How Therapists Pay Attention in Therapy

Discovery Research Group.jpg

Troy Piwowarski, PsyD

The following article is a transcript from a talk at the Michigan Society for Integrative Psychoanalytic Studies in January of 2015.  It is an early attempt to summarize in plainest language possible the complex attitude of phenomenology, and how it is applied to psychotherapy.  It is based on the results from my dissertation study that was published in 2014. All clinical examples have been significantly altered to protect the individual identity of clients.  


Let’s begin with an examination of the phrase “nothing new under the sun.”  We've all heard this before, perhaps from someone who has lived long enough to see the rise, fall, and eventual return of so many fads and patterns in society.   

But it also has philosophical implications that speak to the topic at hand.  For example, seasoned therapists who have been in the field of psychotherapy for 20, 30, or 40 years might agree that there is a point at which they might feel as though they've “heard it all.”  Every version of unrequited love, every transference dynamic played out in session, every sudden insight.  

So in one sense, it can feel true that there is nothing new under the sun—no new content, no new dynamics, no new forms.

At the very same time, these same seasoned therapists would likely agree that there is something else in each client's account in therapy that is fresh and unique not only to that client, but to each moment he or she spends talking in session.  

The aim of this article is to tune into the second part of that paradox, the part that is simultaneously unique to the person in the living moment of disclosure, even when the story may seem old and the road well-worn. 

This is where the very life-blood of phenomenology is found:  the be-ing of the client in the living moment of psychotherapy.  

In Rollo May’s book Psychology and the Human Dilemma (1979), he encourages us to appreciate the massive ways in which Freud expanded human consciousness.  Even in refuting his overly-scientific way of understanding human beings as being entirely determined by drives, May states that Freud’s deepening and expanding of our appreciation for the complexity of psychological dynamics will forever remain as fundamental.  May suggests that phenomenology can serve to deepen our understanding of the humanity of the being that we are discussing as we talk about psychotherapy, and as we talk with clients about their troubles.  

So the question is not how phenomenology or an existential view in any way replaces psychoanalysis, but rather, how can it vivify and better honor the living experience of our clients?  There are various ways that phenomenologically-oriented therapists practicing from a wide swath of theoretical models provide us with some broad notions about how phenomenology infuses psychotherapy with “renewable energy,” to borrow a buzz word from the green movement.  

I’d like to pause on that note for a moment to say a few words about how I came to be so interested in what phenomenology has to offer psychotherapy.  In 2012, I spent a year living in the Bay Area, where I met one of my mentors, Nader Shabahangi.  Nader is a passionate spirit who has done deep readings of Martin Heidegger's major works.  He wrote his dissertation on a comparison of Freudian and Heideggarian assumptions about the human being, and one of my first jobs in arriving to San Francisco was to edit his manuscript that had been gathering dust on the shelf for 20 years, and to help him come up with a resounding conclusion to the book.  

The thesis of the book was that Freud’s entire collection of works was largely founded upon Positivistic assumptions which he felt needed updating when it came to our view of human beings in therapy.  I genuinely enjoyed reading his book, and was left with the question of “how does this apply to therapy?”  This question not only framed the final chapter of Nader's book, but also launched me into my own dissertation study.  During the course of my dissertation study, I had the chance to sit down with 12 phenomenologically-oriented therapists who have each been practicing for 20 years or more. I asked them to tell me about how they attend phenomenologically in session with their clients.  This article is my attempt to synthesize 120 pages into something digestible in one sitting. 

There is no way of getting around theory as a way of understanding the ground from which we speak, whether regarding psychoanalysis, psychotherapy in general, or phenomenology.  However, the dilemma regarding phenomenology is, its concepts can be so elusive and its writers so dry, dull, or complex in their language, that it can lose its audience rather quickly.  I would like to present the theory in a way that brings it to life, allowing you to take in its flavor through examples.

Phenomenology, by its nature, resists concrete definitions.  To some degree, our understanding of phenomenology depends upon which philosopher we call upon.  When I am asked by people entirely unfamiliar with the word, I begin by saying that for a good deal of time, science, which studies reality by looking at things as objects outside ourselves and manipulates them in order to understand their nature, was the primary way that human consciousness was also studied.  For example, Freud’s notion of id, ego, and superego as “psychic structures” seems to echo that assumption that human consciousness adheres to the same principles as static objects.  

