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Gendlin, E.T. (1974). Client-centered and experiential psychotherapy. In D.A. Wexler & L.N. Rice (Eds.), Innovations in client-centered therapy, pp. 211-246. New York: John Wiley & Sons. From

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Client-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapy

Eugene T. Gendlin

In this chapter I will first discuss client-centered, and then experiential psychotherapy. Both, in different ways, have special roles, and are not just methods among others.

In discussing client-centered therapy, I will first add some new developments, making it much more specific. I will then ask just what, if anything, our field still has to learn from client-centered therapy. I will argue that despite its great familiarity, despite the fact that most therapists think they have "reflection of feeling" as part of their repertory, the essence of client-centered therapy has not been learned and absorbed. Most therapists, even the latest, still miss this vital essence.

The experiential method, discussed later in this chapter, is a way of using many of the different therapeutic approaches. It is a method of methods. It enables me to show just how client-centered therapy ought to be a part of every therapist's way of working. It is a systematic way of using various vocabularies, theories, and procedures, among them client-centered therapy. When I have offered some details of its theory and practice, it will then become clear how my rendition of client-centered therapy (in the first section of this chapter) is really a reformulation of it in experiential terms. As so reformulated, it ought to be a part of every therapist's way of working.

Currently the difference between different therapeutic orientations has lessened very much. They used to be separated by great gulfs. Each group of therapists worked and thought quite isolatedly from others with different views. Each group held that only what it did was therapeutic and well-founded, and that what others did was destructive, or at best useless, and founded on no scientific or theoretical basis. Currently the differences [Page 212] between therapeutic orientations are far less sharp. Many therapists define their orientation hyphenatedly, for example, "psychoanalytic-experiential" or "client-centered-existential." It is widely said that the person of the therapist is a more important factor than his official orientation. More exactly, how the therapist lives personally toward the client is more important and much more specific than anything the methods cover. It matters more how something is done, than just what general procedure is used. Many therapists borrow each other's procedures freely, fortunately more concerned with what works, than with what fits preconceptions.

The experiential method, of which I will say more in the second part of this chapter, has played a special role in making the different orientations more related to each other. The experiential method is not just another body of concepts and procedures. Rather, it is a certain way of using any and all of the older methods. Therefore, the older orientations are now cut across by a new division between those who practice experientially whatever orientation they come from, and those who do not as yet practice their older orientation in the experiential way. At least for those who do, the distinctions between the older methods become less important, even though one continues to think and talk in the words of one's old vocabulary. Therapists who practice experientially understand each other, even though some talk psychoanalytically, and some existentially, some in Jungian, and some in Sullivanian terms.

The basic principle of the experiential method is that whatever is said and done must be checked against the concretely felt experiencing of the person. There are no words or sentences, speculations and inferences, which are in themselves correct. Rather, do they make touch with the person's directly felt concrete body sense of what is being worked on—or do they fail to make touch with it? If they do touch it, this might be because there is some directly felt power to the words; they result in the person feeling a sharpened sense of what was being worked on, or there might be a release and a new step emerging. In some way the words are more than words, they also engender some directly experienced effect. If not, then these words are not the right ones for now, however interesting and generally true they might be.

In the second section of this chapter, I will have more to say about the experiential method and theory. It should be clear here, however, that this method undercuts the differences between various vocabularies and procedures—any of them might be tried and have experiential effect, or in a given instance they might fail at achieving such an effect. The experiential psychotherapist could use them all at times, and would use none of them as absolute but always keep the directly felt experiencing of the patient as absolute.

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My discussion of client-centered therapy, here, will be from the experiential perspective.


In today's much less sectarian climate, what significance is there still in client-centered therapy?

Many people think that client-centered therapy has made its contribution, and has been absorbed. Hardly anyone practices only client-centered therapy, purely. Most therapists know and use other techniques that are helpful as well. The richly varied field of Gestalt, transactional, existential, and reevaluation techniques tends to appeal to the same nonpsychoanalytic, nonorthodox therapists whom client-centered therapy first freed from the near-priestly cult of psychoanalysis. It was client-centered therapy (and Sullivan) who first broke the dominance not only of psychoanalysis, but also of the pseudomedical idea that a therapist practices techniques, and that it is these that get someone well. Rogers (1961) emphasized the therapist as a genuine person, rather than techniques. But all this is now well-known, and held widely. Is there still something to learn from client-centered therapy?

Other contributions of client-centered therapy too, have been absorbed. To mention a few: research with unashamed tape recording of ongoing therapy is no longer exclusive to client-centered therapy, as it used to be. Similarly, most therapists today accept emphasis on the present, and reject the total focus on the past that characterized psychoanalysis. The emphasis on feeling, and the rejection of pure intellectualizing, which client-centered therapy began, is widely shared today. Similarly, the client-centered idea that the therapist's feelings toward the client are not necessarily an unreal "countertransference" is now widespread. Real relating is widely attempted. The face-to-face way of doing therapy, rather than the infantilizing couch, is used today by all but orthodox psychoanalysts. I recall a textbook of the 1940s that carried a photograph of client-centered therapy! It was a picture of two people, one behind a desk, and another sitting at the side of the desk. Today such a picture would hardly be necessary, nor would it be characteristic only of client-centered therapy,

Has client-centered therapy then been fully absorbed in today's plethora of similar, newer methods? Or is there still something that requires us to go back to it?

I would argue strongly that the essence of client-centered therapy has not yet been learned by the field. Indeed, looking back over the many years of my own work in the field, devoted mostly to experiential psychotherapy, [Page 214] I could now express some hindsight: I did not devote enough effort to point up, and retain, and take with us into new developments the essence and crux of client-centered psychotherapy. Although I never ceased using this crux in practice, I have not written enough about it.

This is a good time to do just that, first because it is necessary, and second, because we are experiencing a kind of renaissance of client-centered therapy. It is being rediscovered by plain people. In our community here in Chicago, we call it listening, and that has become a common word. People use such phrases as "I feel upset, I need to be listened to . . ." which is a request to the person spoken to. In our community we understand this request and know how to meet it.

Everyone in the field of psychotherapy knows about the client-centered response, saying back to the person what the person has said. This "reflecting" has become part of the common tools of all therapists, and is known to help clarify and articulate what someone feels. In this rather unexciting form, it is well known.

Two New Additions to Client-Centered Therapy

Currently, two very vital further aspects characterize our listening.

  • 1. First, there has developed a great sense for exact specificity. A round, vague approximation is not yet really listening. Today, looking back, I think that 90% of the client-centered therapy I have seen in the last two decades was only round approximation. The client's distinctly felt experience, rather than being articulated, was obscured and deprived of its specific edges by such responding. Accuracy is most important as an aim of the therapist. Let me explain.

    If therapists lack a keen sense that they are making an attempt at accuracy, then they fail to grasp that the client's reaction to the therapist's response is often due to the therapist's inaccuracy. The client's reaction, most of the time, is one of trying to hold on to what is felt, despite the inaccurate response. In trying to hold on to the felt datum, the client tries somehow to deal with the therapist's inaccurate response. "It's not so much this and so way," the client now says, "because after all, such and such, and this and that, are the case, and therefore, well, it isn't so." (It isn't the way the therapist said.) Now the therapist, not realizing that this is all a comeback to the inaccurate response, "reflects" this comeback. The therapist restates the reasons the client gave (for why the earlier therapist response doesn't apply). But again, the therapist doesn't quite get it right, so the client is now forced to tighten up these inaccurately stated reasons. Again the therapist responds to what was just said, and both people are [Page 215] now so far off, so far away from the original felt datum the client had, that they never return, at least not unless the client is very hardy.

    "Don't you realize," I will say in supervising such an interaction, "that you were the one to raise all this stuff in the first place, not the client? The client was trying to get into this feeling, but had to explain why what you said wasn't right."

    A very great deal of so-called therapy in the past had something like the quality of the above example, and all because therapists were not keenly aware of the task of accuracy.

    Today we don't stand for that, we want to say it exactly as the person feels it, and we don't mind trying three times. We have not become somehow cleverer, we are still often inaccurate the first time, but because we know that we wanted to be accurate, we recognize that the client's reaction is a comeback to our inaccuracy.

    This recognition enables us to stay with the person's felt datum and with whatever the person actually says, until we get it.
  • 2. We are also aided in this regard by a second, rather new addition: We talk a lot about the responsibility of the person being listened to. We give the person exact instruction always to check inside. Whatever is said back, the person is asked always to check inside, to sense if the response is just exactly what is felt. Without this inner checking by the person listened to, there is no way to become exact, and no way to make really direct contact with what's there in the person.

    We have found that not only listeners, but also the people being listened to, have the terrible tendency to give up on what is inside, and to settle for round words and concepts. The person is likely to agree easily, "Yea, I guess so, yea, that's what I said." This is instead of referring inwardly and sensing what's there, and noticing how what was said is not it.

