Give your problems a little space


Meeting Space, a service for families, friends and organisations, aims to provide people with a safe place and time to solve their problems. Anne Dempsey reports

Sometimes your nearest is not your dearest, and it can be difficult to get on with the people you live or work with precisely because of the constant proximity involved. It is to address this very normal situation that long-term friends and counsellors Ursula O'Farrell and Sarah McLoughlin have launched Meeting Space, a service for families, organisations and groups.

The aim is to offer a neutral space where people may find it possible to clarify their difficulties and hopes, listen to each other's point of view and hopefully use inherent strengths to move forward. The meeting will last three hours, with a half-hour break after 90 minutes. The group can be a maximum of six or minimum of three. A follow-up 90-minute meeting within six weeks is available.

The women's work with individuals, families and voluntary groups helped them identify the need for the service. "Family problems have changed. People today are dealing with blended families, step families, new partners, job mobility, modern pressures around having children, but I do believe the way we react to problems is still the same. People either tend to deny them or fight about surface issues - with some families able to sit down and talk," says O'Farrell.

"Many families get on well together in the normal way, but there can be crisis in times of change," says McLoughlin, a family therapist. "Issues can become clouded with emotion and people lose confidence in their coping skills. So they may want some help but don't always want counselling which may be perceived as intimidating, official, drawn out," she says. "They may be more willing to participate in a one-off which opens a door for them. It seems more manageable."

Meeting Space does not offer counselling, therapy, mediation or coaching, but does draw on professional training and experience from these backgrounds.

"I think we can offer this only because we have years of professional experience under our belts, as well as bringing warmth, humanity and openness," says McLoughlin.

They spent time discussing the idea and laugh now remembering how they kept coming up with plumbing metaphors like "stuck", "clogged", "log jam", "bogged down" - and yet these words encapsulate real life when relationships become blocked and silent, even though the silence can be loud and clamorous. Two other values - "respect" and "safety" - were present when planning.

"Some of the difficulties in groups and in families can be about hierarchy, so our role can be about equalising the space, drawing people in. We are not there to solve their problems or tell them what to do. We will give everyone the opportunity to speak and to listen, making it safe so that someone will take the risk, perhaps even through me, using me," says O'Farrell.

How would proceedings begin? "I would probably acknowledge the effort people have made to be here, may give some kind of explanation of how I see my role. I would restate what I've already heard, 'this is what so-and-so told me', and would want to know how each person views the problem, because others in the room may see it differently," she says.

They also see their role as holding any emotionally charged material without either ignoring it or pouncing on it. "For example, if one member of the group speaks about another, just looking at the person being spoken about with an implicit invitation to respond if they wish can be challenging. Challenge does not have to be aggressive and, in some ways, the process is challenging enough," says O'Farrell. "People could get up, walk out, there could be fisticuffs. If that happens, it's up to us not to rattle or rush around," she says.

"Part of it is the confidence I would have in people, the confidence that the group has, within itself, much of the knowledge and wisdom to arrive at its own solutions which cannot be imposed," says McLoughlin.

From experience they know the value of time out in this type of work, giving people a breather to reflect, relax, be with each other in a different way, so the 30-minute break is an integral part of the process.

According to McLoughlin: "My aim is always to give the power back to them, because sometimes in a crisis people can lose a sense of control. We would then discuss what they want to do in the final hour and after the session when they leave."

They feel most of the work will be done in the first session and there won't be a need for a follow-up, though it remains on offer at a later stage.

The Meeting Space is available with either Ursula O'Farrell or Sarah McLoughlin who can offer a Dublin-based venue or meet in the location choice of the group. The fee is €300 plus travel costs if outside Dublin. The follow-up session costs €150. Sarah McLoughlin, tel: 01-2861229, Ursula O'Farrell, tel: 01-2883905.