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Gendlin, E.T. (1990). The small steps of the therapy process: How they come and how to help them come. In G. Lietaer, J. Rombauts & R. Van Balen (Eds.), Client-centered and experiential psychotherapy in the nineties, pp. 205-224. Leuven: Leuven University Press. From

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University of Chicago, U.S.A


I want to start with the most important thing I have to say: The essence of working with another person is to be present as a living being. And that is lucky, because if we had to be smart, or good, or mature, or wise, then we would probably be in trouble. But, what matters is not that. What matters is to be a human being with another human being, to recognize the other person as another being in there. Even if it is a cat or a bird, if you are trying to help a wounded bird, the first thing you have to know is that there is somebody in there, and that you have to wait for that "person," that being in there, to be in contact with you. That seems to me to be the most important thing.

So, when I sit down with someone, I take my troubles and feelings and I put them over here, on one side, close, because I might need them. I might want to go in there and see something. And I take all the things that I have learnt—client-centered therapy, reflection, focusing, Gestalt, psychoanalytic concepts and everything else (I wish I had even more)—and I put them over here, on my other side, close. Then I am just here, with my eyes, and there is this other being. If they happen to look into my eyes, they will see that I am just a shaky being. I have to tolerate that. They may not look. But if they do, they will see that. They will see the slightly shy, slightly withdrawing, insecure existence that I am, I have learnt that that is O.K. I do not need to be emotionally secure and firmly present. I just need to be present. There are no qualifications for the kind of person I must be. What is wanted for the big therapy process, the big development process is a person who will be present. And so I have gradually become convinced that even I can be that. Even though I have my doubts when I am by myself, in some objective sense I know I am a person.

And then it is true that I reach in for a lot of different things. But [Page 206] when it gets murky and I am not sure I am connected to the other person, then I do not reach in for these things, then I must reflect that person's meanings and stay very close, so that the connection re-establishes. When the client is going around in circles and does not touch down inside, then I might offer a bit of how to do "focusing." And if I see that there is too much focusing, and a sort of "internality" without enough energy coming out, then I might do something like "Gestalt," or I might just express myself, or I might do any number of things. I may express my feeling, but I always know that it is just my feeling. I do not know yet what is coming from that person. The minute something goes wrong I go right back to trying to sense this person; to what is happening. Because this is another being, a different being.

When I think back to the struggle that Carl had with non-directive reflecting, always trying to drop whatever it was he had written, to re-establish the reality of the contact, I feel I am following in his footsteps. He dropped non-directive and he made it client-centered, he dropped client-centered and made it person-centered. First he had the method of reflecting, then he said: "No that is not it, it is the attitudes ..." But we could take his three attitudes and get very technical about them. He would say: "No, no, it is person-centered."

So this is my way of saying that: Do not let focusing, or reflecting, or anything else get in between. Do not use it as an in-between. Do not say: "I can stay here because I have my reflecting-method, I have my ping-pong-paddle, so you cannot get me. You say something? You get it back." There is a sense that we are armed, you see. We have methods; we know focusing; we have credentials; we have doctors. We have all this stuff and so it is easy for us to sit there with stuff in between. Do not let it be in between; put it out of the way. You can have at least as much courage as the client has. If not, I would be ashamed of myself, with all the stuff that I have, if I still cannot really look when this person can. So I want to be there in that same way.

That—I think—is the first job we have. And on the question what we client-centered people need to do now, on this, also, I think the first thing we need to do is to communicate that attitude. That is so necessary in a field that is becoming more and more "professional," which is to say useless and expensive.

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The second thing we need is to communicate the "empathic response," to communicate client-centered reflecting to those who use other methods, and we need to add many other methods to our own. I have always said that client-centered reflecting is a necessary baseline, for using other things. If you do not have that, then you cannot stay in touch with the person. If you do not constantly ask "Oh you did not like that?" or "Oh something funny happened now"; if you do not constantly stop and check, then using any other method is going to be bad. Certainly that includes focusing. I mean, the minute it clouds up and the person looks like: "What are you doing to me?," you have to stop whatever you are doing and you have to say: "You did not like that?" "Something went wrong?" "What just happened?" And then you must listen. Also, as soon as something works, or the moment a step comes in the client, we must stop and listen responsively, just to that. The client-centered reflecting-method is the central thing with which to use everything else.