    We therefore push the rule that the person being listened to must check each response inwardly. Then it can be felt quite directly and unmistakably, what wasn't right, or what just now shifted, and what must be said further.

    This rule also gets around politeness. It seems impolite to tell someone that the response is wrong, knowing that this listener is trying hard and being very nice. But if inward checking is the rule, then one cannot settle for a string of round words; one is brought directly in touch with what is there and therefore also with what needs to be added or corrected in anything that was said. The rule also makes the therapy more experiential. If the person being listened to checks inwardly at each step, not only is the accuracy of the response checked, but the client can find the further step now arising in what is concretely felt.

Thus both of these two new specifications have been added to client-[Page 216]centered therapy from an experiential perspective. Rather than viewing themselves chiefly on the level of talk, both the listener and the person being listened to consider themselves working on some inward level of the person being listened to. It is there that the response is checked and the next step to be found. It is there, that the listener awaits the response being checked. And it is there that the person will find the next thing to say.

With these two specifications a new client-centered therapy has arisen—one much more powerful and yet capable of being done by ordinary people. There is no need, we make quite clear, to get anything right the first time. There are no points lost, we all agree, by one's response being checked and people saying their thing over again, or saying it more exactly. As long as they hang on to it, as long as we help them get into it, it doesn't matter if it is a moment sooner or a moment later. Thus the great specificity and devotion to what the person actually has there does not require superhuman beings and certainly it does not require professionals (who are not, as a group, more able than others to put up with being corrected all the time, anyway).

Client-Centered Therapy: The Essence

If it is now clear how the experiential approach has led to a tightening of client-centered therapy in these two respects, I can now explain what, it seems to me, is the essence of client-centered therapy, and why I think our field has not yet learned it.

It is true that most therapists have heard of, and sometimes use, "reflection of feeling." They consider it as one technique among many, and thereby they miss the point. I am not arguing that one should never do anything else, I agree that there are many other things it is important to do. And yet, as I say, the main essence and point of client-centered responding has been almost entirely missed by most of the psychotherapy field. My reason for saying this is that the client-centered response should not be one among many types, but should be the baseline, the single precondition upon which the use of all other kinds of responding should be built. Here is more exactly what I mean:

For the therapist, all other kinds of responding should take off from, and return to, client-centered responding. Only in this way can the therapist stay constantly in touch with what is occurring in the person, and thus know and help make good use of whatever beneficial results other therapeutic procedures may have. Only on this baseline can the therapist know exactly how to use all other therapeutic procedures.

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Indeed, one can and must do very many other things besides responding reflectively, but never without quite quickly again picking up and really listening to where that leaves the person, what has happened in the person, what the person is now feeling and saying.

Without being able to listen, to hear, to respond exactly, to help the person share what is felt, the therapist is actually leaving the client basically alone. However useful the other things a therapist does may be, if the therapist can't hear, the person is left alone inside. What the person is really up against is not dealt with, is not even brought in, is not even touched. Without listening, the inward sense of the person is not expanded, it remains not only alone, but compressed, sometimes nearly silent, dumb. That way there can be no relationship. A lot of pushing and pulling may occur and look very interactional, but genuine relating is simultaneously a coming to be of each person, an opening up and being carried forward into interaction. Without making real touch with what is there in another, one cannot relate to that other.

Some people are not silent inwardly, but in fact have long and complex inward processes. Nevertheless, if the person were in interaction, what is in the person would be different. (Later I shall explain how the quality of the ongoing process determines what "contents" one will find.) If one leaves the person untouched, unrelated to, what is in the person is (what I call) autistic. Instead of steps of carrying forward into living by action and interaction, the person supplies all the responses. The results are not the same! Self-responding alone, in the absence of interaction, tends to circle and make problems and contents that are nothing but this aloneness, although they have technical names and are treated by our field as if they were some sort of inward things. It is thus a very serious charge, when I say that most therapists leave their patients inwardly alone. It means also that what most needs to change, will not change.

Another result of not listening is that one does not know what is happening for the person just now. Thus, one is blind. If inviting the person to say what is happening and then responding listeningly for a few steps is not your usual procedure, just try it sometime when you're certain you know what is happening. It won't be what you thought! You will be glad you did not go on in the direction you had intended.

Responding in a listening way is a baseline prerequisite for any other modes of responding. It is not just one of many ways, but a precondition for the other ways. It is for therapy what watching the road is in driving a car. One does many things—shift gears, look at signs, engage in conversation, think private thoughts. Driving a car is by no means nothing but watching the road. However, it is quite unwise to forgo watching the road, for any other activity. A glance now and then at something else is [Page 218] fine, even necessary to find one's way. Also, watching the road does not take all one's attention and time; one can also think and converse—but watching the road has priority! As soon as the situation out the windshield gets murky the conversation must stop, one's thinking must cease, one must slow down and attend entirely to what's in front, until that becomes clear again. Unfortunately many therapists drive without watching the road. They don't even want to see it! They think they already know what is in the person just then (but, without listening responses, they can only know in a very general, unsatisfactory way).

Therapists may say some challenging thing, some effect may happen, but where it fits, how it leaves the person, what (if any) further steps are now opened—none of this can be known without a quick return to client-centered responding. Thus, no continuous process arises. At best there is a spark here, and then, later, another one there, but no self-moving therapeutic process. Or, if there is one, it is solely in the individual person's lone autistic space, unshared. Blind therapy, I call it. Poking here, and then later poking there. It's the latest thing. Therapists have found ways that do have some effect and aren't just talk. That is excellent. But they use these ways, for the most part, discontinuously, and are not aware that there is such a thing as a therapy process, a continuous movement. And they use their methods in such a way that patients can't share them, and cannot proceed further from where it left them.

A few years ago I was on a workshop panel with a number of other therapists, and we did demonstrations (by calling someone up from the audience). Some of the therapists on the panel fitted a description I sometimes use accusingly; they were "sharpshooters." They were more interested in hitting dead center on some mark (invisibly painted on the patient, I suppose), than in helping anyone. They were good at saying something impactful, undoing the person who had bravely come up from the audience. "There . . ." and they would self-satisfiedly stop. It was as if to say "The prosecution rests." When it was my turn I worked with a volunteer from the audience, more or less as I always do, staying close to what he felt, every few seconds. I also did other things but always followed each of my other kinds of moves with an inquiry where that left him, to which I would again respond listeningly. When it was over I was acclaimed for being incredibly sensitive and gentle and a wonderful person. The panel wanted to imply that it was all due to my own personal qualities, which of course meant that no other person would need to look more closely at what I did, because, presumably, only rare people like me could do this. I had done experiential focusing (which will be elaborated upon later), which anyone can learn to do. [Page 219] I had also done other things—all of them on a baseline of client-centered therapy. The marvelously sensitive quality was all due to the client-centered baseline; my return, constantly, to what he was feeling, asking him about it and responding to it. If that seemed so rare and gentle in the midst of what was currently being demonstrated, it is clear that the essence of client-centered therapy has not yet been widely understood.

It is very well that we have developed ways that are impactful. It is a good thing that we are no longer "just talking," month after month, helplessly hoping that something more than words will somehow occur. It is excellent that so many therapists are aware of the relative uselessness of talk, and are seeking more and more to make a clearly felt difference. It is quite right that something the person can actually feel has to happen, or else it is only talk, and worth little. But this emphasis on felt impact is insufficient alone. There must also be a sense for therapy as a continuous process, as a movement of a person, rather than just shots here and then later shots there. Whatever else one does will be more useful if one also stays in touch at all times with the person's own felt sense of what is happening on a moment-by-moment basis inside. Then a moving process arises, and continues.

If listening were accepted as a baseline prerequisite for all other forms of responding, as I propose, this would not need to mean that therapists would constantly be saying "You feel . . ." or "Let me see if I understand you, you're saying . . ." These verbal routines are unnecessary, There is a much more natural way of wanting to be in touch constantly with where a person "is at," at any moment. Natural ways are asking the person (What do you feel now? Where did that leave you? What are you thinking?) , or of saying back what one understands (for instance, "So, you . . . or "Damn right, I can see how that would be . . ." or "Yes, it makes sense to me, that . . ." or "'Sure, that would be heavy, if they . . ."). The dots here refer to one's own statement of what one thought one understood. Many other forms come naturally, once the principle is established not to respond routinely with "You feel . . ." but to respond so as to express where the person "is at."

Years ago (Gendlin, 1964, 1970) 1 reformulated client-centered therapy from negative to positive, from don't rules, to do rules. The old rules were: don't ask questions, don't answer questions, don't say your own feelings, don't interrupt, and so on. I changed it to "make sure you do say what you understand, and let that be checked out, so you stay in touch with the person. Given you do this, you can do anything else also." The therapist's own self-expressing, for example, is welcome, provided that the person is really listened to before, after, and continually.

