Is Counselling Learning?

Most of the difficulties in our lives we overcome by learning about them in some way. Should we adopt this approach to relationships and counselling?

On our way through life we encounter difficulties. Often enough these are difficulties about relationships. And the one’s that aren’t usually involve relationships. This is the realm where counselling tends to be used.

I would like to take a step back and look at this from a bigger perspective. We humans are born pretty ignorant. More positively, we learn almost everything: from walking to talking to…well, to pretty much everything that we do. We spend much time educating young people so that they will be able to live well (however ineffective this may be); and even as adults we spend lots of time learning new things (hobbies, new aspects to our jobs, and so on). From this point of view relationships are another area of life to learn about.

Seeing counselling as learning about relationships makes sense to me. I’m a pretty heady person, so this may be my personal bias. I know of some good education courses that have benefited many people — Emotional Literacy and Parent Effectiveness Training to name only two.

I think it was Erving Polster (a psychotherapist) who pointed out that counsellors often see the same problems and the same issues time and time again. He said words to the effect of: surely we can do better than just dealing with the same issue individual by individual; surely therapists could come up with a better way. The logical answer would be groups, perhaps educational groups.

The biggest problem with seeing therapy as education I think is the danger of its becoming a set of rules. Who wants to be told the ‘one right way’ to do their relationships? The picture I have of this is something like everyone needing to become chirpy, adolescent shop assistants — able to charm but with no real interest in a person. This is enough to turn my stomach.

This means that if psychotherapy is a kind of learning, then the education needs to be in particular ways. These ways I think don’t look much like schooling — people studying a curriculum of little relevance and no interest, and giving ‘right answers’. The therapy education would need to take real account of individuals’ experience, respect differences, and probably accommodate different ways of learning. Perhaps it is because this kind of education is so uncommon that therapy is not done more often as education.

I’d like to hear what you think. Do you think lots of people could be helped by an educational approach to counselling? Do you think that counselling is best left as something between two people? Let me hear your experiences in the comments.

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