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Relational Depth

Is Rogers’ ‘Other Characteristic’ and ‘Relational Depth’ one and the same psychotherapeutic phenomenon?

Chris Brown – LC&CTA

Aim

The aim of this paper is to report the results of a research investigation, completed in 2004, into the phenomenon Roger’s identified as the other characteristic (Rogers, 1980) then briefly present the current collated findings on the phenomenon known as Relational Depth (Mearns et al, 2005); in order to ascertain if there is evidence to suggest these are one and the same psychotherapeutic phenomenon.

I also aim to briefly outline the above phenomena as it is developing in my understanding in the here and now, and as a result hypothesise on where I believe further research ‘needs’ to take place.

Design / Methodology

The 2004 research project was undertaken under the academic supervision of Tony Merry at the University of East London and followed the guidelines for research in Counselling and Psychotherapy as recommended by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (Bond, 2002

Six Person-Centred practitioners were interviewed on the moments they felt closest to their clients and the impact such moments appeared to have on the psychotherapeutic process. The data gleaned from these semi-structured, audio taped interviews were then analysed employing the Duquesne Method of Phenomenology (Moustakas, 1994).

2004 Research Project Process and Findings

The research was inspired by my profound interest in what Rogers wrote in1980:

“When I am at my best, as a group facilitator or a therapist, I discover another characteristic. I find that when I am closest to my inner, intuitive self, when I am somehow in touch with the unknown in me, when perhaps I am in a slightly altered state of consciousness, then whatever I do seems to be full of healing”
(Rogers, 1980).

He went on to say:

“But these strange behaviours turn out to be right, in some odd way; it seems that my inner spirit has reached out and touched the inner spirit of the other. Our relationship transcends itself and becomes part of something larger. Profound growth and healing and energy are present” (ibid).

These statements resounded with my personal pre-training experiences as a client and as a trainee therapist. My fascination with the other characteristic never wavered as I continued to experience it, in varying degrees, in my practice as a qualified counsellor. Arriving at Masters Degree study (2001) I elected to explore these occurrences with greater vigour; ‘Working at Relational Depth’ (Mearns et al, 2005) had not been published at that time.

The project had its limitations for it was small; focusing only on the therapists’ experience of moments of psychotherapeutic connectedness, and due to ethical and resource constraints clients could not be interviewed.

In 1980 Rogers believed the psychotherapeutic profession had overlooked the relevance and importance of the other characteristic, for he wrote:

“I am compelled to believe that I, like many others, have underestimated the importance of this mystical, spiritual dimension”
(Rogers, 1980)

My initial literature search revealed there were many historical autobiographical assertions which described the phenomenological joining/connection which could occur between psychotherapist and client.

Of such experiences Jess Taft, Rogers mentor, wrote:

“The reason why these experiences in relationships which I call therapeutic, work healingly for the individual, is that there is present always in every human being underneath the fear, a more powerful, more or less denied, unsatisfied impulse to abandon the ego defences and let the too solid organization of the self break up and melt away in a sense of organic union, with a personality strong enough to bear it, and willing to play the part of the supporting whole”
(Taft, 1933).

David Mearns (1994) powerfully describes an observed counselling session he had with a participating volunteer.

“I was not self-consciously thinking how to be with him (the client) or how to respond to him, but I was simply being with him in such a way that my full attention was focused upon him rather than some of that attention being concerned with my own behaviour. / I was with him. I knew I was with him, but more important than that, I knew he knew I was with him. / It felt like – at points it was unbearable, the amount of emotion and the intensity of the interaction between the two of us” (ibid).

It might be possible to think this ‘happening’ was simply occuring in Mearns experience however, the client confirms this connectedness was also taking place for him. Mearns clarifies what he believes happenes when such a phenomenom takes place between psychotherapist and client for he wrote that in a sense the counsellor has:

“Allowed her person to step right into the client’s experiencing without needing to do anything to establish her seperateness’ (ibid).

The different ways in which this phenomenon was symbolised by psychotherapists, as either specifically spiritual or existential, lead me to ask:

‘Does the symbolisation of the other characteristic have any impact on the actual phenomenological experience itself?’

My research respondents generally appeared not to have symbolised the experience of therapeutic connectedness; and symbolisation of such an experience appeared to have minimal importance in relation to the occurrence/impact of the actual event itself. The interview exchange below typifies how respondents generally viewed symbolisation:

Question: “Your symbolisation of the experience, is it important?”
Answer: “No”
Question: “Why not?”
Answer: “Because it feels the more words I try to use, almost puts it in a box, it isn’t that kind of thing. It’s individual, different in ways with each client and I can feel it more deeply in my body with different clients”.

