Creation of the Experiential Environment

holding-hands-comforting-listening-0614136“The therapist’s presence and responses as an experiencing person have an inescapable influence on the interaction and thus also on the client’s phenomenology.” (Rice and Greenberg)

If you have read my three earlier pieces, you already know about Eugene Gendlin’s philosophy of experiencing, bodily felt sensing, interaction first, and progress in psychotherapy. Gendlin’s philosophy dictates that whatever the therapist conveys to the client — i.e. understanding, interpretation, and his own observation — must be taken in and passed through the client’s experiential process.

The same goes for the client’s own ideas, interpretations, previous understandings, and fixed ideas about his own issues. They too must be subject to and passed through his experiential process. In his view, the client’s phenomenology is the final arbiter of what actually feels meaningful to him. There is no substitute for this.

Rice and Greenberg, studying psychotherapy process, arrived at a similar conclusion. They identify the move from speaking about oneself to speaking from a “felt reference” as one that many different therapy orientations would recognize as a turning point in therapeutic work. (Please bear in mind that the term felt reference, for Gendlin, is not equivalent to emotions, or feelings; my earlier writing will clarify this crucial definition.) They go on to state that ‘interventions that facilitate particular client mechanisms of change only work in the relationship climates that are conducive to the type of client performances required to set these mechanisms in motion.”

It is the therapist’s responsibility to create the kind of environment that makes this happen.

Creating the Experiential Environment

What is the inescapable influence on the client that happens as a result of being an experiencing therapist?

I do not think that the client is changed by which tool I choose from my toolkit; nor do I think it is necessarily about who I am as a person.

It is about how I think of the human being, as an entity formed from continuous process, that shifts my perception, creating the environment we need for our work. I have to be the climate that furthers my client’s process. If, as Gendlin says, there are two individuals creating one system (including smaller systems, and existing within larger systems), I have to be a kind of experiencing system that makes a difference for my client.

When I enter my office, I see the fact of our physical separateness, yet I sense the permeability and process aspects of our sitting together. Perhaps it is something like this: each of us appears solid from a distance, yet as we get closer, just like a microscope, it is more like a density of processes in living action, inextricably relational.

In order for me to lend myself to the creation of an experiential environment, I need the right blend of intactness and permeability. This balancing act, so essential to human relating, is nowhere near fully under my control; I have to go with what comes.

I am exquisitely vulnerable to shifts of mood and attunement. My internal “filter” needs to be free to flutter (open and close) as prompted by the flow of our being together. If am preoccupied or anxious, my internal filter will be closed off, keeping me too intact and impermeable. If I am too open, I will fall into my experiencing and not be able to articulate from it. All of these fluctuations will of course be felt in the room implicitly.

My sense of you, the listener, affects my experiencing as I speak, and your response partly determines my experiencing a moment later. What occurs to me, and how I live as we speak and interact, is vitally affected by every word and motion you make, and by every facial expression and attitude you show….

…It is not merely a matter of what I think you feel about me. Much more, I am affected even without stopping to notice it yet every response you give me, I experience your responses. …Thus is it not the case that I tell you about me, and then we figure out how I should change, and then somehow, I do it. Rather, I am changing as I talk, and think and feel, for your responses are every moment part of my experiencing, and partly affect, produce, symbolize and interact with it. (Gendlin, 1962, pp. 38-39)

I imagine our experiential environment as a surrounding medium that we can dip into to grasp the finely grained “underbelly” of whatever issues my client brings into his session. I foster this by saying, “let me take that in and see if I can really sense where you are coming from,” or “please tell me if I’ve got it the way you meant it.” Or I may say, “You seem to be checking if what you said really fits with what you are noticing inside right now.” These comments point the client to the presence of their felt-reference.

In such a mode, I feel different from the inside, and am told that I seem different too. I find myself sitting, speaking, and even inhaling differently. The language and rhythm of my responses are different, as is the look of my face (I am told). When I am seen and sensed as coming from a felt-sensed dimension, this has a subliminal effect on the “living-with” milieu.

A new client told me, toward the end of her first session, that her previous therapist, while listening sensitively, seemed to be listening “across an emotional distance from the other side of the room.” With me, she said, “It feels like you are sitting close to me and my words. I can see it on your face.”

Experiential Listening

I am listening from an inner place that scans for rhythm, inflection, pregnant pauses, and anything that might be implied or embedded. A colleague described it this way:

I am aware of listening somewhat differently than I would have in the past. I am listening with different antennae. The new antennae are alert to a different set of signals. They are scanning not for “what this might relate to” but for “what is already there.” What is already in the immediate moment of experience, implicitly present but not yet articulated?

