The Person as Active Agent

A very important concept intrinsic to all experiential psychotherapies is that the client is an active, agentic, creative, integrative problem solver who generate his/her own psychological movement if given proper climate or context.

Being agentic means having:

  • the ability to initiate courses of action

  • the ability to appraise, reflect and evaluate

  • a capacity to experience, think and re-present

  • the ability to plan, create and generate new perspectives

  • the ability to integrate and consolidate one's experience

In therapy, the client is proactively engaging in a cyclical process of conceptualizing, experiencing and exploring. Sometimes, it seems that the therapist virtually does nothing in the session. Then, the question that follows would be about how changes are brought about.

There are five basic functions that the therapist can provide for clients to utilize:

  • a structured and safe space within which the client can start his/her cyclical process

  • interpersonal exploration

  • provide materials for exploration through confrontation, interpretation, provocative questions, empathic conjectures, self-disclosure, etc.

  • provide structured exercises for exploration

  • teach specific skills e.g. communcation, problem solving, emotion management, cognitive restructuring, self-focusing, relaxation, etc.

These are done without forgetting to keep returning to the client's experiential track.[1]

The concept of seeing the client as an active agent is not novel to me. I have the experience of just listening and witnessing my client in her process of conceptualizing, exploring and experiencing. It is like a process of non-intervention on the part of the therapist. Once the key has turned on and the engine has started, she would go on this cyclical process mainly on her own.

What I tried to listen and observe are:

  • how she re-presented her story: her tone, her facial expression, her choice of words, etc.

  • what kind of details did she pick up in her experience: feelings (self or others)? her value and judgement? her expectations? etc.

  • what did she striving for (her goal)?: a good self-concept? a better relationship? a re-gaining of her sense of mastery? attainment of skills? etc.

I was also engaging actively in a similar process of conceptualizing, exploring and experiencing. As I took in new information from her, I reflected and reviewed with those existing information in my mental file. I tried to put myself in her shoes and imagine me to be her in her situation so that I could experience quite similarly with her (empathic understanding). I also let my bodily senses arise, noticing what they were and how would they emerge and considering how would I disclose these to her. It was an apparently non-intervention to the client while there was a very active internal process going on the part of the therapist.

Sometimes, I would keep my internal response to myself and just take a note on that as I was with her process which was too smooth to be interrupted by me. As she was beginning to land after her exploration, I would then give her my feedbacks: what did I feel inside throughout the process? what speculation did I have? what qualities in her that I appreciate? what kind of changes in her I have witnessed since the last session? etc. From my experience, the new information and materials I gave to my client for her to ponder is the most powerful tool for therapeutic changes.

As she listened to my feedbacks, I could read from her face that she was integrating and consolidating her experience which she was just processing. She was also able to see herself from a new perspective which increased her awareness of her perception. Before the session was ended, she gained a better sense of orientation on the path of her life and she felt more solid on her feet so that she had more energy to continue her journey.

It is a strong belief of mine that genuine interpersonal feedbacks are very powerful and effective in generating therapeutic changes. However, it is important to note that it was not something imposed by the therapist to make the client change. Rather, it is the client who chooses what to take from the therapist that the client finds useful and meaningful.

Experiential therapists try to promote effective agency on the part of the client. The more the therapists respect client as an active agent and rely more on his/her own active intelligence and resources, the more effective would be the therapy.

I can appreciate that the essence of experiential psychotherapy is the courage of the therapist to take risk in the interpersonal encounter. Besides, there is also the moment-to-moment of experiencing of the the therapist – the awareness of his/her bodily felt sense, the ability to have the felt shift and the genuine disclosure of such inner experience.

[1]Bohart A.C. and K. Tallman (1998), The Person as Active Agent in Experiential Therapy in Greenberg L.S., Watson, J.C., and Lietaer G’s

Handbook of Experiential Psychotherapy. The Guilford Press.

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