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Elliott, Robert and Greenberg, Leslie (2007) The essence of process-experiential: emotion-focused
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The Essence of Process-Experiential /Emotion-Focused Therapy
Robert Elliott & Leslie S. Greenberg
University of Strathclyde York University
Author note. Please address correspondence to Robert Elliott, Counselling Unit, University of
Strathclyde, Glasgow G13 1PP UK. E-mail: email@example.com
Process-Experiential/Emotion-Focused Therapy (PE-EFT; Elliott et al., 2004; Greenberg et al.,
1993) is an empirically-supported, neo-humanistic approach that integrates and updates Person-
centered, Gestalt and existential therapies. In this article we first present what we see as PE-
EFT’s five essential features, namely neo-humanistic values, process-experiential emotion
theory, person-centered but process-guiding relational stance, therapist exploratory response
style, and marker-guided task strategy. Next, we summarize six treatment principles that guide
therapists in carrying out this therapy: achieving empathic attunement, fostering an empathic,
caring therapeutic bond, facilitating task collaboration, helping the client process experience
appropriately to the task, supporting completion of key client tasks, and fostering client
development and empowerment. In general PE-EFT is an approach that seeks to help clients
transform contradictions and impasses into wellsprings for growth.
Keywords: Process-Experiential Therapy, Emotion-Focused Therapy, humanistic therapy,
The Essence of PE-EFT, p. 2
The Essence of Process-Experiential /Emotion-Focused Therapy
A humanistic, empirically-supported treatment, Process-Experiential/Emotion-Focused
Therapy (PE-EFT) is based on a 25-year program of psychotherapy research (Elliott, Watson,
Goldman & Greenberg, 2004; Elliott, Greenberg & Lietaer, 2004; Rice & Greenberg, 1984).
Drawing together Person-Centered, Gestalt and existential therapy traditions, PE-EFT provides a
distinctive perspective on emotion as a source of meaning, direction and growth. In this article,
we describe five essential features of this approach and its basic principles of practice.
When developed the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, this approach was referred to as
Process-Experiential (PE) therapy (Greenberg, Rice & Elliott, 1993; Greenberg, Elliott, &
Lietaer, 1994), to distinguish it from related experiential therapy approaches, in particular, those
of Mahrer (1996/2004) and Gendlin (1996). This is still the preferred term for the therapy within
the family of person-centered/gestalt/humanistic therapies, because it locates it most precisely.
Emotionally-Focused Therapy (EFT) was originally a term reserved for a related form of couples
therapy (Greenberg & Johnson, 1988; Johnson, 2004). However, since in the late 1990’s, the
term Emotion-Focused Therapy has also come to be applied to individual therapy (Greenberg &
Paivio, 1998; Greenberg, 2002; Elliott et al., 2004; Greenberg & Watson, 2005).
Distinctive Features of PE-EFT Practice
Whatever the name, five things are necessary in order to be able to carry out PE-EFT:
identifying with humanistic values, understanding process-experiential emotion theory, adopting
a person-centered but process-guiding relational stance, using an exploratory response style, and
following a marker-guided task strategy.
Humanistic Values and Neo-humanism
First, like other humanistic therapies, PE-EFT is based on a set of core values, which it
strives to foster: immediate experiencing, presence/authenticity, agency/self-determination,
wholeness, pluralism/diversity, and growth. Moreover, our understanding of these values has
been updated in light of contemporary emotion theory (Frijda, 1986; Greenberg & Safran, 1987;
Greenberg, 2002) and dialectical constructivism (Greenberg & Pascual-Leone, 1995; Elliott &
Greenberg, 1997). Thus, in order to carry out PE-EFT effectively, it is necessary for the
therapist to genuinely believe that experience is central; that people are greater than the sum of
their parts and are capable of self-determination; that a growth tendency exists; and that
therapists need to be authentic and present with their clients. However, all of these concepts
have been reframed in contemporary terms:
•Experiencing is seen as a continually evolving, dynamic synthesis of multiple emotion
schemes organized around the person’s key emotional states.
•Presence/Authenticity in the therapist-client relationship is based on human attachment
processes, in which contact and safety allow new experiencing to emerge, and open
dialogue between client and therapist fosters constructive client change.
