A Review of: Are Talking Therapies Sitting on Their Hands? – Why Touch Matters, with Doris Prügel-Bennett on Monday, 17th October, 2016

Doris was kind enough to step in at the last minute as our original speaker unfortunately had to cancel. This talk was extremely interesting and challenged all of us to think about the issues that may come up if we use or might use touch within our therapy room.

I particularly liked the “Every touch leaves a trace” phrase. We can all think of a moment when we were comforted by someone’s touch or perhaps we were hurt by someone’s touch. Doris explained that the aim of the evening was to open a discussion about the status of touch. She invited us to be self-reflective while thinking about our own and other modalities. She also presented some of her own research on this subject.

We began the evening recognising that touch is important in many aspects of our lives. Touch is unconscious and has a certain “magical” aspect to it. Touch is part of marketing strategies, carers’ daily job activities, artists’ creative processes and final master pieces. Doris went on to explain that our society has been de-skilled of the sense of touch. We are doing less and less with our hands compared to a century ago.  Also I learned that touching as a therapy has a name: HAPTICS

Doris invited us to discuss with the other members in our table how touch is used, or not, in the counselling room. There was a moment of pause followed by some very engaging and thought provoking conversations. The whole group fed back some interesting ideas and thoughts. We discovered that some of us do offer (or it just happens) some sort of touch in therapy; for example shaking hands at the beginning / end of session. We also talked about the client’s need for touch from the therapist via a hug at the end of session and what we do (or do not do) when that happens.

Doris talked about Richard Heslin’s five haptic categories: Functional/professional (expresses task orientation), Social/polite (expresses ritual interaction), Friendship/warm (expresses idiosyncratic relationship), Love/intimacy (expresses emotional attachment), Sexual/arousal (expresses sexual intent) and invited us to think how psychotherapy fits into these categories.

I was particularly touched by a member’s comments that was something like this: “It is one thing if a client says ‘I didn’t like what my counsellor said to me’ compared to ‘I didn’t like how my counsellor touched me’”. This felt very important to me because I can see how appropriately touching a client may be soothing and comforting,  yet we do not know what meaning a client would make of our touch. I feel I have a professional duty to know and be aware of what touching a client may mean to me (and be quite clear about it), but again I do not know what meaning it will have for my client.

Doris spoke about her own research on haptic work. This research was by questionnaire with psychodrama psychotherapists. She discovered that there is not much haptic literature available and there is a misunderstanding about physical contact engagement. This got me thinking about how I think I would need to be trained to touch my clients in the therapy room. It feels too risky and quite frankly scary. Doris’s research conclusion was that there is no dedicated haptic training out there. There are many questions that are quite challenging in regards to touching our clients: is it ethical? professional?, does is feel safe for practitioner and client?

Doris’s research also showed that all participants interviewed were very conscientious about ethical conduct and that touch can be very powerful when it is used or withheld as a psychotherapeutic intervention. Most participants did engage in some sort of touch-contact with clients usually at the client’s request or client’s initiated contact. There was also a reluctance by participants towards engaging in learning about haptics and skill training.

It is Doris’s view that psychotherapy needs to get involved more in haptic science as it has a lot to offer. The question for us is… how? when? where? why? She believes haptic work should be undertaken after some sort of training as we have no way of knowing what impact it would have on the client.

Doris asked the group if touch was ever taken to supervision; there was maybe an acknowledgment that it is something we do not particularly do. We moved on to talk about ethics and conduct. As I was listening to Doris I kept on thinking about how our clients (as strong as they may seem sometimes) are vulnerable. We hold power, and our clients come to see us because they need our help. I ask myself this question: how can I be ethical, professional, hold boundaries, contain and facilitate a therapeutic relationship with touch included in the mix? For some of us that may sound easy, for others not so much.

The talk concluded with Doris’s final points: touch is powerful and transformative, we need knowledge; skills and capacity for complex self-reflection beyond ethical considerations; the science of touch is called Haptics; there needs to be more research into haptics and its links to psychotherapy.

Thank you Doris for a fantastic and thought-provoking evening talk.

Marvis Stewart