Phenomenology was initially Edmund Husserl’s reaction to this notion of objectifying conscious processes.  Husserl’s contribution was to point out that consciousness cannot be studied as a static object because, simply put, it is not static, nor is it an object.  He contended that consciousness happens as a stream that is ever-changing, and therefore it eludes our attempts to grasp it, to pin it down, and to study it like some dead butterfly.  

Although phenomenology is far more complex than this simple observation, I have taken this basic notion as a starting point for understanding phenomenology.  It is a unique way of understanding human consciousness that attempts to honor it for what it is: a living, breathing, ever-changing experience.  This is why the analogy of consciousness as an ever-flowing river is so overused in self-growth workshops these days.  In a sense, we have culturally integrated Husserl's understanding of consciousness without knowing it! 

Husserl also identified something called the natural attitudewhich is the way people see the objects of their daily experience as ordinary, straightforward, and matter-of-course.  According to Husserl scholar Marc Appelbaum, “we don’t question the existence of these objects: we view them as facts.”  Husserl was able to classify this way of viewing the world as an attitude that, while difficult to see, differs greatly from a phenomenological way of seeing.  

Here’s an example from Applebaum:  “The gray cat I notice crossing the street is both unique and, if investigated phenomenologically, reveals a common structure or essence “cat” that can apply equally well to other members of the species. Without the structure “cat” in some sense accompanying or preceding the experience of this particular gray cat, I would be unable to identify it as such.”

The naturalistic attitude as it shows up in positivistic science sees the empirical world as a collection of objects that have always preceded peoples’ discovery.  According to Applebaum, “within the natural attitude, the world is experienced as always already present, prior to my reflection upon it. Yet, this theoretical attitude—for as Husserl noted, there is a theorizing about world implicit in this attitude—represents a fundamental naïveté.”  Husserl noted that we could not perceive those objects for what they are unless we already understood something about their essence.  

This reminds me of the myth that the Native Americans who first encountered Christopher Columbus could not perceive his ships on the horizon as they approached the land, because they simply did not have a concept or way of organizing what they were seeing.  While I’ve always found this story hyperbolic, I think it at least illustrates how much we actively participate—even prior to an experience—with the things we perceive.  In other words, perception involves a whole lot more projection on the part of the perceiver than most of us are aware.  This is because we are stuck in the natural attitude of taking the world at face value. 

Husserl invites us to wake up to the stuff happening behind the face value, much as Freud invited us to see the unconscious processes that drive so much of our behavior.

What is that stuff behind the natural attitude?  Applebaum goes on to say that “students new to phenomenology can forget that the psychological meanings of the other’s experience exceeds the empirical facts: the anniversary of a birth, a death, or a marriage, for example, is not merely a recurrent factual point on the calendar—for the person who livingly relates to that date, it brings along with it a whole host of meanings, memories, anticipations, lived-presences or absences. These meanings are linked to the factual date, but not contained within the date as a merely empirical-temporal marker. The psychical includes the empirical, but is far broader than the merely empirical.”  

I’ll give you an example from my own phenomenology. The date October 14th is my father’s birthday.  But my phenomenology of October 14th is a whole constellation of memories of both my father’s birthdays and my own, of flying back home for visits or staying where I’m at, depending on the year, my brother’s birthday which is only a week later, and the further I reflect upon it, my entire relationship with my dad is contained within the calling up of October 14th, not to mention that my niece now shares that day as her birthday, expanding the web of meaning even further.  

Even expounding on these psychologically meaningful memories, images, and ongoing relationships does not contain the entirety of my phenomenological experience of October 14th, because I cannot convey to you the felt, subjective tissue traces of meaning that exist beyond words in relation to this web of associations. 

This is what is meant by the phenomenological attitude: it means donning a keen appreciation for these tissue traces of living experience embedded in what might otherwise appear to be static, empirical facts in our clients’ disclosures.  

Thus, a therapist who simply stays immersed in the content, perhaps enlivening it by making connections, but forgetting the whole world of meaning of, say, October 14th for her patient has fallen into the natural attitude, and has effectively missed the human being-ness of the person on her couch.  