If at all significant, the therapists’ symbolisation of such experiences seemed only to have importance in relation to the therapists’ own need (or not) to give the experience meaning.

Additionally at the time my research began (2001) there appeared to be no collated data on whether there were:

    • commonly experienced elements to the other characteristic
    • when it emerges
    • what happens as a result of the appearance of this phenomenon

Through the comparison and contrast of the autobiographical reports which existed at the time, in relation to client/therapist closeness, I was able to formulate a working definition of the other characteristic and highlight its most commonly experience components, which in brief, are as follows:

  • The therapist will be relaxed yet somehow close to his/ her inner, intuitive self
  • The core conditions will be present in profound unison
  • There may be a sense of being in an altered state of consciousness
  • The therapist’s actions seem full of healing
  • The experience will not be manufactured and may not be rationally justifiable
  • There may be a sense of ‘inner spirit’ connectedness with the client
  • The experience may be characterised by a presenting sense of energy, healing and / or growth
  • The experience may be described as ‘indescribable’ or ‘transcendent’

This resulted in my working definition of the other characteristic becoming:

‘Moments of profound connectedness between client and therapist which stand out, experientially and perceptually, among other moments of connectedness’.

However, this definition in itself raised the following questions:

  • Do most person-centred therapists experience these elements?
  • When does the phenomenon emerge?
  • What happens as a result of the emergence of the other characteristic?

These questions led me to the all embracing research question:

‘What relevance and impact does the other characteristic have to and on the therapeutic process?’

The questions I asked of respondents always included the following:

  • When do you feel most connected to your clients?
  • When do you experience this connectedness / closeness emerging?
  • Are there any discernible elements to these experiences which differentiate them from your general experience of the therapeutic process?
  • What happens as a result of the emergence of the above experiences?
  • How do you symbolize the experience?

Ultimately the analysed research data collated from my research appeared to establish that the moments of connectedness which respondents reported experiencing with clients were indeed manifestations of ‘the other characteristic’.


Examples of what respondents said of the phenomenon and the experience were as follows:

“It’s hard and sounds quite wacky to put it into words”

“Its difficult to explain”

“A connection I cannot put my finger on”.

“When they look at me as I say something their eyes go deeper and they look straight at me and they know what I am saying, they change their eye contact. Their eyes will go deeper through me”.

“There is an un-spoken understanding in that moment – no judgement, there is acceptance, there is love – it’s a sense of knowing”.

“It’s a connection, a spark I feel”.

“The doing, logic and rationalising – we are talking about doing away with all that and speaking from the heart”.


Examples of what respondents said of when it happens, how and why

“A real openness, trust as well, no barriers, nothing that is getting in the way between us.”

“When I trust myself, when I allow myself to relax, get in tune, just be myself, it happens”.

“When they (clients), have reached a place where they are able to express themselves openly emotionally”.

“Congruence is there, but empathy is strong as well, and of course it can’t go without the other (UPR), I suppose it’s a real manifestation of the core conditions”.

“A knowing I feel – an unspoken understanding in that moment between us”.

“When I am in that moment of relaxing there are parts of me that I don’t utilise (intellectualisation)”.

Intimacy and risk could be felt to intensify and was described as follows:

“Intimacy, those moments create a deeper level of intimacy between me and the client”.

“A moment within these closer times when a look will suffice, no language is exchanged. I am aware of them, but it is in particularly poignant moments it’s just my eyes and theirs”

“There is this huge feeling of taking a risk – like I am risking the ending of the relationship – it feels a breath taking moment when they (clients) are going to connect or say: I am never coming to counselling again”.

“There’s a big sense sometimes of taking a risk just before it happens”

There were three distinct, common threads in the replies I received from respondents in relation to what they perceived happens in the therapeutic process once this experience of closeness has emerged, clients then:

  • Reveal more about themselves and their experiences
  • Understand and accept ‘the self’ more
  • Positively alter the ways in which they related to others


2004 Summary Identifying Elements of the Researched Phenomenon

The heightened presence of the core conditions and a sense of safety and trust in the relationship appear to be the required overtures to the phenomenon emerging in the therapeutic partnership.

This is an experience which is often very difficult to verbalise; perhaps, because the event itself is usually characterised by a sense of silent connection / unity between both parties.

The therapist will be relaxed and close to his/her intuitive self and may touch the unknown in the self.

The intensity of eye contact between the parties in the therapeutic alliance often deepens, which leads to an even greater sense of felt closeness.

This is predominantly a felt, emotional ‘happening’ which has little to do with intellectual or cognitive processes. It appears that both the client and the therapist become deeply authentic in these moments, both defences and facades drop away and the therapist and client become willing transparently to travel into the emotionally unknown and unplanned together.

