The Power of Listening

By Ann Weiser Cornell, PhD

A paper presented to the 13th International Focusing Conference
Shannon, Ireland
May, 2001

We discuss the purposes of listening, and compare Rogers’ stated purpose for “reflection of feelings” with Gendlin’s purpose for reflection within a session that includes Focusing. Three purposes for listening are given, corresponding to three ways that listening facilitates Focusing process. Listening is then defined as making a statement that says back what the other person (focuser, client, partner) just said, exactly or in paraphrase, with no intention of changing or adding anything essential or of making any change in the other person’s experience. Listening, as defined here, is not asking questions or making suggestions. We note that the linguistic form of listening responses changes as the purpose changes. We explore some linguistic forms that help listening do its work and accomplish its three purposes. We conclude that when listening is used with sensitivity and skill, little or no guiding is needed, especially between Focusing partners.

The Purpose of Listening

Why would we say back what someone else is saying? In ordinary life, repeating another person’s words is just as likely to get you an angry look as a grateful one. Yet in the special world of Focusing therapy and counseling, and the even more circumscribed world of Focusing partnership, repeating back is the key, the essence, the sine qua non. Why?

Carl Rogers was not the first to repeat back a client’s words, but he is the one who made it a well-known technique, taught in counseling courses and practiced worldwide. During his lifetime, the technique called “reflection of feelings” became so widely used, and in many cases so misunderstood, that a backlash was created, detractors mocking the therapist who merely repeats a client’s words. Responding to this backlash, Rogers (who wrote in 1980 that the word “reflect” had come to make him cringe) clarified the purposes for repeating someone’s words:

I have come to a double insight. From my point of view as therapist, I am not trying to “reflect feelings.” I am trying to determine whether my understanding of the client’s inner world is correct — whether I am seeing it as he or she is experiencing it at this moment. Each response of mine contains the unspoken question, “Is this the way it is in you? Am I catching just the color and texture and flavor of the personal meaning you are experiencing right now? If not, I wish to bring my perception in line with yours.”

On the other hand, I know that from the client’s point of view we are holding up a mirror of his or her current experiencing. The feelings and personal meanings seem sharper when seen through the eyes of another, when they are reflected. (1986b)

So Rogers saw the therapist’s purpose for listening as checking with the client to make sure the therapist’s understanding fit or matched the client’s “inner world.” At the same time, he saw that the client was receiving something more from having their “feelings and personal meanings” reflected, something more than could be predicted from the simple activity of checking understanding.

Eugene Gendlin, once Rogers’ student, became interested in what he called “the client’s side of the therapeutic process.” (1984) He became interested in why some clients were vastly more helped by therapy than others. An important part of this question was why some clients were more able to get positive benefit from the therapist’s reflection of their “feelings and personal meanings.”

What do we assume the client will do with a listening response?

We hope and assume that clients will check the response, not against what they said or thought, but against some inner being, place, datum… “the felt sense”; we have no ordinary word for that.

An effect might then be felt, an inward loosening, a resonance.What seemed to be there was expressed and heard. It need not be said again. For some moments there is an easing inside. (In theoretical terms the interpersonal response has carried that forward.) Soon something further comes. What was there turns out to have more to it.

We hope that clients will check not only what we say, but also what they say, against that inward one. (1984, p. 82)

Gendlin called that which the client needs to check with the “felt sense.” He was the first to identify and name this essential move: that the client checks what comes with something inside, directly felt. His research showed that this checking made the difference between success and failure in therapy. (That Rogers was impacted by Gendlin is shown by the fact that, writing about empathy in 1980, he cites Gendlin’s work as a key reason that empathy is effective.)

Gendlin shifted the therapist’s purpose for listening. For Rogers, the purpose was for the therapist to check his or her understanding. For Gendlin, the purpose of listening is to support the client in checking within, checking with that inner “something.” The words Rogers used, to express the therapist’s attitude toward the client, now fit the client’s attitude in offering words and images back to the “felt sense.”

