When new clients come for an introductory meeting, one of the commonest questions they ask me is what happens in the first session. So here it is, for an individual client, from the top. Bear in mind that most people have previously been for a free half-hour introductory meeting and will have asked a lot of questions, and told me something about the problem.
First, there is a simple name and address form. Then, some explanations. Doing personal development work is like when you visit a new city on holiday, it’s helpful to have a map and guide book. So next I give a handout which is, in concentrated form, a map or guidebook to what personal development is like, and I spend a few minutes going over the main points.
The handout also covers exactly what hypnosis is like. And there is a chance to ask any questions about hypnosis, or anything else, that wasn’t covered at the half-hour introductory meeting.
Also, I forewarn clients that at the end of the meeting there will be a question on the lines of “It’s only the first session, but do you feel this work can be useful?” And assure them that I really do value a direct, honest answer. The reason I pre-announce this is that I used to live abroad and I’ve worked with many different nationalities. Germans and Australians, for example, give direct feedback with no hesitation at all. But if the question is sprung on them, British people tend to be, ah, “polite” rather than forthright! Such questions are essential to make sure the work is focussed and effective. Since I really do want a honest answer, and since I don’t want to surprise anyone, I warn people in advance.
Then we start work. I ask first on these lines: “What will be going on in your life that will let you know that the work has been really useful?” In other words, I start from the end – where you want to be. I don’t in general start by exploring too much the problem (there are exceptions, since everyone is unique). Some psychotherapists are problem oriented, and the general public tend to think that what counselling is about is discussing the problems. But unless one is careful, the more you talk about what is wrong, the worse you feel. So almost always in the first session I’m first interested in resources and good things about the person. Always, clients enjoy that and tell me it is very useful.
Commonly I start looking for resources, starting with questions like this: “If 10 on a scale is the future you want to have, and zero is the worst things have ever been, where are you today on that scale?” Most often, people answer 2 or 3. The reason is that deciding to take action and get help is a powerful step that in itself, that with no outside intervention, lifts people from the worst of the situation.
So then I am very interested in what are the inner qualities and outer actions involved in getting from 0 to, typically, 2 or 3. OK, you are not yet at 8 or 9 on the scale. But very typically, the things that get you from 0 to 3 are also crucial resources in getting from 3 to 9. But they get ignored, forgotten or dismissed as too few or too small. Acorns are small, oak trees are big; don’t dismiss acorns.
I definitely do not ignore pain and hurt in the way that solution-oriented therapists do – on the contrary my experience is that meeting these in a truly healing way is crucial to real change in brief therapy. But here I’m only talking about the first session. And in the first session (and in major ways in every other one) my focus is on inner resources, and the deep inner treasures of the heart and the being.
Focus on resources and inner treasures works better than anything else at all, and what’s more it makes everything else work better. Even when people have done a lot of therapy before, I almost always start here, because it just is so valuable.
In addition, there is a kind of basic human respect in exploring inner treasures from the very start. If you have a deep trust that people are amazing and filled with wonderful capacities and potentials – and I do have that trust – then it just seems to me a basic respect for my client to display that trust from the very beginning.
Some people of course feel they have no such treasures and resources. They may be at 0 on the scale. The whole art of this step in therapy is to demonstrate – not persuade, but demonstrate from the facts – that they do. Sometimes problems and emotions are very severe and overwhelming. But the greater the problem, the greater the resource. The simplest action – getting out of bed in the morning and coming to the session – can demonstrate an amazing resilience and inner strength, which it is life-changing to identify and focus on.
All this takes up maybe a half, maybe more, of first session. Since my work is very individual, the rest of the session varies from person to person. But one excellent option at this point is hypnosis. Hypnosis is extremely effective at getting new understandings deeply rooted in the unconscious mind, and makes a very good complement to the solution-oriented beginning. Actually, solution-oriented therapy is in itself a type of hypnosis, just with the eyes open. So really I should say here that I commonly end the session with “classical” eyes-closed hypnosis.
I of course do other forms of therapy as well, though not normally in the first session.