Wishing you well.

Waking up into a thought can be a refreshing experience. Recently my thoughts ran onto members of the  Experiential Group I had facilitated for 22 weeks. My thought was simply this: I wished them all well. I also wanted to thank all of the group members.

I have described in an earlier blog what the function the experiential group had and what my role was. What I have not given is a facilitators perspective on how the groups development was and why I wish the members that attended well.

1st Meeting September 2015

The first meeting of the group was interesting. They came into a room that was ill prepared for any therapeutic endeavour. Chairs and tables were hurriedly arranged in a heap towards the back of the room. I entered the room and found a seat and sat towards the front of the room. Members of the experiential group came in after me and found a chair and placed it in a loose formed elliptical shape and then took to their seats. Other members were already in the room and either stayed in their seats or chose the lesson change over time to stretch their legs and take time to wander into the corridor and chat with other students. They would return in time for the beginning of the next lesson and again take their seats.

Sitting at the ‘front’ of the group became my habit for at least 5 of the first meetings. I would later change my position in the room which caused slight ripples of discomfort amongst the group. Comments included “why has Michael changed where he used to sit?” Not providing an answer and allowing the group to give reason for the slight change presented them with a new reality of me their facilitator.

Changing something small

Being a mischievous person altering my seating position in the room and not sharing as to why I had moved from the front of the class to the side or sometimes the back of the room gave the students an opportunity to appreciate change within the therapeutic space. Initially I moved as I wanted to test the group. Would moving to the left or right of the front of the room change the dynamics of the room?

The change represented difference and I feel that a number of conversations occurred in relation to the subtlety of my movement. The group responded by discussing differences of opinion about the course, each other, perspectives on race, religion, sex, counselling, spirituality, profession, age, family, the why of this career as opposed to any other. Identities for the group became a little more defined, roles the members played changed from week to week: the information bearer, joker, quiet one, challenger, agreer, arguer, dismisser, lecturer enthusiast, social commentator, pessimist, optimist and realist changed from week to week. Which offered the group a chance to simultaneously grow individually and together.

Time and Timings

There were a number of boundaries that were initially presented as trigger points which the group  agreed on or raged against. The clock on the wall in the space we used was roughly 3 minutes faster than real time (my watch). By the 3rd week I had identified that my start and stop times were out of sync with the clock on the wall and members of the group were agitated by this discrepancy.

I chose to raise the timing of the start and end time with the group to gain perspective on whether clock time or watch time would be best to use for the timing of the experiential group hour. On reflection the group decided that they would like to use the clock on the wall to time the beginning and the end of each experiential group.

By the 4th week the timing of the start had slid to coincide with my ‘watch time’ and so I naturally chose to adjust the timing of the experiential group to allow for a later start. Challenge to the timing of the Experiential Group became a frequent issue in the 1st few weeks of the group being run. No sooner had I either raised my hand or indicated that our time together had come to an end, students were making their way to the door. I found it curious. It was like something had gone wrong with the work. Their exit provided them with an abrupt end to a difficult experience. At times this may well have been the case.

Challenge

Describing the purpose of the experiential group was something I had not spent a lot of time reviewing before the group started. In short I said to the 11 members how I perceived the space could be used and said ‘Welcome to your first experiential group. How has your first day been?’ I was promptly informed that the group had started the course a week ago and that this was infact their 2nd week.

Ah, the facilitator gets it wrong! But can he regroup? Internalised thought

I then said something about the idea of safety and that I wanted to provide a safe environment in which all students could share things in the room and be heard. The other idea that was put across to the room was that they needed to be authentic as their professional logs would be marked on reflection of what they had shared in the room.

Challenges came from the group in terms of not fully understanding the purpose of experiential group, or what my role as facilitator was, and questioning if the material that was discussed would disrupt the fragile new alliances that were being formed amongst the group. I took up the gauntlet and attempted to manage the groups development as I had with other groups I had supported previously, which included the Skype group of counsellors that I met with every month and the various basketball teams I had coached.

Experiential Group as a Catalyst

If a person could take a picture of themselves before joining a group experience and then another at a mid-point of a course and then another picture near the end of the course they may well be able to perceive subtle changes about themselves.

Things like their stance whilst sitting or standing, as they talked and expressed ideas to a group of peers. When being challenged by another on a point, they would not try to slink away and hide nor become defensive but seek an empathic understanding of why the question or challenge came when it did.

The picture of themselves in the last experiential group would present them with their growth. By journeying with peers, subtle and significant changes will have occurred. For me as a facilitator all students appeared to have hewn from the granite of the course an identity of who they were and where their counselling journey was to lead them to next.

Good bye and Thanks

I have mentioned in a previous blog that saying goodbye to this first group of counselling students was bittersweet. We were able to develop a closing experience of the group that seemed to resonate with all members that attended.

At one point my voice cracked as I shared that I was going to give up ‘Fear’ and what I was going to take was ‘All 11 of you’. The closing of the group had been mentioned as an idea roughly 9 weeks prior. It was similar to the ending of the Roda when I attended Capoeira with the London School of Capoeira 1999-2001. A completing of a good dance with fellow capoeiristas.

I considered all I had worked with, as a facilitator of this years Experiential Group, ready to move on to the next stage of their journey, capable of fulfilling their roles as mental health practitioners/counsellors/psychotherapists/students.

