Phenomenologists (be they philosophers, researchers or therapists) generally agree that our central concern is to return to embodied, experiential meanings of the world as it is directly experienced. We ask, “What is this kind of experience like?” “How does the lived world present itself ?”
Below, I offer some basic information about phenomenology which I hope you will find useful re:
Six 'mistakes' made in the name of phenomenology
For more in-depth information about phenomenological ideas and research approaches, please see my book: Finlay, L. (2011). Phenomenology for therapists: Researching the lived world, Wiley-Blackwell:
Also see Darren Langdridge and Linda Finlay (Open University recording) where we talk about the key features of a phenomenological perspective: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vhm21qEnzds .
Where are we to put the limit between the body and the world since the world is flesh?...the world seen is not “in” my body, and my body is not “in” the visible world…A participation in and kinship with the visible…There is a reciprocal insertion and intertwining of one in the other. (Merleau-Ponty, 1964/1968, p.138)
Phenomenology is an umbrella term encompassing a philosophical movement and also a range of approaches applied to both research and therapy. It is the “direct investigation and description of phenomena as consciously experienced, without theories about their causal explanation and as free as possible from unexamined preconceptions and presuppositions” (Spiegelberg, 1970, p. 810). In essence, phenomenology is a way of seeing how things appear to us through experience. More than a method, phenomenology demands an open way of being—one that examines taken-for-granted human situations as they are experienced in everyday life. It invites us to explore those aspects of experience which often go unquestioned.
As a movement, phenomenology has spanned more than a century and embraced many different ideas and theories. This is a rich tradition, involving many different strands.
Writing in early twentieth century in Germany, Edmund Husserl (1913/1962; 1936/1970) -- often seen as the ‘father’ of the movement – spelt out the phenomenological method as an attempt to look at the world with fresh eyes, free from contaminating assumptions. He advanced phenomenology as the reflective study of the essential structures of consciousness, highlighting how acts of consciousness (perceiving, willing, thinking, remembering) arise pre-reflectively out of our self-world relationship. He sought to capture the essences and meanings of such phenomena. What is in question is not the world as it actually is but the particular world which is valid for the person… The question is how they, as persons, comport themselves in action and passion – how they are motivated to their specifically personal acts of perception of remembering, of thinking, of valuing. (Husserl, 1970, p.317)
Martin Heidegger (1927/1962), Husserl’s student, took phenomenology off into existential, ontological and hermeneutic (interpretive) realms in order to explore the nature and totality of “Being-in-the-world” (what he called Dasein). He drew attention to the way Being involves engaging in everyday activities and dwelling in a network of social relations embedded in a specific historical context. Arguably his biggest contribution was (and remains) his radical questioning of Cartesian dualism (the separation of mind from body; subject from object). He moved us to conceive of our existence as a field of openness into which things and the world reveal themselves.
Hans-Georg Gadamer (1975/1996) went further into the hermeneutic realm while arguing for ‘dialogue’ to promote understanding instead of ‘method’. The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962) also built on Husserl’s work by focussing on the nature of embodiment and emphasising principles of non-duality (e.g. the intertwining of mind/body, person/world). His French contemporaries Jean-Paul Sartre (1943/1969) and Simone de Beauvoir (1949/1984) explored existential dimensions through both their artful writing (both fiction and non-fiction), with de Beauvoir adding a feminist perspective.
Two Jewish survivors of the Holocaust also journeyed deep into the nature of ethical relationships. Martin Buber (1923/1958) is best known for his work on the dialogic I-Thou relationship, based on ‘presence’ and ‘inclusion’, while Emmanuel Levinas (1969) highlights our responsibility to respect others by not reducing them to labels and categories.
More recently, philosophers have made specific contributions to psychotherapy practice, notably Eugene Gendlin (1962/1970), who highlights the wisdom of bodily felt sense and his use of Focusing. Paul Ricoeur (1976) foregrounds the importance of language/discourse, interpretation and narrative, contrasting hermeneutics of suspicion (see more, below, in psychoanalytic interpretation) with hermeneutics of empathy (descriptive versions of the interpretation of phenomenological meanings).
