Training Narrative: Rhonda Goldman

From an early age, I was drawn in by the drama and power of human relationships. I always liked to be close to the action. In high school I took my first Psychology class, and I was hooked. What could be more interesting than trying to understand what motivated people? I also noticed that I possessed a seemingly endless curiosity about the stories of others (this included my friend's aunt's long-lost daughter). This is about the time I became sure I wanted to pursue Psychology. I do, however, see my primary training as coming throughout childhood and adolescence. In a dysfunctional family that was always at war, I was everybody's chosen confidant. People always came to me to air their problems, and I would listen as objectively as possible, often at my own expense, to their subjective perspectives.

At York University, I chose Psychology as my major, the passageway to psychotherapy. I began, however, to develop a concern about how to impact change. Was psychology the best avenue if I wanted to make a "real" contribution? International politics appealed to me, as it offered more global solutions for human problems. Philosophy seemed to address the thorny existential questions more directly. In the end, I settled easily on clinical psychology, as I decided that it allow me to have the most powerful impact interpersonally.

In undergraduate study, I thought I would pursue psychodynamic therapy. It seemed to offer depth and provided the most insight into human motivation. In retrospect, I believe this was an issue of exposure. I saw two choices available to me: behavioral or psychodynamic therapy. In my fourth year, however, I took a counseling course with Leslie Greenberg. I was immediately enamored with client-centered and experiential therapies. I was studying existential philosophy at the time, and taken with the ideas of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. The Humanistic approaches appeared to best address my existential concerns (e.g., freedom, being, nothingness, meaning), but at a concrete level. I was also interested in Eastern Philosophies such as Zen Buddhism. Experiential therapies in particular incorporated concepts of present-centeredness and moment-by-moment process.

In the counseling course, we practiced empathy skills with other students in a lab format. I noticed that I felt better when another person "empathized" with me. We were introduced to the ideas of Carl Rogers and Laura Rice. I was particularly impressed with Carl Rogers' view of the relationship. I admired his tenacious belief in the power of the core conditions to bring about human change. I was more than impressed by Laura Rice's careful and instructive articulation of how to unfold experience through the empathic listening process.

In my first year of therapy training during graduate school, I was eager to learn the Client-Centered approach. My mentor and supervisor, Les Greenberg, convinced me that acquiring basic empathic and relational skills would be the foundation of my developing therapeutic framework. Working first at the University Counseling Center, I would religiously listen to my clients and attempt to use accurate empathy to respond to their moment-by-moment experiences. When I felt myself wanting to more directive, I had an introject of Les Greenberg's introject of Laura Rice in my head to slap my wrist. I remember being surprised continuously for a whole year, when my clients told me they felt better after talking with me. By the end of the year, I had learned a fundamental lesson: If I simply reflected the leading edge of their experience, clients would eventually construct the meaning necessary to solve their own problems. This meant I could give up some control; in fact it was desirable to do so.

Research had not much appealed to me prior to graduate school, probably because I saw the options as either running rats in a laboratory, or crunching numbers gathered from piles of questionnaires. I was therefore thrilled to be exposed to psychotherapy process research. It fascinated me to think that we could actually observe and define what happened in therapy and how that promoted or inhibited change. Methods like Task Analysis and Interpersonal Process Recall that involved observing and categorizing the "raw data" of client and therapist experiencing was revelatory for me. Using task analysis, I went about deriving and creating a measure that described therapist micro-skills in Process-Experiential therapy. I discovered that I really loved making fine discriminations, such as between "empathic exploration" and "empathic conjecture." By the time I was ready to do my dissertation, I was convinced of the powerful effect of PE therapy.

I gained most of my experience and training in the PE model in the later years of graduate school. I conducted research articulating the PE model and I worked as a therapist on studies testing the effects of PE therapy on clinical populations. My dissertation research involved the measurement of client experiencing on thematic topics in relation to outcome. As in all psychotherapy research projects, this involved pouring over thousands of pages of transcripts. I believe that the careful reading and examination of transcripts greatly helped me to sharpen my PE skills.

In this period, I was taking part in therapy and training groups with Harvey Freedman, a seasoned and highly skilled Gestalt therapist in Toronto. Harvey had trained with Fritz Perls, founded the Gestalt Institute in Toronto, and run groups for over 30 years. He had truly mastered the art of staying in the moment as well as acceptance of self and others. I learned through dedicated observation, osmosis, and participation in the groups. It was here that I experientially learned invaluable therapy lessons that solidified my therapy belief system, such as that "to change yourself, be yourself" and "acceptance leads to change." After three years of my own therapeutic work combined with Gestalt training, I was thoroughly ensconced in the Gestalt model.

Gestalt training fit nicely with my developing PE approach to therapy. The integration of Gestalt methods into my existing framework meant a constant struggle with the issue of whether to be directive and if so, how. I saw Laura, Les, Jeanne and others in the field, and eventually myself, grapple with this issue. Working through this debate was not unlike being at home in my family, being pulled from one side to the other. At times I experienced a renewed commitment to the sole power of the relationship as the most curative aspect of therapy. Then I would watch Les or Harvey doing therapy and become impressed once again by the power and rapid effects of the Gestalt techniques. Over time, I resolved that I was not violating anyone's autonomy by suggesting a process-directive technique. I never suggested (and still don't) a focus on particular content; I carefully follow and track client's emergent experience. I sit back and simply help symbolize or affirm when new emotion emerges. There is a constant balancing act between leading and following, and yet I have come to feel quite comfortable in my role as process director, always respecting my clients' experience. The integration of maker-guided tasks into my therapeutic framework means responding to specific problems at specific times and facilitating certain types of emotional processing more readily. This feels like a powerful package to offer my clients. Through experience, I have come to see the applicability of the PE model for work with a variety of populations, including a prison population. I am interested in adapting the approach for work with other clinical populations.

©2004 Robert Elliott, Jeanne Watson, Rhonda Goldman, and Leslie Greenberg