Each of us has experienced moments where therapy got off track. Maybe your client went off on a tangent that nearly consumed an entire session. Maybe they folded their arms and talked very little. Or maybe they lashed out and threatened to leave therapy altogether. Whatever, the reason, couples therapist Susan Johnson has a remedy: follow the emotion in the room.

The originator of Emotionally Focused Therapy and author of Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, Johnson has spent over three decades investigating the mechanics of good communication in and outside of therapy. And paying attention to emotion, she’s discovered, is the common element in both. “Emotion focuses on what matters,” she says. “It steers us to what is worthwhile, it steers us away from danger. It’s a survival compass. It’s tells us what we need.”

In the following video clip from her 2013 Networker Symposium Keynote address, Johnson explains how therapists can use emotion to get therapy back on track. She shares why our clients, too, are experts at pinpointing emotion, and reveals why, above all, it’s the fabric of relationships everywhere.

Not only can focusing on emotion get sessions back on track and pinpoint underlying problems, but it can also help therapists be more aware of nonverbal signals they’re both sending and receiving. After all, she says, humans can read facial cues in milliseconds—something built into our DNA. Emotion is so important, Johnson adds, our ability to notice it directly informs how we work, play, and love.

“Emotions are coordinated signals,” Johnson says. “These are the music of the dance of relationship. They pull for responses that you cannot coach. They’re about being able to coordinate action so we can move together. As a group. As a tribe. As a couple. As a family.”

Susan Johnson

Dr. Sue Johnson was the primary developer of Emotionally Focused Couples and Family Therapy (EFT), which has demonstrated its effectiveness in more than 30 years of peer-reviewed clinical research. Her books include Attachment Theory in Practice: EFT with Individuals, Couples and Families (2019) The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy: Creating Connection (3rd edition, 2019) and Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy with Trauma Survivors (2002). Read our tribute to Sue and learn more about her legacy on her website.