Of note is the emerging field of “critical phenomenology” (Guenther, 2021) which situates hegemonic norms (e.g., white supremacy and heteropatriarchy) and power structures within the lifeworld, while urging transformative collective action. Fanon’s (1952/2008) path-breaking ethnographic-phenomenological treatise Black skin, white masks, for instance, explored the lived experience of black people as “other” in a white-dominated world. The existential experience of alienated, racialized subjectivity, notes Fanon, results from the shaming, threatening, diminishing “colonial gaze.” Such work became foundation for the anti-colonialism literature that followed.
Also under the critical phenomenology banner are authors such as Butler (1988) who writes about constructed gender identity as a “performance”. Others like Ahmed (2006) tackle “queer phenomenology” while numerous feminist phenomenologists, including Irigaray (1985) and Young (1990/2005) focus on female/feminine bodily experience following de Beauvoir.
What links all these philosophers is their profound curiosity and desire to describe the nature of pre-reflective lived intersubjective experience in its fullest, most holistic sense, uncontaminated by pre-determining theories and explanations of behaviour. They endeavour to view our ‘being- in-the-world’ in ways which eschew dualisms and polarities: for example, individual-social, person-world, mind-body, self-other, inside-outside and so on. Since Descartes, we have been conditioned to split mind from body (at least in the Western world). Phenomenology offers a radical challenge to this perspective by arguing for the interpenetration of mind, body, self, and world.
There are important differences, however, between a philosopher’s reflections and the phenomenological researcher’s reflective analysis of descriptions of lived experience. As therapists and researchers who are trying to apply phenomenology, we are not engaged in pure reflection, and often we deal with other people’s accounts. Pragmatic, instrumental compromise is needed to apply philosophical ideas. Giorgi, in his descriptive phenomenological research method, argues for abstaining from Husserl’s transcendental realm and staying with a modified form he calls the ‘scientific phenomenological reduction’, expanding Husserl’s ‘psychological phenomenological reduction’ to include all human scientists (Giorgi, 2009).
It is because there is no clear-cut path to applying phenomenology that there is much debate about how to engage phenomenological research or therapy. Competing variants of phenomenological research can be found spanning scientifically rigorous descriptive phenomenology to more literary and interpretive hermeneutic phenomenological forms. In the therapy world, we can see different phenomenological approaches enacted in existential psychotherapy, intersubjective approaches and in dialogic gestalt work.
Whatever variant of phenomenology is engaged, the task remains profoundly dialectical: phenomenologists strive to straddle subjectivity and objectivity, intimacy and distance, being inside and outside, being a part of and a part from, bracketing the self and being self-aware, and so on. Phenomenology champions a holistic non-dualist approach to life and this philosophy needs to be mirrored in its methodology – whether it is in research or therapy.
Many phenomenological philosophers (e.g., Gadamer, 1975) and researchers (e.g, van Manen, 2014) eschew “method,” in favour of talking about the phenomenological “approach.” They prefer to see understanding as evolving iteratively through dialogue. How we understand something depends on our previous understandings and current contexts. Thus, two different researchers will “see” something different in interview transcripts.
It is extremely challenging for students when there is not one clear-cut method from phenomenology for them to use. There are no prescriptions for, say, how many participants to use, what to do with them or how to make sense of what they offer. A phenomenological study can include just one participant; data analysis can be systematic or intuitively creative; the end results can be rigorously scientific or hauntingly literary. If you are aiming to do phenomenology, I strongly recommend that you dwell with good quality writings in order to get a feel for it, rather than just trying to learn steps of a method.
If you're learning to “do” phenomenology, struggling with all the material is expected. Its something of a rite of passage! You could well start by being thoroughly confused. This is why variants such as Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) have become popular with its user-friendly suggestions of key steps to offer novice researchers a concrete structure to cling to. Unfortunately, set structures might lose the essence and ambiguity of the phenomenon if researchers get caught up with method (like constructing thematic structures).
The field includes many philosophical strands and methodologies. The table below selectively highlights some competing research approaches and how different researcher-scholars have leaned into either descriptive or hermeneutic versions, or have attempted to straddle both (Finlay, 2009, 2011).