There may be a sense of being ‘transported’ / ‘all consuming’ / ‘a not knowing’

The therapist is able, often non-verbally, to communicate to the client that she /he has gained entry into and understands the client’s perceptual world. Whilst these instances can feel ‘risky’ they are very pivotal to the therapeutic process.

As this intimacy between the client and therapist intensifies it organically leads the client to a more profound understanding of self and a reported positive change in the way in which he /she relates to others, and these instances of closeness remain memorable.

Overview Summary & Discussion Relating to the 2004 Research Project Findings

The findings appeared to demonstrate that if the therapist was relaxed and devoid of any professional façade and if the client was also relaxed and trusting of the relationship, then both parties somehow became willing to travel together into the emotionally unknown.

The research respondents reported that a sense of the unified presence of the core conditions was often a prelude to the experience of connectedness with clients.

None of the research participants directly reported feeling in an altered state of consciousness. However, they all reported a form of silent communication existed between themselves and clients during the closest of therapeutic moments. Words such as ‘transported’ / ‘all consuming’ / ‘a not knowing’ were employed to describe the experience.

Findings indicated that whilst instances of client / therapist connectedness can sometimes feel ‘risky’, these moments appear to be pivotal to the therapeutic process and vital to the clients’ self understanding and psychological adjustment. However, connectedness at these times appears to be a felt, emotional ‘happening’ which has little to do with cognitive processes and can in no way be planned.

It also seems the sense of intimacy between both parties is intensified, this intimacy can feel like it ‘quite literally fills the room’. However, participants had difficulty in verbalising their experiences, but it was likened to ‘that flying feeling’, ‘something perceived’ and ‘an energy flowing between us’.

It appears there is great therapist diversity in the symbolisation of the experience of therapeutic closeness, which has little impact on the event itself, but that the clients’ eye contact with the therapist often intensifies; these moments are memorable and stand out both perceptually and experientially.

In general, my research findings seemed to demonstrate that during moments of therapeutic connectedness the elements experienced during the event, are so closely linked to those reportedly experienced during an emergence of the other characteristic, as first described by Rogers (1980) that it appears reasonable to postulate that these experiences are manifestations of one and the same phenomenon. If this is true, then the findings appear to have further illuminated the phenomenon of the other characteristic, its impact on and its relevance to the therapeutic process.

The effulgence I feel needs further discussion is that just before a manifestation of the other characteristic it can feel ‘risky’. Rogers, in his theory of personality may give us a reason as to why instances of profound connectedness can feel so uncertain yet prove to be so very pivotal to the therapeutic process, for in Proposition XI he theorises:

“As experiences occur in the life of the individual, they are either (a) symbolised, perceived, and organised into some relationship to the self, (b) ignored because there is no perceived relationship to the self-structure, (c) denied symbolization or given distorted symbolization because the experience is inconsistent with the structure of the self” (Rogers, 1951).

Rogers elucidates sub-proposition XI c. further by writing about the significant type of denial,

“which is the phenomenon the Freudians have tried to explain by the concept of repression. In this instance, it would appear that there is the organismic experience but there is no symbolization of this experience, or only a distorted symbolization, because an adequate conscious representation of it would be entirely inconsistent with the concept of self” (ibid).

There appears to be sufficient evidence in my research findings to allow me to postulate that in moments of deep therapeutic connectedness / moments when the other characteristic emerges, the therapist has gained such profound perceptual entry into the client’s world that the inconsistency between the client’s self-concept and organismic experience becomes obvious to both parties in the therapeutic alliance. It is at this point, perhaps, when the risk is most keenly felt for the client could at that moment, either:

(a) accept and symbolise their organismic experience into a relationship with the self,
(b) ignore the experience, or
(c) further deny or distort symbolisation of their organismic experience.

However, it seems the emergence of the other characteristic occurs when both therapist and client are willing to transparently travel into the unknown together. It also appears that because trust in the process exists from both parties, barriers (and perhaps, therefore, distortions and denial) fall away and clients are then able to connect with their authentic organismic experiences.

The above postulation is somewhat supported by the very nature of person-centred therapy in practice:

“the client-centred model of human nature is based on a hypothesized actualising tendency. In general, clients are viewed as having developed self-defeating (or partially self-defeating) self-concepts and concomitant behaviour. These are the result of damaging experiences that inhibit or distort the process of the inherent tendency toward actualisation of positive potential. Such experiences include significant relationships characterised by the absence of positive regard or the threat of its withdrawal. The replacement of a growth-inhibiting environment with a growth-promoting one (embodied in client-centred therapy) enables actualisation to proceed toward the fulfilment of positive potential and provides a context in which the negative/ destructive potentials are not developed or destructively expressed” (Merry et al, 2002).