But what I want to tell that you have not heard is that we must add client-centered listening to the other methods. It is unbelievable that after all these years, we have totally failed to communicate client-centered listening in such a way that the other practitioners could have it. How can they go so long without it? How can they be so stupid? But then, I realize, that is largely our fault. We have told them that if one does client-centered listening, then one does nothing else, so, of course, they cannot have it, because they are already doing something else and they know that that is helpful. They are not going to give that up. They cannot "unknow" what they know. It is important to communicate the client-centered reflection method as something that one can add to whatever one is doing. We can tell them that some of us do nothing else; that is how powerful this thing is. Some of us prefer to do nothing but that. Others among us combine many things. So they can add this thing to whatever they are doing. That is the way to communicate the reflection-method. And if the others try it even a few times, then they will discover what we know.

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The third job we have, is to communicate how very different our philosophical assumptions are, compared to everything else in the field. I have recently gone into this more and more. Some of the theories I thought I respected, make assumptions that I never realized they did. I see now that this has been the difficulty in communicating with a lot of people, not just my difficulty but all of our difficulty.

1. The psychoanalytic concepts assume that the body has no behavioral order at all; that it has a fixed biological machinery, but no behavioral organization. To put it in Freud's terms: The "Id" consists of unorganized drive-energies. In order for that "cauldron" (he also calls it) of drive energies to discharge—that is his term for doing something—the body requires the social patterns. Every human action—he assumes—is patterned by patterns which are imposed from the outside, on the body. We have been arguing with them for years about imposing things on clients, but look deeper. There is nothing but imposed organization in that theory! That is the only kind of order there is. The body is assumed to have no order for behavior, and no interaction from itself.

As most of you know, I am also in philosophy (Gendlin, 1962/1970). In the last ten years or so, my philosophical colleagues have discovered psychotherapy; but the psychotherapy they have discovered is of course psychoanalytic psychotherapy. They love Freud because he comes from the same assumptions that they know. All order—as they think about it—is imposed order. All order consists of patterns which are put on the body. The only kind of order they conceive of is some sort of forms. It used to be relational forms, now it has become social forms. That also makes cultural relativism pervasive. Sometimes it is not even mentioned because it seems so obvious. Obviously, people are different in different cultures. There is no bodily organization of behavior. There is only what the different cultures impose. There are only different forms of "human." There is no "human nature." If we do not think that, then we are not only silly, but unconscious of our own cultural programming. We are unconscious of how controlled we are. We have internalized the social patterns so deeply that we then discover them inside, and think we are free. This is a serious question. If we say that persons and bodies have an internal self-organizing, they will have pity [Page 209] for us. How can we show, how can we even know, when we are externally programmed, and when not?

From Descartes to Heidegger (whom I like a lot) there are only cultural humans; there is no human. Heidegger talks with a Japanese scholar. He tells him: We cannot talk with each other. We have to be very careful because nothing we say is the same. Everything is totally different. It would be all right to say that cultures differ, but he thinks that everything is totally different because there is nothing under that: No body, and no person.

Now, the only order is imposed forms. But now, my philosophical colleagues are questioning forms, which for them means that they are questioning everything. Now, they have nothing. They are all saying that there is no human subject. What they are really saying is: They do not know how to think about human subjects. But there are people who can, and that is you. I would like you to take that job on. The philosophical community has not discovered psychotherapy other than psychoanalysis yet. They have not heard from you yet. I think they should. I think you should know that right now they are in a very "open" position to hear you because they have exhausted what they have, and they cannot think about themselves and each other. It is an interesting juncture and I urge you to find some philosophers and talk to them. With Carl Rogers we have been pioneers for thirty years. Now people have caught up almost to the point where they might be able to hear us.

2. Now I want to tell you of my philosophical model. I want to talk about a kind of order that is not "forms." There is another kind of order; persons and bodies have that other kind. It is not forms stamped on, not patterns, shapes, distinct, fixed laws. Instead, it is an "order of steps." Let me say what kind of steps I mean.

There is this rhythm in client-centered therapy: First, the client says something. You say it back and get it wrong. Then they correct it. You accept the correction and they say: "Yes, that is right... but, not completely..." They give you the next tightening. You take that in, too. Then they say, "Yes," with a breath of relief.

And then there is a characteristic silence there. And in that silence, the next thing comes. Usually that next thing is deeper, perhaps not every time. You reflect that, again they correct it, you include the correction, they add a specification, you include that too. Again there is a breath, a sigh—and that silence.