The second phenomenologist I want to discuss in brief is Martin Heidegger, who was mentored by Husserl and worked closely with him for some time before parting due to philosophical conflict.  I don’t want to gloss over the fact that, for a period of several years after his split from Husserl, Heidegger identified with the Nazi party, until he began to witness the mass extermination they were carrying out on the Jews. 

This fact is a quarry as eternal as any in the worlds of philosophy, psychology, and phenomenology, for Heidegger’s work ultimately broke open the eye of 20th century thinking.  Some would say his work is one of the primary bases of quantum physics, post-modern thought, and the ontological implications of phenomenology that influence the field of psychotherapy in thousands of invisible ways.  I wrestled with this dilemma for years in conversation after laborious conversation on the phone with my mentor, who is himself a Heidegger scholar.  Suffice it to say that I have not ultimately resolved it for myself, except to say that he is an unavoidable force that would be present in our conversation even if only implicitly.  Preferring to be explicit, I would like to at least acknowledge the conflict and encourage those of you interested in phenomenology to explore it further for yourself personally and philosophically as I have.

Heidegger's significant contribution to Husserl’s phenomenology was his addition of an ontological dimension.  Heidegger’s fundamental concern was being itself.  Heidegger pointed out that humans were the only beings for which being itself was a concern.  To be, Heidegger contended, was fundamental to existence.  

This is worth pondering for a moment: what Heidegger is saying here is that what makes us unique as human beings is that we not only can contemplate our existence, but that it is fundamental—we can’t not do it.   Now, one could argue that there are many people for whom being is of little concern, but Heidegger points out that simply being aware of one’s eventual death (or non-being) is enough to put us into contact with our being.

Being is active and ever-unfolding within the context of each person's world.  For Heidegger, a "world" is not some place out there but rather a constitutive aspect of being.  Rollo May (1979) explains this by saying:

“When we realize how much individual projection . . . takes place . . . in [a person's] relation to his environment, and how freighted with special meanings that environment has for [that person], we see how inaccurate it is to speak of the environment as though it could be described as something apart from [a person] . . . [T]his is why we . . . speak of the self as having a 'world' rather than an environment.”  

Therefore, "world" does not denote nature, the environment, or the known contents of the earth, but refers to the way in which we relate to those contents—how we move within space and time and the meaning we make of those experiences.  The term "being-in-the-world" denotes the private world of the person from the perspective of the person living in it and co-creating it.  

To repeat one side of the paradox—there’s nothing new under the sun.  Our environment is made of the same recycled matter we’ve always had in our universe.  Our world, on the other hand, is always changing in terms of the meanings we are making about ourselves, others, and our environment.

For Heidegger, beings were also bound to the limits of time by the fact that we are finite.  Thus, the questions that a being might ask from moment to moment would change based on their own sense of time, or to use Heidegger’s term, historicity.  

In a sense, Heidegger concluded that being is time, “[t]hat is, what it means for a human being to be is to exist temporally in the stretch between birth and death. Being is time and time is finite, it comes to an end with our death.”  (Critchley, 2009, p. 1)  Because we exist in time, we have historicity.  In other words, the kinds of things we think about, the questions we raise in our minds, the things we daydream about—all of it—exists in time, and is in a constant state of fluctuation.  This harks back to my original elevator pitch about phenomenology: it stands in contrast to science because it understands that consciousness is ever-flowing and never static, at least while we are alive.  

The last phenomenologist I will give a nod to is Maurice Merleau-Ponty.  Merleau-Ponty understood that Husserl’s way of trying to find the universal essence of an experience was at odds with the way consciousness is always continually unfolding.  He felt that we could never totally arrive at a conclusion about someone’s living experience by virtue of the fact that it is still being lived.  

Merleau-Ponty also expanded on Heidegger’s notion that being and world are one through his concept of the common field.  Moreira provides an example from Carl Roger’s video with the client Gloria.”  In moments when Rogers is less “client-centered” and more focused on the relationship he and Gloria are in together, he moves toward working in the “common field” between them.  According to Moreira (2012), Rogers’s focus on the common field exemplified more of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological stance than Rogers’s better-known client-centered position, because it acknowledged Gloria’s worldliness, rather than only fixating on her interior experience.  This is one reason phenomenologically-oriented therapists focus on the therapeutic relationship.  