“Is this the way it is in you? Am I catching just the color and texture and flavor of the personal meaning you are experiencing right now? If not, I wish to bring my perception in line with yours.”

There is no disagreement over this key insight: Attitude is far more important than technique. Rogers was appalled when his non-directive approach was reduced to a technique of reflection of feelings, and fought back by putting forth empathy as an attitude or “way of being” rather than as anything one “does.” Edwin McMahon and Peter Campbell, beloved and influential Focusing teachers who emphasize the caring and gentle aspect of Focusing, have this to say:

Remember, the greatest gift we give to someone whom we accompany in Focusing is a caring presence that is non-manipulative. Technique can be very helpful, but in the long run is of little consequence if this presence is missing (1991, p. 21-22).

There is no question that listening (reflection) should not be done as a technique, but as an expression of an attitude of presence with and for the client. Having said that, however, we can acknowledge that listening is an unequalled way to express the attitude of non-judgmental presence.

A safe and steady human presence willing to be with whatever comes up is a most powerful factor. If we do not try to improve or change anything, if we add nothing, if however bad something is we only say what we understand exactly, such a response adds our presence and helps clients to stay with and go further into whatever they sense and feel just then. This is perhaps the most important thing that any person helping others needs to know. (Gendlin, 1996, p. 11)

Expressing one’s non-judgmental presence is the second purpose of listening.

The Inner Relationship
My own work, building on Gendlin’s, has added one more purpose for listening. In addition to supporting the client in checking inside, and expressing one’s own non-judgmental presence, the third purpose for listening is to support the client in facilitating and maintaining a positive inner relationship with “something” that is there for them.

Although Gendlin doesn’t mention how reflecting can support this inner relationship, he has eloquently described the relationship itself:

The client and I, we are going to keep it, in there, company. As you would keep a scared child company. You would not push on it, or argue with it, or pick it up, because it is too sore, too scared or tense. You would just sit there, quietly. … What that edge needs to produce the steps is only some kind of unintrusive contact or company. If you will go there with your awareness and stay there or return there, that is all it needs; it will do all the rest for you. (1990, p. 216)

This “unintrusive contact” that Gendlin describes is not even a checking; it is simpler than that. It is much more a “being” than a “doing.” Even something inside that is “too sore, too scared or tense” to be checked with can still be kept company. And this is not only, and not primarily, the therapist’s company. It is the client’s “I” keeping company with the client’s “it.” (Gendlin, 1990, p. 222: “Focusing is this very deliberate thing where an ‘I’ is attending to an ‘it’.”)

We have spoken of the therapist’s presence. The ability of the client to be with what is there, not merged with their experience but Present for it, can be called the client’s Presence. (To distinguish the two, I will capitalize the word “Presence” when referring to the client’s inner Presence with what is there for them. Barbara McGavin taught me to use the word Presence in this way, and showed me much about this beautiful concept. Much of my work with the Inner Relationship is also hers.)

Supporting this keeping company from Presence is the third purpose of listening.

The Purposes of Listening: Recapitulation
We can say that there are three ways that listening facilitates the Focusing process for the client. These correspond to three purposes for giving listening reflections.

(1) We listen to support the client in checking what comes with something inside, directly felt.
(2) We listen to offer our non-judgmental presence for the client’s process.
(3) We listen to support the client in “keeping company” from Presence with something inside.

Definition: What is Listening?
The word “listening” has many meanings and many uses. In this paper, it is being used in its technical and specific meaning of making a statement that says back what the other person (focuser, client, partner) just said, exactly or in paraphrase, with no intention of changing or adding anything essential or of making any change in the other person’s experience.

The listener says something back to the focuser (client) that has the purpose of “saying what they just said.” It is in the form of a statement. Although it is usually not solely the exact words they said, even when the words are different, they are not different in essence. Nothing from the listener is being added, no opinions are being given, no change is being intended.