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That silence is very characteristic. When I teach listening in a round, in class, I point it out. Each student is listened to by the one on the right. Each one talks until—that silence comes. After a very few silent moments, the student says "I am finished, go on to the next person." I tell the class: "Notice the silence that comes there. It is part of what listening is for. What you had ready to say has been heard and responded to. Now you have nothing to say, and yet you sense the problem. It is not all resolved, of course. You have an unclear sense of it—right there — an unclear edge. You sense it physically, without more words.

Here, in class, you do not want to let the others wait, so you say "Go on to the next person." But when you are alone with your therapist-partner, then I hope you will stay in that silence, with that unclear sense, right there, until the next thing comes, from it.

The word "focusing" means to spend time, attending to that inwardly sensed edge. When that happens in the silence, the next thing and the next come gradually from deeper and deeper. Some clients talk all the time, and skip that silence. Some use the silence only to think of something to say. Some feel only the same emotions, over and over. Just talking and expressing does help, and change-steps can come in conversation, and in other ways, inadvertently—but often they do not. When the client passes by all the meaningful spots, you might slow the pace, just by reflecting more slowly, perhaps one spot several times. You might sometimes ask clients what they sense, directly, here, in the middle of the body. Also, it is not intrusive to say that we can stay with that unclear edge, there, where the whole thing feels not O.K. I often say: "It's all right to stay here a while, just to sense that." These are bits of focusing-instructions given during therapy interviews.

In Belgium I learned that some therapists arrange to teach focusing to each other's clients, outside therapy (Leijssen, 1989). In Chicago, too, we have taught focusing to clients in week-end workshops. We found it extremely helpful to the ongoing therapy. There are many ways to teach focusing. I use every method I ever learned on a client-centered baseline. I give bits of focusing-instruction during the sessions. But I can understand that you might be opposed to doing that. On the other hand, I know that you are not against people attending to the sensed edge, where these steps arise. In that sense no one is opposed to focusing. Whether and how to teach it is an issue.

We also need to train our therapists to recognize and respond to [Page 211] focusing, since it often happens naturally. Some therapists do not understand when a client refers to a felt edge. Instead of pointing the response there, these therapists miss that sensed intricacy, which cannot yet be said. They bring everything back only to round, closed, common notions and named feelings. It gets in the way (Hendricks, 1986).

Now I want to turn to the philosophical question about which I am urging you to communicate with philosophers (Gendlin, 1987). They think that when a client says something pathological, seemingly irrational, or exhibits some deficit, you must impose some better pattern. The philosophers think that such steps can only be imposed on experience, by the therapist. You have all listened to such steps. What comes has a characteristic novelty and intricacy. You can tell that neither you nor the client could have invented them. The philosophers think that aside from the socially imposed rationality there is nothing else in people but irrationality. You have often noticed something else: Such steps do not follow by logic, and yet they make sense—we can follow them. They have a certain kind of order, different from logic and from irrationality, something deeper, more exact, more specific, more intricate; maybe not everytime but often.

We are well acquainted with that "order of steps." I call it "carrying forward." It changes as it moves forward. "An order of steps," or you can say: "An order of carrying forward." When you look back from the fourth or the fifth or the seventeenth step, back to where that began, that seemingly silly, wrong or pathological thing or deficit, you will not remember all the turns it took. But, on a tape you can see the steps I am talking about. Those steps have a continuity, but it is not a logical continuity. It is not a continuity of form. If it were a continuity of form, it would be a logical continuity. It would remain silly or pathological or a deficit. If that thing kept its form, we would not get anywhere. Our therapy-method would not work, and I think therapy as a whole would not work.

This content, which has an exact form that we reflect, and strain until we get it exactly, that exact form in some way is also not just that exact form, since it gives rise to these steps. That is the order I want to talk about; an order that has very exact forms and yet it is not just those exact forms. It can give rise to a progression, which, looking back, shows that it was more than just those forms, even though it seemed to take those forms. To get the steps, we have to reflect exactly; I am not [Page 212] saying those forms are not there. I am not saying those forms do not matter. I am saying: Something here which is very very exact and formed, is also not just formed but gives rise to steps. That is the kind of order and model I want to talk about.

You have argued with other people. They will say that these steps come from the fact that you as the therapist are in some ways biased. They used to say that Carl Rogers smiled at certain times and that is what made the client go this way or that way. Remember that literature? That he gave unconscious reinforcement. They also say that reflecting exactly is impossible. Nobody can be neutral, as if the words we say brought some new thing to the client. But, the steps do not come from us. They surprise us all the time. We cannot derive the next step.