This part of Merleau-Ponty’s contribution seems to be showing up more and more in the field of psychoanalysis, as we see a wealth of two-person (or three-person) theories in the literature and in practice.  Two person and three person models acknowledge that, even while the patient is coming to talk about problems in his or her personal world, the therapeutic space between the therapist and client becomes a part of the meaningful experience, and is not a neutral space, due to the world of the therapist and the world of the therapeutic relationship being present.  

To further expand on this view, Merleau-Ponty recognized that all human knowledge is embodied knowledge, or in the words of Heath (2002), “external reality is always and unavoidably mediated through our senses (our bodies) and constructed in the cultural concepts within which we create meanings. . .[Thus,] there is never a view from nowhere, there is always a view from somewhere, and the somewhere is the complex matrix of experiences and meanings which constitute the individual subject, located in the cultural milieu which is its psycho-social and biological ground and being” (p. 33). 

Merleau-Ponty contributed a view of phenomenology that illustrated the limitations posed by the senses.  From this perspective, human knowledge is restricted not only by the limitations of the senses, but by the unavoidable personal context informing one’s perceptions.  Our personal context includes both the collection of our experiences from birth to present and the meanings we have made about ourselves, others, and the larger world, based on those experiences. 

The context to which Merleau-Ponty referred went beyond the senses and even beyond our personal histories.  It extends to the socio-political culture within which we are embedded that shapes both personal and collective meanings we make about our world.  One example of this is the notion that we live in a “post-9/11 world,” which has both collective meanings (such as that an act of terrorism occurred on American soil on September 11th, 2001), and personal meanings (such as “there’s nowhere safe under the sun,” as one of my clients once revealed to me in therapy). 

Let’s turn to how this applies to therapy.  For the sake of coherence, I am going to make a somewhat arbitrary division between three domains of a therapy session in which phenomenological attendance can bear out.  Those three domains are the therapist, the client, and the therapeutic relationship.  

The Therapist

As May (1983) makes clear, the therapist’s presuppositions not only influence but wholly determine that which can and cannot be seen—they are “the spectacles through which he perceives.”  Fuchs’ (2007) view asserts that the therapist must step into the client’s entire living world and imagine its horizon, “in which all that he [or she] does has its meaning” (p. 425).  In other words, phenomenology involves radical perspective-taking.

The position of the phenomenologically-oriented therapist is not one of the expert, process guide, or arbiter of a right path.  Instead, the therapist attempts to touch clients’ intimate experiences, rather than imposing structure or bias.  Phenomenologically-oriented therapists step into the client’s lived world, leaving behind preconceptions about what specific behaviors might mean, and take a genuine interest in their clients.  Phenomenologically-oriented therapists suspend the notion of gaining some final understanding of their ever-changing clients.

Phenomenologically-oriented therapists not only apply a process orientation to their clients’ experience, Heath (2002) recommends that training therapists learn how to suspend their default belief system in favor of remaining open to other possible meanings for the same phenomena.  He also suggests that therapists develop the capacity to hold multiple competing frameworks at once, avoiding defensiveness when someone challenges their own beliefs and exposing themselves to a number of competing viewpoints in order to constantly unsettle any sense of certainty (pp. 37-38).  These philosophical acrobatics, Heath (2002) posits, are in the service of radical valuation of the unique life of each client.   

Rollo May similarly reminds us that phenomenology recognizes the impossibility of knowing the entirety of the other’s experience.  A phenomenological orientation engenders a realistic attitude that accepts all understandings of one’s clients as partial.  Admission of one’s limitations and biases paradoxically loosens the strictures of needing to have all the answers, allowing the therapist to ultimately see his or her client with greater clarity. 

Beyond suspension of one’s beliefs, therapists who want to develop the sensibilities required for depth-oriented, phenomenological therapy must focus on self-awareness and inner solidity, rather than manualized dialogue (Mearns & Schmid, 2005).  In developing an inner solidity, the therapist can become more adaptive to the unique needs of each client, rather than insisting on always responding the same way.  Self-awareness of one’s range of relational capacities—to be warm or cold, open or closed, giving or withholding, serious or playful—allows the therapist to spontaneously engage in the unfolding moment.

