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Over the last 40 years, there has been a 'relational' Zeitgeist - some call it a "relational turn" that can be discerned across fields of both therapy and research. I frequently hear therapists declare they are relational or that they work "at relational depth". In the research world, also, it seems more researchers are embracing collaborative, dialogical or relational-centred approaches. 

But what does ‘relational’ mean in these various contexts?  It seems that different people mean different things - the relational therapy I practice seems a far cry from the practice of other therapists who also claim the relational label. The relational practice of a relational psychoanalyst is very different from the relationality practiced by the dialogical gestalt or relational CBT practitioner. 

I think we would all agree that as humans we are shaped by our social contexts and that our sense of who we are is intimately entwined with our relationships. Research also demonstrates close relationships are what matters most to people. When those relationships break down or fail to give us what we need, we become distressed/disturbed and lose confidence. If relationships are the source of many psychological problems, they can also be harnessed towards growth, healing and understanding. 

More than this general acceptance of the relational context of human experience, some practitioners (and I am one of them) promote the therapeutic/research relationship, rather than the individual client/participant, as the primary focus of therapy/research. Here, we’d argue that the only access we have to another’s subjectivity comes through the relationship so that must be the vehicle of the therapy/research. 

The relational turn in therapy

There have been many different relational approaches evolving over the last few decades including: attachment-based psychoanalysis; intersubjectivity theory; relational depth theory; relationally focused psychodynamic therapy; interpersonal psychotherapy; relational transactional analysis; relational integrative psychotherapy; and feminist-oriented relational psychotherapy and relational-cultural therapy.

While accepting there are different versions of relationality enacted by different therapeutic modalities, these diverse therapies all emphasize the importance of relationship -- particularly the therapeutic relationship between therapist and client.  Yalom’s often quoted professional ‘rosary’  beautifully captures the spirit: "It’s the relationship that heals, the relationship that heals, the relationship that heals." (Yalom, 1989, p. 91)

Key general principles of an explicitly ‘relational’ psychotherapeutic approach include:

  • Therapy offers a microcosm of the social world – What happens in the therapy room may well reflect processes happening outside.
  • The therapist is present – We try to be a safe, steady presence who is willing to be-with the client as a human being with whatever emerges.
  • The therapist opens to the client in an attuned, sensitive, compassionate way - What may be perceived as caring and relational to one client might be viewed as invasive and insensitive to another.
  • The relationship works as a collaborative partnership – Both therapist and client contribute to this relationship; therapy is a joint enterprise.
  • The significance of ‘between’ , e.g. focusing on transferential, transactional or dialogical dynamics - We’re particularly interested in that mysterious intersubjective space between where we touch and are touched by the Other in multiple, often unseen ways.

Relational therapists view the ‘here-and-now’ therapeutic relationship as a collaborative partnership rather than as an expert-driven intervention. It starts with nurturing client’s trust in the relationship, and aims to offer nourishing support, reparative emotional processing and regulation.Therapy is also often deemed relational when the roots of clients’ identity and emotional vulnerability are seen to lie in their relational-social history and wider cultural context, rather than in their individual pathology. When working with clients, relational therapists remain reflexively aware of the impact of intersectionality and seek to minimize the impact of oppressive power dynamics.  

When we apply these ideas to the evolving client-therapist relationship, the relational approach starts from the first moment of contact.  A relational therapist will strive to be warmly accepting, empathically attuned, and professionally respectful and boundaried.  They will kindle an atmosphere of non-judgemental openness where clients feel welcomed and compassionately accepted. The aim is to create a safe space where the client can feel witnessed, supported, affirmed, resourced, and challenged.

As the relationship builds the depth of relationality achieved depends on the individuals involved and the context (including the therapeutic approach and cultural environment).  Before the relationship has fully formed, a lighter relational touch may prove useful, particularly where clients need to develop trust or are challenged by too much contact.  Therapists will check in regularly with the client about their expectations and experiences of therapy towards developing a solid working alliance to ensure they are working together towards their goals.

