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How skills used in HR can be used in our training to become a counsellor working with couples

One of our faculty members, Amanda Hughes tells her story about psychotherapy training.

About Amanda

Amanda is a Couple Psychotherapist and Clinical Lecturer at Tavistock Relationships. Here she talks about her move training as a counsellor with us, from her previous career working in HR in large corporations. Note, picture is a stock photograph.

What was your background?

Prior to training and qualifying as a couple therapist I had had a long career in HR and in Learning and Development. I’ve been an HR Director in a private sector organisation with 20,000 employees, a Director of Training, a Leadership Development Coach, and an HR Director of an FE college.

Talk to us about what started your journey from HR into couple counselling training

I had been working in HR and Training for a long time and had started to feel restless. In particular, I had been working for a huge private sector organisation in a very senior and demanding role. My children were growing up fast and I was aware of missing so much of it. I decided to downsize, change sector and took an HR Director post at a local FE college. Within a few years I was promoted to Deputy Principal and soon realised my ‘downsize’ move had ballooned into, once again, another beast of a role. I decided to leave and give myself time and space to consider what I wanted to do next - that would fit with my previous experience, my interest and my personal life.

It had always been my intention to set up on my own at some point. I had imagined this would be setting up a consultancy service in the areas of my expertise and experience, i.e., coaching, HR, mediation, organisation and leadership development. Affording myself some distance from organisational life helped me realise I wanted a more radical change of direction than this. I wanted to move into something more vocational that involved helping others. I had thought about training to be a counsellor on and off over the years and, like many in the HR profession, have always been interested in the psychology, and emotional and mental functioning of human beings.

I have always been fascinated with how people interact, been intrigued by relationship dynamics. As an HR professional understanding people and workplace relationships is an essential aspect of the job. Increasingly I had become particularly interested in the nature of romantic relationships. My own personal experiences most definitely an influence on my curiosity.

Within a few months I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a relationship therapist. I researched every institution and pathway there is and there was no doubt that Tavistock Relationships was the right place for me.

Why choose to train at Tavistock Relationships?

The knowledge and expertise at Tavistock Relationships is world class. The training is intense and rigorous. From that first day when I attended the open evening I was struck by the professionalism and meticulous care in the service they offered. As I learned more about the modality of Tavistock Relationships through my training I knew that, for me, a counselling provision that is open ended, psychodynamic, incredibly thoughtful and containing was how I wanted to work with people.

What is so interesting about couple work?

There were many things that attracted me to couple therapy. Troubled relationships can be very damaging and are not just confined to the couple. I passionately believe a healthy relationship is key to healthy adults, children and to society. Therapy has much to offer troubled couples and the benefits can be life changing. More personally, it is a wonderful way to learn about oneself, about how you are in a relationship. I also came to understand my parent’s relationship better and make sense of – and peace with - their less than perfect behaviours. And, of course, I came to understand my own relationships better.

What are the similarities between the two career pathways?

Obvious but key – working with people! The HR profession has a large portfolio of specialist areas and it is true to say that not every area or indeed HR professional is all about people. But in the main, whether you are a generalist or have specialised in L&D, human relations or recruitment, dealing with people is usually a fundamental aspect of the job.

Specifically, some of the key similarities I would say between an HR and a relationship counselling career are:

  • Relationships/relationship work - typical scenarios that HR deal with involve, like a therapist, having an interest in understanding the relationship before you and seeking, together, a satisfactory outcome. And, it is worth noting that sometimes, as in romantic relationships, it may be a parting of ways that is the best outcome. In workplace relationships, just like romantic relationships, there is so much more beneath the obvious being played out in the interactions between colleagues, staff and managers. Whether it be disputes, negotiations, grievances, building alliances, employees loving or hating the boss (parent?) a colleague (sibling?)……the emotional makeup, the past experiences of all the individuals are in the mix. You are never just dealing with the here and now, or even the presenting issue. As an HR person, whilst you are unlikely to delve into such deep and personal depths, the necessity for empathy and awareness of the needs behind the concrete demands and the powerful feelings being aroused is crucial for gaining agreement and resolution.
  • Learning & Development - HR is a profession that is steeped in developmental practices. If you think about it nearly everything about HR involves developing others in some way. From induction, performance reviews, job training, managing talent and leadership pipelines, and succession planning to learning organisation strategies, the focus on the growth of individuals, groups and whole organisation is at the heart of everything. Counselling is fundamentally a learning experience. As a therapist you are working with people to help them learn about themselves, about their relationships and about those they are in a relationship with. It is through learning that change, improvement, repair can happen.
  • Mental and Emotional Wellbeing – I am fully aware how over the years HR has fought to be heard and earn its seat at the table. There was a period when it seemed HR needed to renounce its pastoral side in order to have credibility alongside, say, its Finance counterparts. This idea that HR can only be commercial OR caring is what we refer to in counselling as splitting. Splitting is when we have difficulty conceiving the co-existence of what we perceive to be incompatible elements. I do not have this binary view of HR and, in my experience, think HR works best when it is both business minded AND compassionate. HR directly and indirectly (through guiding managers), like counselling, is a profession that supports people. Employees get ill, die, experience bereavement, mental health issues, tragedies, relationship breakups, a whole myriad of difficulties that is the human experience. HR has a critical role in the emotional and mental wellbeing of employees.

How about what is different?

  • Counsellors do not advise. HR is more likely to advise. That said, for those in the coaching field of HR they will be all too familiar with non-directional coaching and a position that is only about facilitating insight and allowing the client to come to their own solutions.
  • HR will at times have competing considerations that a therapist does not. The therapist is solely focused on the client/relationship. The HR person has many external factors to hold in mind too.
  • HR’s role is inverse to the therapist role. HR first and foremost looks after the organisation and within that and in service of that will provide support to individuals. Therapists first and foremost look after their clients, which in turn supports families, communities and society.

Lastly, HR is often considered the intermediary between employees and businesses – how does this translate into couple counselling?

Helping parties to be interested in understanding the perspective of the other is a feature of the work of an HR professional and a therapist. It is often not easy. When there has been breakdown, parties can become entrenched in their positions. Emotions take hold and it turns into a fight for survival (emotionally speaking). Being willing to recognise a different view can feel threatening. This requires careful handling, whether it be with workplace relationships or relationships in the therapeutic setting.

There are many situations when HR, like a therapist, is required to remain neutral - including when one’s own views or even values are being challenged by the narrative - and to focus on the needs being expressed without judgement. Containing emotions, keeping self out of the process, clarifying understanding feature significantly in the approach of intermediaries both in the workplace and in the counselling setting.

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