Therapy’s Elusive Factor: The Human Encounter

anotherearth1Last week, I flew out to Portland, OR to attend the Association for Humanistic Counseling conference. I was scheduled to co-present a workshop on experiential learning with a professor from my graduate program, and I couldn’t wait to make my official appearance on the humanistic scene for the first time in my counseling career.

For me, a long flight is an ideal time to get a lot of good reading done. Your phone doesn’t work, there’s nowhere to go, and if you’re flying alone, no one is around to distract you. I decided to bring two books with me – one that I had half-finished and a new one just in case I completed the former. Clumsily juggling my reading material, boarding pass, spare jacket and carry on luggage, I hobbled aboard my flight and prepared to dig into the final half of Bruce Perry’s The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog.

As we taxied away from the gate and began moving into take off position, a familiar situation began to unfold. Four rows ahead of me on the opposite side of the aisle, a baby boy no older than 12 months began to cry (and cry loudly at that). Now, if this had been any other flight, I would have grown quickly annoyed at the distraction and grumbled to myself as I tried to focus on my book. But this wasn’t just any flight. This was the flight to the humanistic conference, and that meant that I had been inundating myself with reviews of existential texts and theories for weeks prior in preparation for the discussions and workshops that lay ahead. My mind was primed to see this stuff everywhere, and rather than become aggravated I began to curiously observe the episode evolve.

The mother held the boy so that he faced the row behind him and attempted to soothe his cries by bouncing him on her knee. She remained calmly detached, and the rest of the adult passengers politely ignored his behavior and went about their business. As the plane noisily shook down the runway and the boy continued to sob, a captivating interaction began to develop. Sitting behind the boy (and facing him, as it were) was a young girl around 14-15 months old on her mother’s lap. This girl somehow managed to remain calm during the stressful takeoff process, but she was obviously concerned by the boy’s distress. With only minimal assistance from her mother, she curiously watched the crying boy’s face for a minute or two before deciding to reach her small arm between the seats and offer him a finger to hold.

Right in the midst of the most stressful part of take off (accelerating down the runway and becoming airborne), the boy took the girls hand and gazed back at her face. For a brief moment the two simply studied each other blankly. Suddenly the boy wasn’t crying. In fact, he began to smile, and in seconds his smile grew so large he erupted into laughter. The laughter continued all through take off as they simply looked at each other and held on.

The boy didn’t cry again for the entire flight. 

I felt something ineffable in that moment, as if I had witnessed something so simple and yet so profound. The only words that came to mind were, “There it is: encounter.”

As I reflect back on that moment of the flight, I can, in retrospect, offer some observations on that brief event’s implications on humanistic counseling.

Us shrinks are always looking for the elusive curative factor in our therapy; we want to know what it is we do that effects change in the other. Is it our application of theory, a specific set of exercises we painstakingly guide the client through, our use of the right reflections and insights, timed perfectly to meet the client where they’re at? Or is it something more intuitive, and beyond the scope of “evidence-based” evaluations (our empathy, presence, or authenticity perhaps?).

If there’s one finding that all of our field’s outcome research agrees upon, its that none of these factors matters nearly as much as the quality of the relationship between the client and counselor. Indeed, no theoretical orientation has exclusive rights to “the truth” of the client, and none can be shown beyond doubt to be “more effective way” for everyone. The conceptualization a therapist and client weave together provides an intellectually stimulating affair to partake in while the true curative factor – the therapeutic relationship – is blossoming.

What took place on that plane could roughly be described as the curative factor of the human encounter in its most innocent and authentic form. The pre-verbal baby boy had no concept of “the airplane” causing the noise and disturbance. What I could see in that moment was a scared and confused new life force peering out from behind young eyes and panicking in isolation at the frightful stimuli around him. The world of adults around him seemed completely undisturbed by that which disturbed him, creating a strange and unusually isolating situation of distress.

To his nascent mind, the complicated working of a jet aircraft with all its strange rumblings, loud noises, and shakiness was beyond infant comprehension. The airplane then is roughly analogous to raw, formless anxiety entering his being. We adults experience these opaque anxieties too. The four Ultimate Concerns of existence represent a cavernous well from which the anxiety of being flows. Yet the adult brain is mature and adaptive, and it employees (often quite effective) defenses that obscure this raw anxiety and convert formless fears into practical problems that can be sublimated and displaced away. This boy and his jet plane gave me a chance to witness inchoate anxiety take hold on a mind that had not yet learned to defend.

From this premise, it appears that authenticity in human connection has the power to heal. The offering of an unassuming and altruistic hand to hold provided the most basic comfort of all: the sensation that he wasn’t alone. They recognized “the other” in each other, and even at a preverbal level, this basic recognition was soothing. A bubble of safe space was created, unassuming and nonjudgemental, where two lives had a true encounter. He felt less isolated, and as his anxiety assuaged he delighted in the simplest of connections. Soon, his cries turned to overwhelming laughter.

Authentic human encounter is what is missing from so many lives today, and it ought to be the striving of every therapist to cultivate it. Therapists (myself included) obsess over our theories, striving to build them out and acquire new, ever more advanced skills. We battle each other over which icons of theory have it “right”, and in some circles these debates get so heated they might as well be the Biggie vs. Tupac feud.

Theory is extremely important. Competent practice and use of ethical technique is a necessity. But suspend all of that for just a moment, and examine the therapy situation at its most basic element and you’ll inevitably conclude it to be two human lives coming into contact. How authentic and transparent can that connection be? How safe does the client feel revealing their most basic self within that relationship? How much power is imbalanced? How honest are therapist and client permitted to be? What are the rules here?

Study your theory and practice competently, but don’t you kid yourself! It is the quality of the relationship that heals. That is simply a part of being human.

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One thought on “Therapy’s Elusive Factor: The Human Encounter

  1. As a client of an amazing therapist, I can attest to the importance of the quality of the relationship. The only reason I continue to show up to sessions, do the “homework”, etc is because of that connection. Sure I WANT to get better, so I also do these things so I can achieve that goal, she just makes it easier, and gives me that kick (metaphorical, of course, lol) I need when I just want to stay in bed instead. Great post. Thanks! 🙂

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