•Agency/self-determination is held to be an evolutionarily adaptive motivation
(complementary to attachment) to explore and master situations; furthermore, adaptive
choices follow from open dialogue among different aspects of the self.
•A sense of wholeness is adaptive and mediated by emotion. Instead of an over-arching,
singular executive self, wholeness stems from contactful, affiliative dialog among
•Pluralism/diversity within and between persons is encouraged and even celebrated via
personal and socio-political relationships based on equality and empowerment.
The Essence of PE-EFT, p. 3
•Growth is supported by innate curiosity and adaptive emotion processes, and tends
toward increasing differentiation and adaptive flexibility.
Consistent with its neo-humanistic philosophy of dialectical constructivism, PE-EFT sees human
beings as constituted by multiple parts or voices, and in general therapy as involving a dialectic
of stability and change. Therapy often involves supporting a growth-oriented voice in its conflict
with a more dominant negative voice that attempts to maintain the stability of familiar but
Second, it is important for therapists to have a grasp of process-experiential emotion
theory (Greenberg, 2002; Greenberg & Safran, 1987; Greenberg & Paivio, 1997), which says
that emotion is fundamentally adaptive, making it possible for people to process complex
situational information rapidly and automatically in order to produce actions appropriate for
meeting important organismic needs (e.g., self-protection, support). Emotion is central to human
function, dysfunction and change, and thus an appreciation of the forms, structure, and variety of
emotion processes is an essential basis for practice.
We have found two key emotion-theory concepts to be highly useful: emotion schemes
and emotion reactions. Briefly, emotion schemes are implicit, idiosyncratic structures of human
experience that serve as the basis for self-organization, including consciousness, action, and
identity (Greenberg & Paivio, 1997; Greenberg et al., 1993). In particular, complete emotion
schemes contain a variety of elements, including situational, bodily, affective, conceptual and
action elements; dysfunction may result when one or more of these elements is missing (Elliott et
al., 2004; Leijsen, 1996). The therapist helps clients understand and transform their emotion
schemes through careful empathic listening, evocative or expressive interventions; therapists also
help clients reflect on and reevaluate emotion schemes and expose themselves to more adaptive
emotional responses (Greenberg & Paivio, 1997).
However, not all emotional experience is the same, and different kinds of emotion
reaction require different therapist interventions (Greenberg & Safran, 1989; Greenberg &
Paivio, 1997). Assessing these emotion reactions requires close empathic attunement to the
client’s expression as well as attention to the perceived situation in which the emotion emerged.
Each type of emotion process must be worked with differently (Greenberg & Paivio, 1997).
Primary adaptive emotions (e.g., anger in response to violation) are the person’s most direct,
useful responses to a situation; therefore, it best for them to be accessed and allowed to shape
adaptive action. Secondary reactive emotions (e.g., anger in response to fear or sadness) are the
person’s response to another, more primary emotion; they thus require empathic exploration of
the other, more adaptive emotions that may underlie the emotion presented. Primary
maladaptive emotions arise directly, but are based on an experience-based misconstrual of the
situation; they also benefit from broad exploration of the emotional response that has become
problematic (because it no longer fits the situation), accompanied by careful listening and
elaboration of other, subdominant primary emotions (e.g., sadness).
Person-Centered but Process-Guiding Relational Stance
Third, and essential for actual practice, PE-EFT is based on a particular way of
communicating with clients. The therapist integrates “being” and “doing” with the client, and
this results in a style that of following and guiding. As Rogers (1951) indicated, the therapist
thus follows the track of the client’s internal experience as it evolves from moment to moment,
remaining empathically attuned to and communicating back the client’s immediate inner
experience. Fundamentally, the therapist tries to follow the client’s experience because they
The Essence of PE-EFT, p. 4
recognize that the client is human in the same way that the therapist is: another existing human
being, an authentic source of experience, an active agent trying to make meaning, to accomplish
goals and to reach out to others. The therapist prizes the client’s initiative and attempts to help
the client make sense of his or her situation or resolve problems.
