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Interview about psychotherapy

For many months we’ve read John Halker’s articles in The Guernsey Life and we finally got him to keep still long enough to ask him some questions about his work.

Q. In the two years you’ve been writing for us we have seen you described as a psychotherapist, a clinical hypnotherapist, a relationship counsellor and a corporate advisor. What are all these things and what is the difference between them?
A. The dividing line between all the headings is blurred, but what I really do is to help people change their minds and to design and build a life for themselves that will work. People can use whatever title they want and which may suit them. Each of those words conjures different things for each person but they are all areas in which I have skills, qualifications, success and experience. Of course, they all mesh together very well and it’s just a matter of reaching inside the toolbox to use the right tool at the right time. Hypnosis is a tool that I use and I’ve seen that it can have a powerful effect if used in the right way. The foundation for my work is the Human Givens philosophy of psychotherapy, which is the first real scientific approach to understanding and improving mental health.

Q. What about the corporate work?
A. I used to be President and CEO of a US corporation involved in software development for the medical world, so I know what is involved in running a company and employing people. So, my colleagues and I are eminently qualified to offer pragmatic solutions which work – there’s no place for airy-fairy ideas in the boardroom, and companies steer a very wide berth around some of the more weird ideas to help companies and people. I’ve done this kind of work in the corporate world for many years and it’s usually so easy from the outside looking in to see some of the problems in a company’s culture. Very often the problem can be people in the team competing with each other instead of competing outside, so my colleagues and I do quite a lot of work in building original ideas to get everybody sharing the common goal. It’s OK to compete at being the best batsman as long as everybody is batting in the same direction. We also do individual and executive coaching at senior management level, both here in the Channel Islands as well as in the UK. I think of it as Just-In-Time training in some instances, but it does have wider application.

Q. How do you juggle family life with all your trips to work in the UK?
A. My colleagues in The Grove Consultancy now do much of the corporate work in the UK, helping all sorts of organisations and companies including some significant global players to improve the way they help their people to help the organisation. For me personally the UK end of things is really only a couple of days every few weeks, and I can fit in two full days’ work and only be away for one night.

Q. There is always a lot of mystique surrounding hypnosis and what it really is, and searches on the Internet show thousands of web sites that disagree with each other. Can you explain what hypnosis actually is?
A. I wish I could find a way to explain exactly what is happening when somebody is hypnotised, but it is somewhat difficult to get one’s head round, and each person’s perception is different in terms of what happened to them and what it felt like. To hypnotise somebody you need to get them to suspend their critical faculty, and to then accept selective thinking. How that’s done is a bit like asking a surgeon how he does an operation. He or she knows he needs to make an incision, and he knows that no two people will look exactly the same when he gets inside. So he has a body of knowledge and a wealth of experience to dip into once he has made his cut. Once there he may well find other things that had not been identified as problems before but they must be dealt with for the job to be finished. Think of hypnosis as accelerated learning – I can give some information to somebody to help them change their life, but using hypnosis I can take away much of their fear of using that new ‘tool’ and give them a much clearer picture of how good life will be once they have made the necessary changes. Try not to get too caught up in how it’s done, but you could get mesmerised by how powerful it is in the right hands.

Q. Can hypnosis be dangerous?
A. There are many people who have attended ‘learn how to be a hypnotist in one weekend’ courses. Mostly, they simply end up using it to entertain their friends, but it is worth remembering that you can do serious psychological damage, much more so if somebody is stressed and also a good hypnotee, and it would be too easy to put somebody into an artificially psychotic state without realising it. If you are going to see somebody to help with changing your mind in some way, just make sure the person has received many years of training in general psychology and psychotherapy as well as hypnosis, so they can just use hypnosis as one of a numbers of tools in their toolbox.

