Understanding the Other in the Psychotherapeutic Relationship

  • Kerry Thomas-Anttila Auckland University of Technology


Psychotherapy is often described as the art and science of endeavouring to understand the other. The difficulties inherent in understanding have contributed to psychotherapy being described as “the impossible profession” (Malcolm, 1980). In this article I explore the difficulties of understanding in the psychotherapy relationship, drawing on the hermeneutic phenomenological thinking of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty in particular, as well as the thinking of psychotherapy writers. I note the relationship between the spoken word and silence, whereby words emerge from silence and contemplation. Further, that understanding is enhanced by being willing to place oneself continually in the position of apprentice learner, by remaining open and able to tolerate uncertainty and not knowing and, to closely attend to one’s own and to the other’s emotional states as they manifest in the work. In describing a clinical case from my practice, I illustrate the complexity and difficulties of doing any or all of these.