It was from my experiential philosophical basis that I could reformulate [Page 220] client-centered therapy from don'ts to do's, because only in experiential terms can one think about what must happen in a psychotherapy process. The essence of client-centered therapy is not well-stated as "Say back what the person said," it is much better stated as "Stay in touch at all times with the person's directly felt concrete experiential datum—and help the person also to stay in touch with that, and get into it." (If doing that is the baseline, every other procedure and idea can also be tried out, and one returns quickly again to finding out, listening, and responding to where it leaves the person.)

These days we introduce listening on an experiential base. We do not first give therapists the puzzling instruction to repeat what their clients say. Rather, we convey what it is like to get into oneself, to accord oneself a friendly hearing, to allow, without rebutting, the coming up of anything that will be there inwardly. We convey that, in one's relation to oneself, one must not immediately argue with what comes, or put oneself down for it, or explain it; rather one must gently allow it to be there, just exactly in whatever way it comes up to be felt. When this attitude is understood, listening is presented as how one would help other people take that kind of attitude toward themselves within themselves. To help them do it, we would say back exactly only what they said, try to get it exactly as they felt it and said it, help them "lay no trips on it," and thus certainly also ourselves "laying no trips" on what the person has there.

In the next section, I shall explain experiential focusing and more of the experiential approach. It will then be clear how the present rendition of client-centered therapy was made possible by the experiential approach. Given that that is so, however, the baseline I propose is still the client-centered response—done more exactly, done with a positive sense for the person's inward process and felt data as the ultimate referent, constantly checked there, but otherwise the same client-centered response.

Someone in a training group said to me recently, "It feels so odd to repeat what someone said, but it feels so powerful when someone does it for me." This contrast is worth mentioning. For us helping types, listening often seems too little, almost embarrassing. We are all so bright, we can think of many ways of doing things—should we really remain limited within what the person said? It makes us uncomfortable. Exactly the other side of this question is that if we do remain within what the person said, we accord the person all the space. There is enormous power in letting a person say what is inside. There is no other way to let them do it, than to allow them to do it.

When I say that a therapist can also do anything else, just so there is always a swift return to the listening baseline, I mean that a therapist [Page 221] can occasionally do any other thing. If something else is done every minute, then of course people are again not permitted to get into, and lay out, what is within them.

Isn't it absurd, that one finds so many patients in psychotherapy saying such things as "If only I could make my therapist understand this . . ." or "I try to tell this to my therapist but he won't hear of it . . ." and other such statements? Despite so many advances in our field, more than half of therapy is still only talking, and at that, mostly a matter of not being heard. People would not put up with this kind of thing from their friends. It is because they falsely believe that professionals have some sort of magic that they continue to go for years of hours of being essentially insulted, unheard, and left alone inside.

But, as I say, even those newer therapists who know how to make something happen that isn't just words, even these usually fail to engender a continuous process in their patients. Listening, responding exactly to what the person has here, and aiding the person "to process" this, are vital to the good use of any other impactful methods.

Recently a visitor asked me, "What does this word mean, 'to process' . . . everybody here is 'processing' all the time. What is that?" A closer description will be given in the next section, but for now I want to emphasize the fact that client-centered responding has steps. This is roughly what is meant by "process" and "processing." It isn't a question just of listening so that the therapist will know where the person "is at," and so the person will feel heard and unalone, unautistic. Rather, having been heard, checking further inwardly, something new and further will arise there for the person. Having that also responded to, will let still further steps arise. Thus there is a process of many steps further and further into what is there—and also thereby a changing and resolution of what is there.

Without such continuous steps, the inward process of change does not arise, and therapy remains occasional puzzling impacts, disconnected openings here and there, leaving people unable to make use of these impacts and openings, without a continuous and concrete internal change process of their own.

Listening, therefore, is never a one-shot response, but involves at least a few steps: a listening response, then again hearing, and again responding. When that first thing is really heard, wait. Let the person see what now arises. Respond to that. Several such steps, not just one turn, are listening in this sense of the word.

In my recent writings (Gendlin, 1969) I have argued strongly against "just talking," as though any therapist who did not in a few interviews reach an experiential process level with his patient must be quite foolish. [Page 222] And I still think that most therapy is relatively useless talking. A therapist must strive (and I will show how) to help the person allow directly felt referents to form, to attend to a bodily felt sense, and to let that live further in words and interactions. However, I must also say something in favor of patience.

It is well even in first interviews to ask a person to remain quiet outwardly and inwardly, and to see if there isn't right there a felt sense of what is being talked about. Often just this simple request helps the person's attention move down, as it were, many floors, to a coming into touch concretely.

However, if that does not succeed, one should go on responsively, and try again later or next time. One should also respond verbally on the feeling side of anything the person says. In writing about how to help a person move down into concrete felt sensing, I do not want to say that this always works immediately, or that one should feel one is not helping when it doesn't. It is something to keep moving toward, and may require a period of time in which to be discovered by the person. Until then, one can also be very helpful. It may take some time before some people allow themselves into their own experiential insides. It won't do to blame them for this; it is for the therapist to sense how and when best to help. But therapists should be careful to retain their energy and impetus to aid the person to focus experientially when that becomes possible. Therapists have a tendency to accept a lesser level of process, and to stop trying, with the given person.

Another qualification of client-centered therapy concerns therapist self-expression. The old client-centered therapy forbade it. My writings have urged it strongly. Therapists should always be visibly the people they are—and I still think that. An invented person who does not exist in the room cannot relate to a client. The client's experience cannot be carried forward by responses that are not the responses of a real, other person present. Therapists who cannot permit themselves to be seen off balance, who cannot share even seemingly undesirable experiences inside, cannot be very fully lived with. And the client needs to live further with the therapist, than is possible with most other people outside. This often requires the therapist's self-expression—saying what the therapist feels.

But, to be accurate, I must mention that this more expressive mode may not at first fit every client. Some people will let the careful listener know very quickly that any input is confusing and obstructing to them. If the therapist expresses some feeling, this burdens them. If a therapist said anything, they remember it 5 years later and are still puzzled about it. If the therapist asks something, they feel pushed, as if what they now feel is not being taken in fully. Wise therapists will need only one or two [Page 223] such signs to allow the person to proceed for some time only as the inward process itself moves, and with nothing whatsoever added by the therapist.

Gently asking the person to stop and sense what is right there, is quite safe, if done now and then in an hour. But whatever the person then says or does next should be accepted and responded to.

Miss L. found exact client-centered listening enormously powerful. Every little while it would make her cry to have her exact feeling restated out loud. The crying went with a feeling of inward movement. Once she experienced this powerful effect, nothing else would do. She would get unhappy and frustrated with any other response from me. "Why don't you reflect my feeling?" was a constant reminder. Furthermore the words had to be exact, all the main words had to be the ones she'd used. Then only would she have the sense of powerful impact, and only through these moments would she get to a further step. There were times when she would tell me exactly what to say, and then, when I said it exactly, it would make her cry.

When I asked her a question there would be a blank look, as if she were saying, "That's a stupid question, how would I know?" When I asked her for a further step ("What's in that?" or "See what that is"), which works well with most people, she would say: "Don't ask for something further, I just got to this!" When I would at last be again willing to respond purely listeningly, she would feel a flood of relief, and the process would move again. Miss L. has engaged in other therapeutic modes quite successfully, both with me and with others. She has profited from operant situational restructuring, Jungian imagery, and reevaluation techniques. But when she says her feelings then the response must be client-centered.

Mr. O. remembers a number of his previous therapist's utterings, which he has brought up now and then, as if to say "How could anyone have said that to me, when I was saying so and so?" It is clear that he will always remember these things, and that they were major disruptions that foreclosed further movement along a given line. Yet the therapist most probably said these things offhandedly and perhaps would have felt and thought something quite different only moments later, had the process continued. Mr. O. was obstructed by his therapist's self-expression in another way: when the therapist told him some personal troubles, Mr. O. felt flattered at being trusted but also burdened and misused. Mr. O. is the sort of person one can talk to, and people share their problems with him. He feels the need of some place where this won't happen to him, where he won't be "used," where all the space will really be open and his own.

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These people have an extreme sensitivity to others, as if they cannot be at ease and deeply into themselves if another person also uses the space. They find their whole being shifted by the pull, upon them, of another person's needs, statements, or interactional moves. They can use relational space for themselves only if the other person really puts nothing else in and allows that space to stay totally empty until they in some way fill it.

