Relational-centred work

On this page I briefly explain what it means to be relational-centred and describe how this is applied in both psychotherapy and research fields…

Introduction to Relational-centred Psychotherapy

All therapists would probably agree that we humans are shaped by our social contexts and that our sense of who we are is intimately entwined with our relationships. Research consistently shows that, for people in general, close relationships are what matter most. When those relationships fail to give us what we need, we lose confidence in ourselves and in our world. If relationships constitute the core of psychological problems, they can also be harnessed in the pursuit of growth and healing. Psychotherapy can be understood as fundamentally concerned with this relational context, in terms of past, present and future.

Within this general acceptance of the relational context of therapy, some therapists promote the therapeutic relationship, rather than the individual client, as the primary focus of therapy. The basic argument is that as our only real access to another’s experiencing is through our relationship with the Other, that relationship must be our therapeutic vehicle. As Yalom declares in his much-quoted professional ‘rosary’: “It’s the relationship that heals, the relationship that heals, the relationship that heals” (1989, p. 91, emphasis mine).

Four key tenets are central to this committed relational approach:

  • Therapy offers a microcosm. The therapeutic relationship lies at the centre of things, acting as a here-and-now microcosm of what clients experience in their social world. In this microcosm, the client’s relational being is disclosed (Spinelli, 2015).
  • The significance of between. The mysterious intersubjective space between, where we touch and are touched by the Other in multiple, often unseen ways, is of particular interest.
  • The therapist is Present. The therapist endeavours to be a safe, steady human presence that is willing to ‘be-with’ the client moment to moment, whatever emerges. The therapist is genuine and congruent, aware of their inner experience and communicating it honestly to the client. “Presence involves bringing the fullness of oneself to the interaction. Therapists must be willing to allow themselves to be touched and moved by the patient” (Jacobs, 1991, p. 4). [see diagram on Presence]
  • The relationship works as a collaborative partnership. Relational therapy does not involve a client talking to a powerful, distanced therapist who gives information or makes interpretations; it is a constantly evolving, negotiated, co-created dialogical process to which both therapist and client contribute (Evans & Gilbert, 2005). Here relational therapists need to ask themselves regularly, “How am I contributing to our relationship? Is the way I am being facilitating or inhibiting the client’s awareness and contact?”

Working relationally means privileging the emergent, here-and-now intersubjective relationship between therapist and client, for this is where we flexibly attune to each client’s relational needs (DeYoung, 2003; Spinelli, 2015). It’s about opening to the other while being willing to give of self. The therapist needs to have the courage to stay in ‘the process’: to be emotionally present to intra-psychic and interpersonal dynamics and be aware of the particular sociocultural context, while being prepared to take some risks towards the co-creation of experience, understanding and knowledge. The challenge is to embody ways of ‘being’ and ‘being-with’ (as opposed to just ‘doing’) naturally and effortlessly, rather than be led by some intellectual principle. It’s about being present as a human being first; as a therapist second (Finlay & Evans, 2009).

Where the dialogue is fulfilled in its being, between partners who have turned to one another in truth…the world arises in a substantial way between men [sic] who have been seized in their depths and opened out by the dynamic of an elemental togetherness. The interhuman opens out what otherwise remains unopened. (Buber, 1965, p. 86)

How we operationalise this relational dimension and bring it into therapy varies according to perspective and context (Paul & Charura, 2015). A key debate revolves around the extent to which we privilege the here-and-now intersubjective relationship between therapist and client rather than the intrasubjective one, where therapy might focus on relationships within, between parts of self (internal voices) and/or where past developmental relationships are accessed transferentially. This is a matter for theoretical debate. For example, psychoanalytically inclined therapists will often privilege an intrapsychic focus. However, more recent relational variants pioneered by Stolorow and Atwood (‘intersubjectivity theory’ also called ‘contextual phenomenology’) emphasise the intersubjective more.  In my own practice which leans towards a dialogical gestalt and existential phenomenological approach, both intrasubjective and intersubjective are seen as important and my focus moves fluidly between these.

See the following diagram on therapeutic ‘Presence’:

Therapist Presence figure Oct 16


[The material in this paper has been taken substantially from chapter 1 of Finlay, L (2015). Relational Integrative Psychotherapy: Engaging Process and Theory in Practice. Chichester, W.Sussex: Wiley. Please cite this reference if you are going to use this material]


Introduction to Relational-centred Research

Where the dialogue is fulfilled… there is brought into being a memorable common fruitfulness which is to be found nowhere else…The world arises in a substantial way between men [sic] who have been seized in their depths and opened out by the dynamic of an elemental togetherness. The interhuman opens out what otherwise remains unopened. (Buber,1965, p.86).

ihsrc2011 146Relational approaches to research are discovery-orientated and emphasise how data emerges out of co-created, embodied, dialogical encounters between researchers and co-researchers (participants). The researcher’s attention slides between the phenomenon being researched and the research relationship; between focusing on the co-researcher’s talk/thoughts/feelings and exploring the relationship between researcher and co-researcher as it unfolds in a particular context.

One notable example of relational research is the dialogal approach adopted by Halling and colleagues (Halling, Leifer and Rowe, 2006). Here, a group of phenomenologists investigate a phenomenon through dialogue which takes place both among researchers and between researchers and the phenomenon studied (Halling, 2008). Individuals share their experiences of the phenomenon, perhaps interview others, and then negotiate layered meanings collaboratively in the group until some consensus is reached.

Another way of working relationally is the co-operative inquiry approach of Heron (1996), stemming from the earlier New Paradigm Research (Reason and Rowan 1981). This approach draws on some phenomenological ideas but also casts its net farther. Non-phenomenological methods of collaborative, participatory action research also embrace relational principles; examples include the work of Reason (1994) and Arvay (2003). Morrow(Morrow and Smith, 1995) offers an account of using grounded theory while working relationally with her participants.

Nov2010 098The version of relational research which I’d like to advance here has emerged out of a special collaboration between Ken Evans (a gestalt and integrative psychotherapist) and myself (Finlay and Evans, 2009). Our relational approach, which we are continuing to develop, employs theoretical concepts from existential phenomenological philosophy (e.g. Merleau-Ponty, 1962, 1968) as well as gestalt theory (e.g. Hycner and Jacobs, 1995), relational psychoanalysis (e.g. Mitchell and Aron, 1999) and intersubjectivity theory (e.g. Stolorow and Atwood, 1992). The work of the Jewish-German philosopher, theologian and educator Martin Buber (Buber, 1923/1996) has been a particular significant influence on our emerging approach. Buber believed that students grow through the direct encounter with the person of the educator who in turn, enters the phenomenological world of the student to experience and feel it. In this way we are challenged to grow through our relationships.

In our relational approach (as opposed to ‘method’), relational dynamics (both conscious and unconscious) between researcher and co-researchers are taken seriously and explored reflexively (i.e. critically self-aware). This needs to be done without the researcher becoming excessively preoccupied with their own experience of the encounter (Finlay, 2002a; Finlay, 2002b). Not every researcher, however, will be motivated to engage in the sustained reflexivity required and not every research relationship and project will demand it. For this reason, relational research should be applied selectively according to what the research demands.

For more information on relational-centred research please see the following links to other papers which outline different aspects including theoretical, ethical and practical dimensions. Also see:

Finlay, L. and Evans, K. (2009). Relational-centred research for psychotherapists: Exploring meanings and experience. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley.

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