Q. Hollywood has given us an impression of what psychotherapy is all about. Is that an accurate depiction of what will happen to a client?
A. Far from it, in my experience. There are simply too many therapists and counsellors asking clients to tell them all about how bad they feel, how angry they feel and how badly it is all affecting their life. That approach can be very damaging indeed and it is now generally recognised that the psychodynamic approach or the psychoanalytic method can simply exacerbate the problem. I often get chatting to people at social or business events, and they freely exclaim that they have been in therapy for many months, sometimes years. When I ask them if they are feeling better yet they mostly say that they are making progress but they hope to feel better soon. Where I come from we call that patient abuse, and it is such an old-fashioned idea of how to help somebody. It’s as daft as telling somebody to punch a cushion or to do primal screaming to let out their anger – it just makes things worse. The simple act of sitting down with somebody who is a good reflective listener, and trying to explain the problem, can be a healing experience in itself, but it is vital that anybody involved in counselling is trained in reflective listening so that the client is not dwelling and ruminating on an age-old problem, and how their every waking moment has been blighted by the fact that their mother spoke to them sharply when they were very young. I’m not in any way belittling people who have suffered difficult lives for those kinds of reasons, but it is vital that the client’s focus is steered towards finding an answer to the problem, and using their imagination to experience the day when the problem is gone, and what their world will look like when they no longer have that problem. They are standing in the station telling me about their problem and the cause of it, so I ask them to buy a ticket to a destination of their choice and to tell me how they will know when they’ve reached it, and how we can measure progress towards it. That’s the very basics of solution-focused therapy. I believe everybody needs to leave my room feeling better than when they arrived, and that should continue for every visit. Quite often we are able to find a solution in one or two sessions, leaving the client to do their homework for a few weeks before coming back to me to make sure that he or she has achieved their goal. It may also be helpful to mention something about men and psychotherapy – sadly, we are still at a stage where many men see psychotherapy as a matter for women, as men are not in touch with their feelings and do not express themselves in the same way. Many men end up on my couch only after many years of suffering when they could have been helped much sooner, if only they had asked. If I could make a change in the world of therapy I would simply get men convinced that they can be helped to lead much more fulfilling and rewarding lives if they were to ask for help a little sooner rather than suffering in silence.

Q. There still seems to be a stigma about mental and emotional health matters. Why is that, and what can be done about it?
A. I believe that much of that stigma is to do with fear of the unknown and the very old idea that mental illness is to do with a weakness in character. Very recently I was chatting with a group of people about exactly that issue. A very well educated and intelligent local men’s group believed that depressed people merely needed a good talking to and to pull themselves together. Nothing could be further from the truth. Having something wrong with your mind is exactly the same as having a broken leg – it’s a real problem which needs good help and support to fix it. In most cases both can be fixed with the right treatment and a little patience and understanding. It is quite natural to fear that which we do not understand so some basic information about emotional health issues will serve to bring it out into the open. I am not exaggerating when I say we are in the middle of an anxiety epidemic, fuelled by the media in many cases, but also primed by the use of clever psychology in trying to sell us products and services.

Q. What’s the most rewarding part of your work?
A. There is so much that I enjoy, and it is a brilliantly rewarding profession to be involved in, but I do get most satisfaction from dealing with children, as kids have such an open and vivid imagination. It is always so sad to see children as young as six or seven being brought to me because of their anxiety or their phobia. Happily, much can be done to help children and it is always so fulfilling to see results in that way.

Q. If you could change one thing what would it be?
A. I couldn’t just stop at one I’m afraid. I do believe that we can all have much better emotional and mental health with very little effort and negligible expense. It’s really time to embrace the concept of us all taking a proactive approach to our mental health. Youngsters need to be offered basic anxiety management tools when they are still at school, using simple, basic tools such as mindfulness exercises. We are all told we must keep our bodies fit through good diet and exercise, but we tend to wait until we are greatly distressed be fore we ask for help to sort out our emotional health. A great deal could be done to bring emotional health issues into the open at school, university and in the workplace so that we can all start to take a proactive approach to maintaining good mental health.

Based at The Grove Clinic in St. Peter Port, John Halker is a Psychotherapist and Clinical Hypnotherapist using the Human Givens approach to his work. He also applies those principles to his work in coaching and relationship counselling. You can find out more about John and his work at www.grove-clinic.com. In Guernsey call 01481 729911 or in London call 020 7193 2842.

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