I want to make a plea for people like this. We don't want to become useless to them if we become freer, more self-expressive therapists. We want to be able to hear when the oldest form of client-centered therapy happens to be the only form they can use at the given time. Look at it this way: such people are regularly able to move in a powerful therapeutic process if we do no more than listen and respond exactly. They are the easiest and in many ways most rewarding people to work with, so why not?

It was only some 20 or so interviews later, that Mr. O. demanded more realness from me, and commented very sensitively on some of my shortcomings. Then was the time for me to express how these really are in me (which was quite similar to what he had sensed). An open and self-expressive therapist, a visible and real person who can be lived with, was also right for him, when he wanted it and exactly where he wanted it. (Perhaps still later in our relationship he may criticize me for never initiating anything, and from then on I surely will.)

With most people, however, I would not wait in this careful fashion, but would say something of my own now and then, when it seems to want to be expressed. Most people appreciate knowing what sorts of things go on in me, and there is a fresher interaction as a result. It all depends on the reactions I get when I first do whatever I do, and I can know these only because I also respond to the person's own felt sense, because that is my constant baseline. It is foolish to say only "fit your way to the individual person . . ." as is so often said. Every therapist wants to do that. The point is that constant listening and responding to feeling, as a baseline, enables one to fit oneself to the individual person at a given time.

Having said this, I would like to convey the ease with which I can employ other procedures, ranging from those I have learned from Gestalt or operant work with a person's situation, all the way to very spontaneous expressions of myself. Especially when things are stuck, when a person goes round in circles and we have been around a circle many times, I feel quite free to try one thing after another. It is then best not to be too invested in any one way. Again, responding to the person's own sense between every two tries lets one know that what one has tried has failed, [Page 225] and enables one to return to the person's own process. ("Now, let's see, the last live thing we said was . . ."  is a very frequent response of mine.)

Above all, I need to be honest. I don't need to (nor could I) express everything that goes on in me, but I am willing to let it all show. I am willing to share anything that is asked about. I may insist on expressing something, if the person implies that I am or feel some way I'm not. For example, when Mr. O. told me about his previous therapist's sharing personal troubles, I felt Mr. O. implying that I would know better than to do a thing like that. But I often do that, and have written a good deal in favor of it. Therefore, even though I grasped that I am not to do that, at this time, with Mr. O., I had, at that very moment, to express myself after all. For me not being dishonest is ahead of anything else, because I cease to be here at all, if I am not here as I am. (And if I am not, then nobody is there with the client.) Therefore I said, very briefly "I want you to know that some people would want the therapist to express things like that, and I do sometimes do it too." Then, when he had taken that in, I said something like "But for you it was . . ." and returned him to his own track (as I usually do, when I am the one to interrupt).

I find quite often that my feelings and reactions are of help. People have usually had too much of "professionalistic" attitudes. Also, people imagine what goes on inside the other person; if I don't say what is in me, they will imagine it quite differently.

It also helps to confirm, to validate, to say "Damn right" or "I'm with you on that" or "It feels good to me that you were able to do that." I often affirm the person, when I feel that reaction. "Good for you . . ." I say, "talking up for yourself." Conversely, I find that it helps to say "I don't think they would take the time to have meetings to talk about you" or "Yes, I've been with other people who had that sense, that everybody was mad at them, and that every little thing had some weird significance—but it's not right. That's the crazy part. But I know you experienced it that way." (Of course I wouldn't push that again and again; I offer it once for whatever it is worth. We both live here now and can both say what we feel, not only the client. One side doesn't negate the other. Usually people need very much to know how I feel about the things being said, and I make it clear that I do respect how something is experienced by them, even if I do say what I think.)

In short I may say or do most anything that seems helpful, but with constant responding to the person's own feeling. I always bring the person back to that when something of mine got us off and then led nowhere.

The current renaissance of "listening" stems from the fact that it is [Page 226] something ordinary people can learn. The method is therefore adaptable to the current development of youth networks, communes and communities, free clinics, rap centers, and other alternate institutions. Ph.D. or M.D. or M.S.W. or D.D. professionals are generally no better at listening than ordinary people with a little training. Learning listening is unrelated to one's other knowledges, and requires a good deal of careful practice.

It is safe to let ordinary people learn and practice listening—it is much safer than not training them in this regard! People do all kinds of things to each other, some of them sometimes harmful. If listening becomes a baseline precondition for whatever else one does, everything else is safer. One will find out, and take in, whatever effects one is having on another person, and one is able then to change what one is doing accordingly.

Thus, ordinary interactions, no less than therapeutic procedures, need listening as a baseline, or else one blindly has all kinds of effects on others, which one doesn't get to hear about, at least not until much later. In our community (called Changes) in Chicago, I have been impressed with the ease with which listening can become an ethos of a group. There is a legitimacy, a right to validation, that goes along with it and seems natural to people once they experience it. "May I be listened to?" is an expression of a valid human need. It fits into living.

Professionals, like myself, often find that we respond therapeutically in our therapy hours, and fail to do so in most of our personal lives. This is not the case with the people who learn listening without becoming professionals. It is striking and lovely in a large group, that there is always someone who wants to listen and say exactly what someone is trying to get at—especially when I myself have totally forgotten to do that.

Before leaving this topic I want to summarize: I consider listening a baseline requirement making all other forms of interaction safer and more effective. Listening these days does not mean some round restatement, but a very exact set of steps wherein the listener states exactly what the person said, and the person being listened to is expected then to correct the response, or to move another step. Without doing this fairly continually, no other methods of therapy are likely to provide a continuous therapy process, or to be very effective.

Our field has yet to learn that listening is absolutely essential during any therapeutic work. This conclusion implies that listening in its experiential specificity should be universally adopted, universally taught, professionally and nonprofessionally. It should probably be freed of being one orientation among others; it should be a baseline, not a sect. Above all, unfortunately, it is still very very new to most people and most therapists.

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Experiential psychotherapy stems from a philosophy (Gendlin, 1962) that holds that direct experiencing is "implicitly" rich in meanings, but is never equatable to words or concepts. Experiencing is the organism's interaction with all the environment, therefore it is implicitly very rich

One must always "directly refer" to felt experience, and if one does, then words and concepts can be of help in articulating it and carrying it further. To say what one feels is not a mere telling about it, but is itself a further experiencing. When one articulates it rightly, one feels an experiential movement.

People say "Now I know what that was, which I felt," but in that very act they have changed, experienced further, lived past some blockage. They don't only "know," they are differently, in the very saying of how it has been. In contrast, purely conceptual, so-called insight makes little difference. Experience is a process, it is experiencing, and therapeutic change is a further experiencing, where there was blockage.

Philosophically, one must recognize that experience is therefore never equal to some conceptualized version. Experience is not made of conceptual units. (In that sense all theories are wrong. For all theories it can be said that my experience is mostly not whatever the theory says it is.)

Conversely, one can use any (and all) theories to help one articulate one's experience, if one clings to the experience itself, as directly felt. Accept nothing that is merely logical or merely conceptual. It must also resonate unmistakably with what one feels directly, and it must have a distinct felt effect. If saying it makes no difference to the knot in one's stomach, one has not yet found an experiential step, and must go on seeking one. Weaving concepts on alone, without felt effects, is of little use in therapy or personal growth.

The experiential philosophy has a good deal to say about a kind of science that could be about people—about a method of thinking in which concepts wouldn't be "about," but are themselves steps of experiencing. The philosophy relates feelings and thought.

A first step to notice is that a person's experiential felt sense of a difficulty is not the same as what is called emotion. Emotions are "felt," but an emotion is all one, it is anger or joy or shame; there is nothing else inside it but what it is. A moment's experiencing, on the other hand, though also felt, is a rich maze of implicit aspects, all of them felt together in one conceptually unclear "this." For example, if I am angry, then concentrating on the emotion of anger will make me angrier and angrier. If I have never been able to express anger, it might do me some [Page 228] good to shout or pound the wall with my shoe. However, if I have no trouble doing this, it will only leave me tired out, and no different. Something quite different is focused on if I ask myself "What is that whole thing, which is now making me angry?" Of course, the answer to this must not be solely words or concepts. Instead I must let the feel of the whole thing come home to me. Then "it" will tell me what is involved in it. At first, "it" will be a conceptually unclear feel of a whole complexity, involving what happened, what always happens, why it gets me, what I ought to do about it and can't, why I can't, who else is involved, how I feel about them, what I'm afraid of, what I hoped for, why it's disappointing, how I got hurt, and much else. The felt sense is this implicit complexity. Emotion is something else.

The experiential philosophy refuses to equate experiencing with any set of convenient concepts or units. Only the directly felt actual experiencing is the real thing, and it is always a complex maze of very specific aspects that are just what they are. What is central among these can be found, and can be lived further, if one first allows the directly felt sense of the trouble to form. To allow that, one has to remain quiet (not talk out loud, or inwardly), and sense, while waiting for one's feeling to clear and form. "It all" then comes home to one as a felt sense. Very quickly, also, certain quite distinct felt aspects stand out, usually not what one would have expected or figured out. But this is not merely a finding out. It is a letting oneself live further, and feels good, even if one doesn't like what one finds. It feels like relief, easing.

