I recently attended a counselling conference. It was the first one I had been to as a counsellor- I usually go to conferences in my role as a nurse and /or university lecturer. I also have a confession to make about conferences-or at least the one’s I’ve attend. I do not like them very much! I spend my time getting lost on campus. (I have an awful sense of direction. If a conference is due to begin at 9:00 a.m. I make sure I leave at 30 minutes to get to the main venue. Despite the assurance that “The main conference venue is only 5 minutes walk from our well appointed halls of residence.” It never is in my experience!)
The other aspect of conferences that I find difficult is the “networking”-another skill I seem not to possess. I watch other delegates going to complete strangers and, within minutes, exchanging business cards and a promise to “write something” for their new journal. Or promising a chapter for their new book. “Nothing too much. It needs to be between 5 and 10,000 words.” I’m normally the chap sitting in a corner with his coffee wondering what I’m doing here. (The answer, of course, is that it seems like a good idea at the time.) Eventually I manage to make the effort and move in on a conversation going on around me. I stand on the edge for a minute or two, gently making a space for myself. Then just as I’m about to open my mouth to say something someone more important than me appears and is welcomed like a long lost relative. I go back to my coffee or wander over to the bookstand pretending to be interested in buying yet another book to add to my “must read” pile.
As you will see, I went to my most recent conference with huge misgivings. Although I had made a mental note to try and talk to someone new this time. Registration was at 9:00 a.m. on the Saturday morning so I arrived at 7:00 p.m., on Friday evening. The hall of residence was empty and I had planned a lonely evening eating a solitary meal and going to bed early. (And wondering why on earth I hadn’t caught a much later train and arrived at 11:00 p.m. having had dinner at home.)
I had booked dinner for 8:00 and went to the campus restaurant in good time. I sat at a table wondering what happened next. Was it self-service or waitress service? After a few minutes a waitress came over
“Are you with the conference?”
“What is your room number?
“101” (An inauspicious start I thought.)
“You’re a bit early. The others haven’t arrived yet. You’re all on that table over there.”
I went back to my room and came back a quarter of an hour later. And found a dozen people sat waiting for we stragglers. I sat down expecting to listen to other people catching up on the gossip since they had last met. To my surprise the person sat next to me turned and introduced herself and several of her colleagues. Asked me my name and in turn introduced me to them. This lasted throughout the meal, people automatically involving me in the conversation. The meal finished and I expected to go back to my room. This again was “hijacked”.
“We’re going to the bar now, Terry. Will you join us?”
How could I refuse?
This openness and generosity was the hallmark of the conference. I was going to write “even though I was an outsider” I was made welcome. But that would be unfair and inaccurate. Although I was a visitor and the conference was part of the university’s M.A. course, I have rarely felt so at home. At every turn people made me welcome and invited me in.
It might also be worth noting that the conference was at Keele University, home of Rogerian counselling. (I had not realises this when I applied.) My own training is psychodynamic. The gap between Freud and Carl Rogers being a large one! (I was giving a paper about my work on Narnia, written from an analytic perspective. But that is another story.
I’ve spent much of this week thinking about that conference. I didn’t learn much new theoretical material. I’ve been involved in counselling and mental health for more than twenty years and am thoroughly immersed in the psychoanalytic tradition. Yet the grace with which this conference met left me left me feeling very humbled. My analytic colleagues could learn much from this Person Centred tradition. What is passed off as “boundaries” in some analytic circles can often feel cold and persecutory. An interpretation delivered with gentleness can be empowering. An analytic interpretation delivered from the dizzy heights of the analytic chair can leave one feeling humiliated and demolished.
Similarly in too much psychiatric work, nurses use “keeping boundaries” as an excuse to avoid risking a real meeting with their patients. Too many nurses fear meeting with patients, particularly those who are psychotic. Often because they have no capacity to bear madness. Either their own or their patients. (Menzies seminal work on Containing anxiety in Institutions still speaks to today’s clinical work.)
The Keele conferencees taught me much about risking meeting someone with a very different worldview to their own. (But who took the bigger risk in this meeting is a moot point. Enough to say that I’m already planning to go back next year. If they’ll have me!)