I would like to make the case that the process of listening does not include asking questions, not even by tone of voice. I am aware that not all Focusing teachers would agree with me on this, and I respect their opinion and their work. However, this has been my experience: that when the listening response includes a questioning tone, the focuser tends to be drawn out of direct contact with their process, towards contact with the listener. The classic instance is where the focuser has closed eyes until the listener’s question, and upon hearing the question, the focuser opens their eyes and looks at the listener. Of course if the focuser wants to open their eyes and look at the listener, there’s nothing wrong with that! But it’s unfortunate if the focuser is drawn out of an inner contact which is otherwise going well, because the listener framed their reflection as a question. This goes against one of our main purposes for listening: that it facilitates the focuser in staying in relationship with something inside.

Furthermore, the nature of questions is such that, unless they are carefully framed, they can sound as if what is being questioned is not whether the word fits, but whether the focuser is right to feel or think the way they do. A striking example is this one from Kevin Flanagan’s Everyday Genius:

Paula: No, I can’t take it … I just seem to fold inside … I don’t have the stomach for it anymore. Maybe I’m a coward.
Listener: A coward? (p. 153)

The Linguistics of Listening
When the purpose for listening evolved, so did the form. When the primary purpose of listening is to check the therapist’s understanding of the client, as it was for Rogers, then sensitive paraphrases are better than word-for-word reflections.

Jan: And yet people say to me, “Jan, you’re in your prime. You’ve got everything going for you!” And little do they know inside what I feel.
Carl: That’s right. So that outside and to an observer, you are in your prime and you have everything going for you. But that’s not Jan inside. Jan inside is quite different from that. (1986a, p. 145)

But once we are aware of Focusing, then at those moments when we sense that Focusing is happening in the client, repeating back the client’s key words so that they can check them within becomes more important. In fact, the more the client is in contact with something inside, and the deeper and closer the client’s contact, the more the exact words are needed and will even be insisted on by the empowered client.

C: I can hardly touch it. There is something and it is right here on the edge. I can hardly touch it; it is — I cannot want my mother, I can hardly say it.
T: You cannot want her. (Silence)
C: That is where I feel the noise like darts. (More silence.) It is real, real early.
T: It feels like a very early experience. (Silence)
C: I cannot want anything. (Silence…) This needs to rest and it cannot rest. If it lets down and rests, it will die. It needs to keep its guard up.
T: There is such a big need and longing to rest and let down and ease; but somehow also this part of you cannot rest. It feels that it will die if it stops being on guard. (Silence…)
C: Maybe it could, if I could trust something.
T: It could rest if you could trust something.
C: No, no. MAYBE it could rest if I could trust something.
T: It is important to say ‘maybe’. “Maybe it could rest if I could trust something.”
(Gendlin, 1990, p. 219)

But of course the client is not always in deep, close contact with something inside. What then? In the rest of this paper, we will explore linguistic forms that help listening do its work and accomplish its three purposes. It should go without saying that any talk about linguistic form assumes that the listener’s attitude is one of unconditional presence, or at least of acknowledging any parts of him or herself that are not able to be unconditionally present. Tone of voice and pace/timing are also important, and not in the scope of this paper.

There are those who would say that, once the listener’s unconditional attitude is in place, it doesn’t matter what words are used. I don’t agree. Just because attitude and presence are more important than words doesn’t mean that words are unimportant. There are those who feel that conscious attention to word choice changes the relationship between listener and focuser, makes the listener somehow inauthentic or a manipulator. I respectfully disagree. I can understand the problem, and in some instances I share it: I have a longstanding dislike of techniques of rapport-building (as in Neuro-Linguistic Programming) where, for example, the therapist consciously breathes along with the client. I believe that, in most cases, helpful tone of voice, pace, and timing of listening responses can be trusted to arise naturally out of the listener’s presence. But when it comes to words, I feel we can be conscious of making facilitative word choices and be in an attitude of presence with the client. The suggestions that follow are offered in this light. They are by no means a complete list of all types of facilitative listening forms, but are simply those which I find most interesting from a linguistic point of view.