I term this process focusing (Gendlin, Beebe, Cassens, Klein, & Oberlander, 1968; Gendlin, 1969). If clients do not, of their own accord, engage in this every few minutes, I try to bring it about. I ask people to stop talking and to sense inwardly into themselves. Let it form and let it tell you what it is.

Without this experiential focusing, little therapeutic movement usually occurs. People talk helplessly, far above their feelings, without ever going directly and concretely into them. To be sure, they have what look like feelings, emotions of anxiety, fear, and anger, but they rarely get quiet enough to let themselves down beneath these, into the concrete experiential complexity. Without doing so, little changes.

Sometimes I say something like "All right, now we have said what you surmise, now go see how it actually is and feels." Then I ask the person to attend inwardly and let the feel of it come. It is a distinct act, and many people will never do it while they are talking with another person, or, perhaps, ever, unless they are asked to do it, and shown how.

People spend most of their time talking about, rather than getting into. Even if what is said is deep, genuine, and courageously confronts every issue, one can also ask oneself whether the person has a direct felt sense [Page 229] at that point, and do these things being said arise out of it? Or is the person just telling about something inferred, something that must be in there somewhere, but hasn't been concretely encountered? If the latter is the case, one can try to aid the person to focus experientially. Here is one set of more detailed instructions, called the Focusing Manual (Gendlin, 1969, pp. 5-6). Both in therapy, and in our community, this manual and many variations of it have been widely used.


This is going to be just to yourself. What I will ask you to do will be silent, just to yourself. Take a moment just to relax............5 seconds. All right—now, just to yourself, inside you, I would like you to pay attention to a very special part of you............ Pay attention to that part where you usually feel sad glad or scared. 5 seconds. Pay attention to that area in you and see how you are now.

See what comes to you when you ask yourself, "How am I now?" "How do I feel?" "What is the main thing for me right now?"

Let it come, in whatever way it comes to you, and see how it is.

30 second or less

If, among the things that you have just thought of, there was a major personal problem which felt important, continue with it. Otherwise, select a meaningful personal problem to think about. Make sure you have chosen some personal problem of real importance in your life. Choose the thing which seems most meaningful to you.

10 seconds

1. Of course, there are many parts to that one thing you are thinking about---too many to think of each one alone. But, you can feel all of these things together. Pay attention there where you usually feel things, and in there you can get a sense of what all of the problem feels like. Let yourself feel all of that.

30 seconds or less

2. As you pay attention to the whole feeling of it, you may find that one special feeling comes up. Let yourself pay attention to that one feeling.

1 minute

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3. Keep following one feeling. Don't let it be just words or pictures—wait and let words or pictures come from the feeling.

1 minute

4. If this one feeling changes, or moves, let it do that. Whatever it does, follow the feeling and pay attention to it.

1 minute

5. Now, take what is fresh, or new, in the feel of it now............ and go very easy. Just as you feel it, try to find some new words or pictures to capture what your present feeling is all about. There doesn't have to be anything that you didn't know before. New words are best but old words might fit just as well. As long as you now find words or pictures to say what is fresh to you now.

1 minute

6. If the words or pictures that you now have make some fresh difference, see what that is. Let the words or pictures change until they feel just right in capturing your feelings.

1 minute

Now I will give you a little while to use in any way you want to, and then we will stop.

This manual is also used one step at a time; one need not give the steps all at once. One can rephrase any part of it in one's own language, once one knows what specific step is intended.

In addition, we have developed a set of instructions (Gendlin & Hendricks, 1972) for our community. These include, among much else, the following section on making an experiential process happen, when a person is talking of troubles. In these instructions a felt sense is called a place, and these instructions, written in terms as plain as possible, will probably communicate better than anything else can, one simple and straightforward way of using the experiential method.

Making Places

Often people seem not to go down into themselves at all. Many people can tell you their thing just as far as it is clear to them, but then they stop, or they go on to something else. Yet it's just where feelings and [Page 231] situations aren't clear, that a good process needs to happen. It can happen, if people will first make a place out of what's unclear, or unresolved, and then feel their way into that.

Making a place is like saying to oneself, "That, there, that's what's confused," and then feeling that there. Or, "There is that whole big confusion." Or, "It's just this part about it, that's scary." Or, "Yeah, it's that I'm so disappointed, that's what's getting me."

A place is not just the words, but something in the person that is directly felt, and can be pointed to inwardly. "There, this, that's what the worst of it is."

It is necessary for the person to keep quiet, not only outwardly, but also not to talk inside, so that a feeling place can form. It takes a couple of seconds, maybe even a minute.

Some people talk all the time, either out loud or at themselves inside, and they don't let anything directly felt form for them. Then everything stays a painful mass of confusion and tightness.

When a place forms, the person also feels better. There is some relief. It's as if all the bad or troubling feeling goes into one spot, right there, and the rest of the body feels easier and freer, and one can breathe better.

Once a place forms (and this happens by itself, if one keeps quiet and lets it), then people can relate to that place. They can wonder what's in that, and can feel around it and into it, and can let aspects of it come to them one by one.

When to help a person let a place form: When people talk round and round a subject and never go down into their feelings of it;

when people say things that are obviously very personal and meaningful to them, but then they go on to something else, and again to something else, and don't get into any one of these things;

when people have said all that they can say clearly, and from there forward it is confusing, or a tight unresolved mess, and they don't know how to go on;

when people can't get out of just describing the situation, what one could have seen from the outside, and don't go into what it adds up to, in them, or how they feel it, where it gets them;

when a person tells you nothing meaningful, but seems to want to;

when there is a certain spot that you sense could be gotten into further.

How to help a place form: There is a gradation of how much help you have to give, to enable the person to get a place: Always do the least amount first and more only if that doesn't work.

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  • (a) Some people won't need any help except your willingness to be silent for a minute now and then. If you don't talk all the time, and if you don't stop them or get them off the track, they will feel into what they need to feel into. Don't interrupt a silence for at least a minute or two. Once you have responded and checked out what you said and gotten it exactly right, be quiet.
  • (b) The person may need one sentence or so from you, to make the pause in which a place could form. Such a sentence might simply repeat the last important thing you already responded to, it might just point again to that spot, it might be just one important key word. Or you can make a simple global sentence, like, "Yeah, that feels heavy," and then stay quiet.

    Whatever people say after your attempt to enable them to form a place, say the crux of it back. Let them and you go on as usual, and try again a little later. If you, in this way, don't get hung up on the fact that you hoped and tried for a silent deeper period, your efforts have cost nothing. You can try again soon. Therefore don't refuse to go with whatever comes up, even if the person didn't do what you said.
  • (c) If, after quite many tries the person still isn't feeling into anything, then, the next time you try, say explicitly, "Sit with it a minute and feel into it further." Say something like, "For the next minute don't say anything to me, or to yourself either. I'd like you to just hang on to that one spot and keep quiet and let the feel of it come to you, see what's in it. It takes a minute of keeping quiet to let that come in more."
  • (d) You can also make a question for the person, and tell them to ask this question inwardly, to ask not the head but the gut or feelings. "Stay quiet and don't answer the question in words, just wait with the question, till something comes from your feeling."

    Questions like that are usually best open-ended. The following examples are all the same: "What really is this?" "What's keeping this the way it is?" "Why is this still this way?" "Just where is it really hung up?" "Why am I still hung on that?" "If it's still not all OK yet, why not?" (These questions refer to the specific thing or place just talked about.)

    Another type of question applies to the "whole thing;" use it when everything is pretty confused, or when a person doesn't know how to begin. Tell the person to feel the whole thing, let the whole mess come home to them and ask (but not answer in words) the question "Where is this really at?" or "Where am I really hung up in this whole thing?"
  • (e) Some people won't know what you mean by "let yourself feel it" or "let the feel of it come home to you and just see what it feels [Page 233] like." They know only about words. In that case, repeat the person's last most meaningful words, and ask them to say this to themselves again and to sense what they are feeling when they say these words. In this way they can notice the fact that there is something there besides words that they can let themselves get or have.

    Usually, if the person has a felt place, by sensing into it and letting it be, a next step will come, some aspect of it not had before, will emerge, and the whole thing will shift a little, and then more. The deep kind of process will go forward.
  • (f) If nothing like that is happening, and a person has let a felt place form but is stuck, it may help to ask the person, "How would it be different, if it were all OK, what ought it to be like?" Then, after that, tell the person to ask inwardly "What's in the way of that?" and to not answer the question, just to get the feel of what's in the way, and let that talk.