Description vs. Explanation.  In phenomenologically-oriented therapies, there is an important distinction between explanatory and descriptive therapeutic reflections.  In explanation, there is an assumption that a tangible, singular truth can be discovered, and that an expert can attune keenly enough to reveal it to his or her client (Heath, 2002, p. 35).  Conversely, descriptive reflections are based in perception, and the meaning is constructed from perceptions.  Unlike explanation, Heath (2002) claims that in description, “there is always a gap between what we think is there and what is there” (p. 35).  Therefore, description is a conscious act of invention, rather than an excavation for hidden essences or origins.

An emphasis on description also allows clients to draw conclusions for themselves (Schneider & Krug, 2010), whereas explanation paints the picture for them.  Description holds the possibility for multi-determinism, rather than one-to-one causality.  For example, while describing a scary confrontation at work, a client may begin to speak in a small, child-like tone.  Rather than attributing the child-like quality of the client’s tone to a state of regression, a phenomenologically-oriented therapist might simply note that “your voice became very quiet just now as you began talking about your boss confronting you” (Schneider & Krug, 2010).  The value of this is two-fold: The description illuminates the unconscious behavior, while honoring the client’s own interpretation of its meaning.

The Therapist’s “Pou Sto.” “Pou sto” is a Greek term used to describe the therapist’s “place to stand.”  In other words, it is both the explicit assumptions and the implicit therapeutic attitude that the therapist brings to her clinical work.  Most of the participants in my dissertation study spoke of how mysterious the process of therapy is and their sense of respect for the ambiguity of their role in the change process.  Many participants talked about their worldviews on existence, human nature, and some of the overarching goals of therapy, such as deeper self-awareness.  Most participants' Pou Stos were related to guiding their own attention in session, as opposed to overarching notions of psychological health or pathology of their clients. In other words, these therapists are constantly in a state of clarifying for themselves what their view of human nature is.  

The Client

The past and future are present.  Krug (2009), in her exposition of Irvin Yalom’s and James Bugental’s focus on presence in therapy, found that both master therapists operated on the assumption that the past is present.  Yalom (2002) de-emphasizes gathering extensive historical accounts of his clients’ lives, in the service of illuminating current ways that clients block themselves from more fully experiencing intimacy with others, accepting responsibility for the quality of their lives, and getting in touch with their capacities to choose (Krug, 2009, p. 345).  A major assumption of existentially-oriented therapy (which is rooted in phenomenological traditions) is that clients bring their entire being-in-the-world with them everywhere they go, including to therapy.  If we pay attention, the client's entire world is there before us.  

Here’s an excerpt from a process worker that illustrates one way of conceptualizing this in his work in session: 

“[T]here’s the experience of process work that the future and the past are all now.  It’s like in a dream—time is fluid, right?  So if I’m talking about the future, I wish I could take a vacation.  That is now.  That vacation could be happening now, you don’t have to wait to go to Tahiti.  Let’s take a vacation right now.  And if you notice the person’s signals, you probably notice the “vacation” now, somehow.  There might be a relaxed way they’re sitting in their chair, their eyes may be closing a little bit, there’s something about the vacation—they may not be working very hard, and you’re working your ass off trying to help, but they seem to be 'on vacation'—it is actually happening right now, if you pay attention and notice it.”

The “Music Behind the Words.”  Aside from the content of the session, the music behind the words refers to communications in the therapy hour that are implicit and (at least initially) unregarded by the client.  They may include the patient’s posture, vocal tone, heightened or deadened energy around certain topics, facial expressions, mannerisms, meaningful omissions, pace of speech, and a number of other nonverbal expressions.  The music behind the words is an avenue to greater depth and to unexpected less conscious material, if attended to in a way that helps clients be curious rather than defensive. 

Here are a couple of participants' excerpts illustrating this elusive, but crucial capacity to tap into the music behind the words: 

“[T]his client who lives in the future—she has had persistent tightness in her throat, so much so that she was in terrible pain…What we came to understand as we began to work is that it was a clamping down of her feelings and her voice, literally….That’s a very common indication that something is awry for a person—when there’s a real severe tightness in the throat, or the back or stomach, or head….I always pay attention to whether people breathe."

“[W]hen you recognize something that's normally there, and it’s missing, something that’s part of being human and it’s not coming into the picture, this person can’t let it happen. . .that is important [to attend to].”

What Matters Most for the Client.  Rollo May states that when he sees a client, he assumes that “this person, like all beings, is centered in himself, and an attack on this centeredness is an attack on his existence.  He is here in my office because this centeredness has broken down or is precariously threatened.”  Therefore, neurosis or psychosis, broadly speaking, are methods that individuals use to preserve their centeredness, by shrinking the range of the world to protect it from threat, or to make life more manageable.  