The Power of “Something”: Pointing to Felt Experience

The focuser needs to sense into a place inside. When the listener’s response includes the word “something” used appropriately, this helps to make a place inside the focuser that can be sensed into. The word “something” is an invitation to be aware of a place which is already implicit; therefore the phrase “make a place” in the previous sentence isn’t quite right. At the same time, until the word “something” points to the place, there’s a way in which it isn’t there yet. So both are true.

How may we help a person to find and attend to that unclear edge in the border zone between conscious and unconscious? One way to do so is to respond in a pointing way toward an unclear “something.” (Gendlin 1996, p. 47)

C3: I had a dream… I was alone with this guy, ah (silence)… and the dream was real nice, it was a real nice relationship. When I thought about it next day I thought, why don’t I have a real one! I don’t think he could really see anything wrong with me. I was also thinking why I was absent in school so much. When it comes to the end of the line I don’t have a paper, I hold back. I get jittery and then I pull away from it.
T3: You’re saying there is something similar about those two things.
C4: Yeah, I have all these excuses about why I never do my best, uh —
T4: You come right up to the line and then something holds back.
(pp. 41-42, my italics)

Gendlin points out that the therapist could have reflected without pointing at a “something.” T3 could have been “not handing papers in is like not getting with a man” — which surely qualifies as understanding what the client is saying. So this “pointing at a something” is a special Focusing move, informed by our awareness of how powerful it is to be at an unclear edge, a fuzzy not-yet-fully-described experience that is like a door into unfolding.

F: There isn’t anything else I can do about it.
L: There’s something in you that feels there isn’t anything else you can do about it.F: I don’t want to go anywhere near it.
L: There’s something in you that doesn’t want to go anywhere near it.

Saying Back What is There; Not Saying Back What’s Not There
It is obvious that the focuser can only feel into what is there for them; they can’t feel into what is not there. Yet people talk all the time about experiences that they are not having, or not able to have.

“There’s also something vague. I can’t get what it is.”
“I don’t know where this is coming from, but I’m getting the sense that this part of me needs support.”
“I’m not sure how to describe this feeling in my throat.”

I would suggest that the way to support the Focusing process is to say back what is there, but leave out what is not there.

F: There’s also something vague. I can’t get what it is.
L: You’re sensing something there that’s vague.F: I don’t know where this is coming from, but I’m getting the sense that this part of me needs support.
L: You’re getting the sense that this part of you needs support.

When the focuser doesn’t use a word to refer to what is there, and yet something clearly is there, the listener can supply the word “something” to point to what is there.

F: I’m not sure how to describe this feeling in my throat.
L: You’re sensing something there in your throat.

Reflecting Fresh Air
Whatever is fresh, new, something stirring, always needs support. The listener gives that support simply by saying that part back.

The following sequence occurred in a partnership session between two experienced focusers:

F: [Something here] needing to rest. And needing privacy. That’s strong — doesn’t want to be seen, or to relate.
C: It doesn’t want to relate, or be related to.
F: It could be gently touched, but doesn’t want talking. Doesn’t want to have to respond.
C: You’re aware of something there that could be touched, just that much is possible. Gently touched.

The Companion, Chris McLean, had this to say afterward: “I chose this part to mirror — the touching — even though the last thing that the Focuser had said was ‘Doesn’t want talking. Doesn’t want to have to respond.’ I think I sensed a movement in the whole thing, a movement forward. We had already been with the part that didn’t want to respond, and here was this new thing, so I reflected just that.”

Often, the “fresh air” can be found, not so much in the literal words the focuser says, but rather in the positive implications of a negative statement. This would be a sentence which means the same as what the focuser said, a paraphrase, but with no “not” in it. (By the terms “positive” and “negative” I am pointing only to a linguistic fact, whether or not there is a “not” in the sentence. I am not otherwise evaluating the statement.)

