Training Narrative: Les Greenberg

My interest in humanistic approaches began as an undergraduate engineering student where I read existential writers such as Sartre, Camus and some phenomenologists. When I changed into Psychology after completing a Master's degree in systems engineering I was searching for a way to understand much more complex systems -- myself and other people. Emotional experience and its regulation seemed to me to be the most salient prime movers of humans along with a need to belong and curiosity.

As a student I began my training in Client Centered Therapy with Laura Rice. I also took part in a number of encounter groups at the York University Counselling and Development Centre, and there I learned a lot about people, myself, and emotional experience. But much of this learning was implicit. I also discovered early on that, although I didn't know much about academic psychology, I was a talented therapist. The Client-Centered conditions of empathy, respect and genuineness seemed to come rather naturally to me, and I was thrilled to have found my own path as a humanistic therapist. This was a far cry from mechanical engineering. I studied Rogers, Gendlin and Rice and was then introduced to Perls; I read them all with Talmudic zeal. It was like a religion to me. Having steeped myself deeply in client-centered therapy I became a real purist. I learned that the relationship itself was necessary and sufficient. I believed that most people's views of themselves were formed in human relationships and that they could be changed in a relationship. Acceptance, both intrapsychically and interpersonally, seemed to me to be key in helping overcome anxiety, produced by conditions of worth. Within this framework of beliefs, and with Laura Rice as my mentor, I began a rigorous course of learning how to listen, with exquisite differentiation, to the nuances of people's meanings and their manner of expressing. Practicing in this way was an incredibly fertile learning ground. Rather than intervening in a directive way, or attempting to diagnose, interpret or modify, what I learned to do was to listen and to check my understanding with my client.

I then ventured into a number of Gestalt therapy experiences and finally in 1973 into a three-year Gestalt training at the Gestalt Institute of Toronto with Harvey Freedman. Here I saw a therapy that was effective in evoking experiencing, and this was compatible with part of what I was working on learning to do with Laura Rice's evocative responding. During my training I also did a lot of personal work and became more aware of my own process.

Important in the development of Process-Experiential therapy was our process research. As Laura's student I kept trying to learn what Laura seemed to know. I had a strong mathematical background and Laura steered me towards doing probabilistic analyses of moment by moment interactions to try to show that particular therapist responses and vocal qualities would increase the probabilities of particular client responses and vocal qualities. After immersing myself in this for two years I was convinced that this mathematical modelling would not capture what was truly happening, and Laura and I began to try to develop an alternative method for studying change processes. I became a student of Juan Pascual-Leone, who, as well as introducing me to Piagetian constructivist views of human functioning, exposed me to his own formalization of task analysis -- a method for studying people engaged in complex problem solving performances.

In 1973 Laura and I began to devise ways of applying task analysis to studying therapy. As Laura's student I had learned to be evocative, but it seemed to me that the key was sensing when she did this, rather than what she did. Thus, I kept asking her to teach me how she knew when to do what she did. It was this process that slowly led us to the idea of defining problem markers. Problematic reaction points, moments when clients puzzle about their reaction to a concrete situation, were identified through a process of Laura explicating her cognitive map of when she did what she did. I then applied this type of thinking to asking when Gestalt therapists engage people in two chair dialogues. I first defined the marker as a confluence marker, an indicator of when two parts flowed together. After sorting through a lot of confusion I came up with the notion of the split marker; when two parts of the self are in conflict. This marker was not at all as self-evident as it may appear, as Gestalt therapists used chair dialogues in many different ways.

By this time I was engaged fully in my Gestalt training and learned more about awareness and the experimental method of "try this" followed by "what do you experience." I also continued to work on trying to understand emotion. I read William James' view of emotion, and was influenced by his writing and that of Pascual-Leone, as well as by my Gestalt training in awareness and the figure-background formation process. Thus, I came to see attention as a crucial component of emotion and meaning construction. I wrote Emotion in Psychotherapy (1987) with my former student Jeremy Safran in an effort to clarify how emotion works in psychotherapy.

The Gestalt approach, as I saw, taught and practiced it, seemed somewhat insensitive to relational processes and did not use empathic responding; this troubled me. And so began my fifteen-year odyssey to integrate Gestalt active methods and Client-Centered relational conditions. I had a strong client centered "top dog" that would often scold me for being too directive or not sufficiently empathic. I think it was only in 1980 when I trained in systemic and structural approaches to family therapy, where being directive was essential, that I became comfortable being more varied in my style in individual therapy. I ventured into couples and family therapy for a seven- year period and then with my former student Sue Johnson I wrote my first treatment manual for Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. Work with another of my students, Adam Horvath, on the working alliance also helped me to see the importance of the alliance and the role of perceived task relevance in therapy. I thus began to develop a more flexible approach in which leading and following, responding and guiding, did not seem like opposing tendencies, but rather could be blended. I had formed a higher-level Gestalt, and I think this was important in being able to articulate PE principles of treatment. This occurred with the help of Robert Elliott, who introduced the ideas of relationship and work as two major dimensions that governed many types of social interaction. This idea helped frame empathy and the use of tasks in a broader and clarifying theoretical framework. With this framework, my conflict between the virtues of leading and following disappeared into a new synthesis of treatment based on marker-guided process directives, in which the therapist listens for opportunities for intervention and then intervenes differentially to facilitate certain types of processing.

Currently I am pursuing the development and study of general principles of an overarching emotion-focused approach to treatment of which PE is an example within the humanistic tradition. With my emphasis on emotion I still find the human encounter in therapy to be the most central component of the helping process and the most deeply gratifying.


      Greenberg, L. S., & Safran, J. D. (1987). Emotion in psychotherapy. New York: Guilford Press.

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