Structure-Bound vs. In-Process

There are a few reasons why I shift my perception in the way I described above. One way to describe it is to breathe life into an experiential life support system for (or ideally, with) the client. I often feel, especially with clients who have difficulty letting new meaning emerge, that I am a kind of emotional breathing machine, an extra lung.

But there is much more than this.

When I listen this way I am priming myself to be an open system. If I am listening in a way that is “structure bound,” my system will not allow me to resonate with the dimension of the client’s preconception. Instead, I will respond to my client’s language in a way that does not allow me to hear him or her “in process.”

This fixity in me will not let me hear what the client might be striving to convey or what he or she now might be on the verge of holding differently. I will be hearing the same old content bound into its literal meaning. I need the experiential environment to open my own filter to be able to listen for my client’s newly emerging meaning.

Unless my experiences implicitly function so that I can newly understand you, I cannot really understand you at all. Insofar as my experiencing is structure bound, it does not implicitly function. It is not “seamlessly” felt by me with its thousands of implicit aspects functioning so that I arrive at some fresh meaning. (Gendlin, 1964)

Let’s see if I can explain this by going back to Gendlin’s ideas about the value of the experiencing therapist. Remember that felt sensing arises from the preconceptual realm (Gendlin calls this the unseparated multiplicity) that gives fresh connotative meaning to the phrases and words we select carefully when we speak from our direct experiencing. Connotation means the suggesting of a meaning by a word apart from the thing it explicitly names or describes. We imbue words with connotative meaning, depending on the context in which they are embedded. When language is used in this manner, it evokes or suggests images, memories, and emotions.

The words and phrases themselves are the same garden variety ones we use in every day speech. In normal usage, they carry generic meaning. But when they come from felt sensing they go beyond this function to carry the unique implications and connotations that resonate with each individual’s unique world of meanings. When personal meaning is reconfigured this way, there is a reverberation throughout the person’s experiential world. The client feels it in his bones.

As we tell this person (the therapist) some old, familiar, many times repeated story, we find it richer and freshly meaningful, and we may not get all the way through it for the many facets of personal meaning, which now unfold. (Gendlin)

Here is an example of a client resonating deeply with her own experiential process. (In this case, she needs nothing more from me but my experiencing presence.) She is surprised by what she finds herself saying.

Client (“B”): I’m taking the risk of being happy. Long silence. (Sensing inward). I feel dazed… (more silence).

Me: Do you mind if I sit a bit closer? It helps me listen better.

B: (nods yes) Dazed, like it will all go away…but like something inside is building, allowing it to have more meaning. (B. touches her chest in a distinct area.) Something bizarre here? No, bizarre isn’t it… It’s a feeling of… strength. Oh! This is very different than what I was experiencing in my stomach before. This is a … reinforcement… a pillar. It started weak and small. I have been building this! It’s like I have someone holding me up… It’s me! Hmmm. It’s not easier… I mean, it’s not that life gets easier; it’s that I have more inner strength. It’s not about being tough or not tough. It’s something I have to take in. You mentioned an inner path before… This is brand new. It’s about succeeding… but internally.

“This is a healing,” B said ultimately. “I haven’t allowed myself to heal. I didn’t understand it; I mean, I heard what people said when they said this, but I didn’t understand it until right now!”

Process Intimacy

The evolution of any comment I might wish to say to my client comes to me freshly through my own felt-sensing process. If I have something to say that might be a furthering of what my client has been implying, I want to demystify not only what I say but also how I arrived at it. I make my “interpretive process” transparent. After all, it is the same fundamental capacity that is available (or potentially available) to the client.

I might string together previous moments of significance and say something like “you were sitting with such a sadness that I could feel, too, that came up when you felt you were disappointing me. The client responds, “yeah, and I’m remembering that same sadness when my big sister got disappointed in me, for the first time….” In such moments, the client’s sense of being deeply understood is touched, as the therapeutic bond is deepened.

From the Client’s Side

Thus far I have been writing about the experiential environment from the therapist’s perspective. What happens with the structure-bound person, or the one who responds concretely? Aren’t they also co-creating an environment? Or am I imposing a demand on such a person to be other than the way he or she is? Am I like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, aloft upon the lily pad, hookah and all, intoning “WHO…. ARE…. YOU?”

However, this should not be taken as therapist-centric. Because the client and I are a living-with, a living-in, the experiential environment clues me into the unique sensibilities of whomever I am sitting across from.

Natural focusers move easily into the experiential environment. If I am having a bad day and am unable to do my part, their experiential spaciousness can carry me through. Other clients “inhale” the environment over time. One client likes to call it “consulting her entrails.”