    All these different ways need the person to stop talking out loud and inside, and to let the feel of whatever it is get sensed.

    This stopping of deliberate talking, inwardly as well as out loud, is a sharp change. One stops what one was doing. One does nothing further. One lets come, instead of doing it oneself. One keeps only the focus, the topic, or question.

    Even more globally, one can use this way to ask oneself, "Where's my life still hung up?" You can ask yourself this now, and see how fast it gives you the places, if you ask and don't answer with words but wait for the places to come to you in a felt way.

    You can also pick the two or three most important things the person said, if you feel they go together into one thing, and tell the person, "When I say what I'm going to say, you don't say anything to me or to yourself, just feel what comes there." Then, say the two or three things, each in one or two words.
  • (g) These ways could help when a person doesn't want to say some private or painful thing. They can work on it with you even without your having to know what it is; they can get into, and say how it is, without telling you what it is about.

How you can tell when it isn't working, and when it is

  • (a) When people look you straight in the eyes, then they aren't yet focusing inward. Say, "You can't get into it while you're looking at me, let me just sit here and get with yourself."

    If the person speaks immediately after you get through asking them to be quiet, they haven't done it yet. First get, and say back the crux of what they say, then ask them again to make a place as described [Page 234] above. If you've done a very "heavy trip" on it, let it go fifteen minutes or so, and then if the person still isn't into anything, try again.

    If, after a silence, the person comes up with explanations and speculations, ask how that point feels, and what's in that, to feel it out. Don't put the person down for "just head stuff." Rather, pick up what people do say, and keep pointing into feeling, so they get there eventually.

    If people say they can't let feelings come because they are too restless, tense, feel empty, discouraged, trying too hard, etc., ask them to focus on that. They can ask themselves (and not answer in words) , "What is this rattled feeling?" "What is this tense feeling?" "What is this empty feeling?" "What is this 'trying too hard' thing?"
  • (b) How can you tell when a person has a place, and when referring to this place is working? One has a place when one can feel more than one understands, when what is there is more than words and thoughts, when something is quite definitely felt, but it hasn't opened up or released yet.

    Referring has worked, when something further has come up, something one hasn't just thought up, or figured out. This way a person feels something directly, and doesn't only figure that it must be so.

    Anything whatever, which comes in this "from the gut" way, should be welcomed. It is the organism's next step. Take it and say it back just the way the person tells it.

    It feels good to have something come directly from one's feeling, it shifts the feelings slightly, releases the body slightly, even if one doesn't like what has come it feels good. It is encouraging when more is happening than just talk. It gives one a sense of a process, and movement from stuck places [pp. 4-6].

In the above instructions, a person talking about troubles is made experiential. The persons is aided to focus, to make a place, to let a felt sense form (these phrases all have the same meaning) . Because the person is talking about troubles, the felt sense is formed in that context, as the feel of this whole thing, or this specific thing, now being talked about.

Other procedures of psychotherapy too, not only a person's talking of troubles, can be made experiential.

For example, the same instructional manual from which the above excerpt was taken, also includes a way to make experiential that famous therapeutic procedure, interpretive guessing. It contains the following paragraphs:

If you get a hunch as to what the person is feeling, by putting together [Page 235] a lot of theoretical reasoning in your head, or if you get it from a long set of hints, don't take up time saying all this to the person. Just ask yourself what one would feel if your line of inference were right. For example, don't say, "Because of these and these and those and those reasons, which I put together this way and which indicate this and this because of that and that, I think you must be afraid of such and such." Just ask, "Are you maybe afraid of such and such?"

Example: If you conclude that this man's relation with his woman is "oedipal" (say you're right into that theory) , ask yourself what sort of a feeling edge might he then find in himself, then skip the oedipal theory and ask him "Do you maybe feel small or something, as if she is the adult and you aren't quite?" or "Do you have something there like you could be punished, some threat or something?"

You can say any hunch or idea in an asking way, sometimes you might add another possibility, to insure that he knows it's not a conclusion but an invitation for him to look how it is in him. "Is it like you're scared of so and so . . . or maybe ashamed? How does it feel?"

Here interpretation is made experiential, both negatively, by not putting upon the person any of the inferential and thinking steps of the therapist, and positively, by asking oneself (when one has an inferential hunch or interpretation) "what would the person concretely feel or find within, if I'm right?" Then, asking the person whether such a feeling is there or not takes only a moment, and is itself again an invitation for the person to check inwardly. (Of course, the therapist should now continue with whatever the person does find, however close or distant to what was expected it may be. The worth of the interpretation may well lie in the person's finding something opposite or very different; what counts is the experientially concrete.)

The determining crux, from the experiential point of view, is whether or not the theory and the thinking are used to help get at the person's concretely sensed experience right now, as the person can find it right now. Anything that fails in this must be immediately discarded so that much time isn't lost uselessly rebutting false leads and explaining at great length why they do not serve right now. The experiential method rejects a use of theory in which concepts are substituted for the person, so that, instead of dealing with what is concretely there (what must be sensed into, directly, in order to find what is there) , the two people deal instead with the inferential concepts. The experiential way is to keep one's inferential concepts in one's head, and ask only about the concrete felt datum that might be there to be found, if one happened to be right.

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In this way any and all interpretive theories can be experientially used. One need not discount all theories, nor limit oneself to one only. It is not the theory that matters, but what it helps one find concretely—and at various times various theories and lines of thought can happen to aid in this inward finding.

The inward finding I call focusing always involves the person's letting something come. It cannot be manufactured, argued, made to come. Focusing seems like a kind of magic; something happens that the person does not control. The directly felt sense itself "comes." It also opens, and tells the person what's what. One man phrased it challengingly after I instructed and led him step by step through focusing. He asked me, "What happens there—is that a crease in my brain opening up, or what?" Because I had instructed him to do the steps, he assumed that I knew the answer to that question.

But I can give only a very general answer as to how and why focusing works. Experiencing is a bodily process, and the body is the vast number of interactional aspects that we live. The body is also one system. Our troubles are constrictions upon our living, felt as constrictions in the body. In focusing we allow the body to live further on a new level, a new plane, a new space, an inward space. Here we can live forward the step we have been unable to live in the world. In letting the next felt sense form, we live the next step we need.

The body forms any next behavior from all relevant aspects, but in troubles there is no way to live all the aspects further; one is held up, hung up; there is no way to act or speak so that all that is involved can be lived. Only on the plane of inward space and the forming of a felt sense is there a way for the body to produce a next step that takes everything relevant into account. Therefore a felt sense of the whole thing, its very formation, its coming, is a further step of body life such as could not otherwise happen. It is therefore felt as a relief, as "It feels so good to get in touch with myself."

As one then finds, from out of the felt sense, what exactly is salient in it, this again is experienced as a relief. It is again a living forward, now into words or images.

The body is wiser than all our concepts, for it totals them all and much more. It totals all the circumstances we sense. We get this totaling, if we let a felt sense form in inward space.

Other therapeutic methods also require something that happens of its own accord, beyond the person's willful ego control. The Jungians employ imagery and daydream, which must be allowed to form as they come to the person, not as willfully made by the person. Freud used free association, again so that something could come, which the person would not be [Page 237] able to produce deliberately. Role playing, too, involves a person in spontaneous actions that would not arise deliberately.

But it is relatively easy to get "something" to happen that is beyond the person's control; it is done every night in dreams, and in any regressed condition. This isn't enough. The patient on the regression couch may come up with associations, but, as Jung recognized, such coming up is only the half of it. The person must also actively respond, react, and for this the person must be all there, wide awake and not regressed.

A therapeutic process oscillates along the regression line, across it, and back again. For some moments one allows something to form, and as soon as it does one must be fully there to notice it and receive it and ask it further questions. Drift and passive sluggishness do not serve well. We must stay very much awake, so that when we let something come we can immediately again return to deal with it. But how does one deal with it? What does one do, to make a therapy process from something that has come, that was not made deliberately?

As we saw, different methods engender different kinds of such comings—images, thoughts, role actions, and so on. It is my contention that allowing a directly felt sense to come is the most powerful type of coming. However, the other types can also help, but only provided one then moves toward a felt sense. This can be done as follows: instead of getting fascinated with the inherent interest of the image or association, and interpreting it (as Jungians and Freudians were long in the habit of doing), the person should be asked "What does the image make you feel?" Or, "What does this sentence make you feel?" This allows a felt sense to form. When that felt sense is first allowed to be and then quite quickly opens so that its salient aspects emerge, a step of experiential process will have been achieved with the aid of the image or sentence.

The mere emergence of something odd and interesting is no step of therapy. Only its role in an experiential movement makes it therapeutic, if one engenders such a step of therapeutic movement. To do so, one must always involve the experiencing process, in this case by letting a sense of the image or sentence form.