Lens of concern/ topics
Fred Wertz -
Essential individual and general structures of meaning
Descriptive phenomenology: Use of rigorous approach: Epoché, eidetic reduction and intentional analysis, imaginative variation
Scott Churchill - psychologist
Existential and experiential dimensions and eidetic intuitions (seeing of essences)
Descriptive and hermeneutic approach which emphasises the use of empathic, embodied second-person perspective
Heidegger; also Husserl
Jonathan Smith - psychologist
Idiographic and general accounts of experience
Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA): Double hermeneutic of interpretively making sense of participants’ sense-making
Schleiermacher, Heidegger, Gadamer, Husserl
Larry Davidson -
Mental illness; schizophrenia
Empathic, systematic; Empirical-Transcendental phenomenology
David Seamon -
Embodied spatiality and the lifeworld
Hermeneutic phenomenology; synergistic relationality
Bernd Jager – existential philosopher and psychologist
Lived binaries like “verticality” and “horizontality”
Hermeneutic – existential dialectics
Heidegger, Greek scholars, literary references
Karin Dahlberg – nurse
Health and caring sciences
Reflective Lifeworld Research; empirical descriptive and hermeneutic dimensions
Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty
To help guide budding phenomenologists, in some previous articles/writing I have suggested five mutually dependent and fluidly iterative processes (not stages) which unite divergent research approaches: “Embracing the phenomenological attitude”; “Entering the lifeworld” (through descriptions of experiences); “Dwelling with horizons of implicit meanings”; “Explicating the phenomenon holistically and dialectically”; and finally, “Integrating frames of reference” (Finlay, 2012)
In practice, the processes interfold; the precise way they are engaged varies between different researchers and their associated methodological preferences. Some, for instance, Giorgi (2009) and Wertz (2010, 2011), using descriptive phenomenology, stress the phenomenological attitude and the value of dwelling with horizons of meaning to capture the essential structure of the phenomenon. Others, such as Smith et al 2021, spell out structured, interpretive ways to dwell with implicit meanings, while scholars like van Manen (1990) and Todres (2007) argue for resonant explication to ensure the eventual presentation/article is evocatively textured.
Perhaps it will even become manifest that the total phenomenological attitude and the epoché belonging to it are destined …to effect… a complete personal transformation, comparable in the beginning to a religious conversion. (Husserl, 1936/1970, p.137)
Husserl argued that it is only by applying the Epoché (pronounced ee-pok-ay) do we come close to the phenomenon, whereby philosophy can become a distinctive, rigorous science. This involves suspending our “natural attitude” (i.e., our taken-for-granted commonsense understandings) and embracing a phenomenological attitude (Finlay, 2008).
When the researcher (or philosopher) adopts a phenomenological attitude, they “bracket” or put aside assumptions and previous knowledge, in order to see the world anew. It involves adopting a self-critical, reflexive meta-awareness that questions “commonsense” and what is manifest, in order to reveal more of the multifaceted, ambiguous nature of subjectivity. Simultaneously, they abstain from ontological judgment about the truth or reality of objects in the world (Ashworth, 1996). If a participant talks about seeing a ghost, for example, the researcher doesn’t question whether or not ghosts exist. Instead, they will investigate what this ghost means to the person and how they experienced it (inter-)subjectively. To give another example, if interviewing someone about their experience of being Muslim, the researcher must not assume anything about their faith and lifestyle. The aim is not to make generalized statements; instead, researchers are concerned to reveal the individual’s lifeworld.
The challenging question for phenomenologists concerns what and how to bracket, given the impossibility of the task. Descriptive phenomenologists aim to reflexively set aside previous understandings in order to stay with the participant. But it is not about being “objective” as subjectivity is the focus. Hermeneutic phenomenologists try to make their interpretations reflexively transparent. With critical phenomenology, there is an attempt to suspend hegemonic norms while also recognising structures of capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy situate us in particular lifeworlds and cannot be put aside.
Whatever the specific approach, an attitude of critical, reflexive openness infuses all data collection and analysis. The process is profound and goes to the heart of an ethical sensibility that prizes respectful, compassionate curiosity and empathetic listening (Finlay, 2020a). The key to practising the phenomenological attitude (in therapy, in research, or in life) is to adopt a particular open, non-judgemental approach – one filled with wonder and curiosity about the world – while simultaneously holding at bay prior assumptions and knowledge. The immediate challenge for a therapist entering a phenomenological research or therapeutic encounter is to remain open to new understandings. Its about being both present and empathically open to the other in order to go beyond what is already known or assumed (Finlay, 2013; 2016).
