “It sounds like there’s a part of you that values meeting your responsibilities. I’m also hearing there’s another side in you that longs to sell up and travel. I’m wondering if would be okay to learn more about this desire to let go and travel. There may be something in this that might be helpful.” In this case, the client’s dream behind travel was freedom, peace, and novelty, yet her responsible side was dismissive of it. She had lost conscious connection with these deeper values due to her routine and mundane responsibilities of life. Listening to the rejected parts is not suggesting submitting to, or acting out of, any part but simply making space to understand each more fully.
3. Avoid siding with clients against other people: Empathically provide understanding for clients complaining about other people, and once the client feels heard, invite them to consider the other person’s perceptions, feelings, values, and concerns. Conflict tends to narrow and distort perceptions, and increase the risk of more extreme reactions. Expanding awareness of the context and awareness of what might be concerning and motivating the other person can help defuse reactiveness towards them.
4. Help uncover the message under the packaging: Some parts deliver brutal and dangerous packages. Take for instance the suicidal part that is potentially lethal. The temptation in this example is to marginalise it, motivated by wishing to support safety. An alternative approach is to assume even the part that thinks about suicide is trying to be helpful in some way. Often suicidal parts are looking for a sense of relief from suffering or stress, display a resigned wish for a better future, or perhaps are looking for better internal or external support. These underlying motivations and messages are important to recognise and talk about. When the underlying messages are heard and supported, often the accompanying desperation diminishes.
5. Recognise hidden, implied, or potential parts: Using the suicidal part just mentioned, there is also an implied side of a part that wants to live given the person is still alive. This life supporting side might also be explored. Another example is when people have a self-critic part, there will also be parts which are being criticised (for example, a procrastinator part). Counsellors can listen to what is implied but not mentioned directly, and help draw attention to them. For example: “I can hear that there is a part of you that’s angry about procrastinating this week, and it sounds like a procrastinating part showed up. I’m wondering if we can seek to understand both parts – the part that wants you to study and the part that didn’t want you to study.”
6. Help the client learn to understand the part from its own perspective: This approach is recommended in Inner Relationship Focussing, whereby the client is encouraged to listen to the felt sense inside, sense how it is feeling, sense what it wants (and what it doesn’t want), and even to check if the part wants to speak. Some clients find this easier to do than others, and it may take some initial work in helping clients become more aware of their inner experiences. Richard Schwartz has a useful question in asking what the part needs so that it can relax. For instance, with an addict part, the therapist might ask “Check with the addiction part what it needs so it doesn’t have to work so hard.”
I have seen some dramatic results with this type of approach, and particularly with clients complaining of physical pain. The natural response of these clients is to disapprove of their pain and wish it to go away. By helping the clients to turn towards the pain experience with openness and curiosity, and to listen to it, they often receive a meaningful message from the pain. With the ‘aha’ moment, it is not uncommon for the pain to disappear as soon as the message is acknowledged (much to the pleasant surprise of the clients!). Pain is the body’s way of communicating to us. Sometimes the body is attempting to communicate about something physical that needs attending to, and sometimes physical pain can be communicating a different message. Either way, pain is another example of a type of experience that we can help clients attend to respectfully.
I attempt to consciously work from a position that all aspects of the client’s internal experiences are welcome and bring something of value to the client’s growth process, and that often in the disowned parts lie important messages that relax when heard. Like people, parts soften when heard compassionately. Like people, they become more extreme and toxic when disrespected, ignored, silenced, or coerced. In counselling we can welcome a diversity of messages from within our clients with the belief that if all parts feel valued and heard, experiential integration and transformative learning will be more likely.
If you use any of these ideas, I’d love to hear how they work for you. Drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.