When a person feels regressed, sleepy, or alone and autistic, or rejected or put upon or constricted, then the contents—what the person finds inwardly—will also tend to be negative. Contents are results of the quality of ongoing process. Our inward psychic data are not just things inside, they are aspects of experiential process. This process is our interaction with the universe, with the situation, with others. When the interaction process has a negative or constricted character, it will not resolve or change the contents in a desirable way. Let me say more about this.

To let a felt sense form is not even possible except in a quiet and accept-[Page 238]ing gentle allowance, a letting, a friendly attitude toward one's insides. What comes may at first seem negative, but will soon shift in an adaptive way, because the body will live further, and will thus live certain aspects that until then were held up and could not be lived onward.

Therefore one's allowing the inward coming of a felt sense is itself already an overcoming of every stoppage. It is as if before we even find out what was wrong, we change in the act of allowing the further living, which till then we could not allow. (But, of course, in inward space one can allow what may not be possible in situations. In inward space a feel of "all that" can form, whereas in speaking and action only specific words and acts are possible.) Therapeutic process is itself a kind of further living—and the best kind, better and fuller than ordinary, not less awake and less fully present. After all, therapists must recall that they depend upon something they do not understand: therapists assume that by bringing out and facing, becoming aware and saying what is wrong, something good will happen. How does it? On what is founded their faith that saying the bad will make something good? Why is not the ordinary person right, who assumes that the less seen and said of bad things, the better? In short, that facing it and saying it won't help, because one won't know how to change it? It isn't enough, therefore, to produce pathological content. Hospitals have people who do that all the time. The crux of therapy is to engender a process in which what sounds bad becomes resolved and changes—and most therapists lack the method for making this process happen.

The experiential theory holds that change depends upon whether the ongoing living and experiencing process moves fuller and further, in just those respects in which previously it was held back. Experience is basically process, it is living, and not just this or that content. Contents are not basic, they are made from process, they are aspects of living, and they change if living changes. If the process engendered now is the living that was stopped before, then the contents that form will also change and in a good way.

Thus it is well and safe to let a person come up with whatever comes, if the person is living a process in a free manner: the very letting come what comes is already a free living. Whatever comes, however bad it may at first sound, will be changed and released. But letting anything whatever come is not at all safe, when it is not the person freely letting something come, but rather is something that is done to a person, conjured up while the person is passive and helpless. To deprive someone of sleep for several nights, for example, will surely make for a lot coming, but not a positive process of their fuller living. Rather, the person will be attacked and [Page 239] invaded. That deprives us of the factor on which all therapists count. After all, therapists believe that to let bad things come to awareness will somehow be a good thing. But it is the quality of the ongoing living experiential process that is the only thing that guarantees that. Just by having these bad experiences, they will not turn good, or be resolved. The manner of the process must be positive or the results will not be. (Of course, there is also the therapist's interacting with the person. On that avenue, too, the manner of the process can be made a positive one, if the personal relating is close and gentle.)

It should be clear that good manner of process does not mean "nice" rather than "bad" content. It means letting come whatever felt sense comes. However, this letting is itself a wider and better process than one is usually engaged in. In the spirit of this kind of letting, even the worst things emerge with a sense that one is more than just this—and indeed, just then one is! One is the wider process, of which contents are only products. Just now the product may be the very first clear emergence of what was wrong, but already one's capacity to produce this is a result of a large change, which will show more clearly as one awaits one's next step.

Thus the basic crux of experiential psychotherapy is the richer, fuller experiential process that occurs when one lets a felt sense form, when one lives and stays with that until the next step of speech or action emerges from that—and when one then returns again to the level of felt sense to take still further steps.

In this basic crux, the interpersonal relationship is very important. Human experiencing is an interactional process, our living and our bodies are interactions. It is not that one is a certain way, and then enters into interaction. Rather, how one is, is from interaction, and to interact further is already a being different, if the manner of that further interaction is different. Most people find it very much easier to let a felt sense form, much easier even to make themselves willing to try to do so, if another person is with them. But of course that other person must be welcoming and must wish to aid this process, must also be willing to let whatever will come, come.

If allowing a felt sense to form, and taking steps from it, is our basic principle, how would other older methods be reformulated, how would they be different, if used in the service of this principle?

When these other methods let something that isn't in the person's own control come, we can now see exactly how they miss the experiential process. Not only have most other systems neglected to specify that the person must be awake, and must actively react to what comes, but they also fail to let a felt sense form. What comes can give the person a felt [Page 240] sense if the person stops and asks: "In regard to this (image, etc.), what felt sense does this give me?" Only so can one process experientially what came.

For example, in free association the patient says everything that comes to mind. The analyst then interprets. All this is instructive to the analyst, but the patient goes home with an interesting puzzle, with only intellectual leads. Freud did not do it that way. Freud used free association differently, but one has to read carefully to notice. Freud had the patient free associate until the patient came to a block. When such a block is hit, free association stops. The patient, it seems, can think of nothing further. Not so; he can think of many things, but feels clearly that they do not move the block. The block is felt!

Freud would then attempt to interpret the block—thus Freud had a criterion for his interpretations. He could try out quite a number. When he got the right interpretation, the felt block would be released and the patient would find a flood of new material, an opening up, and unfolding.

Only this movement gives a criterion for interpretation. When there is a "dynamic" shift (I call it an experiential shift, a felt shift) , the interpretation is effective. Thus, the basic factor is the patient's attention to, and a felt shift in, what is directly felt.

The same point can also be made about Jungian imagery and daydream. Only very occasionally does Jung make it clear that the patient must move his attention from the image to direct feeling. Only if the patient works with directly felt concretes will there be change. Jung called this the transcendent function, but he said little about it. If it is ignored, people watch chains of images go by, or speculatively interpret an image, and very little happens. The real changes and concrete shifts occur when one first lets the image form and then moves to what it makes one feel. There, concretely, is then something to work with. When one focuses on that, and allows that to be lived and to move, change occurs (see Gendlin & Olsen, 1970).

Another example might be taken from Gestalt therapy, where one good method is to ask the person to speak from just one side of some conflict or problem. Then, when that is over, the person is asked to move into the opposite chair and speak from the other part, as it were, to answer to the first part. This method is powerful. But quite often people make up what to say, invent what seems reasonable for that part to say. This does not have any effect. The right way (not specified, not made clear, but sometimes found and sometimes not) is to pause and let oneself get a felt sense of the given part. Then, to one's amazement, words come from the felt sense. These words are powerful to express.

The "motor" that powers psychotherapeutic change is a direct sensing [Page 241] into what is concretely felt (not emotions, but implicitly complex felt sense); the allowing that to form and to move.

Every different method of therapeutic techniques can be made to work well, if this is done. None of them work if it is not done. The best exponents of these methods do this, but they have lacked the words and theoretical ideas to make it plain.

It should be clear that a very specific and rather unusual level of awareness is required by the experiential method. It is not at all enough that there are all sorts of ideas, emotions, images, and so on. Only if one moves from these to let a felt sense form, can one expect the experiential process I am discussing.

The experiential method centers on this basic motor of therapeutic change. It can employ all theories, concepts, and techniques. All types of human productions such as words, images, actions, can be used as I just described. The experiential method cuts across other orientations and allows one to keep one's older orientation, but shows one how to use it experientially. It explains why the incidence of success is roughly the same for all therapies despite grand claims, and it may go a long way to explain when psychotherapy does work, and when not.

Research findings bear this out. When people during therapy are high on the Experiencing Scale (Klein, Mathieu, Kiesler, & Gendlin, 1970), they are successful. A series of studies (Gendlin et al., 1968) has now replicated this finding. It represents the only measure of the effectiveness of ongoing therapy. This repeated finding does not tell us how to make therapy experiential if it is not. Newer findings show that the experiential level can be raised by focusing instructions, but these findings are still tentative. It takes many years to bring in a rigorously established finding of something that one knows well from practice (but that has the advantage that it checks one's prejudices).

A felt sense is both psychic and bodily, but not in a way in which the two are separate. For example, in working with muscles, body and psyche are separate. Reich, for example, works in that way. However, the most effective therapeutic process occurs when one does not separate psyche and body, but senses directly into one's physically felt bodily sense of one's situations and troubles—something quite directly and distinctly felt and concretely there in both a bodily and psychologically relevant way.

