Words and Symbols: Language and Communication in Therapy

Words and Symbols: Language and Communication in Therapy

Words and Symbols: Language and Communication in Therapy

Words and Symbols: Language and Communication in Therapy


  • What lies behind the language we use as counsellors and psychotherapists?
  • How does language fit into a therapeutic context?
  • Can we truly say what we mean, and hear what is said, in the consulting room?
This book takes apart, lays out and repositions the most basic of therapeutic tools - the language used to communicate between therapist and client. It begins with a summary of the different schools of thought on language acquisition from infancy onwards. It addresses ways in which philosophical and social contexts may impact on the thoughts and words available for speech. Following this it focuses on the detail of the words spoken in a consulting room, and considers dialogue in the arts therapies, where speech may not be the primary tool for understanding. The book also examines what happens when words fail, how symbols are essential for communication, and whether the emphasis on words in the talking therapies has limited the range of communication in the consulting room. An example of this limitation is offered in an extended discussion of gender and language.

The book addresses counsellors and psychotherapists from all major theoretical orientations, from psychodynamic therapies through to humanistic and existential approaches, maintaining an overview that is relevant to an integrative position.

Written for students of counselling and psychotherapy as well as practitioners who want to develop their skills and awareness, Words and Symbols engages the reader in understanding the essence of therapeutic communication.


A major aspect of intellectual and cultural life in the twentieth century has been the study of psychology – present of course for many centuries in practical form and expression in the wisdom and insight to be found in spirituality, in literature and in the dramatic arts, as well as in arts of healing and guidance, both in the East and West. In parallel with the deepening interest in the inner processes of character and relationships in the novel and theatre in the nineteenth century, psychiatry reformulated its understanding of the human mind, and encouraged, in those brave enough to challenge the myths of mental illness, new methods of exploration of psychological processes.

The twentieth century witnessed, especially in its latter half, an explosion of interest both in theories about personality, psychological development, cognition and behaviour, as well as in the practice of therapy, or perhaps more accurately, the therapies. It also saw, as is not uncommon in any intellectual discipline, battles between theories and therapists of different persuasions, particularly between psychoanalysis and behavioural psychology, and each in turn with humanistic and transpersonal therapies, and also within the major schools themselves. If such arguments are not surprising, and indeed objectively can be seen as healthy – potentially promoting greater precision in research, alternative approaches to apparently intractable problems, and deeper understanding of the wellsprings of human thought, emotion and behaviour – it is nonetheless disturbing that for many decades there was such a degree of sniping and entrenchment of positions from therapists who should have been able to look more closely at their own responses and rivalries. It is as if diplomats . . .

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