As the therapist-client bond develops, therapists adapt their approach in response to the client’s needs. Does their client feel safer if the therapist is spontaneously real, responding as a human being? Or does the client need the therapist to remain more professionally boundaried, at a distance, holding a predictable safe frame?  At the same time, care is taken to discourage excessive client dependency on the therapist, although feelings of both attachment and (inter-)dependency might well be acknowledged as they are worked through. Ideally, over time, the client learns to meet their own relational needs and seek nourishment from family, friends and communities.

Throughout the therapeutic process, relational psychotherapists focus on “being-with”, as opposed to “doing-to”. In other words, there is a reduced focus on traditional therapeutic techniques, protocols, and skills. Rather than asking “How can I help my client?” relational therapists pose the question: “What kind of relationship does my client need?” Rather than attending simply to the client’s thoughts, behavior and feelings, relational therapists strive to be aware of themselves and what is happening in the relationship. While therapists will be alert to subtle changes in clients’ embodied emotional expression, they are also reflexively focused on their own embodied (inter-)subjective experience. They remain attentive to regulating their own affect as part of regulating their client’s affect. The relational process, then, is a tripartite one involving being attentive to what is happening for the client, the therapist and within their relationship. 

In practice, a relational therapist will periodically draw attention to what is happening in the here-and-now embodied encounter with their client.  They might say, for instance, “As you’re speaking about your anxiety, I’m not really feeling it in my body. Are you?” Or, “What’s going on between us? How are we doing?”  Or, when working metaphorically with “parts of self,” therapy might explore how different parts of both client and therapist are transferentially accessed and worked with. Questions like these highlight the centrality of the therapeutic relationship while inviting clients to reflect on their role in co-creating relational dynamics (within the therapy and outside). 

The ending of relational therapy is usually mutually and collaboratively negotiated but it is still likely to be emotionally challenging for both client and therapist, and the process needs time - months in the case of long-term work. Messy or rushed endings can create wounds that linger. There is a risk the client will experience ending as “rejection” or “abandonment,” compromising therapy gains.  Every ending needs to be adapted to suit the individuals and context. Some clients prefer a planned ending, others a slow “weaning-off.” As client and therapist process what the ending means, there is an opportunity to deepen mutual learnings: “What have we done here which helps me feel safe and connected that might be applied outside?”

In summary, working relationally means engaging the emergent, here-and-now dialogical relationship between therapist and client where we flexibly attune to each client’s relational needs (Erskine, 2015; Erskine et al, 1999, DeYoung, 2003; Spinelli, 2015) while also appreciating the impact of the social-cultural context. It’s about being present as a human being first; as a therapist second. It’s about moving fluidly between a triadic focus on the Other, Self and the relationship Between.  Here we see the relationship as giving access to the others subjectivity and as the vehicle for healing. There is constant dance where we go in and out of focusing on the client, on ourselves and on what is happening between and taking into account the wider social context.

Just how we put this relational dimension in action in therapy varies according to perspective and context (Paul & Charura, 2015). A key debate for integrative therapists, for example, is the extent to which we privilege the here-and-now inter-subjective relationship rather than the intra-subjective one where past developmental relationships are engaged transferentially or the socio-cultural/systemic one where wider social identities come into play. However, it is engaged, the mutual connection and integrating relational healing experienced can be potentially transformative and enriches both therapist and client.

For myself, I work relationally in a number of ways. My focus is on the client's own internal and external relational world while we also work together using our therapeutic relationship as a vehicle to explore the client's process: With increased self-awareness comes more choices about how to be.  I also often engage work with 'multiple parts of self'. Here I work relationally with different parts of my own and the client’s intersubjective selves.  I've always been fascinated by the multiplicities of our (inter-)subjective relationships. A client arrives in the therapy room carrying their 'selves' from different stages and areas of their lives along with the internalised voices of significant others.  I also arrive with my different 'selves' lurking. So who is talking to whom?  The key question for therapy then is how do we  understand – and work with - what seems to be the ubiquitous appearance of different ‘selves’ (of both client and therapist) in the therapy room?  While the metaphorical use of ‘selves’ can be a useful way of containing a felt sense of fragmentation, should our aim in psychotherapy be unification (i.e. where integration involves owning all the parts)? Or should we set aside ontological assumptions about the 'reality of these selves' and simply work with what/who presents itself/themselves?