Engaging a phenomenological attitude, we strive to leave our worlds behind and enter into the other's worlds in order to reflect on their meanings and experience. This attitude involves a special attentiveness and presence: an ability to dwell with the situations the person describes, to listen with an ear attuned to detail, nuance, turns of phrase. This attitude involves us separating ourselves as far as possible from value judgments and theoretical constructs. We try instead – at least in the first instance - to focus on the meaning of the situation purely as it presents to the other (Wertz, 2005).
For example, when exploring the experience of receiving a cochlear implant, my participant/co-researcher (Pat) talked of how traumatic she found the change from silence to a world of noise (Finlay & Molano Fisher, 2008). Collaborating with her in this research, I had to put aside my naïve, thoughtless assumptions that implants simply enabled a deaf person to hear and therefore were a “good” thing. We avoided assuming Pat’s experience was similar to others receiving implants, staying open to Pat’s experiential reality. Doing this, I caught a glimpse of her new world with confusing, cacophonous sounds, and that insight gifted a raft of awesome new perceptions of the world that stay with me (and others who have read her story) to this day.
Applied in practice, the process of bracketing is beset with misunderstanding. Some mistake bracketing as minimising (putting aside) their subjectivity in order to be unbiased or objective. Unfortunately, subjectivity can never be renounced or hived off in this fashion. The challenge for therapists/researchers is rather to actively recognise the impact of their subjectivity. It is our very (inter-)subjectivity that we need to engage in order to better 'see' the other.
Taking its cue from phenomenological philosophy, bracketing is best understood as non-judgemental focused openness where we are trying to see clients and their lives with “fresh eyes” (Finlay, 2008, p.29; 2016). We bracket in order to be open to the other, the client. In this sense, bracketing is enacted alongside a genuine, mindful sense of curiosity and compassion. As therapists and researchers, we strive to maintain a genuinely unknowing stance in which we remain modest about our claims to understanding. We try to bracket what we might know or assume in order to be present to what is emerging in the here and now. We bracket to engage in genuine phenomenological inquiry: after all, what is the point of asking the questions if we feel we already know the answers.
There is much that we bracket in practice. Bracketing is an ongoing, continuous process that occurs moment to moment as we become aware of a new thought, understanding or emotion that bubbles up. Specifically, we bracket:
To give an example of what the phenomenological attitude means in practice, consider the researcher who is studying the lived experience of postpartum depression, when she herself has gone through a similar experience. It would necessary for her to try to bracket her own experience in the first instance and not assume any commonality of experience. The researcher would need, instead, to be genuinely curious about the other, and be open to the very real possibility of being surprised by what the participant brings. In assuming a more unknowing stance, she would also need to put aside Western medical model notions about this diagnostic category, with its anticipated clinical presentation, and also any culturally-specific ideas about women’s role, needs and behaviour following a birth. If a participant described her experience as being a bit “different” from that of other mothers who might reject their child, saying she still loved her child and was a good mother, the researcher would need to put aside theories of attachment and any doubts that the participant might be engaged in impression management; neither should she interpret this as a defensive move. Instead, the researcher strives to engage this mother with empathic, attuned, open, non-judgmental, compassionate interest. The researcher’s challenge is to access this lived experience as lived rather than as simply engaging conscious reflection on it.
For further information on the phenomenological attitude please see my paper: Finlay, L. (2008). A dance between the reduction and reflexivity: Explicating the “phenomenological psychological attitude” Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 39, pp.1-32. https://doi.org/10.1163/156916208X311601
Phenomenological inquiry refers to the way a therapist or researcher engages engaging dialogue and asks questions. The aim of phenomenological inquiry is to ask questions that enable clients/participants to describe their own meanings and find their own way through their specific life situation. This form of inquiry is geared to self-discovery as well as exploration. Phenomenological inquiry requires the therapist’s/researcher's genuine interest, curiosity and care.
It begins with the assumption, says Erskine (2001), that “I know nothing about this client’s [or participant's] experience.” None of our past experiences, understandings, theories, or even our observations tells us enough about what it’s like to live in another person’s skin. Here, therapists “exercise an expertise in asking questions from a position of ‘not knowing’ rather than asking questions that are informed by method and that demand speciﬁc answers” (Anderson & Goolishian 1992, p.28). It’s about constantly focusing on the client’s experience rather than on their observable behavior alone. It’s about seeing them as a person in their life context rather than as a problem to be ‘solved’ or, in research terms, as a object of study.
