Graham Westwell is a Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader in Counselling and Psychotherapy. He sat down to talk to us about the person-entered experiential model of counselling and what it takes to study and train in this approach.
The Person-Centred Experiential approach to counselling and psychotherapy
The Person-Centred Experiential (PCE) model of therapy is the therapeutic model that students on the BA (Hons) Counselling & Psychotherapy programme practice. It is a very process and emotion focussed approach, based on a genuinely empathic and compassionate therapeutic relationship. This means that the therapist is providing a relational space in which the client will feel sufficiently safe enough to begin to talk about the things they’ve been holding in, and then ensuring that they do not feel alone, and do not feel like there’s something wrong with them. The PCE model can also be referred to as a ‘potentiality model’ in that it is based on the principle of supporting people to realise their own potential. For the client, PCE therapy is the process of becoming more congruent, experiencing a sense of emotional release, and allowing themselves to become more existentially free – that’s where the healing comes. This approach is a deeply radical way of relating to people. The therapist is very present in the moment and having developed their own practice to become attuned to the client’s meanings and feelings, they endeavour to convey their empathic understanding to the client.
The importance of this model
The most important thing about this model of therapy is that it is not about labelling or diagnosing people. It is about understanding a client’s experiences, from their perspective, with depth, respect and consistency. We’re socially conditioned into expecting other people to know how to fix things, so another importance of PCE therapy is that it is not about problem-solving, fixing people, offering advice, or being an expert. PCE therapy is about successfully holding a safe and consistent empathic space for the client, understanding how they see the world through their own eyes and conveying this understanding to the client.
What it takes to be a PCE therapist
It is all about being courageous and curious – learning about yourselves, learning to be self-accepting and opening-up to your own emotional experiences. This degree and model of therapy is for people who feel very passionate and compassionate about listening to and being with clients. Students often come into this degree thinking that they’re going to need to be clever in how they respond empathically, but what they develop instead is the capacity to stay within the client’s frame of reference – listening to and validating what the client is sharing. As the sessions continue, this empathic process allows the client to feel settled and non-threatened in the therapeutic space. For students, learning this approach can be very emotionally challenging, painful, upsetting and exhausting, but, importantly, it also becomes a revelation as they begin to feel alive and see the world and their relationships in a very new and profoundly different way.
How students can explore these themes at Edge Hill?
All the modules on the BA (Hons) Counselling & Psychotherapy programme are ‘invitations to turn inwards’ and focus on your own personal emotional process. In first year, the Faculty of Health, Social Care and Medicine provides financial support of up to £500 per student for their individual therapy. Students receive an additional £500 per year in second and third year, for their individual external supervision. Right from the very start of the degree, there are lots of opportunities for students to develop their counselling practice in pairs and threes.
Across all three years of the programme, there is also a Personal Development group-based module, which provides a space where students can be together and begin to learn how to be with their feelings and emotions in a group. In second and third year, there is a supervision module where students can bring client work and receive feedback from peers and academic facilitators. This programme is very much about group experiences and learning how to ‘live the theory’ (experiential learning). Students also undertake supervised placements in second and third year and practice with bona fide clients. We have around 65 placement providers, all of which have an existing counselling service and are used to taking on student practitioners. In a sense, this degree is both a degree on the students themselves and a degree on how to practice the Person-Centred Experiential model of therapy. We’re interested in what things mean to people, how they feel, and how they are living in the world. On the BSc (Hons) Critical Approaches to Counselling & Psychotherapy, although this is not a practice-based programme, there is also a lot of emphasis on relational and experiential learning and applying it in a broader sense such as in establishing and leading a community-based support group. The BSc programme has a focus on international perspectives of mental health and will equip students with the qualities and work-based skills needed to respond with empathy in a variety of roles supporting others.