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Caroline McDougall, Academic Reflections

Why Experiential Therapy?

Experiential Therapy versus Strategic Therapy

This paper offers a comparison between strategic family therapy and experiential family therapy. It will outline the theory behind the approaches and address their adaptability to a broad range of clients.

Strategic family therapy focuses exclusively on the interactions within the family, to the exclusion of the larger structures outside the family, such as schools, work and the community. It is a change oriented, brief form of therapy, which views families in nonpathological terms (Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2004, p241).

In both strategic and experiential therapy, the focus is on the present, rather than uncovering the past, and intervention is uniquely fitted to the clients by a personally involved therapist. Neither approach is concerned with why family breakdown has occurred.

Strategic therapists assert that damaged or poorly developed, repetitive patterns of interaction cause dysfunctional relationships. Symptoms are defined as interpersonal events, tactics used by one person to deal with another (Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2004, p257). Problems are not entities that exist within a single individual; rather, they result from interactions between individuals (Quick, 1993, p3). Strategies therefore target what is presently occurring in the sequence and hierarchy of interchange between individuals, and are tailored to alter the repetitive sequences causing the presenting problem (Brown and Christensen, 1999, p90).

Experiential therapists view dysfunction as the result of disorganized boundaries, destructive coalitions, role rigidity, separation between generations, a breakdown in negotiation between members to resolve conflict, and loss of intimacy, trust or attachment as needs remain unsatisfied. Dysfunctional behaviour is a failure in the growth process, and a deficiency in actualizing capabilities and possibilities (Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2004, p154). Symptoms develop when dysfunctional structures and processes continue and interfere with the ability to perform life tasks (Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2004, p159).

The strategic emphasis is on measurable, reachable goals, for which the therapist has the final responsibility for choosing. This approach is not concerned with working the emotional issues underlying family dysfunction. Furthermore, it does not teach problem-solving skills, identify other problem areas, or provide insight as to why the conflict first occurred (Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2004, p241).

Strategies for change aim to shift family organization so that the presenting problem no longer serves its previous function (Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2004, p254). The therapist maintains control throughout this process to redistribute power and responsibilities through the use of tasks or directives. These can either be explicit (for example, telling a family member what to do) or implicit (for example, verbal intonation or silence) (Brown and Christensen, 1999, p90). The therapist is an authoritarian figure that selects and constructs directives to teach members to behave differently, and to disrupt the entrenched interactions perpetuating the problem. Therapy incorporates clearly set problem solving goals (Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2004, p253). These include advice, suggestions, coaching, and homework (Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2004, p260).

If the family is not resistant to change, positive cooperative, straightforward tasks are selected to assist organization, and establish boundaries, rules and goals. However, such directives are considered unsuccessful for clients resistant to change. Therefore indirect, seemingly illogical directives are utilized to influence clients to take action without directly asking them to (Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2004, p260). For example, the therapist may incorporate the use of the therapeutic double-bind, which includes a variety of paradoxical techniques used to change entrenched family patterns, by altering the structure of family relationships and interactions (Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2004, p246).

One such paradoxical directive is ‘prescribing the symptom’, whereby the therapist directive is to change by remaining the same. In this strategy, the client or family is urged to continue or exaggerate the behaviour or symptom. The directive ‘not to change’ is easy to follow therefore the family that is resistant to change complies in order to maintain a familiar type of family balance (Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2004, pp247-248). The family is eventually forced to abandon the dysfunctional behaviour by means of defying the directive not to change (Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2004, p266). For example, a familiar interactive pattern such as fighting, which is brought under voluntary control, no longer provides balance, so the family must seek new ways of interacting.

Experiential therapy, on the other hand, emphasizes an egalitarian therapeutic interrelationship, as well as humanistic goals such as choice, free will, and the human capacity for self-determination and self-fulfillment (Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2004, p154). This emphasis contradicts the use of the therapeutic double-bind favored by strategic therapists to manipulate clients into altering entrenched patterns of behaviour.

Strategic therapists also use ordeal therapy, assuming that if it is more distressful to maintain a symptom than give it up, the client will abandon the symptom. In this practice, the therapist instructs the client to carry out an unpleasant task whenever the symptom appears. The consequences therefore present greater suffering than the distress caused by the original symptom (Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2004, p262).

Experiential therapy however is opposed to such manipulative strategies which reinforce the distress of the client, and compromise self-determination. The client's goals and growth take precedence over achieving stability or specific planned solutions or outcomes predetermined by the therapist (Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2004, p154). These goals focus on accessing feelings, learning spontaneity and creativity, expanding experiences, recognizing and expressing emotions, building self-worth and opening up possibilities for choice. Change in family relationships occur therefore through growth, and discovering one's own potential through finding solutions to current problems.

Strategic therapy also incorporates the use of hypnosis. This strategy is used for issuing directives and removal of symptoms, thus inducing change by avoiding direct confrontation with the symptom. There is no loss of control to the therapist, which would cause resistance to change. The emphasis on the use of these various techniques often overshadows the power of the therapeutic relationship, which tends to determine the change required (Griffin, 1993, p57). The use of hypnosis as a manipulative tool used by the strategic therapist is also in direct contrast to the partnership oriented therapist/client relationship favored by experiential therapists.

The focus of both forms of therapy is on what occurs during the session. However, the experiential approach is concerned with all members, including the therapist, engaging in encounters free from social restraints, to experience feelings and expose vulnerabilities. Its goals are not as overt compared to other forms of family therapy, such as the strategic approach (Brown and Christensen, 1999, p142). The aim is to shake up old ways of feeling and provide an unsettling experience to reactivate the innate process of growth (Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2004, p159). Through this process, experiential therapy aims to expand client’s experiences and family cohesiveness.