To engage in a phenomenological inquiry, Erskine recommends using questions or statements that focus on the person’s experience. It often begins by asking the person to talk about a concrete experience - to go to that 'place' and to describe what it is like. The inquiry can focus on a range of dimensions: bodily ones (“What’s happening in your body just now?”), cognitive ones (“What sense do you make of that?”), affective ones (“What are you feeling?”), and/or relational ones (“What’s it like to be sitting here telling me that story?”).
Applied to relationally orientated psychotherapy, Erskine (2021) suggests asking explicitly about the client’s experience of the therapist’s tone of voice, or what it is like when a therapist reacts a certain way or draws attention to the client’s behavior. In another version of relational inquiry, Spinelli (2015) explicitly invites clients to recognise similarities and differences between the here-and-now therapy relationship and what happens outside in ‘real’ life. Through such inquiry, the client becomes more aware of their needs, and more choiceful about their actions, while taking in the relational nourishment being offered. The aim, always, is to raise the client’s awareness of their experience, meanings, needs (current and archaic) and issues – all aspects which may have been pushed down or defensively disowned. Affect, thoughts, fantasy, memories, hopes, core beliefs and values, bodily experience (movement, posture, tensions), hopes and memories which have all been kept from full awareness are opened up through the relational dialogic process. Through the therapist’s respectful questioning and listening, the client can develop self-curiosity and gain new insights – the first step towards self-acceptance and growth.
Applied to research, the enquiry is geared to reflection (which both the researcher and participant engage:
[Phenomenological reflection] must suspend the faith in the world only so as to see it, only so as to read in it the route it has followed in becoming a world for us; it must seek in the world itself the secret of our perceptual bond with it. . . . It must question the world, it must enter into the forest of references that our interrogation arouses in it, it must make it say, finally, what in its silence it means to say. (Merleau-Ponty, 1964/1968, pp. 38-39)
For more information on the phenomenological research process please see:
[Phenomenological description] must stick close to experience, and yet not limit itself to the empirical but restore to each experience the ontological cipher which marks it internally. (Merleau-Ponty, 1960/1964, p. 157)
Rather than explanation, theorising or interpretation, phenomenologists value and prioritise description and we can see this description unfolding in both research and therapy.
Phenomenological research typically involves the participant describing their lived experience of, for instance, a particular trauma or disability. Together participant and researcher dialogue and try to make sense of the phenomenon and seen from the participant’s point of view. This phase, otherwise called data collection, involves researchers enabling participants to express themselves (in their “natural attitude”) simply and directly. The question then is how to move beyond the words to appreciate what is being revealed in the telling of their lived world (Galvin & Todres, 2013).
There is no one way to do this. Researchers can interview individual participants, use focus groups or ask for written descriptions (protocols) of specific concrete experience. Diverse methods of data collection also have been used, including employing creative media like art/dance/literature/photography. While three to six participants are considered to give sufficient variation, some choose more. Others choose just one participant (case study) or engage autobiographical reflection.
If interviews are used, semi-structured or unstructured interview formats are preferred because they allow understandings to emerge from dialogue. It is important that the researchers bracket their own assumptions and are prepared-to-be-surprised. Often participants will be asked to start with concrete down-to-earth, detailed description of their experience of the phenomenon. For instance, a study about the experience of joy, might start with: “Can you describe a specific moment when you experienced joy?”
In therapy, similarly, the aim is to invite the client to simply describe their experience: to put words to their feelings. If words are hard to find, maybe instead the client can find a metaphor, or say what colour or texture the experience has. If the client struggles to describe the experience, the therapist can go slower with the phenomenological inquiry. The point is to stay with the manifest material in active, curious ways, rather than passively reflecting back. By this means clients can edge forward to making or finding their own meanings, rather than being fed the therapist’s own meanings or interpretations.
To give an example of practice, we might ask a client to describe an experience as it happened in real time: ‘Can you describe this experience as it happened?’ Some prompts to help return the client to the specific scene may prove helpful: ‘Put yourself in that place, and look around. What do you see/hear/smell?’ Often when a person recalls an experience in detail it can be vividly evoked, almost re-experienced. Then it’s about staying with this: standing-with the client, encouraging more description and not foreclosing too quickly (for example, avoiding interpretations or assuming a clear understanding). This is an opportunity to go deeper, to ask for more textured description: ‘As you’re now feeling a little of how it was for you, how are you experiencing it in your body?’ ‘Stay with that body feeling. What is it saying?’ Inviting more metaphorical description is also a possibility: ‘What would its colour/sound be if it had one?’ (Spinelli, 2015).
