It is a saying in the UK that one should never discuss religion or politics at the dinner table. Given our history of religious wars, culminating in the Civil War this may seem like wise advice. The observation by many visitors that we seem to talk interminably about the weather may be missing the fact this is a safe topic of conversation. Centuries before content notes or trigger warnings avoiding topics which had torn families apart seemed a wise decision on all side.
It would seem clear that both political views and religious views are ones that a counsellor should not be expressing in the course of a therapeutic relationship. They would “take up too much space” that is the clients to occupy. What about when the client expresses strong views though, especially if those views are ones that in another setting you would find offensive?
Unconditional Positive Regard.
The simple answer is that as a therapist we must aways demonstrate unconditional positive regard towards our clients. UPR is a state we strive to achieve however, not an automatic reaction to getting our BACP accreditation, or completing a counselling course. Indeed I believe if we assume UPR will somehow magically happen we are far less likely to be actively demonstrating it. To assume simply because we are a counsellor we have UPR is to leave ourselves open to appearing to have it rather than actually living it. One of the ways I do this is by separating the opinion from the person. If a client said, for example, that they hated their children it would be seen as an expression of something they felt. We might explore this in the therapeutic relationship. It would not lead to a cessation of UPR since they were simply expressing how they felt in that moment, and my job is to respect how they feel. It is the same, I believe if a person said they hated black people or muslims. These are true expressions of how they feel in that moment, and should be treated as such, as any honest, congurant statement by a client would be. Whilst of course keeping in the back of our minds what might provoke such a statement, what the client is saying about themselves, how it can be used therapeutically to increase self-awareness and self actualization.
Another aspect can come into play when the client has religious views, and expresses them in the counselling room. I am a Christian, although I am not a Christian Counsellor. I believe it would be inappropriate for example to offer to pray for a client. Clients however may have their own religious views which are relevant to the counselling process. For example a Christian may struggle with the fact they are going through a divorce. Anecdotally friends have told me that they have felt that counsellors saw their faith as an obstacle to the theraputic process. Religious doubt, strains due to a dissonance of reality versus beliefs were treated as a symptom, rather than respected as a fundamental part of the client.
Taking Up Space
It seems to me that the answer of what to do when religion or politics enter the counselling relationship is to ask oneself who is taking up the space here. Is it the client, as it should be, or the therapist? If the client has religious or political beliefs that differ from, or challenge the therapist is this because the therapist wants room for their belief system in the room?