My thanks are largely due as a result of the group’s patience, resilience, trust and belief that I could facilitate the room and support the group to hold each other and the issues discussed with sensitivity warmth and compassion.

What a ride! I look forward to my next group of students, going again and supporting learning and development.

I wish you well.

Baking: Failure – Success

The Journey into Counselling 2014-06-01 10.39.03

In May 2015 I presented my counselling journey to 3rd year students who were coming to the end of their MSc in Therapeutic Counselling at University of Greenwich. I was invited to speak with the students by the then course director Victoria Alexander.

Since completing the course in 2012 I had wondered if I would ever receive the esteemed call to present my counselling journey to students. Speaking as an Alumni, I imagined would be a mark of success. It was – but not in a monetary sense. I had, at last, arrived as a mental health professional and that was worth acknowledging in the least for myself. From completing the course, it had taken 3 years to get to a point where I felt I had ARRIVED.

When I was a 3rd year student I looked forward to meeting alumni who had completed the course before me and listening to their stories. In 2011 I was expectant of listening to personal stories that would inspire me to have incredible success as a counsellor.

Pinpoint moments

During my time on the Greenwich course there were a number of moments that stand-out. My Interview with John Lees, the first day of the MSc course, attending art therapy/drama therapy experiences, realising that I had adapted from one approach of counselling – person centred, to being an integrative counsellor. This event happened during my second year of the MSc and I will write about Laos (not the clients name) in a later Blog.

Other memorable moments include; my first counselling client that attended their appointment. I practiced in a GP surgery in SE London. My 2nd counselling placement at a Prison and my first client once there. Failing a submission piece during the second year of the course and having to repeat a piece of work and resubmit, oh the shame! Entering the 3rd year of the course, engaging in a difficult conversation with a lecturer – John Nuttall on a delicate issue, completing year 3 and looking towards the top of Canary Wharf Tower on an evening in June from where I live in Lee, and whispering to myself we’ve done it, acknowledging the support of my wife throughout the three years.

The presentation

With the group of students met in 2015, I shared the beginning of my journey as a youth worker – basketball coach, which lead to me becoming a learning mentor and then to the world of counselling.

I spoke as though there appeared to be a plan, but that would be me being presumptuous. The path to become a counsellor opened up the further I travelled along its over grown route. With each move there appeared to be a logical next step which developed, honed and remodelled my sense of enquiry. The book by Scott M. Peck A Road Less Travelled highlights the difficulties and treasures of working in the field of psychology. I happened to read the book at least 10 years before I began my training.

Creative practice

At the end of my presentation a number of questions were asked in relation to what life is like now as a counsellor/mental health practitioner. I was able to share that for me as a professional the experience is of being creative. I shared that I had attempted to bake and bring to the presentation a sourdough bread. The bread was to be used as a symbol. Sharing the growth and development of the journey I had undertaken. I was asked by a student ‘what the lack of being able to produce a bread represented?’ My response was for them ‘to think about my lack of bread and get back to me.’ In truth I did not have a good enough answer and used wit to escape the students question.

Bread = therapy

I have been working on my sourdough culture for a little over three years. It began when I received a book for Christmas by Dan Lepard the ‘Hand Baked Loaf’ in December 2011. I bought a few Kilner jars and started as Dan had suggested. I found it difficult to throw out much of the leaven on the 6th-7th day as he suggests, but overcame my reluctance to discard hard won yeast for the greater good of the bread. The yeast culture has been successful in helping me to produce a range of breads, pizza bases, focaccia and pain aux chocolate in the 3 years I have been baking in this way. I have also had a number of failures where the leaven has not produced bread that has not risen or has not had the aeration (big air holes) that a good sourdough should have.

Getting it wrong

A better response to the student’s question of my failure to produce a bread for the group, could have been to discuss the reality of failure or of not being successful when making interventions or assessments with clients. Whilst failure is an uncomfortable experience the effect of not reaching a particular point with a client can also be useful in providing information.

Getting things wrong can be of use for a therapist. I learn the strength of the alliance between me and the client, and the resilience of the therapeutic engagement. In most cases there is a point for reflection. “Was that interpretation useful now, for them?” “Would a senseate reflection be of use here, how did that story go, could it be of use, now?” I also get to refocus, so as to aim interpretations close to the person’s growing sense of awareness most of the time.

The other outcome is the person being supported finds a way forward which informs them of their resilience and that their counsellor doesn’t have all the answers!

Sharing concepts of not getting it right in therapeutic encounters with clients, with the student in question, could have helped to deliver the analogy of not producing my bread. ‘My bread is similar to working with clients, I don’t always get it right. With time, patience, be willing to accept the failure (lack of understanding, miscomprehension, miss timed interpretation) as a reason for the therapeutic work at times missing the mark, and continuing to offer support for successful outcomes.’ This is what I would liked to have said.

The future

Continuing after a mis-step in the counselling contract can result in a better result in therapy. For me and sourdough breads the aim is to create great artisan breads like those at Gails Blackheath, Brickhouse Bakery, and E5 Bake House. Alchemy occurs in therapy and can be achieved with bread.

I am glad that I have pursued the effort of crafting a good leaven that will produce great bread. Without the many failures I could not have appreciated the inevitable successes.