Counselling, Mindfullness, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Spirituality, The Inner World, Ways of Being

Stranger in a Strange Land-Confessions of a Conference Goer

strange land


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!)


8 thoughts on “Stranger in a Strange Land-Confessions of a Conference Goer

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post – mostly because before turning to fiction writing, I attended many, many conferences with much the same feelings that you have expressed. I worked in academia as a counselling supervisor and researcher – touched many lives, but writing full time suits me more. My debut novel – Disappearing in Plain Sight brings some of my experience of trauma counselling and working with young people into the field of fiction. Enjoyed this read – thanks.


  2. Was a pleasure to read about your very positive conference experience. I recognise myself in your usual uncomfortable conference stance that you described. And yet sometimes I too have experienced a warmth and openness with other conference goers that has made all the difference to how I receive the whole conference. When this happens I return home feeling validated, invigorated and affirmed.


    • Thanks for writing, Jane. My experience obviously chimes with yours. I’m still not quite sure why I go to conferences- a necessary evil,I guess!And as an Aylesbury counsellor myself, it’s doubly enjoyable to hear from a colleague.


  3. Andrew Jones says:

    Sadly there is so much in the early part of this post that has resonated with my experience of the last twenty five years of attending various conferences as a Mental Health Carer. That feeling of ‘what the hell am I doing here’ is so familiar, that at the last conference, I found myself sitting through the mornings interminable presentation on co-production and wondering if I could make an unnoticed exit and do some train-spotting at Willesdon Junction or should I hold out and risk another dodgy buffet lunch.
    Sadly my nerve failed me and after a moderately awful lunch, I like to know and be able to identify what I’m eating and I don’t consider canapes & the like, real food. After a few random and unsatisfactory forays at both trying the food and striking up a meaningful conversation I retreated to my assigned table with a cup of brown liquid that was trying to masquerade as coffee and girded my loins for the afternoons interminable and indescribably impenetrable topics; wondering how any of this management speak would be relevant to me and my caring role. I would have gladly sold whats left of my soul at that point for a pork pie, cheese sandwich or a decent sausage roll!
    At the afternoon coffee break I also somehow managed to unintentionally insult the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, by telling him that people suffering from Mental Illness and also a great many Carers regard the current designation of ‘Service User’ used by Health Professionals and the service was viewed as a grave insult. When asked what was wrong with still using ‘Patient’ he got a little tongue tied and very defensive, then was quietly ushered away before rendering an answer.
    The only plus point of the day was that it, the conference, finished early so I did get an hour at Paddington Station and saw my first Class 57 (Re-Engineered Class 47/9), Loco on ‘Thunderbird’ duties and two Class 37’s in Railfrieght Coal, on reflection maybe the day wasn’t such a complete waste of time after all.


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