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  • Writer's pictureJacqueline Jouannet

Phenomenology




When clients first get in touch with me, they often tell me that the reason they are seeking counselling is because they want help to stop feeling the way they feel, thinking the way they think, or doing the things they do. They may have suffered distressing emotional states for some time and have reached a point where they can no longer push away, fight off or ignore what is happening for them. They may have been given a diagnosis of anxiety or depression and have been told that psychotherapy or counselling will help them feel better. It certainly CAN help people feel better, but often, not in the way that a client may initially imagine.


Whilst I very much wish to support and help people find ways in which they can live their lives with more ease, peace and contentment, some clients are surprised when I do not readily offer tools they can use to try to stop whatever distress they are experiencing. The problem with this idea is beautifully described in a quote by Gestalt psychotherapists, Joyce and Sills (2001).

"Beginning therapy, patients (clients) often ask for a cure, or ask why or for an explanation, before they observe, describe and try to know what it is they are doing and how. Thus, they try to explain, justify something whose exact existence is unclear to them. They miss the obvious."


This quote is referring to one of the three pillars of Gestalt Therapy; the idea of phenomenology. Phenomenology is a philosophical movement developed initially by German philosopher, Edmund Husserl. The movement is dedicated to describing experiences as they occur, without attempting to apply theory, interpretation or assumptions. Vast amounts of literature is available on the subject, but for the purposes of this blog, I am only focussing on the meaning of the term from the perspective of the therapeutic relationship.

When applied to the encounter between therapist and client, phenomenology is the deliberate paring back of the therapists observations to the raw data. That is to say, what is actually happening inside both client, therapist and between them, that facilitates awareness. The client is invited to investigate their subjective meaning and experiencing of themself as uniquely in the world. With this awareness, comes the understanding and possibility of change that a client longs for. The therapist stays as closely as possible to the client's experience in the present moment, rather than interpreting what the client is feeling or doing. This may include exploring bodily sensations, breathing, images, metaphor and the level and quality of contact being experienced.


The therapist does not assume they understand what a client means when they say they are anxious, nor that they know how to 'treat' it. The phenomenological attitude is recognising and bracketing off pre-conceptions about what is relevant...a detailed awareness of what IS and not what either the client or I might assume is happening and for what reasons.


I may offer clients suggestions or ideas of activities that may relax or distract them. However, I will also not assume that what is described as 'anxiety' or 'depression' can be eased with the application of a set of prescribed tools or techniques. I will invite my client into a dialogic therapeutic relationship where we can explore and develop awareness of what is actually happening between us. Then all else will follow.


Joyce and Sills (2001) Skills in Gestalt Counselling and Psychotherapy


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