F: It doesn’t know how to settle down.
L: It wants to find a way to settle down.

Here’s another example, from the Focusing/Listening session given as the Appendix to this paper:

A: … my awareness bounced over to the woman in the battlefield to invite her to sense what she would want as well. And she said “Don’t rush me. I’m not finished yet.”
B: Yeah, she has something she needs to do first. She’s not finished with something.

Here the listener re-phrased “Don’t rush me. I’m not finished yet.” as “She has something she needs to do first.” This illuminated the positive (i.e. containing no “no” or “not”) inside the negative. The listener then reflected the focuser’s words more closely (“She’s not finished with something”) to make sure they were heard.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of disidentification. We’ve spoken already of the power of the Inner Relationship and the focuser being in Presence with what is there. Disidentification is the first key that opens this big realm of inner Presence.

Gendlin says, “Focusing is this very deliberate thing where an ‘I’ is attending to an ‘it’.” Yet people often speak, and experience themselves, as all “I.”

“I want to run.”
“I’m afraid I’m never going to get over him.”
“I want to go and I don’t want to go.”
“I don’t seem to like myself very much.”

There is no “it” in any of these sentences, and we don’t know whether there is an unspoken “it” in the person’s awareness — perhaps not. Without an “it” in awareness, Focusing is often harder, so a listener can facilitate Focusing by offering an candidate for “it,” for the focuser’s consideration.

Here is one way to do this:

F: I want to run.
L: There’s a wanting to run.

“I want” has become “there’s a wanting,” and thus more of an “it” to feel into. Our favorite word, “something,” offers another way:

F: I’m afraid I’m never going to get over him.
L: Something in you is afraid you’re never going to get over him.

When the focuser is clearly experiencing parts, they will probably appreciate receiving a reflection using “a part of you.”

F: I want to go and I don’t want to go.
L: Part of you wants to go and part of you doesn’t want to go.

This clear separation of parts can be especially valuable when the focuser is locked in an inner struggle.

F: I don’t seem to like myself very much.
L: There’s something in you that doesn’t like something in you very much.

Fritz Perls and the Empty It
People who’ve studied with Perls (father of Gestalt Therapy) or his students are sometimes taken aback at our Focusing love for this little word “it.” Perls is famous for insisting that his students own their feelings, using the word “I” in places where they’d previously said “it.” “It’s sad” would become “I’m sad,” “it’s depressing” would become “I’m depressed,” and so on.

I’ve had people say to me, “I’m working hard to own my feelings, and now you seem to want me to go back to saying ‘it’ again!” My response is that I’m happy they’ve learned to own their feelings — and now I want them to go, not back, but even further. The disowning “it” which Perls and others so rightly dislike is not the “It” of Focusing.

In the structure of the English language, every sentence requires a subject. Sentences which describe processes where there is no actor are given “empty” subjects: “It’s raining,” “It’s dark out.” The “it” here means nothing, refers to nothing. These sentences would be just as meaningful without it — “Raining.” “Dark out.” They just wouldn’t be grammatical.

We speakers of English have made use of this empty “it” to distance ourselves from feelings and opinions, making them seem as impersonal as the weather.

“It’s interesting.”
“It’s scary.”
“It’s impressive.”
“It’s overwhelming.”
“It’s depressing.”

Each of these sentences gives the illusion that it is not about the speaker, but about some condition outside of the speaker. I can say that the book was interesting, the movie was scary, the bridge was impressive, the task was overwhelming, and the loss was depressing. When, actually, in every case I am speaking of my own feelings: it’s I who is interested, scared, impressed, overwhelmed, depressed.

But this empty “it” is not the Focusing “It,” because the Focusing “It” refers to something felt in inner experience. It is not empty. It refers. So if I start by saying “It’s scary,” then own the feeling by saying, “I’m scared,” I would then move in a Focusing way to sense the scared in my body, and say, perhaps, “In my stomach I’m sensing something that’s tight. It’s scared.” “It’s scary” — empty it — has become “I’m scared” — owned feeling — has become “It’s scared” — something to be with in a Focusing way.

