Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling

A Phenomenological Inquiry of Clients' Experiences of Receiving a Humanistically Oriented Therapeutic Letter from Their Counselor between Counseling Sessions

Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling

A Phenomenological Inquiry of Clients' Experiences of Receiving a Humanistically Oriented Therapeutic Letter from Their Counselor between Counseling Sessions

Article excerpt

This qualitative study investigated the lived experiences of 6 female clients who received a humanistically oriented letter from their counselor between counseling appointments. Five core themes resulted concerning shared perspectives of the letter's impact on the recipients. A brief discussion, including limitations and recommendations, is provided.

Keywords: humanistic, relationship, counseling, letters, qualitative


The majority of research concerning therapeutic letter writing is primarily associated with the tradition of the postmodern, narrative counseling perspective (Bell, Moules, & Wright, 2009; Epston, 1994,2009; Kindsvatter, Nelson, & Desmond, 2009; Kress, Hoffman, & Thomas, 2008; Moules, 2000,2002; White & Epston, 1990). Letter writing is indicative of relational practice (Allan & Bertoia, 1992; Epston, 1994; Mearns & Cooper, 2005; Pyle, 2009; Rodgers, 2009), and humanism highlights the centrality of relationship as a mutative force in the client's experience of growth in the counseling experience. I did not discover any scholarly research that pointed to clients' phenomenological experiences of receiving humanistic letters from their counselors. Therefore, I attempted to illuminate this gap in the present study.


The research question that frames this study is, "What is the impact on clients receiving a letter in counseling that is written from a humanistic orientation?" In asking this question, I assumed that receiving a letter affects the reader. To investigate this phenomenon, it may be helpful to discuss the influence or impact of letters on their recipients.

Letter Writing and Relational Implications

Letter writing has been a historically well-documented means of communication between corresponding parties in relationships (Baker, 1909; Barton & Hall, 2000; Bland & Cross, 2004; Decker, 1998; United States Postal Service, 1982). Letters have provided a relational bridge between the writer and reader(s). Letter writing takes many different forms depending on the purposes for the writing and the personality of the writer, including the more traditionally employed handwritten notes or memos, often sent by mailing services between two or more persons; telecommunications (e-mails, text messages, etc.); and typed documents that are mailed in the form of letters (Decker, 1998; Shepherd, 2002). For this study, letters were viewed as handwritten or typed documents completed by the counselor that were then mailed to the client between counseling meetings.

Letter Writing in a Therapeutic Context

The first published documentations of therapists using written letters in counseling relationships were by Authur Burton (1965) and Albert Ellis (1965). Because of an extended bout with laryngitis, Ellis was compelled to write back and forth to clients during counseling sessions. Burton suggested that the use of therapeutic letters in counseling relationships contributed to therapeutic change in client experiences. There is also evidence that letter writing was a common practice that Jungian clinicians used with their clients (Allan & Bertoia, 1992). Wagner, Weeks, and L'Abate (1980) used letter writing in therapeutic settings with couples, initially as homework assignments for the couples to write to one another. The Milan family therapy team (Palazzoli, Boscolo, Cecchin, & Prata, 1978) published their work on therapeutic letter writing with families, which they found to be an effective intervention for supporting clients in moving toward therapeutic change.

Irvin Yalom (see Yalom & Elkin, 1974) undertook an "accidental" project with a client, Ginny, in the early 1970s, when he initially asked Ginny to write about her experiences of the therapeutic hour after each session. Gradually, this homework assignment evolved into a spontaneous process whereby Yalom and Ginny wrote letters about their experiences of the therapy hour and would exchange these letters in the form of correspondence between counseling sessions. …

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