While it may be true that, to a certain degree, all good therapists implicitly question what matters most for their clients, I want to be explicit about a few of the examples that were given in the interviews I did to give a flavor of phenomenological questioning.  One participant spoke of his guiding phenomenological question in every session as “How are you willing to live?”  For others, the focus was slightly different—“Where does it hurt?” or “What does the client value?"  Although the content varied regarding each therapist’s focus, there was an underlying quality of using client values as a compass to navigate each unique therapy experience.  

The Therapeutic Relationship

In Carl Rogers’s early writings, he referred to a person as “standing by oneself, being based upon oneself” (Schmid, 2006, p. 59), and therefore completely autonomous.  This assumption formed the ground of Rogers’s client-centered therapy, which placed all focus on supporting a separate individual, rather than a person-in-relation (Moreira, 2012).  This assumption was not only Rogerian, but underlies a number of the mainstream therapies today, such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, as well as classical psychoanalysis.  

A contrasting view of human beings emerged from Richard of St. Victor (AD 1173) called the relationalistic notion (as cited in Schmid, 2006).  This perspective defined human beings as most essentially in relationship to others, rather than autonomous individuals.  Taking this stance, interdependence and responsibility become prominent values.  When applied to therapeutic practice, the relationalistic notion implies a focus on the in-betweeness, or to borrow Coelho’s (1988) term, the common field between therapist and client. 

Through the phenomenological lens, experiences of both client and therapist in session are important information (Schneider & Krug, 2010).  Therapists have as ample access to the common field as the client.  Therapists openly acknowledge shifts in aliveness and affective quality in session (Schneider & Krug, 2010).  Rowan states that “ [w]e try to enter into another person’s inner world, but know very well that they are over there and we are over here. . . we are talking about something different, which goes much deeper into the world of the other person: it is as if it actually overlaps with ours" (1998, p. 245).

So how do we access this overlap, this common field?  

Three of the themes from the participants in my study allude to ways that phenomenologically-oriented therapists enter the deeper world of their patients.  

The Edges of Awareness.  Most participants talked about attending to things at the edge of awareness, perhaps something new emerging into consciousness but not quite apparent to the client.  This theme is akin to the state of reverie that Bion discussed, or what Theodore Reik refers to as listening with the third ear.  However, in addition to listening with the third ear in the client's individual psyche, phenomenologically-oriented therapists listen and feel into their own experience of what’s happening in the room, and to what’s happening inside themselves as they attempt to relate at an intimate level with their client.

One participant used Gendlin’s concept of the felt sense to describe her way of working with a nearly silent client.  She described sitting in the silence and listening inward to find and formulate words to illuminate her experience of her client.  She would eventually formulate it into language and offer to her client by saying, “I don’t know if this means anything to you, but I’ve been aware of..." and would then share whatever thoughts, feelings, or imagery that felt related to her experience of her client in that moment. 

Another participant described the way certain objects or sensations seem to “flirt with [his] attention” and how he encourages his patients to follow those "flirts" to see where they lead.  One example he gave was a client who he noticed leaning slightly as he talked about his grief.  He encouraged his client to “follow that impulse to lean, and see where it leads you.”  Very slowly, he guided his client to follow what his body naturally wanted to do, and the client eventually ended up crouched behind his chair, hiding himself.  It was through this that he was able to acknowledge that he was hiding from his own anger regarding the loss he was exploring, when he had only previously been aware of sadness.

This theme is a good example of the “nothing new under the sun” paradox: of course, we know that there are things at the edge of our awareness in each session from an analytic view of the unconscious.  The phenomenological distinction is the way of attending to it: through an unassumptive curiosity, and often most powerfully through an experiential exploration in the here-and-now.  By allowing the exploration to happen in the common field, the client is an active collaborator in the exploration of what is not fully conscious. 

Being a Relational Home.  Being a Relational Home (a term borrowed from Robert Stolorow) involves the therapist’s awareness of her emotional availability and flexibility as a member of the therapeutic relationship.  One dimension of this theme is the therapist’s creation of a holding environment, within which the client feels safe to actively explore subterranean thoughts and feelings.  This may include, for example, a willingness to be a sounding board for a patient’s anger as she works through developmental trauma.  The therapist is available in a way that perhaps the client has never experienced before and is even available to discuss how the present relationship is triggering or traumatic for her in the here-and-now.  

