From Ticking Boxes to Meeting People: My Counselling Journey

Darren Hopgood, Trainee Counsellor, University of Sunderland

I realised, when I researched pluralistic counselling at college for a modalities presentation, that I wanted to be a pluralistic counsellor. It was the thought of a counsellor and client being part of a collaborative partnership that inspired me to start working towards this goal. I had already spent years training as an integrative counsellor, working with ‘mock’ clients in triads, with a heavy person-centred tilt. I really did not think there would be much of a leap from this to actual pluralistic practice.

However, I quickly realised that what, on paper, might seem like a simple next step, was only a wonderful idea until the realities of the real counselling sessions kicked in. 

With my limited experience, I ticked off the boxes I had in my head so that I would consider myself a counsellor, ticking off trained points one after the other, till I realised that I was not actually a counselling, I was a box ticker. Listening so that I would know what to say next, talking to sound empathetic and smart and end up not saying anything worth mentioning and not really hearing anything said to me, really just not being at all helpful.

I realise now that, if we are honest with ourselves, many of us probably felt like this in the first session or two. The years of training asked us to consider every aspect of different modalities, that every word matters and every session has a checklist of tasks that I need to go through point after point.

I am happy to say that it took only a short amount of time for me to realise some things: Box ticking and looking for smart things to say and do in a session was not pluralistic, person-centred, or any other type of counselling I know of, I am not helping anyone in the counselling room.

I reflected that when I sat in front of a trained counsellor myself, as a client, I was not frustrated about the things they said. I felt that I was being heard and understood and that I was sitting in front of a person that was not thinking about any of the things I was thinking—well, not that I knew of. But, most of all, they seemed comfortable and confident in their role as the counsellor. I knew I was not presenting that type of person when I was counselling myself. I was present and aware enough to know how to read growing frustration in the person I sat with.

I knew that I needed to be proactive, to get as much advice as I could, and a massive ‘wisdom injection’ and make charts with pretty and informative diagrams and… after thinking this, I actually laughed at what I was thinking, and how I was overthinking how to stop my in-session overthinking!

Now I need to be honest here: I would love to reference them in this, but I really can’t remember who they were, why I was even there, or anything that was really said, other than what I am about to talk about. A few decades ago, I had counselling, and in these vaguely remembered sessions, I have a distant memory of being told to, ‘breath… breath long enough to relax.’ Well, something like that.

I made up my mind to do just that; I just needed to breathe. So that is what I did in my next session. Breathe, just breathe long enough to relax enough to get out of my own head.

In my next session, I sat down, listened to the human being in front of me and observed every word and every nuance of tone and emotional depth they presented. Without thinking about what I would do next, what I would say, or how I am presenting myself in that space. I was there, I started to swallow my own personal expectations and fears, and opened myself up in a way that could encourage the person in front of me to be open, to see their own power and worth, how they could use this time to really focus on themselves and develop the way they want and need. 

When I started thinking about ‘How will I become a pluralistic counsellor?’ the first thing I really needed to do was stop what I was doing, and to refocus on the person over the boxes I needed to tick. The only time I tick off items from a list now is when writing assignments, when I need to show skills in marked triad sessions, and when shopping.

My present mindset is this: Stop thinking about any title to give myself, any thoughts on modality, and stop thinking about being a ‘pluralistic counsellor’. For me, the fundamental strength of pluralism is the therapeutic relationship which is a respectful partnership between counsellor and client to bring about change. I realised that I need to focus on the person in front of me, listening to what is said and being a partner in a strong collaborative therapeutic relationship and respecting this person’s choices. Yes, even if I do not agree with them, it is their journey, after all, not mine.