At the same time, however, the therapist guides the client, in the sense of actively
facilitating the therapeutic process, in the manner of Gendlin (1996) and others. Guiding does
not mean lecturing the client, giving advice or insight or controlling or manipulating the client.
The therapist is an experiential guide or coach who knows about subjective terrain and emotional
processes. Process guiding is our preferred term for describing how the therapist acts, as the
therapist is always actively working toward something with the client (cf. Mahrer, 1996/2004).
Following and leading at the same time sounds like a contradiction, but PE-EFT
therapists see it as a dialectic, or creative tension, between two vitally important aspects of
therapy. Following without leading can result in therapy not progressing efficiently or not
getting anywhere. Leading without following is ineffective and often counter-productive,
undermining attempts to help the client develop as an empowered, self-organizing person. Thus,
the PE therapist tries to integrate following and leading, so that the distinction often disappears,
analogous to a dance in which each partner responds to the other by alternately following and
leading. The optimal situation is an active collaboration between client and therapist, with each
feeling neither led nor simply followed by the other. The therapist constantly monitors the state
of the therapeutic alliance and the current therapeutic tasks in order to judge the best balance of
active stimulation with responsive attunement.
Nevertheless, when disjunction or disagreement occurs, the client is viewed as the expert
on his or her own experience, and the therapist always defers to the client’s experience.
Furthermore, therapist interventions are offered in a non-imposing, tentative manner, as
conjectures, perspectives, “experiments” or opportunities, rather than as expert pronouncements,
commands, or statements of truth.
Therapist Empathic Exploratory Response Style
But how does the therapist enact this relational stance in concrete terms? The fourth
essential feature of PE-EFT is a distinctive pattern of specific therapist in-session responses,.
This pattern of responding is quite different from the typical response style of nonexperiential
approaches. It is so characteristic that a session can generally be identified as process-
experiential simply by listening to it for a few minutes. We call this general way of responding
empathic exploration because it simultaneously communicates empathy and encourages client
exploration. Commonly, this style makes use of exploratory reflections, as in the following brief
passage from a therapy with Rachel, a young woman with severe crime-related PTSD:
C: All I want is enough of who I used to be, so that I could live like a human being.
T: [speaking as the client:] It’s almost like, “I don’t feel like a human being right now. I
feel like some kind of, something else, that’s… not human.” Is that what it feels like?
C: Just like a paranoid little, girl, you know.
Exploratory questions are also important, such as, “What is it like inside?”; “What are you
experiencing right now?”; or even “Where is the feeling in your body?” (cf. Gendlin, 1996).
This distinctive form of therapist responding is active, engaged, and often evocative or
expressive, but at the same time highly empathic and tentative, even at times deliberately
inarticulate. Such responses attempt to model and promote client self-exploration of presently
felt experience. Here is a somewhat longer example of the use of this response style in Rachel’s
The Essence of PE-EFT, p. 5
T1: So if you, what you would like to be able to do… in your life, would be to somehow stop
yourself being afraid?
C1: Um-hm. That's my like major goal of life. (laughs) … I mean it controls my life,
every, step of my life, every action and everything.
T2: So the fear is like a thing that comes upon you and takes over? (client nods agreement)
uh, takes your freedom … imprisons you, is that right? (client nods agreement) And it has a
quality of thingness.
C2: (Thinks for a couple of seconds) Oh yeah.
T3: Yeah. Is that right?
T4: So it feels like… Um, What's it like, the fear? … What kind of thing is it?
C4: I don't know. I don't know if I feel like it's inside me, (Therapist: um-hm) or if it's like
around me, or if it just sneaks up on me, I don't… mm.
T5: If you were to, be the fear? …
C5: I guess it'd be inside of me.
T6: You'd be inside Rachel. (client nods agreement)
Marker-Guided, Evidence-Based Task Strategy
Finally, PE-EFT is most obviously distinguished by its explicit, evidence-based
descriptions of in-session therapeutic markers and tasks. Markers are in-session behaviors that
signal that the client is ready to work on a particular problem, or task. An example is a self-
critical split marker in which one part of person (a critic) is criticizing another part (an
experiencer). Tasks involve immediate within-session goals, such as resolving the conflict
inherent in a self-critical split. Previous research (e.g., Rice & Greenberg, 1984) on successful
client task resolution has identified the series of steps clients move through in resolving tasks,
together with the therapist responses that have been found to facilitate client movement through
those steps. As illustrated by Table 1, for example, the therapist might suggest that the client
take turns speaking as the critic and the experiencer, moving back and forth between two chairs
(Two-chair Dialogue). The table also summarizes the client resolution steps and the appropriate
facilitating therapist responses at each stage of this task.