We certainly never want to go backwards, and turn a Focuser’s “it” back into an identified “you.”

F: “This place in my stomach is angry.”
Not recommended: L: “You’re angry.”
Preferable: “That place in your stomach is angry.”

“Something” is Alive
Earlier, we quoted from a client session cited by Eugene Gendlin (1990), as an example of how the therapist follows the client’s words very closely if the focuser is in deep contact with something inside. But there was one place in this example where the therapist varied the client’s words slightly and significantly.

C: I cannot want anything. (Silence…) This needs to rest and it cannot rest. If it lets down and rests, it will die. It needs to keep its guard up.
T: There is such a big need and longing to rest and let down and ease; but somehow also this part of you cannot rest. It feels that it will die if it stops being on guard. (Silence…)

What the listener has done has somehow enlivened the part. Where the client said, “It will die…”, the listener responded, “It feels that it will die.” “It will die” could have been an outer description, an objective assessment. The listener responds from inside a “living It,” from the It’s own point of view.

As a Focusing session continues, the “something” in awareness often takes on more and more of the qualities of being alive. Ideally the listener recognizes that this is happening and responds in a way that supports the aliveness.

F: It’s tired. It doesn’t want to speak.
L: It’s letting you know that it’s tired and doesn’t want to speak.

Who’s Saying It?
Linguistic theory tells us that every sentence uttered is situated in time and place and oriented as to its speaker and hearers. This is why we can use relational words like “I,” “you,” “now,” “then,” “here,” etc. and have them understood, even though “I” refers to me when I use it and to you when you use it. If we don’t know who said the sentence (or where or when), then we don’t know what or whom these relational words refer to.

The most obvious way this applies to the linguistics of listening is that we change these relational words when we say back the focuser’s sentences.

F: Something in me is angry.
L: Something in you is angry.
F: I’m sensing a heaviness right here.
L: You’re sensing a heaviness right there.

Although, since we’re speaking at the same time as the focuser, we don’t need to change their time-reference words.

F: Now it’s starting to change.
L: Now you’re sensing it starting to change.

There are some practitioners of listening who do not change the other person’s words at all. To me, this sounds quite strange, but I can understand it if I imagine the listener is saying back the focuser’s words in quotes.

F: Something in me is angry.
L: “Something in me is angry.”

It’s quite true that sometimes the focuser says words that sound so powerful and meaningful that we hesitate to change them, even an iota. When that happens, I prefer to make the quote explicit, by saying something like, “What comes there is…” or “The words that come are…”

F: I never have to put up with that again!
L: The words that come are: “I never have to put up with that again!”

Whenever the listener feels it would sound odd to repeat the focuser’s words, it’s usually because, without any preamble, it would sound as if the listener agrees with what the focuser is saying. Rather than reports of body sensations or emotions, these are usually value statements. There’s rarely an “edge” for sensing into in a statement like this. Often it issues from a part that would like to close a door, rather than open one. So it is helpful if the listener can point to that part, the one who is speaking, using our favorite word for pointing to edges: “something.”

F: There’s nothing that can be done about people like that.
L: Something in you is saying: “There’s nothing that can be done about people like that.”

Whenever it is clear that the words are coming from a part, from something inside, not from the focuser’s “I,” it’s especially helpful to put the focuser’s words in quotes and state who is saying them. “Something in you is saying” is generally useful if the part is unidentified. But sometimes you can make a pretty good guess who is speaking.

F: I’m feeling this part of me that’s so . . . angry, I guess. Like a little kid who hates everyone.
L: That part of you feels like a little kid who hates everyone.
F: Just get away from me!
L: It’s like that kid is saying, “Just get away from me!”

Presence Listening
We’ve said that the third purpose for listening is to support the focuser in “keeping company” from Presence with something inside. We’ve talked about the importance of disidentification, and how listening responses can support the focuser in remembering that they are not their anger, not their fear, not their tightness, not their judgment, not any of their temporary states.

