What is EFT Therapy? Sue Johnson’s vs Leslie Greenberg’s approach

Explore the history of EFT and the diverging paths the co-creators took.
Written by Ella T

Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) is the original therapeutic approach with emotions central to the technique, initially designed for couples. Leslie Greenberg and Sue Johnson, the co-creators of EFT, have since expanded the model in different directions. Both currently teach EFT worldwide using their respective versions.

Emotionally or Emotion-Focused Therapy?

Emotion-focused therapy” is the term used by Greenberg whereas “Emotionally focused therapy” is Johnson’s model. Though they sound very similar, they have distinct meanings and practices, but before we delve into their differences, we’ll take a look at how EFT came about.

The History of EFT couples therapy

Emotionally Focused Therapy was first formulated in the mid-1980s by Greenberg and Johnson to provide a standardised approach for couples therapy, something that was lacking in the therapeutic world. To determine which elements lead to behavioural change, Greenberg and Johnson started by reviewing recordings of couples therapy sessions. The outcome was a humanistic and experiential-based form of therapy, drawing on Attachment Theory (John Bowlby), Structural Theories (Salvador Minuchin) and Experiential Theory (Carl Rogers). In this approach, the problem is viewed as belonging not to one partner, but rather to “the cyclical reinforcing pattern of interaction between partners” (Brubacher, 2017). The first manual for EFT couples therapy was published in 1988 (Greenberg & Johnson).

Dr. Sue Johnson

While reviewing the videos, Johnson discovered that the primary themes in couples’ distress were attachment themes of ‘fear of loss’ and ‘disconnection’. Attachment theory became central to her expansion of the original EFT model, the focus being on working with the questions that are fundamental to relationships, as stated on Johnson’s website: “Can I count on you? Are you there for me? Will you respond to me when I need, when I call? Do I matter to you? Am I valued and accepted by you? Do you need me, rely on me?”

What is Emotionally Focused Therapy by Sue Johnson?

Emotionally focused therapy was further developed by Sue Johnson as a specific model of relationship therapy that places prominence upon attachment theory as a theory of emotion regulation. Core to this method are an integrated systems and experiential approach. The model retains the original EFT 3 stages, 9 steps and 2 sets of interventions to access and reprocess emotion.

Most well-known for its publications and empirical research on couples, this model can also be used in individual and family therapy settings. Its reach is expanding to disorders such as PTSD and depressions which have traditionally been seen as individual disorders. Currently, emotionally focused therapy is being used effectively to treat couples where one partner is suffering from such disorders. Sue Johnson says that based on the fundamental theory that we’re designed, as mammals, to thrive in secure-bonding environments, EFT presents a process to reshape attachment strategies towards optimal interdependency and emotion regulation, which ultimately positively impacts both the relationship and the individual.


As for the other creator, he began to take a different approach…


Dr. Leslie Greenberg

In 1986, Greenberg chose to refocus his efforts on developing and studying an experiential approach to individual therapy with some other colleagues (Goldman, Elliott, Rice et al). His attention shifted to the emotional experience and its role in individual self-organisation, changing the name to ‘emotion-focused therapy’ or ‘process-experiential therapy’; the names are used synonymously. His intention when using ‘emotion-focused’ was to create an umbrella term for many different therapies, where emotion focus is a common factor, categorising, as Greenberg states, “all therapies that are emotion-focused, be they psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioural, systemic, or humanistic”.

What is Emotion-Focused Therapy/Experiential Therapy by Les Greenberg?

In contrast to the original EFT approach, Greenberg’s research focus shifted to individual psychotherapy. This approach is most-well known for its intrapsychic humanistic-experiential approach and largely differs from Johnson’s model in that attachment theory is presented as only one of three motivational systems, the other two being identity or power, and attraction.

Process-experiential therapy is effective for treating anxiety/trauma-related problems and depression in the individual with a primary focus on the dynamics of emotion. It is also empirically validated in its effectiveness for treating complex trauma, childhood abuse and maltreatment, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, interpersonal problems and couple distress. More recently, this method is being increasingly implemented outside of individual therapy settings: a coaching form of the method is used with families and a 5-stage, 14-step model is used for couples, targeting individual self-regulation before partner co-regulation.

Emotion-Focused Therapy Training

The therapeutic style of Greenberg’s EFT combines both a following and leading/guiding of the client’s experiential process with tools called Enactment Tasks. This process first identifies a ‘marker’, followed by use of an ‘intervention’ to ultimately achieve the ‘end-state’. For instance:

  • self-interruption (blocked feelings) is the ‘marker’ identified;
  • followed by the ‘intervention’ of a two-chair enactment which leads to;
  • the ‘end-state’ of self-expression and thus empowerment.

This process eliminates the layers of obfuscation or discomfort that so commonly get in the way of honest assessment and self-realisation. Importance is placed on having an empathically attuned therapist who assists and advances their client to better identify, experience, explore, make sense of, transform and more flexibly manage their emotions, with the end goal of fostering healthy forms of dependency and emotional connection.

Emotion-Focused Therapy Live Training in June 2024

Become the empathically attuned therapist today with co-creator of EFT, Leslie Greenberg at his live training session in June 2024. Tickets are now discounted and there are limited in-person tickets, so be sure to book now to avoid missing this once-in-a-lifetime event! Take me to the live webinar

Emotion-Focused Therapy On-Demand Training

Gain instant access to all of our online training in EFT:

Emotional Healing: Unlock the Power of Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT): CollectionMP0025 of Three Transformative Courses | 9 CPD/CE

‘The course offers practical interventions for clinicians to help clients heal emotional wounds. It focuses on using empty chair dialogues to address emotions connected to the injury. Benefits include…’ read more

Resolving Emotional Injuries and Undoing Emotion Blocks | 3 CPD/CEMP0008

‘Using empty chair dialogues, you will learn how to address the clients’ emotions connected to their injury/trauma. Gain a deeper understanding of emotional injuries by differentiating between forgiveness and letting go…’ read more

Unblocking Blocked Emotions & Working with Shame and Anger in Therapy | 3 CPD/CEMP0076

‘To heal troubled souls and minds, clients need to experience the emotions that go with their stories. Shame and anger both appear to play a crucial role in therapeutic change. How to work with them in psychotherapy often presents challenges to therapists and clients alike…’ read more

The Transforming Power of Emotion: An Emotion Focused Approach | 3 CPD/CEMP0029

‘This workshop will discuss the role of emotion and emotional awareness in function and dysfunction and methods of intervention to work with emotion in therapy. You will be introduced to the skills of moment by moment attunement to affect, and the use of two chair dialogue for working on self-criticism…’ read more


View all of Leslie Greenberg’s on-demand courses here.



Brubacher, L. (2017). Distinguishing emotionally focused therapy from emotion-focused therapy. Unpublished manuscript]. https://www. lbrubacher. com/wp/wpcontent/uploads/Distinguishing-Emotionally-Focused-from-Emotion-focused. pdf.

Coan, J.A., & Maresh, E.L. (2014). Social baseline theory and the social regulation of emotion. In: J.J. Gross. (Ed.), Handbook of emotion regulation (2ndedn) (pp.221-236). New York: Guilford.

Greenberg, L. S. (2011a). Emotion-focused therapy. Theories of psychotherapy series. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Greenberg, L. S. (2011b). The heart of the matter: New Therapist interviews Les Greenberg about emotion-focused therapy (EFT). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpbmxHBWJqM



Written by Ella T
January 18, 2024
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