In general, then, the therapist listens for the client to present task markers, then offers
interventions to match the tasks that emerge. In other words, the therapist first follows the tasks
presented by the client in the form of markers, then guides the client in productive ways of
working on these tasks. Elliott et al. (2004) describe 13 tasks, including markers, client and
therapist responses associated with the different steps; there is also a post-session instrument for
rating each of these tasks (Elliott, 2002).
Beyond the essential features we have just described, it also is important to note that PE-
EFT developed out of research on therapy process and outcome and continues to evolve through
the active research programs of its developers and others (e.g., Elliott, Davis & Slatick, 1998;
Greenberg & Foerster, 1996; Watson & Rennie, 1994; Paivio & Nieuwenhuis, 2001; Johnson &
Greenberg, 1985; Clarke, 1996, Toukmanian, 1992; Rennie, 1994; Sachse, 1998). This research
continues to refine existing therapeutic tasks, adding new tasks, and applying PE-EFT to new
treatment populations, such as childhood abuse survivors, eating disorders, and borderline
personality disorder. PE-EFT tries to stay close to the data, which includes both the client’s
immediate experience and the results of research on treatment process and outcome. In addition,
a growing body of outcome studies (reviewed by Elliott et al., 2004) testifies to the effectiveness
of this approach.
The Essence of PE-EFT, p. 6
Another way to describe the essential nature of our approach is to lay out the treatment
principles that guide the therapist’s relational stance and actions (Greenberg et al., 1993; Elliott
et al., 2004). Everything the therapist does is derived from a set of treatment principles. As their
ordering implies, the relationship principles come first and ultimately receive priority over the
task facilitation principles.
PE-EFT is built on a genuinely prizing empathic relation and on the therapist being fully
present, highly respectful and sensitively responsive to the client's experience. The relationship
principles involve facilitation of shared engagement in a safe, task-focused therapeutic
relationship, a relationship that is secure and focused enough to encourage the client to express
and explore his or her key personal difficulties and emotional pain.
1. Empathic attunement: Enter and track the client's immediate and evolving
experiencing. Empathy is an evidence-based therapeutic process (Bohart, Elliott, Greenberg &
Watson, 2002), and the foundation of PE-EFT. Although it might seem simple from the outside,
empathy is rich and complex, involving multiple processes and tracks. From the therapist's point
of view, empathic attunement grows out of the therapist’s presence and basic curiosity about the
client’s experiencing. It requires a series of internal actions by the therapist (cf. Greenberg &
Elliott, 1997), including letting go of previously-formed ideas about the client, actively entering
the client's world, resonating with the client's experience, and selecting and grasping what
feelings and meanings are most crucial or poignant for the client at a particular moment.
Empathic attunement also involves selection among several different tracks, including the main
meaning expressed by the client, emotion, immediate client experience, what it is like to be the
client, and what is unclear or emerging. Empathic attunement is an essential process within all
of the tasks.
2. Therapeutic bond: Communicate empathy, caring, and presence to the client.
Following Rogers (1957) and consistent with current assessments of the research literature (e.g.,
Norcross, 2002; Orlinsky, Rønnestad, & Willutzki, 2004), the therapeutic relationship is seen as
a key curative element. For this reason, the therapist seeks to develop a strong therapeutic bond
with the client, characterized by communicating three intertwined relational elements:
understanding/empathy, acceptance/prizing and presence/genuineness. Empathy can be
expressed in many ways, including reflection and exploration responses, but also through the
sensitive delivery of other responses, such as self-disclosure, and appropriate tone of voice and
facial expression. Acceptance is the general "baseline" attitude of consistent, genuine,
noncritical interest and tolerance for all aspects of the client, while prizing goes beyond
acceptance to the immediate, active sense of caring for, affirming, and appreciating the client as
a fellow human being, especially at moments of client vulnerability (Greenberg et al., 1993).
