I was lucky that our good friend Elliott Connie turned up unexpectedly in London recently. Learning that he’d be around for a few days I was delighted when he took up my invitation to join me at the secondary school I work in as a counsellor. Some years ago he had come to the school and I remembered how much the students enjoyed their sessions with him.
It was a joy and a privilege to watch Elliott conducting sessions. His skills as a therapist are well known but it was still inspiring to see how quickly he developed rapport with these adolescents, and how much the students were able to reveal about themselves in our short 25 min sessions.
What stood out for me more than ever was the degree to which Elliott uses his own personal material. This is striking to me because I am the opposite – I rarely say anything about myself. It was obvious how well the students responded to him – their eyes were glued to him and I mentioned to him afterwards how striking it was that several students who I had already had sessions with were revealing things to him they hadn’t told me about.
This led me to reflect on the role of personal stories that therapists share. Elliott isn’t the first to do this in Solution Focused Practice. Bill O’Hanlon is very well-known for sharing personal anecdotes since he began work in the 1980s and Yvonne Dolan is another who comes to mind. But since, following Insoo Kim Berg, we tend to say ‘leave no footprints in clients’ lives’; we assume that in SF work the less we say about ourselves the better.
The usual explanation that is offered for sharing personal ‘stuff’ is that it helps to normalize the client’s experiences and feelings. An example is the student who said that she was struggling to come to terms with the suicide of a friend of hers. I had already talked with her about this in a previous meeting but on this occasion she added, while telling Elliott about it, that while she felt great sadness she also felt ‘pissed’ with her friend. She was therefore feeling confused which was making things worse for her. At this point Elliott shared a story of when he was a sports playing teenager and one day a good friend didn’t turn up for practice and how on enquiring as to his whereabouts he learned of his suicide. And he shared with the student how he too felt anger among his other feelings. It was clear this was a helpful learning for my student, and was far more powerful than if Elliott had simply said ‘yes, sometimes people feel that way’ or ‘other students have told me the same things’. That is what I tend to say, regardless of whether I have had a similar experience myself or not. I might try to encourage the client to do their own normalizing, so to speak – ‘have you experienced anything like this before?’ ‘who else do you know who has been through this experience?’
Is there more to the sharing of personal stories than normalizing? There is of course also the sense of increased connection made with a client, who maybe feels ‘this person understands me, they know what I’m talking about’. And there is an element I think of teaching involved here as well, as the therapist, in sharing their experience, is indicating ‘I’ve been through this, and I’ve survived, so you can too’.
There will be those, including my colleagues Chris and Evan, who will say that this is straying too far from ‘pure’ SF. ‘Normalising’, ‘rapport building’, ‘teaching’ – all unnecessary!
Maybe so. But watching Elliott at work it was hard not to feel how such things can benefit clients enormously.
A quick thought before closing. I will continue, despite this experience with Elliott, to be very cautious about saying anything personal about myself. This is because I remember Bill O’Hanlon’s warning, that if you want to share anything about yourself, ‘make sure it’s stuff you’re already worked out on’. I sense that Bill and Elliott are very together people, who know what to share and what not. I don’t trust myself anywhere near enough that I’ll not get drawn into using the client’s session to start working on my own issues!
Elliott, please surprise us with another visit soon!
14 May 2023