While roughly in agreement in many areas, existential and person-centred approaches to counselling each reveal weaknesses in the other as well as offering straightforward ways to augment therapeutic practice.
The relationship between these two approaches to counselling becomes more complex when seen the through the eyes of practical application.
The Role of Expertise and Skills
Van Deurzen apparently has no qualms about positioning the existential counsellor as an expert: “From the outset the therapeutic relationship will be strictly defined as a professional one, where the practitioner is the expert, consulted and employed by the client” (van Deurzen 2002a, p. 34). Elsewhere, she indicates that “existential therapists are required to be wise and capable of profound and wide-ranging understanding of what it means to be human” (van Deurzen 2002b, p. 198). The notion that the therapist should lay claim to wisdom is unpalatable to me (and I think I can hear Carl Rogers turning in his grave).
It appears to me that this view of the therapist does not follow naturally from other parts of the theoretical apparatus of existential counselling, but is instead bolted on as an additional requirement. I.e., nothing in the rest of the existential approach appears to demand the therapist be wise, only that the therapist must be capable of facilitating the client’s own exploration of what matters to him. We can reasonably infer that the therapist requires certain skills of philosophical reflection and must have the psychological capacity to follow the client’s explorations throughout the whole realm of human experience, from emotion to intellect. But the having of such skills does not seem to me to imply that the therapist is actually wise (any more than being relatively free of psychological disturbance implies that one grasps the meaning of life).
Person-centred approaches, of course, are typically taken to abhor expertise of all kinds. In my view, there is significant internal inconsistency in this attitude, and if this were another article, I would love to address that topic, but instead I would like to focus on what person-centred theory doesn’t say about the role of expertise. My concern centres on what person-centred theory doesn’t say about the actual therapeutic quality of what the therapist delivers to the client in the form of congruent responses. Much attention is paid to congruence, as one of Rogers’s core conditions, but very little is paid to what is actually said when being congruent. That is, attention centres on the form of the response — is it congruent? — and not on the content of that response. The received wisdom seems to be that if the therapist just does a good job of being congruent, and if the therapist is herself accepting and empathic and relatively free of psychological disturbance (or at least self-aware about her areas of psychological disturbance), then it won’t really matter so much what she actually says.
The problem for the person-centred approach is that in many areas, it is possible empirically to categorize responses as being generally more facilitative or generally less facilitative (e.g., in the case of sexual abuse, see Draucker 2000). Yet both types of responses might well come from congruent, sensitive, empathic, relatively well-adjusted therapists! One can imagine two different therapists, each of whom does a good job of delivering the core conditions, yet who differ in their responses to a given client in a way which makes a therapeutic difference. One obvious potential differentiator between the two then becomes the knowledge which each possesses about the likelihood that a given response will be facilitative. It is difficult to conceive of how a more knowledgeable counsellor could be less helpful to a client, ceteris paribus. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of how a more knowledgeable counsellor could fail to be more helpful, ceteris paribus. If that is true, then it suggest that the person-centred rejection of expertise rests upon an unjustified assumption that increasing knowledge somehow implies impairment of a therapist’s ability to deliver the core conditions — that the ignorant therapist is somehow apt to be more empathic, congruent, or accepting (i.e., that the ceteris paribus rider is necessarily false).
So it seems that while at least one author has unnecessarily laden the existential approach with a requirement that its therapists be wise, the person-centred approach has faltered in taking its rejection of expertise to an extreme that may actually be counter-productive to clients.
In my own experience with clients interested in exploring questions of meaning, I have found that my philosophical background has enabled me to keep up, to understand more quickly, and thus to be more present and available to the client than I believe I would have been without that background. It was simply familiarity with some of the ways of thinking, intuiting, and finding meaning in emotion which clients employed which I believe helped me to make more facilitative responses than I otherwise might have. There has been no question of applying philosophical ‘expertise’ — and certainly not ‘wisdom’! Rather, fluency in the patterns of thought and meaning explored by clients has simply made me a better person-centred counsellor for those clients.
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