However, it also seems that if a therapist is relaxed and willing to lose any professional façade, can trust his/herself, the client, the relationship and the process and is with the client in a state of congruent, transparent acceptance – then the therapist may increases the likelihood of the other characteristic emerging. This appears to be a significant implication of the research for it appears the more willing a therapist is to let go of her/his professional mask, the greater her/his ability becomes to enter the client’s perceptual world; which naturally ‘leads’ the client in his/her ability to become authentic.

It would appear that if the above construct is correct, then therapists can ‘encourage’ an emergence of the other characteristic through the ever more profound extension of the core conditions. Yet, the need for the ever deepening offering of the core conditions from a therapist to a client is not a new revelation which will impact on the central therapeutic aim within the person-centred approach itself. The research findings may simply illuminate this aim in relation to organically stimulating a manifestation of the other characteristic.

The emergence of the other characteristic does however appear to be dependent on the therapist:

(a) letting go of any intellectualisation or cognitive reasoning, and
(b) being willing to move into experiencing and responding to the client on a visceral and sensory level.

It is perhaps this willingness and ability to communicate on a visceral and sensory level which gives rise to the sense (for many) of the experience being both a ‘mystical and spiritual’ event.

This ‘happening’ however, does appear to be one of deep and intimate encounter which ‘transcends’ the therapist, perhaps only for a moment, into such an experiential and perceptual understanding of a client’s world that a sense of organic union is accomplished. This in itself appears to break the ‘isolation’ of the client to such an extent that any hitherto ‘unsatisfied impulse to abandon the ego defences and let the too solid organisation of self break up and melt away' (Taft, 1933) is at last satisfied.

In view of all the above, in 2004 I postulated that an embracing definition of the other characteristic could be described as:

‘Un-planned moments of profound defenceless connectedness between client and therapist which stand out, experientially and perceptually, among other moments of connectedness. Moments in which the deep visceral and sensory understanding of the therapist for the client’s perceptual world will bring about a felt sense of organic union within the therapeutic alliance – which in turn will earnestly assist the client in her/his movement toward actualised-self’.


The summarised researched elements of Relational Depth:

Taken from Mick Cooper’s paper presented @ the BACP National Research Conference 2009.

Identifying Elements of Relational Depth

Initial
High levels of empathy – greater perceptual clarity
High levels of congruence – impacted upon
High levels of acceptance – sense of emersion - altered state of consciousness
Client felt transparent and real, coming from core and from a place of vulnerability.
The experience was one of - Closeness / Intimacy / Mutuality / Co-openness / Without masks / Co-acceptance
Client acknowledges therapists acknowledgement.
Client knows that the therapist knows them.
May be manifested non-verbally.
Immersion

Knox (2007) – Descriptions of the moment itself:
Stepping into another dimension
Deeper level
Mystical/Spiritual
Changing/moving process
Dynamic/powerful/meaningful/unique/positive

Wiggins (2009) – Factor analysis of relational depth-related questionnaire items:
Respect/empathy/trust/intimacy/connectedness
Life giving/liberating/exhilaration
Timeless/transcendence/magical
Experience of other as empathic.

Mearns and Cooper’s definition of Relational Depth (2005)

“A feeling of profound contact and engagement with a client, in which one simultaneously experiences high and consistent levels of empathy and acceptance towards that other, and relates to them in a highly transparent way. In this relationship, the client is experienced as acknowledging one’s empathy, acceptance and congruence – either implicitly or explicitly – and is experienced as fully congruent in that moment”

Comparisons of Emperical Research Findings and Conclusion

Relational Depth 2004: The Other Characteristic
High levels of empathy - greater perceptual clarity Unified extension of the core conditions
High levels of congruence – impacted upon Unified extension of the core conditions
High levels of acceptance – sense of emersion Unified extension of the core conditions
A connection - ‘Energy flowing’
‘Intimacy fills the room’
Altered state of consciousness A ‘flying feeling’ – ‘Something Perceived’
Client felt transparent and real ‘Barriers fall away’
Coming from core Therapist/Client become transparent
From a place of vulnerability Willingness to travel to the unknown
Closeness - Intimacy Intimacy is felt to intensify
Mutuality - Co-openness Trust is high in the relationship
Without masks Without masks
Co-acceptance Trust is high in the relationship
Client acknowledges therapists acknowledgement The client knows the therapist knows
Client knows that the therapist knows them The client knows the therapist knows
May be manifested non-verbally:
Immersion ‘All consuming’
The connection is most often non-verbal
Stepping into another dimension A unplanned happening – hard to explain
Deeper level Eye contact deepens and so does the connection between parties
Mystical/Spiritual ‘Doing, logic and intellectualisation fall away’
Changing/moving process
Dynamic/powerful/meaningful/unique/positive
The moment remains memorable and the client appears to move more toward actualised-self
Respect/empathy/trust/intimacy/connectedness Joint felt unified extension of the core conditions
Life giving/liberating/exhilaration Change occurs – ‘it can feel risky’
Timeless/transcendence/magical ‘Love – no judgement – a knowing’
Experience of other as empathic Entry into the perceptual world of the client