The therapist's genuine presence (Geller & Greenberg 2002) to the client is also essential, and
includes being in emotional contact with the client, being authentic (congruent, whole), and
being appropriately transparent or open in the relationship (Lietaer, 1993). Contact, authenticity
and transparency also support the therapist’s empathic attunement and prizing, making them
believable for the client.
3. Task collaboration: Facilitate involvement in goals and tasks of therapy. An effective
therapeutic relationship also entails involvement by both client and therapist in overall treatment
goals and immediate within-session tasks and therapeutic activities (Bordin, 1979), aiming to
engage the client as an active participant in therapy. Thus, in the first few sessions of PE-EFT,
The Essence of PE-EFT, p. 7
the therapist works to understand the client's view of the main presenting difficulties and to
clarify the client’s primary therapeutic goals. In general, the therapist accepts the goals and tasks
presented by the client, working actively with the client to describe the emotional processes
involved in them (Greenberg, 2002). Research on PE-EFT (Watson & Greenberg, 1996) has
found that the emergence of a clear, shared treatment focus by the fifth session of treatment
predicts posttreatment outcome. In addition, the therapist offers the client information about
emotion and the therapy process, to help the client develop a general understanding of the
importance of working with emotions, and to provide rationales for specific therapeutic
activities, such as two-chair work.
The three relationship principles provide a model of the optimal client-therapist
relationship in PE-EFT therapy. These are matched by three principles that guide the pursuit of
therapeutic tasks presented by clients, principles based on the general assumption that human
beings are active, purposeful organisms, with an innate need for exploration and mastery of their
environments. These principles are expressed in the therapist's attempts to help the client resolve
internal, emotion-related problems through work on personal goals and within-session tasks.
4. Experiential processing: Help client work in different ways at different times. A key
insight of PE-EFT therapy is the understanding that clients have different productive ways of
working at different times. It is essential that the therapist attend to the client’s immediate state,
in order to help them work in different ways at different times. We refer to these different ways
of working as modes of engagement (Elliott et al., 2004; Greenberg et al., 1993). Client modes
of engagement are defined as productive, moment-to-moment ways of working with one’s
internal experiencing (also known as micro-processes). These include:
•Attending: Paying attention to what is available to awareness.
•Experiential search: Actively searching one’s internal experience in order to identify
and put into words what is unclear or emerging.
•Active expression: Actively enacting one’s inner experience.
•Interpersonal contact. Risking one’s inner experience to be known by another person.
•Self-reflection: Reflecting on experience to make sense of it and to create new meaning.
•Action-planning: Looking ahead to how one might act, think or feel differently in the
Each mode of engagement is most productive in particular in-session contexts. Consequently,
the therapist continually uses looks for markers of micro-processes (micro-markers) to make
momentary assessments of what to do at a particular moment in therapy. For example, at the
beginning of the Two Chair Dialogue task, the most productive client mode of engagement is
likely to be active expression, but as a client progresses, they are likely to shift to experiential
search and then finally to self-reflection and perhaps even action-planning.
5. Task Completion/Focus: Facilitate client completion of key therapeutic tasks. It is
important to keep in mind that key PE-EFT tasks are not generally completed the first time they
are attempted. Clients experience key therapeutic tasks as incomplete figures that continue to
press towards completeness in the form of resolution. Thus, it is essential for therapists to help
clients identify key treatment foci and to help them work on these over several sessions. In order
to do this, therapists begin treatment by working with clients to develop clear treatment goals,
then track clients’ current tasks within each session. Given a choice of what to reflect, therapists
emphasize experiences associated with treatment foci; in addition, therapists gently persist in
offering clients opportunities to stay with key therapeutic tasks, often bringing clients back to a
The Essence of PE-EFT, p. 8
task when distractions, sidetracks or blocks occur. In doing so, therapists are partly guided by
their knowledge of the natural resolution sequence of particular tasks, and so offer clients
opportunities to move to the next stage of the work (for example, giving the Critic in Two-chair
Dialogue an opportunity to soften). On the other hand, it is important to remember that
therapists cannot make clients move to the next stage of resolution. The client will move on
when they are emotionally ready to do so, but the therapist can offer their client opportunities to
move ahead. Perhaps the most important advantage of knowing the typical steps clients follow
to resolution is that the therapist can listen for signs that a client is ready to move forward and
encourage this movement (or at least stay out of the client’s way!).