These people only know an order of forms. So, they say: "If something new happens, you must be sneaking it in somehow, because it can only come from the outside, because there is nothing in there that could make something. And of course the only thing that you could be imposing is some kind of socialization, something that you got from the outside also." That is the only way they can think about it. And, if one thinks about it only in terms of form, then they would be right. In forms there is no human nature, only late twentieth century Dutch nature, or whatever you happen to be. Nobody can come up with a set of forms that are what human beings are. But if you look at the step-process, if you look at the carrying forward, if you are talking about an order where something more keeps happening, then I think we are all the same. And that kind of order is not so silly. And they have not thought of that. But we see that in client-centered therapy all the time.

These steps come in interaction. But interaction, when they think about it, is "imposing some kind of pattern." Interaction when we think about it is "carrying forward," picking up on where the person is, making contact with where the person really is. And the very contact changes the form. Now, with focusing, you can prove the point. (I am being cute now.) When you reflect verbally in a client-centered way, they can go on forever saying: "You are bringing in something new." But we find in focusing that when somebody is sitting with you in total silence, you can focus much more deeply and much more easily than you can alone. I have conducted thousands of trials on this particular thing with one subject, namely me: I focus by myself. Then I ask the next kind person to keep me company while I focus on the same thing. I always get further. Almost always; if I do not have any trouble with that [Page 213] person. The interaction is a different variable than the content. The interaction continues in silence, the very silence I was talking about. The steps come in an interactional process.

Now I am going to say: The steps are an interactional process.

When I worked with Carl Rogers: Either he took on my theoretical things or I took on his and of course I took more of his than he took of mine, but the one wrinkle that I do not remember succeeding in selling him was my argument that the three conditions are sufficient without the proviso that the client has to perceive them. He said: Genuineness, empathy and positive regard, and that the client perceives those. I do not think that is necessary; I know that perception is not necessary, because many clients are convinced for a year or two that nobody could possibly like them or understand them, and the process works anyway and eventually changes their perception. How would they ever get around to perceiving that the therapist did actually understand? That is a change. I know, because I was that kind of client. I always knew that this nice man could not possibly understand my stuff. It took me a long time before I noticed that when I walked into the room, I was already different. The interaction affects you, long before you can think about it. At least sometimes. It is in the interaction or as an interaction, that these steps come.

There is also a special case of interaction, when we respond to ourselves. That is also an interaction. You do not just find out: You are not just a kind of a light that does not change anything. When you give your awareness to something, it is carried forward. That is why it is so powerful to attend inside. It seems like you are doing nothing. Just as the presence of a human being looks like nothing. To be aware directly inside, is a carrying forward process. But the interaction with another person remains more powerful and I have always said that.

The carrying forward order is not always understood. For example, now there is a new theory about "narrative;" people are said to bring meaning into their lives by construing life as a certain story. I think they are perfectly silly writing like that, as if you could put any story on any set of events in your life. I think it is true, what they are trying to say: That we look back and try to construe the life we had. But the meaning we try to give to it has to carry forward; it has to connect with our bodily experiences, so that we say: "Oh, yes (breath, physical relief), it can mean that ..." They do not have the concept of carrying forward, so they write about it as if people were their own fiction writers, as if, [Page 214] with inventiveness, you could make anything out of anything. That is not so.

And that is true also about "cognitive restructuring." You have to ask: When does it work and when not? You try to think in a different way. We do this all the time. When we feel bad about something, we tell ourselves: "Look at it another way, then it is not so hard." But you must not forget to come here to the middle of your body, to see if it made you feel any different. If it did not, you have not "restructured" anything. Then you have to try still another way and another way.

Now what is it actually that is capable of being carried forward? I started by mentioning the common assumption that the body is a fixed piece of biological machinery. The body is like your automobile, they think: Fixed and obeying certain laws.

But, your mind is creative, they think. They do not explain how. Well, let me turn that upside down. How you think and formulate an event, that form is fixed. But, the body-sense of that form is capable of being carried forward. I want to change the concept of the body altogether. The body is not just a machine. The body is exactly that which is capable of these steps. The content itself, the form alone, is not going to go anywhere. It is going to have certain logical implications but it is not going to change. It is the "body sense" of the form that is capable of being carried forward. Our bodies are such that they absorb all the training, all the language, all the social forms, all the culture, everything we read and then they still imply more... Especially when you have a problem it is like that. You think all the formed facts and still it says: " AAArgghh." It is looking for a solution, or a next step that will intricately take account of all the stuff you think and still go further. It is the body sense, that can go further.

