Experiential therapies emphasize the use of techniques helping clients contact and observe their own experiences over the use rules, didactics, and psycho-education. In other words, instead of telling clients what to do (even if it is good advice) experiential therapists prefer shaping the overarching skill of observing and drawing useful conclusions. This way, clients become more autonomous and flexible in dealing with psychological issues. Not giving clients rules doesn’t mean not talking, though. Here are 3 ways of making your clinical conversation more experiential.
1: Evoke observation by asking questions
The simplest way of improving your experiential style is to ask more and tell less. Focus in particular on questions that orient clients to relevant “contingencies”, that is, sequences of antecedent-action-consequence. Use conditional framing (i.e. if-then) to draw clients’ attention to causal relationships and temporal framing (i.e. when) to help them notice correlations. For example, you may ask, “What happens as a result of withdrawing?” “What do you do when you feel anxious?” “And what happens next?” Linger on experiences (e.g. a sensation, a feeling) that require special attention by asking more questions that evoke the description of these experiences (e.g. “What does it feel like?”).
2: Ground the conversation in the present moment
It is generally easier to observe things happening in the moment than to remember or imagine them. However, a lot of events relevant to clients’ issues happen outside the therapy room, and we often need to explore them through conversations rather than direct observation. In order to make this exploration as experiential as possible, you can ground your exchanges in the present by shifting perspective and using the present tense. For example, you might say, “Take us back to that moment when you had that intense feeling, as if it was happening now. Who is here with you? What can you see? What thoughts are you having right now? And now, what are doing?”
3: Use experiential rules
Using rules can actually help develop experiential skills if they teach the overarching skill of observing contingencies and drawing useful conclusions. For example, you can introduce an experiential exercise by saying, “Let’s do an exercise that will help you observe what works for you” or “the goal of this exercise is to help you become a greater observer of your own experience and find out what actions are most useful”. Even if you use psycho-education, encourage clients to compare what they have learned from the didactics to what they observe in their own experience (e.g. “Did you observe something similar to what the book is saying? Can you tell me more?”). Be open to clients’ observations that contradict your expertise, and focus on the process of finding together what works for each particular situation.
To learn more about experiential work in clinical practice, checkout:
Plumb, J., Villatte, M., Hayes, S. C. (2014). Understanding and Taking Advantage of Experiential Work in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. In Nathan C. Thoma and Dean McKay (Eds.), Working with Emotion in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy: Techniques for Clinical Practice. New York: The Guilford Press.
Villatte, M., Villatte, J. L, & Monestes, J. L. (2014). Bypassing the traps of language with relational frame theory. In N. Afari & Jill Stoddard (Eds), The big book of ACT metaphors: The Complete Guide to ACT Metaphors and Experiential Exercises. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.