Relational-centred research

In this opening ‘between ’ lurks ambiguity and unpredictability, together with the possibility of true meeting. Anything can – and does – appear.          (Finlay & Evans, 2009)

Relational 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 (e.g. see the work of Reason (1994) and Morrow (Morrow and Smith, 1995) who offers an account of using grounded theory while working relationally with her participants.

In 2009, Ken Evans and I collaborated on this book advancing our version of relational-centred researchIn this version of relational-centred research, we put forward the idea that the empathic, relational skills, sensitivities and sensibilities of therapists can be marshalled in the research process. We argued that:

  • ‘Data’ emerges out of the researcher-participant relationship
  • Co-created in the embodied dialogical encounter
  • Processes of research mirror those in therapy
  • Involves reflecting on layers of inter-subjectivity 

For more in-depth information about this relational-centred approach, please see our book: Finlay, L. & Evans, K. (2009). Relational centred research for psychotherapists, Wiley Blackwell:

At the centre of our understanding (of both relational psychotherapy and relational-centred research) is a focus on the co-creation of the relationship as an interactional event, a constantly evolving co-constructed relational process to which client and therapist/participant and researcher, contribute alike and impact on each other in an ongoing way. The therapeutic relationship and the research encounter are thus both viewed by us as dynamic processes between people in mutual interaction and always unique, because of the separate individualities of the persons involved.

We believe that much of what we can learn and know about an Other is co-created and arises within the intersubjective space between researcher and co-researcher (Finlay, 2009).  Here we ally with the philosopher Martin Buber who maintained, the reality of the other - and thus our self - is to be found in the fullness of our open relation when we engage in our mutual participation (Buber, 1937).  Each person in the relationship touches and impacts on the other and that affects how any research unfolds.

We argue that a sensitive, ‘relationally-tuned’ attitude needs to be adopted in relational research which means letting go of control and committing to whatever arises between researcher and participant. It means not predicting, shaping or moulding the course or direction of the meeting by, for example, rigidly sticking to the six questions that have been devised for the semi structured interview or by getting so overly enmeshed and anxious about outcomes that we are not fully present. Committing to relational centred research requires the researcher to surrender both to the between and to whatever emerges into moment by moment awareness. Relational research does not just involve a participant-subject talking to a passive, distanced researcher who receives information. Instead the research data (and possibly the analysis stage as well) is seen to emerge out of a constantly negotiated, evolving, dynamic process. It is co-created – at least in part.

Four particular theoretical strands that explicitly intertwine in our relational approach to research are:   dialogical gestalt psychotherapy; existential phenomenology; intersubjectivity theory; and relational psychoanalysis. Feminist theory - particularly the role of reflexivity and collaboration - has also shaped our approach. In our relational-centred approach (as opposed to ‘method’), relational dynamics (be they conscious or out of awareness) between researcher and co-researchers are taken seriously and explored reflexively. This needs to be done without the researcher becoming excessively preoccupied with their own experience of the encounter (Finlay, 2002a; Finlay, 2002b). 

Relational therapists and researchers face the challenge of bringing themselves fully into the room and dealing directly with the relational impasses that occur between therapist-client and/or researcher-participant. This calls for the ongoing monitoring of our responses in relation to the unfolding process.  A decision needs to be made about what is useful to share in the interests of deepening and widening the exploration. There are no easy rules in this regard it depends more on the ongoing awareness on the part of the therapist/researcher of his/her own counter transference and what  may be learned from this, combined with a careful and respectful attention to the needs of the other. At times, a researcher may use counter transference awareness indirectly to understand the other’s struggle/stuckness more clearly. At other times the researcher may choose self-disclosure, as above, as a more powerful and appropriate option. What all relational approaches share, however, is attention to the researcher’s/therapist's personal process as a valuable resource to deepen the focus on the co-researcher.