From what someone says, you can go in two different ways: You can take it logically: They said this. So this follows, and this follows, and this follows. You can say: "Look, what you are saying implies this and this and this." The other way you can go, the way client-centered therapists will go, is to respond to that which gives steps. We call it "feeling" but that is not a good word. I am saying that the steps come from the "body-sense." Any event, anything anyone says, can be taken in these two ways: Only as formed, or as the body-sense of that formed. I want to argue that the body-sense has all those forms and then it is still always again there, implying more, implying further.

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Sometimes we want to respond to the logical form, the event as it happened as form. But as therapists, of course we want to respond to that which will produce the steps.

Now I have to bring that home a little. Every sentence that we utter, prepares the listener for "something." It begins, and then, it unrolls and... Now you do not know how I am going to finish it, but you sense what comes there. The same thing is true of my talk, up to now. You have taken it in with everything you know, and have experienced and read. Now ... you are sitting there ready for ... and I hope I have that.

The body-sense has all the forms in it, all your culture and life. And yet it implies further. It is not just a product of the events and the culture. You can see that in the silences, when therapy works. You can see it even more dramatically when clients say: "1 am feeling something, but there are not words for it." They are saying that there are no social forms for it. Words are social forms. We have to wait a while until the language rearranges itself to say it oddly because there are no common phrases for it. You can help this happen if it has not happened. One way you can do that is just by slowing down; by sitting and feeling the clients' feeling when they are not doing so. You can say: "Now wait a minute, I want to feel what you told me." That makes an opportunity for them to come there too. I call that the "body-sense" because to find it, I have to attend to the literal body, here, between the podium and the wall. I have to come in here, into the middle of this body; I have to let go my attention here. I cannot do it too well while I am talking, though I can do it in short pauses. That is the body I am talking about. Now once we get in there, then it is more than what we customarily call "the body." I would want to change that concept so that it would include that.

Any time you talk, unless you are reading or memorized things in advance, how do you find the words? It is your body that talks. I have this prepared, but even so, I open my mouth and I hope the right words come out. It is all I can do. If they do not, I keep talking, hoping they will still come. That which talks is my body. I want the concept of "body" to get much wider than physiology. I am glad they have physiology, when I get sick. I am glad they know what they know. But the concept of body is wider than that, much wider than that. We live every situation with the body. If you try to do it by explicit instructions, you probably trip. Your body has to sense many things at the same time: The floor, the chair, the people, the situation, what happened to [Page 216] you years earlier, and what you are trying to do. You live with what I am calling "your body." The body makes and takes the next step, it wants a solution, a healing, something better, now, than it has had. There are often no words for that, because that has not happened yet. My body is capable of producing steps that have never happened in the history of the world. Isn't that glorious?! Or else you can say that I am in a worse mess than anybody knows how to help me with.


To finish, I would like to read you a couple of therapy segments. I ask you to look at the steps. These are focusing steps. That means that a silence is often felt between one step and the next. The second excerpt I will read is from a person who has done focusing for a long time. It is late in therapy. The first one is "early in therapy" and you can watch me trying to help it happen.

I have written enough about how to find this body-sense, but it is hard to convey the interactional climate around it. That is one thing I would like you to watch for. And then also: Once one knows how to find this inner edge, then it turns out that there is a lot of complexity involved, there. The crudest thing we have always said is: "Do not push and do not run away." But what do you do? Well, you keep it company, especially if it is sore. You keep it company. This "it," it is a funny way of talking. Sometimes when I say these things, someone will say: "You talk funny" and I say: "Yes, I know." You keep it company; I often say: "Let's keep it company."

The client and I, we are going to keep it, in there, company. As you would keep a scared child company. You would not push on it, or argue with it, or pick it up, because it is too sore, too scared or tense. You would just sit there, quietly, I really said it all in the beginning: What that edge needs to produce the steps, is only some kind of unintrusive contact or company. If you will go there with your awareness and stay there or return there, that is all it needs; it will do all the rest for you. If you do not know that awareness is a process in itself, it will seem very mysterious. It needs you there and that is all it needs. That is the sort of thing I would like to illustrate with these two segments.

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Segment 1

C: "I did not want to come today. I do not have anything more to talk about (laughs). Really, there is a level I do not want to touch. I got there once before and I got into crying and I could not get out of it; I could not stop crying. My therapist did not know what to do. She cried too. I looked up and I could see it and I thought: 'Well, she does not know what to do either'."

While she is telling me that, I think: "Well, that is obviously a good therapist." I believe, if it makes me cry, let that be visible. But at that time, it was not so good. So you never know. Or you can say: It was all right, but there should have been something further; hopefully it happens here.