When the independent summaries of research findings are listed side by side as above, whilst there are contrasts, the comparisons appear to be overwhelming. Therefore, it seems highly plausible to hypothesize that the other characteristic and relational depth are one and the same psychotherapeutic phenomenon.

As my research was carried out at a time before relational depth had been presented to us as an empirically researched occurrence in our work with clients by Mearns and Cooper (Mearns et al, 2005) and the phenomenon was investigated from a different view point, my findings do appear to provide some independent triangulation to their extensive work and that of others.


Futher Research?

As suggested above, the comparisons between the results of my 2004 research project with Mearns’ and Cooper’s (and others’) empirical findings on relational depth appear to lead to a reasonable postulation that The Other Characteristic and Relational Depth are one and the same psychotherapeutic phenomenon.
However, I do not believe the ‘story’ ends here, for as theorised by the yet unpublished research of Hilton and Canavan (2009): Perspectives on the Landscape of Relational Depth*; what of the ‘weird’ and difficult moments in therapy? Those moments which appear to be so wrong or clumsy – the moments when we appear to make certain types of significant mistakes; yet these too turn out to be so right for the client.

At this point in my understanding of the other characteristic as I believe Rogers intended to convey, I would like to postulate that we work with our clients on levels which, at present, still defy our full acknowledgement and understanding. And that
these levels do not simply include the other characteristic as my 2004 research appeared to revealed it to be, nor as we comprehend relational depth at this time.

I would further like to postulate that relational depth is perhaps the pinnacle moments of the other characteristic; the moments when we do feel closest to our clients – but that we need to ask different research questions, for Rogers wrote:

“But these strange behaviours turn out to be right, in some odd way”.
and
“When I am somehow in touch with the unknown in me”,

I would like to offer the conjecture that the types of ‘mistakes’ I briefly discuss above are also an aspect of the deep connection we achieve with our clients and are part of the strange and unknown in us and our psychotherapeutic work. If this is true, I believe this leaves much still to be researched in terms of that which works but that which we don’t feel so good about in our endeavours with clients.

*Presented at The Relational Depth Conference, 2009.

I also believe that I have ‘almost blindly’ explored the feel good factor in the emotional depth I reach with my clients but have yet to explore the bizarre and uncomfortable in the phenomenon of relational depth/the other characteristic.


References

Bond, Tim, 2002,
‘BACP Ethical Guidelines for Researching
Counselling & Psychotherapy’, BACP

Cooper, Mick, 2009,
‘Identified Elements of Relational Depth’
Presented Paper at the BACP Research Conference 2009
www.bacp.org/uploads/files/PAPERSBACP2009Jul11.doc

Hilton, Jo & Canavan, Siobhan, 2009,:
Perspectives on the Landscape of Relational Depth’
Presented Paper at the Relational depth Conference 2009,
University of Nottingham

Knox, R, 2007
‘Clients Experiences of Relational Depth’
Routledge

Mearns, David,1994,
‘Developing Person-Centred Counselling”, Sage
Pages 5-8

Mearns D, & Cooper M, 2005,
‘Working at Relational Depth in Counselling & Psychotherapy’,
London, Sage

Merry, T. & Brodley,T, .2002
“The nondirective attitude in client-centred therapy: A response to Kahn” in journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 42, No.2 Spring 2002
Page 70

Moustakas, C, 1994
‘Phenomenological Research Methods’,
London, Sage

ROGERS, C.R, 1951
“Client-Centred Therapy”, Constable
Pages 503-505

Rogers, Carl, 1980,
‘A Way of Being’
Houghton Miffflin Company, Boston/New York,
Pages 129-130

Taft, Jessie, 1933,
‘The Dynamics of Therapy’,
Macmillian, New YorK
Pages 289-290

Wiggins, Sue, 2009,
‘Developing Relational Depth’ – Workshop at BACP Research Conference 2009,
www.bacp.org/uploads/files/WORKSHOPS BACP2009Jul11.doc

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