According to Brown and Christensen (1999, p106), investigations of strategic therapy have demonstrated more scientific rigour than other approaches. It applies tighter research designs. They do assert however, that its effectiveness varies according to the control group, and tentatively suggest that its effectiveness for family problems is limited. They also assert that strategic therapists, due to its scientific approach, may be distant, impersonal, and ineffective in establishing trust and rapport (1999, p107). Furthermore, they propose that this approach is more effective when used in conjunction with other therapies, such as structural therapy (1999, p110).

Experiential therapy however, due in part to its philosophical approach, lacks scientific studies for outcome evaluation as evidence of effectiveness of treatment. Brown and Christensen (1999, p152) suggest that this approach must find qualitative methods for assessing the success of its use in family therapy. This unscientific approach is compounded by the strategies it uses. For example, experiential therapists avoid pre-planned therapeutic techniques, and instead incorporate spontaneous creativity into their therapeutic interactions with clients.

The experiential use of theory is therefore limited to the idea that it is possible to help families change by the therapist becoming involved in an intense interaction with them (Barker, 1992, p61). Experiential therapists are therefore active, outspoken, take risks, and make provocative comments to alter entrenched family patterns, evoke clients’ feelings and enlarge possibilities so that clients can realize their potential. They insist on self-disclosure and that everyone, including the therapist, is intensely aware of what they are doing, saying or feeling (Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2004, p165). They are also spontaneous, challenging, idiosyncratic, and use a variety of procedures to encourage sensitivity to ongoing life experiences, self-awareness, self-responsibility and personal growth. This further outlines the distinct difference between the scientific, distant strategic therapists and the more egalitarian experiential therapists, who confront their personal vulnerability, and are committed to their own growth in order to catalyze growth in others.

Furthermore, experiential therapists control the whole structure without compromising their personal needs, beliefs or standards. They help the family towards growth and improvement of communication by changing the repetitive sequences that cause incongruent communication styles. They start off in a directive role, moving to the role of facilitator and resource person as the family takes initiative for change. They may use images, fantasies and personal metaphors from to assist this process (Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2004, p154-156).

Unlike strategic therapy, experiential therapy favours the use of cotherapists, in part to provide a model for productive, spontaneous and desirable interpersonal behaviour for the entire family (Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2004, p157). For example, the cotherapists may disagree in front of family, but in a constructive manner. The can have fun together, disagree, tangent, and role-play, for example one acting crazy and the other stable (Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2004, p163). This is a contrived aspect of experiential therapy, but cannot be considered manipulative as are the strategies used in the strategic approach.

Despite the experiential emphasis on the present, symbolic-experiential therapists are concerned with the unconscious flow of impulses, the evolving symbols and the emotional infrastructures which ensure the flow of our impulse life (Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2004, p158). Gestalt therapy favours the use of psychotherapy, as an aid to clients examining and taking responsibility for their lives. Strategic therapists however have no interest in this psychodynamic influence.

Experiential therapists expand the symbolic inner worlds of their clients by the use of self. Once again, this strategy is not used in the strategic approach (Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2004, p159). They study the underlying impulses and symbols in themselves, probe beneath their client’s surface words, and seek important symbolic meanings between clients and themselves. As they voice their own impulses, they help family members to recognize and express theirs. As growth and autonomy develops in family members, so does a sense of security and belonging, which assists family integration.

The relevance of these two approaches is based on whether their use for intervention presents ethical implications. The writer asserts that strategic therapy is not helpful as it does not promote personal growth, self-fulfillment, self-determination, or the use of empathy in the client/therapist relationship. Although strategic therapists generally avoid forming coalitions, they may develop one temporarily to overcome impasses. This further demonstrates the manipulative nature of this approach. Furthermore, the paradoxical directives are simplistic, transparent and highly manipulative forms of gamemanship, which clients see through and reject (Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2004, p264). Even the technique of relabeling previously defined dysfunctional behaviour as reasonable and understandable is manipulative.

In conclusion, the strategic approach is highly directive and authoritarian, in that the therapist assigns tasks, precise instructions and directives that must be followed, with no exploration of their roots or buried meanings. The use of contrived strategies such as the therapeutic double-bind is highly manipulative and therapist-focused. This outmoded model contradicts the current trend of therapy favoured by social work, involving a collaborative partnership based on mutual trust and respect.

Experiential therapy, on the other hand, encourages open self-expression and negotiation to develop personal growth and healthy family functioning. It does not attempt to manipulate clients, and is based on the belief that individual growth will reduce the need for symptoms (Brown and Christensen, 1999, pp 140-141). There is a clearly defined focus on self-determination, respect for the dignity and worth of each individual, and collaboration, thus creating a pathway of self-actualization. Furthermore, opportunities to achieve one’s potential are encouraged through the empathic approach of the therapist, and the use of self as a model for improving communication (Brown and Christensen, 1999, p147).


Barker, P. (1992), Basic Family Therapy (Third Edition), Blackwell Science Ltd, London Brown, J.H. and Christensen, D.N. (1999), Family Therapy, Theory and Practice (2nd Edition), Brooks/Cole Publishing, Pacific Grove, CA Goldenberg, I. and Goldenberg, H. (2004), Family Therapy - An Overview (Sixth Edition). Brooks/Cole - Thomson Learning, Pacific Grove, CA Griffin, W.A. (1993), Family Therapy - Fundamentals of Theory and Practice, Brunner/Mazel Publishers, New York Quick, E. K. (1993), Doing What Works in Brief Therapy, Academic Press, CA

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