T: "You do not want to fall in there again that way."

C: "Right. Usually, I believe in feelings and I think: If you feel it, it gets better. But on this, I don't know."

T: "So we won't say: Just feel it. You did that and it was not better. Whatever we'll do here, you would like it to be in a different way..."

(I do not necessarily expect agreement on that, you see, I am doing something, I am preparing some sort of focusing.)

C: "Right." (And then there is a long silence.)
"I can feel it right there, just below where I am."

Now that is not my jargon, O.K.? So don't blame me for that. Just think about why a person would say that. That has it all, just that one sentence: "I can feel it right there, just below where I am."

T: "Let's stay here a long while, just relating to it down there, without going there." Or another way to say it: "If we do anything, let us do it very slowly."
(Long silence)

C: "The way the whole thing feels is that I am no good, and I am helpless to do anything about it. And I cannot hardly touch that."

T: "That is hard to stand. Go slow. It is hard even just to touch that."

Now I am going to stop that excerpt, there.

Segment 2

Here is a different person:

C: "I want to leave Chicago. The noise outside bothers me."

(Therapist is silent.)

C: "You do not think that is real. I can tell."

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Therapist is mobilizing to give a reflection. He says (I am saying):

T: "The noise is crowding in on you, coming into your 'far-in place'."

I really knew what she was saying in fact because I have seen her for a very long time.

C: "It is like darts hitting my body. I cannot stand it."

T: "It really hurts."

And now there is one of these silences. I was willing to hear it, so it got heard and now there is the silence. And then she says:

C: "I keep feeling a sense of 'no meaning' in my life." (More silence.) "I just want to leave everything. It is that same spot where I want to die. My wanting to live and to die are so close these days. That is why I have not been able to touch this place. It gets misty there. It is real foggy."

Now I take that to be a step. First she was saying: "I am in this place where the noise hurts me" and now she is saying: "Oh that is my life and death place and when I touch it, it gets foggy." So can you derive that from the other? If I did not read it, would you have known this was coming? I do not see how you could have. I did not.

T: "You can feel wanting to live and also wanting to die, both right there, in the same inside spot and then that gets foggy there."

Now another one of these silences comes. Almost each time, there is this kind of step there.

C: "I do not want to relate with anyone; I wish there were no people to see. They do not mean anything to me. (She has to go to work after this hour.) There is no meaning. When will my life ever have meaning? It feels like it never will and I need meaning right now." (Silence ... Therapist did not respond.)
"I also feel it has to do with my relating to you. I know you are there for me, but it is like I am not allowed to want that."

Now very often in that kind of situation, I will say: "Let us, you and me, be real close and connected around this place; because in it, you do not feel any connection." That has been a real valuable thing to say, very often. "Let us relate all the way around it." It is like saying: "Let us be close," but also acknowledging that right in the center somehow there is no connection, there is an isolation. But I did not do that here. Something else happened. She said: "I also feel it has to do with my relating to you. I know you are there for me, but it is like I am not allowed to want that." So I heard the "not allowed" and it sounded different to me. So I said:

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T: "Is that what you said before about your father?"

And I want to notice this therapist's single attempt at a genuine psychoanalytic interpretation. And it turns out to be very helpful also. Notice this: Very helpful. I mean really; but of course wrong, but very helpful. "Is that what you said before about your father?" Now there is this long silence again. Then she says:

C: "No I can feel that this is not with him. This is different. It is not like with my father."

You see, she has tried it out: "It is not like that." And then, the therapist says:

T: "It is not about him."

That is the big difference. The big difference is not that we interpret it or do not interpret it. The big difference is that we stay with the person whatever comes there. And anybody working with me knows that I am trying to do that. So they do not even bother about some of the things that I say. But she does bother. She says: "It is not about him. It is not like with my father." And I say: "It is not about him." And then there is another silence.

C: "I can hardly touch it. There is something and it is right here on the edge, I can hardly touch it; it is ... I cannot want my mother, I can hardly say it."

And I reflect:

T: "You cannot want her." (Silence.)

C: "That is where I feel the noise like darts." (More silence.)

C: "It is real early, real early."

T: "It feels like a very early experience." (Silence.)

C: "I cannot want anything."


Here come the steps. Silence.

C: "This needs to rest and it cannot rest. If it lets down and rests, it will die. It needs to keep its guard up."

T: "There is such a big need and longing to rest and let down and ease; but somehow also this part of you cannot rest. I t feels that it will die if it stops being on guard."