The process of describing involves us slowing down; when seeking to describe, we focus in an attempt to uncover sediments of meaning or reveal nuance and texture. Wertz (1985, p. 174) describes it well: “When we stop and linger with something, it secretes its sense and its full significance becomes . . . amplified.” This attitude, he says, involves an "extreme form of care that savors the situations described in a slow, meditative way and attends to, even magnifies, all the details. This attitude is free of value judgments . . . and instead focuses on the meaning of the situation purely as it is given in the participant’s experience." (1985, p. 172)
“If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life - and only then will I be free to become myself.” (Heidegger)
Existentialism is concerned with questions about human experience and existence. It addresses shared human concerns relating to life and death, authentic being and becoming, meaningfulness and meaninglessness, belonging and needs, free will and autonomy versus oppression and constraints, and so on. These questions can then become the focus of therapy or research as the client/participant is encouraged to become aware of what it means to be alive, to own one’s choices and embrace the special capacity of humans to be reflexive (self-aware) about our identity and relationships with others. Existentially-orientated therapy aims to examine ways in which each (unique) individual comes to claim their way of being. The focus is on questions like: “Who am I?”, “What gives my life meaning?” or “How do I want to live my life?” (Deurzen, 2014).
Yalom (1980) highlights four “givens” of human existence: death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness saying that the quality of our lives depend on how we confront these. Confronting death, for instance, allows us to embrace living and to live with urgency, passion, and commitment. Linked to such themes, is one central existential concept and that is authenticity. Heidegger (1927/1962) refers to inauthenticity as “forgetting” to take ownership of one’s life/world. The inauthentic being is “tranquillized”, follows the anonymous “They”, “flees”, “falls”, and so on. The key aim then of existential psychotherapy is to claim one’s authentic being and become more self aware, embrace one’s possibilities and limits, and to be present to our existential anxieties as we face the horizon of our death squarely (Yalom, 1980).
Another existential phenomenological concept, highlighted originally by Husserl (1936/1970), is the notion of ‘lifeworld’ (Lebenswelt) as the taken-for-granted world which is experienced. It’s our meaningful subjectivity in relation to the experienced world – not the material world ‘out there’ but the humanly relational lived world of being. We all have a lifeworld, one that is both unique and also somewhat shared with others (for instance, through our use of language/discourse and culture). The notion of the lifeworld is rooted in non-dualism. As Merleau-Ponty famously said, “There is no inner man. Man is in the world and only in the world does he know himself” (1945/1962, p. xi). Body and world are intertwined; people need to be understood in the context of their world and their meanings.
Different interlinking existential ‘fragments’ (Ashworth, 2006) of the lifeworld can be identified as universal themes (van Manen, 2014) :
Both phenomenologically orientated therapy and research are geared to exploring the lifeworld. As part of this, existential feelings (Ratcliffe 2008) can be explored: for instance, when we feel ‘fulfilled’ or ‘safe and secure’, or ‘distant and outside a group’, or ‘a sense of depersonalisation’. Existential feelings are more than emotions we direct somewhere (such as the anger we might feel for a particular person). They are more like background orientations involving out bodily relationship with the world. Describing the experience of mental health disorder, for instance, the psychiatrist van den Berg (1972) talks of how a person’s world can ‘collapse’ or feel ‘unbalanced’: "The depressed patient speaks of a world gone gloomy and dark. The flowers have lost their color…The patient is ill; this means that his world is ill" (van den Berg, 1972, pp.25-6).
Applying these ideas to research interviews, for example, phenomenologists will tend to ask participants to describe their experience concretely by posing such questions as: ‘How would you describe a typical day?’ or ‘Please describe that particular incident in more detail’. This way of opening a dialogue is valued over and above asking more general abstract questions such as ‘what does the experience of friendship mean to you?’ or ‘What is depression?’. The researcher’s aim is to empathise with the participant’s situation and offer further prompts geared to existential dimensions of that situation. For instance, researchers asking ‘how is this person experiencing their day?’ They might then seek to apply such notions as ‘felt space’ and ‘felt time’. For example, what is the participant’s experience in terms of felt-space? Do they feel safe, free, trapped, exposed, small…? In terms of felt-time, does the participant seem to be experiencing this as pressured, slow, discontinuous…?