Concreteness suggests to me that the emotional reverberation (significance) of their words has become detached or drained off from the vitality of its original source. The words are there, but the juice is drained off. Smith-Johnsson, (1997) discussing alexithymia, suggested that such clients “lack emotional anchorage within themselves” suggesting that they cannot access the essence of their own inner state, as well as those of others.

In such situations, I feel an especially compelling urge to provide an emotional lifeline for the client by sustaining an experiential environment. I shift to a state of extreme attunement where the slightest nuance in movement, eye contact, or phrasing might be an opportunity to inflate a flattened inner state. Or I breathe in their words, taking it into my emotional lung, and share where it took me. Or we simply stay on their level, and look for meaning in other arenas of our therapeutic time together.

A Final Example

A specific image of my own analyst comes to mind. Her quiet involvement in her own experiential process as she sat with me had the natural effect of bringing me down into my own. And coming down into myself enriched the evolution of our relationship. She trusted herself and me enough to have a “process intimacy” (Lavender, 2009) with me. She was listening to herself deeply while she was listening to me. My insides knew this immediately, as if we were breathing, emotionally, together. This made us close. No longer floundering above myself, I could ease into my own experiential realm.

Toward a Definition of the Experiential Environment

An experiential environment is a state of being (a paradox in itself) in which one is deeply in tune with the process aspects of human being. In psychotherapy, such an environment furthers our work by sustaining a bodily felt reference level with whatever issue is being discussed. This carries us from the distinctly felt yet not yet articulated — the implicit — to the horizon line of new meaning.

It is the therapist’s job to create an experiential environment that can touch into his or her client’s capacity to speak from such a level, while acknowledging the uniqueness of each client’s sensibilities and needs.

When the therapist engages his or her own bodily felt sensing to resonate with a client’s words and stories, the therapist is cultivating an experiential environment. When the client discovers (or rediscovers) this same capacity within, and finds it an endless source of guidance, meaning, beauty, and awe, this is an affirmation of the experiential environment.


  1. Gendlin, E. T. (1962) Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning, Northwestern University Press; 1 edition (August 20, 1997).
  2. Gendlin, E.T. (1964). A theory of personality change. In P. Worchel & D. Byrne (eds.), Personality change, pp. 100-148. New York: John Wiley & Sons. From
  3. Gendlin, E.T. (1997). The responsive order: A new empiricism. Man and World, 30 (3), 383-411. From
  4. Greenberg, Leslie S. & Rice, L.N. (1984). Patterns of Change. Guilford Publications, New York
  5. Lavender, J. (2009). The Phenomenology of the Relational Void: Probabilities and Possibilities. In Loneliness and Longing: Conscious and Unconscious Aspects. [Paperback] Willock, B., Bohm, L.C., Coleman Curtis, R. (Eds.) Routledge Mental Health, Taylor Francis Group, London.
  6. Smith, & Johnsson, P. (1997). To Understand Psychosomatic Illness: The Concept of Alexithymia and a Microprocess Frame of Reference. Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, 20:4. 449-471.

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Joan Lavender, PsyD, Focusing Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Gregory

    June 14th, 2013 at 11:36 PM

    Never occurred to me that therapy is so much of a connection as it is about what is spoken and discussed.interesting how the environment surrounding a conversation can have so much of an effect,as can the connection between the people therapy it is important to have clear communication and also an unsaid and unseen understanding from the therapist’s side.I guess that is what differentiates a therapist and a good therapist who intrinsically knows a lot more than what is told.

  • Holly D

    June 15th, 2013 at 4:23 AM

    I very much see this as you saying that the life experience is fluid (which I believe in too!) and that we do not and should not be bound by our own expectations of ourselves or what we think that others would then expect from us.
    Living is groing and learning and changing

  • Jonathan Bartlett

    June 15th, 2013 at 7:24 PM

    I have read your three previous articles and they set the stage beautifully for your descriptions here of the experiential environment. I look forward to your ongoing attempts to indicate the largely wordless realm of the implicit. Bravo! There are several “process” and “relational” oriented modalities represented in the topic experts section of goodtherapy – each of us wishing to capture briefly in words the awe that heals both client and therapist. Count me in as one of your devoted readers.

  • JoanLavender

    June 16th, 2013 at 5:19 AM

    Hello Gregory, Holly and Jonathan, I am very deeply touched by your thoughtful comments. Gendlin’s philosophical work (see The Focusing Institute website for his access to his complete works) is very beautiful yet difficult to convey in a short piece. You are each touching different aspects of his elephant! I will respond in more detail soon. Best, Joan

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