Silence. Long silence. What comes is a step.

C: "Maybe it could, if I could trust something."

T: "It could rest if you could trust something."

C: "No, no. MAYBE it could rest if I could trust something."

T: "It is important to say 'maybe': 'Maybe it could rest if I could trust something'."

[Page 220]


C: "Now, suddenly it feels like a house on stilts, that the stilts go into the earth. All of me on top where the noise is, that is the house. And it is on stilts. It got lifted off this sore place. Now this sore place is like a layer and it can breathe. Do you know those steel posts that they put into the ground to hold up a building? These stilts are like that. All the noise and coming and going is in the house and the house is on stilts, lifted off and the stilts go into the ground."

T: "Those steel stilts go into the ground and you feel them lifting the whole house up off of you and underneath, that sore place can breathe." (Silence.)

C: "Yes, now it is breathing." (More silence.)

C: "It is bathing in warm water."

And then later, she said (these are not exactly her words):

C: "When I was little, I played a lot with stilts. I used to go between the power-wires on them. It was dangerous but it was play. I used to make taller and taller ones and go on them there. Stilts, I have not thought of those for years. Play and danger."

And she is realizing that the themes are related. There was this life and death place here, and stilts have something to do with that and the play is some kind of freeing dimension. So she says:

C: "How does this process do that? It uses all these things to ...."

That is a good place to stop...


1. For what types of clients is this approach most adequate? Do you have any empirical data on outcome and, more specifically, did you compare your approach with the traditional approach of Carl Rogers? (Reinhard Tausch)

First of all, I would like to be clear: My approach is anything that I can try. If therapy is happening, if the client is moving, or if they do not want me to do something, I would never do it. I do not know if I made that clear enough. I am not saying: "Do not do this," or "Do that." I am not saying that. I am not saying that at all. Apparently I have come across that way, because nowadays sometimes I get clients who say: "I am not going to be able to focus." And I say: "Well, that is fine, there are lots of ways of doing this." And they say: "But you wrote that if I do [Page 221] not focus, I won't get anywhere." I wish I had not written that, if I have written it. O.K.?

I will follow the client wherever the client takes me and if that is doing something for the client, then I am content. And yes, the way I am and the way I respond and the way I talk, they will probably pick focusing up as a side-benefit. But I am not interested in approaching a person with "an approach." I bring focusing in when clients do not seem to have it, and are going around in circles. So I do not know if I am answering the question or avoiding it, but this is the approach that I would counsel. Now I would say—to answer the question—there is a large body of clients who, if you give something like focusing half a chance, who do it immediately. That is the population for whom focusing instructions are indicated, to take the question straight now. I would define the population that the method is appropriate to this way. When you try a little bit of it and it makes a wonderful difference, that is a good thing to do then. At the other extreme there are people whom you would have to push and intrude on, and say: "Look here, stop talking all the time and do this thing that I want you to do." I do not want that. And then there are people who already have it. I am saying: "It is the people between these two extremes for whom this is indicated." But that is not a class of people by present classifications; that includes borderline and psychotic people, including people in the hospital who feel a relief that they can find themselves when they have "been gone"; you know, dissociated sort of experience. We found several times that this is a helpful thing to do with people, right across the continuum of degrees of disturbance. But some other variable is involved and I do not know what it is yet.

As to the second part of your question, I do not think of focusing instructions as an approach to compare to another approach but within therapies, both client-centered and some others—though not enough others to brag about—,but within client-centered therapy, I would say we have a string of research studies that show that the people who do this already tend to be successful. Now we do not have anything to show that the people Gendlin teaches are more successful.

We do not have anything to show that teaching this in the context of therapy makes it more successful. That, we do not have. And I would not push it. I would teach it as something that goes along with a more normal response. Like I did here.

[Page 222]

2. What is your view of the difference between client-centered and experiential psychotherapy and what is your view of the relation between them? (Barbara Brodley)

I would take client-centered therapy to be the larger thing. First of all, focusing, if that is what we are talking about, focusing to me is a very tiny very important process. What I call focusing is paying attention inwardly to that unclear sense of something there. Now surely therapy and personal development are much bigger things than that. Focusing is a very deliberate way to touch something inside. I have seen that help the bigger process. The bigger process comes from behind you and takes you and expands you, and you do not know what is going to happen. Whereas focusing is this very deliberate thing where an "I" is attending to an "it." I think it is very valuable. But surely, it is not therapy. Therapy is a relationship, therapy is a process of development. These focusing steps I described come in client-centered therapy. That is where I learnt them from, that is where I saw them and if you observe your clients, you will see that they are silent before those steps typically come.