In our book, Ken Evans and I reiterate our belief that relational centred researchers need to consider the need for supervision from a researcher who is also a therapist. This will develop and grow awareness in the researcher of their own unconscious processes that co-create with an other(s) to hinder, restrict, limit, or in some way curtail the work. This work needs to be conducted with curiosity and not judgment, since the latter promotes shame while the former supports a deeper level of reflexive practice where ‘mistakes’ are viewed with curiosity and as a path to growth and learning.

From the above, you will see that there are many parallels between relational centred therapy and research, namely related to a:

  • Focus: on lived experience & narratives
  • Relational-centred approach: use of embodied empathy, intuition, interpretation, intersubjectivity, trust in the process etc…
  • Approach: collaborative dialogic focus on here-&-now; researcher is ‘present’, authentic and invites the participant to be also
  • Relational ethics: duty of care, confidentiality etc
  • Supervision as a requirement
  • Therapeutic/transformational element

However, there are also significant and distinct differences and the two should not be confused. Research and therapy are different in their: 

  • Focus: research will be more boundaried and researcher directs/maintains that focus on research rather than on the individual
  • Intention: therapy aims for change; research is more instrumental & specific.
  • Aim: to explore a particular aspect or experience, not the person’s whole life story
  • Consent: Clear written ethical contract needs to be established including permission to record, publish etc. 
  • Power differential:  Researcher is more explicitly in control and sets the agenda throughout.

Here is a video of a keynote speech I did on relational centred research at a conference in October 2017 (Practice and research in psychotherapy: challenging partners or tango dancers?) at the Educatieve Academie, Antwerp, Belgium : https://educatieve-academie.be/ :

Linda Finlay - Antwerp Relational Research Keynote Presentation


Buber, M. (1958). I and Thou. (R.G.Smith, Trans.). Charles Scribner’s Sons. (Original work published 1937).

DeYoung, P.A. (2003). Relational Psychotherapy: A Primer. Brunner‐Routledge.

Erskine, R.G. (2015). Relational Patterns, Therapeutic Presence: Concepts and practice of integrative psychotherapy. Karnac.

Erskine, R.G., Moursund, J.P. & Trautmann, R.L. (1999). Beyond Empathy: A therapy of Contact-in-Relationship. Sage/Karnac.

Finlay, L. (2002a). “Outing” the researcher : the provenance, principles and practice of reflexivity, Qualitative Health Research, 12(3), 531-545.

Finlay, L. (2002b). Negotiating the swamp: the opportunity and challenge of reflexivity in research practice, Qualitative Research, 2, 209-230.

Finlay, L. (2009). Ambiguous encounters: A relational approach to phenomenological research, Indo-pacific Journal of Phenomenology, 9(1).

Finlay, L., & Evans, K. (Eds.). (2009). Relational-centred research for psychotherapists: Exploring meanings and experience. Wiley-Blackwell.

Halling, S. (2008). Intimacy, transcendence, and psychology: closeness and openness in everyday life.  Palgrave Macmillan.

Halling, S., Leifer, M. & Rowe, J.O. (2006). Emergence of the dialogal approach: forgiving another. In C.T.Fischer (Ed.). Qualitative research methods for psychologists: introduction through empirical studies. Elsevier.

Heron, J. (1996). Co-operative inquiry: research into the human condition. Sage.

Morrow, S. & Smith, M. (1995). A grounded theory study: Constructions of survival and coping by women who have survived childhood sexual abuse. In John Cresswell (Ed.), Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five traditions (pp. 297-321). Sage.

Paul, S., & Charura, D. (2015). An Introduction to the Therapeutic Relationship in Counselling and Psychotherapy. Sage.

Reason, P. (1994). Participation in human inquiry. Sage.

Spinelli, E. (2015). Practising Existential Therapy: The Relational World (2nd Edition). Sage Publications.

Yalom, I.D. (1989). Love’s Executioner. Penguin.

Linda Finlay - Psychotherapist

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