This theme also encompasses an active flexibility and responsiveness to the needs particular to each client.  This depends somewhat upon the therapist's theoretical orientation, of course, and would not agree well with what some might call an "austere frame" of therapy.  However, the point of working phenomenologically is not to hold to a system of inquiry rigidly, but to find the best possible way for the person that is here before me to feel safe revealing himself within the bounds of the therapeutic relationship.  

An example from one participant in my study was when she talked about breaking her normal policy to not call clients after they miss a session, in order to fully meet the needs of a highly traumatized individual who experienced her not calling as a massive rejection.  Had this therapist held to the old framework, stating simply "this is how I work," she would have likely lost contact with this particular client, even if she had clarified her intention in not calling.  

This dimension of being a relational home involves entertaining the possibility for therapist self-disclosure when facilitative, providing active feedback regarding the therapist’s understanding of the client, and actively mirroring aspects of the relationship of which the therapist is aware.  

Being a Relational Barometer.  Phenomenologically-oriented therapists view the therapeutic relationship as a wellspring of invaluable information.  Most of my research participants agreed that the therapeutic relationship provides a potent, whole-bodied experience of what it is like to be in relationship with their client as a being-in-the-world.  With his training in emotional attunement, the therapist can attend to the in-the-moment textures and qualities of being in relation to his client, asking himself: “Do I feel close to this client? Is it difficult to feel connected?,” and so on.  

The assumption present in this theme is that a person carries her way of relating with her to every relationship in some manner or another.  For example, one research participant talked about a client who stared at her in sessions "like she was trying to bore a hole in me with her eyes.”  As this therapist began to talk about her experience of her client's glare, a whole world of information about how her client intimidated other people in her life was revealed, which led to new and important relational territory in her therapy.

One of my research participants summarized this theme nicely in saying: 

“A lot of it is calling attention to not only words that are exchanged, but what is called process, how a person speaks, what a person brings to the relationship kinesthetically, affectively, psycho-spiritually.  I call attention to what I’m sensing, and share that with them, hopefully at the appropriate moment so that they are more aware of how I’m experiencing them as constricted as they’re talking, what does that bring up as they tune into that constriction, into their back being collapsed, their stomach folding into itself, what is that like?  What associates with that?”


My hope in providing this summary of my research is that it in some way made phenomenology a little more accessible to you.  It has always interested me to note that a field devoted to honoring living experience can be so inaccessible to so many living beings!  I invite you to contact me through my website if you'd like to share any feedback about how you experienced this article, and what thoughts it evoked in your own imagination.  




Applebaum, M.  (2012).  Key ideas in phenomenology: The natural attitude [blog post].  Retrieved from

Fuchs, T. (2007). Psychotherapy of the lived space: a phenomenological and ecological concept. American Journal of Psychotherapy61, 423–39.

Gendlin, E. (1978/79). Befindlichkeit: Heidegger and the philosophy of psychology. Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry16, 43–71.

Heath, G. (2002). Philosophy and psychotherapy : Conflict or co-operation? International Journal of Psychotherapy, 7, 13–52.

Heidegger, M. (1962) Being and time. New York: Harper and Row.

Jennings, J. L. (1992). Husserl revisited: The forgotten distinction between psychology and phenomenology. In R. B. Miller (Ed.), The restoration of dialogue: Readings in the philosophy of clinical psychology (pp. 290-305). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Krug, O. (2009). James Bugental and Irvin Yalom: Two masters of existential therapy cultivate presence in the therapeutic encounter. Journal of Humanistic Psychology49, 329–354. 

May, R.  (1979). Psychology and the human dilemma.  New York: Norton.

May, R. (1983).  The discovery of being: Writings in existential psychology.  New York: Norton.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of perception. London: Routledge.

Moreira, V. (2012). From person-centered to humanistic-phenomenological psychotherapy: The contribution of Merleau-Ponty to Carl Rogers’s thought. Person-Centered & Experiential Psychotherapies11, 37–41.

Shabahangi, N. (2014).  Ambiguity of suffering.  San Francisco, CA: Elders Academy.