Now the trouble that you are having is not about that process. It is about me teaching that process. And it is true that if the therapist teaches that process in some way, there is some problem with that. The therapists need to check their welcome. They need to watch and see whether they intrude; they need to see that the relationship always has precedence. So you do this thing inside the relationship, just like you do when you are in somebody's house. You do not things that they do not want you to do very long.

3. In what you just said, are you not assuming that the process of the steps is the essence of therapeutic change? (Barbara Brodley)

No, no. That is a helpful question. I was trying to straighten that out. I assume that interaction is the broader process. And just about everything interesting is some kind of special case of interaction. And it is only as part of interaction that any of these things works well. So no. I am not assuming that an inner process can be distinguished from interaction. Precisely the opposite. The inner process will give you steps in a context of interaction. And if there is nobody there, then you better interact with it in a friendly way. Otherwise you will not get [Page 223] those steps. You need to interact with yourself, with a certain kind of attitude; as if your inside were a child that you were keeping company. And it is much easier if someone else will be there for you in that kind of silence. So anything interesting about focusing goes on, in the context of relating. The only difference I ever had with that part of the theory was Carl's point about perception. But it is always going to be "interaction first" if you ask me.

4. You emphasized the "body-sense." However, I experience many times with myself and with my clients that there is no body-sense at all, even when I or they have this "it" and can point to it. If this is the case, I think emphasizing the bodily aspect might be more confusing than helpful. (Rob van Woerden)

I do not want to close down any other channels. I do not think anybody has the right to say: This has got to be this way, for human beings. So if you say that there is a way that they can come differently than from this bodily sense, that is fine with me. I think we need to look and compare, not just which is better, but what the difference is.

I am sure that there is an entry to steps through the literal body. Once you come into this literal body here then you find a space that is much bigger than your literal body. It is quite clear that it is not exactly your literal body, but that is where the entrance is. There might be other entrances.

5. You have said that you do not agree that the client needs to perceive empathic understanding of the therapist and the other conditions. If you do not perceive the therapist's empathy and so forth, this could mean that it does not exist for the client. Now 1 make a distinction between "received empathy" and "perceived empathy." Does that make sense to you? (Godfrey Barrett-Lennard)

Oh yes, we could settle on that completely. That is what it has always meant, also to Carl. It has got to have some impact on the client; and that is what I meant too: Some impact or some kind of effect. The interaction changes the person and then they become aware of it. At least some of us. But I would completely agree with you that receiving it in some way could be one of the conditions. Just perceiving sounds to me like a reflective understanding or a reflected observation that I [Page 224] would have to say: "My therapist understands me." And I would have said: "Nobody can understand me. He tries hard, that nice man."


[1]. This chapter is a revised version of the author's plenary address at the Leuven Conference (September 12-16, 1988). Lieve De Wachter made a transcript of the audiotape. The author adapted this first draft and provided it with some comments and clarifications. Germain Lietaer did some further editiorial work and selected from the original dialogue with the audience some parts for inclusion in the text.


Gendlin, E. T. (1962/1970). Experiencing and the creation of meaning (2nd ed.). New York: Free Press.

Gendlin, E. T. (1987). A philosophical critique of the concept of "Narcissism." In D.M. Levin (Ed.), Pathologies of the modern self: Postmodern studies. New York: New York University Press.

Hendricks, M.N. (1986). Experiencing level as a therapeutic variable. Person-centered Review, 1, 141-162.

Leijssen, M. (1989). Teaching focusing to "unsuccessful" clients. Research project in progress, Centrum voor client-centered therapie en counseling, K.U.Leuven.

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  • Biographic Note: Eugene T. Gendlin is a seminal American philosopher and psychologist. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago and taught there from 1963 to 1995. His philosophical work is concerned especially with the relationship between logic and implicit intricacy. Philosophy books include Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning, Language Beyond Post-Modernism: Saying and Thinking in Gendlin's Philosophy edited by David Michael Levin, (fourteen commentaries and Gendlin’s replies), and A Process Model. There is a world wide network of applications and practices ( stemming from this philosophy. Gendlin has been honored three times by the American Psychological Association for his development of Experiential Psychotherapy. He was a founder and editor for many years of the Association’s Clinical Division Journal, Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. His book Focusing has sold over half a million copies and has appeared in seventeen languages. His psychology-related books are Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams and Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy.
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