Applying all of these ideas to psychotherapy practice, we can say that phenomenology is a holistic approach that “captures human existence in all its dimensions, from self-awareness and embodiment (including their prereflexive and ‘unconscious’ forms), to spatiality, temporality, narrativity and intersubjectivity” (Fuchs, Messas, & Stanghellini (2019, p. 64). Existentially-focused therapy puts the human condition front and centre, engaging with all its complexity, ambivalence, paradox, tragedy and wonder. It recognises this human experience as inseparable from our being-in-the-world. Such an approach reminds us to engage the individual’s experience of their wider life-as-lived and relationships with others, not just restrict ourselves to exploring what is happening internally.
In my practice as both an integrative psychotherapist (Finlay, 2016) and a phenomenological researcher (Finlay, 2011, 2013), I emphasize embodiment in the way that I attune to and bring into the process the bodily experience both of my research participants and of my own self. I have sought to find a way to give voice to bodily experience. How might I listen to the body’s language and hear its innate wisdom? Here I follow Gendlin’s (1996) approach where the body is recognized as having a “felt-sense” involving body sensations that have meaning. “What one feels is not ‘stuff inside’ but the sentience of what is happening in one’s living in the outside” (Gendlin, 1973). The aim is not simply to be present to our mutual non-verbal behavior; it is also about inhabiting and exploring our embodied inter-subjective relationship. The focus is on the somatic duet lying beneath and between verbal interaction where significant implicit meanings arise in a “more-than-verbal” way (Todres, 2007). Here, the body acts as a sensor, a detector of meaning which helps us empathize with, interpret and understand participants’ experiences. If we’re alert, physical sensations and our own felt-sense arising out of the relational space between can provide crucial cues.
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)
The phrase, “Healing through meeting,” expressed in Buber’s writings, summarises the key idea of dialogic relationality. Applying this idea to therapy Yalom (1980, p. 401) puts it succinctly: “It is the relationship that heals.” Contemporary dialogic and relational approaches to therapy place the focus on the therapeutic relationship rather than simply on the individual client. The therapist here tries to be present in the moment to both the client and to their own feelings (which, through countertransference, may offer important clues about the client’s experience). Therapists are encouraged to foster a client’s sense of self by maintaining an affirming, holding, relationally-responsive presence who witnesses and confirms. In dialogue, the therapist practices inclusion, empathic engagement, and personal presence, e.g. self-disclosure. In the process of doing this, the therapist confirms the existence and potential of the patient, the therapist imagines the reality of the patient’s experience and in doing so confirms existence of the patient.
But how we bring this relational dimension into therapy varies according to perspective and context (Paul & Charura, 2015). A key debate revolves around the extent to which we emphasise the here-and-now intersubjective relationship, rather than the intrasubjective one, where past developmental relationships are accessed transferentially. In the field of integrative psychotherapy, the work of Erskine and his colleagues engages a process that involves simultaneous attending to client and self (in terms of being emotionally available and self-aware). The therapist de-centres from their own needs, making the client’s process the primary focus. Here the therapist is mindful of the client’s experience, watching every little gesture, listening to each word, or being with the client’s silence. At the same time the therapist’s history, relational needs and sensitivities, theoretical stance and professional experience all enter into building therapeutic presence (Erskine, 2011).
Hycner also talks of the ‘artistry’ involved in maintaining a three-way attuned focus: on what the client needs, on our own needs, and on the needs of the relationship (Hycner, 2017). Immersed in the relationship, therapists engage in an intricate dance, one that involves us being present to all three dimensions while also being curious, attentive and open, and able to step back and think. In the fluid moments between intimacy and distance, the nature of our holding shifts, as do our points of focus. In one moment, we might be deeply immersed in holding a client’s story or literally holding them; in the next we’re holding on to ourselves, struggling to anchor ourselves by stepping back reflectively to avoid getting caught up in a relational maelstrom.
