What is mutuality in counselling?
I woke up in the middle of last night from a dream about work, something that rarely enters my dreams. In the dream, I am listening to a client, and when he finishes speaking, I ask him what it is about our conversations that is of value to him. His response is slow in coming. I can see his mouth is trying to form a word, but something is keeping him from being able to do that. I wait patiently until finally he succeeds and the word, mutuality, slips out from his partially parted lips into the space between us. I can feel its impact in my chest. The dream then becomes vague in my memory, but I think I express my gratitude for his sharing of his experience.
When I wake, the feeling in my chest is still there. I feel that I perfectly understand what the man was trying to tell me, and that the warmth in my chest is the result of a privileged moment in which I am part of a meeting between two persons, in which both feel understood and accepted.
I have not before come across the word, mutuality, used to describe an emotion. Nevertheless, that was the sense of it in the dream, a feeling of being together with another, and being together in a way that allows both people to remain comfortable and connected to who they are as individuals.
When I think further about that word, mutuality, I think of what it is not. At any given moment, it is not a one way flow of conversation, in which the client is speaking about their issues and the therapist is passively soaking up information, or the other way round, in which the therapist is speaking as guide to steer the client in the direction the therapist thinks best. Mutuality in counselling, or in any type of relationship, is not essentially about turn-taking: you talk and I listen, and then I talk and you listen. To put it another way, mutuality is not only about you and I. It is simultaneously about Us. The Us of this moment is engaged in speaking and listening at the same time. When I am quietly listening, I am engaged in helping to form your words. When I am speaking, I am participating in what you hear. One can think of it as Us speaking to you and me. And, of course, Us is also listening to you and me.
However imperfectly I express it in words, which reminds me how the man in my dream struggled to find a single word with which to describe what he was feeling, there remains alive in me, even without words, this experience I’m calling mutuality. It is a feeling that is present when the counselling experience is at its best for client and therapist. When it is not present, there is a sense of something missing.