“It’s the relationship”, a psychologist’s perspective

By Anna Mills

As I Counselling Psychologist I am often asked, “What kinds of things do people come and talk with you about?”. Well, the answer is “everything”. And I couldn’t begin to answer properly. Everyone I see genuinely has a unique and compelling story. However, there is one element that is common in every story I have the privilege to hear. And that is “relationship”. Relationship between a partner, a parent, a friend, a child, a work colleague. A history of difficult relationships, or loss of relationship, or developing a new relationship. How a client sees themselves in relation to another, how others see the client. How to communicate in a relationship, how to take care of self in a relationship. How relationships enhance or diminish quality of life. And more.

We all live in relation to one and other. It’s what happens between us, how we connect with another person that matters in our lives. Healthy and strong relationships have the capacity to heal and to promote growth. Unhealthy relationships can be harmful and stunting. We know this intuitively and we experience this in our lives. But we don’t always know how to respond to the intuitive knowledge that something isn’t right, or something is going wrong.

What I have learned from years of counselling is that clients want to be understood.  They want to be heard, and understood. To try and understand a client I need to reserve my judgement. It’s a simple idea, but I know it’s not always so easy.

By listening to a client and reserving judgement I demonstrate my interest, and my client has the possibility of feeling heard. In feeling heard my client feels connected in the relationship. When this happens, then there is potential…Potential for change, potential for growth.

That is really what Relational Teaching is all about.

In the classroom, a teacher with perhaps more than 30 students does not have the luxury I have in my counselling room to attend to, from moment to moment, to each and every student. They do not have the time to listen to every student, understand what is going on for them, connect with them. Nor should teachers be expected to this. However….

I believe that most teachers, work perfectly well with most students, most of the time. And I suspect that most students are satisfied with their teachers most of the time. There are always going to be those students though that a teacher finds that much more challenging to work with. These are the students that might frustrate, confuse, upset or annoy. It is with these students that a teacher might begin to wonder what is going on, or even how can they make things better for the student and themselves.

In my practice I have a range of clients. Most are easy to work with, and I don’t have strong reactions to working with them. Some others are not so easy, and I find myself  reacting strongly. Sometimes I feel lost with how to help, angry with my client, or at someone who may have harmed them, or I feel frustrated, or resentful.

In psychology, when we have clients that elicit these kinds of responses we get professional supervision. Good supervision can help us understand what might be going on for the client, and also what is going on between you and the client. Supervision looks at the relationship, and how each person in the relationship acts on and effects the other. In doing so a psychologist can find more helpful ways of understanding and working with the client.

For me, supervision gives me clarity, it grounds me and gives me tools and a direction to go back and work more effectively with my clients. The outcome is a good one for the client and also the psychologist.

Relational Teaching knows that teachers go through the very same process with students at times, and just like psychologists they benefit from looking more closely at the relationship in those challenges situations. The benefits for students and teachers are important and valuable.

It is with this understanding that we started Relational Teaching. 

Finally, I want to add that the more challenging clients I referred to earlier are often my favourite clients. They are the clients that “keep me honest” and hold me to account. I do have to put more time and effort in, but seeing how my client benefits is deeply rewarding. And I am sure teachers would relate to that feeling too.

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