For example, at a recent convention there was a lady in my group who had just been in a Gestalt group. When I asked her how she felt now, she said, pointing at her chest "I feel easy here," and then pointing at her chest lower down she said "I feel tense here." I asked her what personal meaning or life feeling she sensed in these places, and she could find none. To her it was just the body, like how the clothes felt on her. There was [Page 242] nowhere to go with this purely bodily sense. So I asked her where her life was at, just now. Then she said that the convention was nearly over and she still hadn't met anyone and was so disappointed and began crying. I asked her to feel into that whole thing, in a bodily way so she could feel it as a big heavy weight, felt all together and implicitly rich. This time she had the opposite difficulty, namely to sense the whole thing in a bodily way— it seemed simply her situation. But we do feel our situations with our bodies, we live them bodily. If one stays with only defined concepts, there is not much movement from a statement of a situation. But as felt by a living bodily person, the felt sense of it all soon comes, and produces a step.

Psychotherapy is a psyche--body process. The unconscious is not a vague realm. The unconscious is the body. It is that vast amount more that we are, but have not formed in concepts. It is not really unconscious, for it can be felt, if one allows a felt sense to form.

To allow a felt sense to form, one must stay quiet, and one must let it form. The letting part is only half of it. Another half of this process is (very deliberately to make room for it) like holding a frame over the dark, so that then something can be let to form within that frame. One deliberately asks oneself: "How do I feel now?" or "Where is this really at?" or "What's in this?" and then one does not answer the question in words. Posing the question is like holding the frame over one's feelings. Then one must wait and let a felt sense form, and that felt sense will be the answer, not words.

Thus the unconscious isn't really unconscious, for it can be felt. However, one feels only a step at a time. If one allows that felt sense to open up and to be lived forward into words, images, or acts, then there is change and shift. When next one lets a felt sense form, it will be different.

The steps one goes through in this way are a process. No one step is the truth, for in the very getting it, it shifts—and we want and need it to shift. But it shifts as it will, and not as we predirect.

In the concretely felt bodily sensing there is a genuine direction, one that neither client nor therapist chooses. Whatever the next step is, that is what comes, and everything else that one may say or think leaves one unchanged.

Focusing on a felt sense that is allowed to form, and then letting this felt sense tell one what's what, is the source of basic change and is the motor of any psychotherapy.

Why wait for it to happen by accident, haplessly going along with only talk, or stabbing this way and that? There can be a systematic way of engendering this process, the experiential method.

At its simplest, it consists of no more than asking people to keep quiet [Page 243] both outwardly and inwardly, and to let themselves sense into what it all feels like. Asking them to do this every little while (if they aren't doing it) is often enough to make the therapy experiential.

More complexly, the experiential method means putting anything you use (words, body muscles, emotions, Gestalt roles, images) into direct relation with a concrete felt sense that must be allowed to form, and is then worked from.

It can now be clear why, if one adopts the experiential method, it becomes much less important whether one talks in psychoanalytic or Jungian words, whether one uses operant or family therapy procedures, whether one uses some Gestalt techniques or some body work, whether one calls it the "parent" or the "super-ego," for all these words and procedures are so many fishing lines, not fish. All sometimes work. Why would one want to be ignorant of any of them? Why would one not wish to be proficient in all of them? Especially when a person is stuck, why not try a procedure not yet tried? All are equally aiming at that person's directly sensed concrete experiencing, and they are all equally empty if they fail to hook into it.

The experiential method thus gets us beyond the empty arguments as to whether these or those abstractions best describe the human person. None of them do that at all well; the real person is infinitely richer than any of our systems. The experiential method provides a different base. It is not a relativism, not an eclecticism, it does not say everything is relative. Rather, the experiential method says that words and procedures are relative to the concretely felt experiential process, implicitly complex and capable of steps. Only the next bodily felt step is what we can go by. Therefore all the methods and concepts can help.

This is not to say that they are all the same; if they were, one would need only one of them. Experiential process is interaction, but only some of the older methods focus on interaction, both between person and therapist, and also between person and situation. Sometimes I must be an operant or a family therapist for this reason. The psychoanalytic and Jungian approaches provide the richest vocabularies for trying out different distinctions and ways of articulating. Thus, various methods do not all offer the same tools, and therefore one wants many of them. But it is as tools, that the experiential method regards them, not as renditions of human nature, nor as ultimate procedures that must work just by being instituted. Stated positively, this means that any method must constantly be attempting to reach, to let form, and to enable a step in, the directly felt experiential sense of the person. Any statements and procedures must get to that, or else one should try others. Thus the differences between the older methods becomes less important not only because no concepts and [Page 244] procedures are absolute (an easily agreed-upon statement) , but for the positive reason that these methods can be altered so as to make each of them a way to get to the experiential process.

I have already indicated what client-centered therapy, Gestalt, psychoanalytic free association, and Jungian active imagination look like, when done experientially. I also mentioned that operant situation-restructuring can be done well in an experiential way. The operant method (Goldiamond & Dryud, 1968) includes, among other useful principles, the seeking of small steps to an external behavioral goal. Like family therapy and every interactional view (including the experiential view) , operant therapy emphasizes that problems are not really in one's head or body but in one's living. I have found it very helpful with some people to suggest setting up small steps, for example on the task of finding friends or a mate. (First listing places, then going to one—just going, then going and looking people in the eyes so one could notice if someone seemed nice.) When the person then, as is usual, can say and feel what is so hard about doing any of this, we can work directly on the felt sense of that. Each aids the other because more doable steps are devised if the person focuses. Some steps become doable when at first they were not. At other times seeing just what is undoable about a proposed step lets us think of different ones.

I want to emphasize that this is no mere addition of methods, although it may sound like that. Rather, each of these methods can be done in such a way that the steps and procedures of the older method are genuinely experiential—really what the older method always intended them to be, but was unable systematically to make them be.

Thus the proponents of each method I have mentioned can be expected to say "But this is just how we intend our method to be used." Yes, I reply, but you have not been able to explain how to do it, and therefore all but the very few do not do it that way. Even to say how to use any method effectively, you must have some words that refer to the experiential process, to what is directly felt and is not this or that but a feel of an implicit richness, the bodily felt whole of "all that," relevant to a difficulty, Without that you are trapped on only words and what they mean, and any procedures work only haplessly.

My version of client-centered therapy in the first section of this chapter was, itself, one of these applications of the experiential method. I reformulated client-centered therapy in experiential terms; it is the only way I can specify how it works. As in the other cases, how could one explain that a therapist response must be checked by the person against a felt sense, if one cannot use words about something concretely and bodily experiential? Also, it cannot be explained that client-centered therapy (when it is done correctly) involves steps. The whole point is not to say exactly what the [Page 245] person says or felt, but that so doing enables new aspects to arise when next the person checks into the felt sense. Saying these again makes for more movement.

But again, such movement is possible only if both people are working on something they both know to be not as yet fully defined, not consisting of just these or those ideas or emotions or contents. One must be in touch with the implicitly complex and not conceptually clear felt sense. The listener too, must know that that is what is being worked with, although only the person being listened to can feel it directly. Even so, the vocabulary and concerns of client-centered therapy, like those of the other methods, cannot get at the experiential method. One can do therapy experientially, and use them all for aids, but in their terms one cannot say how. In this respect client-centered therapy is one method among others, and the experiential method is no more related to it than to any other. Client-centered therapy is special in providing listening responses that are needed as a constant baseline for staying in touch with the person, whatever else one does.

In conclusion, today I would not propagate client-centered therapy as a single orientation any more than I would propagate any other. Like the others it can be done badly. Then it results in years of rambling talk. Like the others it can be done well, if one makes the experiential method one's basic method.

On the other hand, I would wish that everyone would personally experience the effect of good client-centered listening and thus learn from inside the power of that kind of responding. I would wish that every therapist made listening a precondition for anything else.


Gendlin, E. T. Experiencing and the creation of meaning. New York: Free Press. 1962.

Gendlin, E. T. Schizophrenia: Problems and methods of psychotherapy. Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, 4(2) , Spring 1964,

Gendlin, E. T. Focusing. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 1969, 6, 4-15.

Gendlin, E. T. A short summary and some long predictions. In J. T. Hart & T. M. Tomlinson (Eds.), New directions in client-centered therapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

Gendlin, E. T., Beebe, J., Cassens, J., Klein, M., & Oberlander, M. Focusing ability in psychotherapy, personality and creativity. In J. M. Shlien [Page 246] (Ed.), Research in psychotherapy. Vol. 3. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1968

Gendlin, E. T., & Hendricks, M. Rap manual. Unpublished mimeograph by Changes, Chicago 1972.

Gendlin, E. T., & Olsen, L. The use of imagery in experiential focusing. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, 1970, 7,221-223.

Goldiamond, I., & Dryud, J. E. Some applications and implications of behavior analysis for psychotherapy. In J.M. Shlien (Ed.), Research in psychotherapy. Vol. 3. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1968.

Klein, M. H., Mathieu, P. L., Kiesler, D. J., & Gendlin, E. T. The Experiencing Scale: A research and training manual. Madison: University of Wisconsin, Bureau of Audio-visual Instruction, 1970.

Rogers, C. R. On becoming a person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961.

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