These ideas build on the significant work of the phenomenological philosopher Buber (1923/1958, 1951/1965) and his ideas about I-Thou versus I-It relationships. In I-Thou, the therapist (or researcher) surrenders an instrumental desire for control or validation and eschews habitual ways of interacting that are found in instrumental I-It relationships. The I-Thou relationship is free from judgement, narcissism, demands, possessiveness, objectification, greed and anticipation (Hycner, 1993). In the authentic, open relationship of I-Thou, each person gives of themself without manipulating the other or controlling the impression being created. The direct experience of such presence with another is comforting (by showing us we are not alone) and threatening (by challenging us to be more). Treating others as ‘Thous’ rather than ‘Its’ has important ramifications: Buber (1923/1958, 1951/1965) saw the Holocaust as a particularly horrendous example of the ethical consequences of seeing others as ‘Its’. Ultimately, the I-Thou relationship is mutually revealing. Recognising the value of the other’s personhood helps us renew our own.
Buber’s dialogic philosophy also guides us to embrace both ‘presence’ and ‘inclusion’. Presence is the capacity to be present emotionally and bodily; inclusion is the capacity to put oneself into the experience of the other with attuned empathy while holding onto oneself and one’s presence (i.e. not getting lost in confluence). When we have the courage to be fully present, we are met and affirmed by the other through what Hycner calls an “embrace of gazes” (in Hycner & Jacobs, 1995, p.9).
In relational-dialogic work, decisions about interventions necessarily take into account the client, the therapist, and the context. For example, a therapist wouldn’t just start to ‘hold’ (either metaphorically or physically) a client. The client needs to be receptive; they need to accept and take in that holding and feel held. What level of holding can the client tolerate? And, in turn, the therapist needs to be alert to when the client is accepting (or resisting) being held. How does that impact on the therapist and how do they respond back to the client? (Finlay, 2019). Therapists need to factor in their own needs and readiness. If the therapist is uncomfortable using touch yet still pushes ahead with it, this may have negative implications for the relationship. If you are feeling pulled to physically hold a client, it might be useful to ask yourself ‘why?’ “Am I intuiting the client’s needs?” Or, “does this feeling have something to do with my own needs? Could it be something that is emerging from the relationship? In whose interest is this holding?”
The following list highlights some pitfalls of the methodology, and the mistakes researchers can make which contributes to 'unconvincing' phenomenology.
Theory, explanation, judgements and the phenomenologist’s previous experience and beliefs are temporarily pushed aside to probe the ‘Is-ness’ of the phenomenon of concern. Critical attention is paid to how the phenomenon is presenting in the here-and-now moment – specifically how it is experienced by people in their ‘natural attitude’. Phenomenologists accept that what individuals say about their own experience is their ‘truth’ and do not morally judge. Their focus is on the meaning of the situation as it is given. How is the person's world lived and experienced?
The aim of phenomenology is to descriptively explore ambiguous subjectivity and lived experience in its passion, poignancy and paradox. I hope I have shown that phenomenology offers us a radical perspective which may, in the process, touch heart, body, mind, and soul.
The chapter highlights competing versions of phenomenological research and warns that convincing phenomenology must demonstrate its methodological integrity. If you embark on phenomenological research, be clear about the version to which you are committing. That will guide you on the priority, focus and style of writing required. And as you embrace your particular approach, I hope you will come to appreciate its potential to reveal the depth and ambivalence that characterizes human experience.
For a study to be convincingly phenomenological it must:
1) Describe the phenomenon in a rich, layered, evocative way;
2) Focus on pre-reflective experience/consciousness rather than reproducing what a participant says (or the researcher believes) in their natural attitude;
3) Be grounded in phenomenological philosophy (for the method and/or description);
4) Grapple holistically with layered complexity and ambiguity of embodied (inter-)subjective lifeworldly meanings and what it means to be human.
While phenomenological scholars, therapists and researchers continue debate – sometimes vociferously - how best to apply phenomenology and operationalize their project, they are joined in their commitment to the special, attentive, dwelling phenomenological approach of openness and wonder . This requires discipline, practice and patience through all the iterative phases of the phenomenological process. We need to acknowledge the complexity, enrichment and potential for revelation that emerges from our phenomenological research (Sass, 2022). These scholars, therapists and researchers are joined in their project to capture something of the nature of the inter-animation of body-world in lived experience. The reward comes with beguiling moments of disclosure where the phenomenon reveals something new about itself.
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