On the other hand, rigid adherence to a particular current task is counterproductive, and it
is important for the therapist to be flexible and to follow the client when they switch to an
emerging task that is more alive or central for them. In general, it is also important to maintain a
balance between task-focusedness and the therapeutic relationship. A therapist's efforts to help
the client complete a therapeutic task can at times be experienced by the client as a threatening
pressure. Anticipating this possibility, the therapist listens carefully and is prepared to offer the
client the choice to back off from or move to a different task. It typically takes several sessions
for a client to complete a key task or goal, such as developing a sense of control over trauma-
related fears or resolving anger and bitterness towards a neglectful parent. The therapist might
therefore help the client return to a key task week after week, but would of course temporarily
suspend work on this if something more immediately pressing emerged, or if the client began to
feel unsafe or embarrassed.
6. Self-Development: Foster client responsibility and empowerment. PE-EFT therapists
emphasize the importance of clients’ freedom to choose their actions, in therapy as well as
outside therapy. Beyond their general stance of treating clients as experts on themselves, the
therapist supports the client's potential and motivation for self-determination, mature
interdependence with others, mastery and self-development, including the development of
personal power (Timulak & Elliott, 2003). Client growth is largely facilitated through listening
for and helping the client to explore the growth possibilities in their experience. For example,
the therapist might hear and reflect the assertive anger implicit in a particular client's depressed
mood. Choice is facilitated in different ways, such as when the therapist offers the client
alternatives about therapeutic goals, tasks and activities. Thus, the therapist might offer a
hesitant client the choice not to go into exploration of a painful issue. We have found that clients
are more willing to take risks in therapy when they feel they have the freedom to make therapy
as safe they need it to be.
In many ways, the essence of Process-Experiential-Emotion-Focused Therapy can be
found in its dialectically constructive nature, as it embraces a set of seeming contradictions and
seeks to transform these into creative tensions. Thus, the therapist continually attempts to
maintain a constructive balance between competing principles and processes: Between
relationship and task treatment principles, between following content and guiding process,
between safety and risk, between research and practice, and ultimately between emotional
experiencing (“heart”) and self-reflection (“head”). Living with such tensions challenges both
therapist and client to move past old stuck places to new emergent, growth-oriented experience
and productive change.
The Essence of PE-EFT, p. 9
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The Essence of PE-EFT, p. 11
Table 1. Two Chair Dialogue for Self-Evaluation Conflict Splits: Task Resolution Scale and
Task Resolution Scale
1. Marker/Task Initiation: Describes or
displays a sense of tornness in which one
aspect of self is critical of, or coercive
toward, another aspect.
Identify client marker; offer task to client
2. Entry: Clearly expresses criticisms,
expectations, or "shoulds" to self in
concrete, specific manner.
Structure (set up) two-chair process; create
separation and contact; promote client owning
of experience; intensify client arousal
3. Deepening: Primary underlying
feelings/needs begin to emerge in response
to the criticisms. Critic differentiates
Access and differentiate underlying feelings
in the experiencing self; differentiate values
and standards in the critical aspect; facilitate
identification, expression of or acting upon
organismic need; bring contact to an
appropriate close when resolution is not
4. Emerging shift: Clearly expresses needs
and wants associated with a newly
experienced feeling. (=Minimal resolution)
Facilitate emergence of new organismic
feelings; create a meaning perspective
5. Softening: Genuinely accepts own
feelings and needs. May show
compassion, concern and respect for self.
Facilitate softening in critic (into fear or
6. Negotiation. Clear understanding of
how various feelings, needs and wishes
may be accommodated and how previously
antagonistic sides of self may be
Facilitate negotiation between aspects of self
re: practical compromises
Adapted by permission from Elliott et al. (2004), Learning Emotion-Focused Therapy. APA,