But what is the focuser, if they are not their temporary states? Barbara McGavin and I call this Presence: the state of being able to be with anything, without taking sides, without judgment or agenda. Qualities of Presence include: compassion, allowing, spaciousness, openness, acceptance, patience, gentleness…

Gendlin calls this “being friendly toward a felt sense, and the friendly reception of whatever comes from it (1996, p. 55). McMahon and Campbell call it the “caring-feeling-presence” (p. 11). Clearly it’s something that helps Focusing happen. How can a listener help engender Presence?

What the listener can do is to reflect the focuser’s presence with what they are saying, making it explicit. Each time the focuser describes something they are experiencing, it is understood that they are experiencing it, sensing it. By making that sensing explicit, the listener confirms, supports, and deepens the focuser’s experience of Presence. We recommend doing this with the words “You’re sensing…”, though “You’re aware of…” “You’re noticing…” and in appropriate cases “You’re realizing…” will work also.

F: This place in my stomach is clenched with anger.
L: You’re sensing that place in your stomach is clenched with anger.
F: I’ve got a tight band across my chest.
L: You’re sensing something in your chest like a tight band.
F: Oh, I see! This part believes that no one can ever help.
L: You’re realizing that that part believes that no one can ever help.

When the focuser doesn’t feel compassionate or patient or accepting toward some part of themselves, they are not in Presence. Yet Presence is always there, available, behind the temporary identifications. So if the listener reflects what the focuser says as if they were in Presence, it functions as a kind of subtle invitation — which, like all invitations, can be refused — to find Presence again.

F: I don’t like this heavy part of me.
L: You’re sensing a part that feels heavy, and you’re sensing another part that doesn’t like it.
F: I’m angry!
L: You’re sensing something in you that’s angry.
F: No, I’M angry!
L: Oh, YOU’RE angry!

Combining this “you’re sensing” with “something in you” is what Barbara McGavin and I call “Presence Listening.” The effect is often to illuminate that two parts are there, and to offer to the focuser to opportunity to acknowledge and be with either or both.

F: This part needs to change quicker.
L: You’re sensing something in you that’s needing this part to change quicker.
F: It’s scary.
L: You’re sensing something in you that’s feeling scared, and something that it finds scary.

The Power of Listening
My personal belief is that listening is underused and underappreciated. I feel that when listening is used with sensitivity and skill, little or no guiding is needed, especially between Focusing partners (people who already know Focusing). When the companion uses all or mostly listening, and little or no guiding, this respects the focuser’s process by staying out of its way, and it increases the focuser’s sense of empowerment. It also decreases the companion’s sense of taking responsibility for the session. For all that we’ve said about the gifts of skillful listening, it is still the focuser’s session.

We could even speculate on the possibility that a need for guiding indicates a failure of listening. Or, to put it more positively, when listening is done well, there is less need for guiding.

An example of this occurred recently in a training session in my Center in Berkeley. The session seemed to go well, except for one moment when the focuser felt stuck and needed help from the teacher. In the discussion afterwards we went back to that moment and wondered if there was anything the listener could have done, with listening alone, to help at that moment. What we discovered was that there was little that could have been done at that moment, once the focuser felt stuck. But when we went back earlier in the session, to what came right before the stuck place, we saw that the listener had missed saying back a presently felt body feeling, and we could trace the “stuckness” directly back to that missing.

F: I sense a kind of heaviness on my shoulders and upper arms. Might be related to carrying something, kind of a burden
L: Something in you seems to be carrying some kind of burden.
F: Yeah, something in my shoulders and arms. That’s where I sense it. I’m saying hello to that sense of carrying a burden and asking it to tell me more about that, what feels like a burden. (long pause) I’m sensing another part of me that wants to rush this process… (at this point the teacher offered help, inviting the focuser to sit with what was there with interested curiosity and sense from its point of view before asking it any questions)

Later the focuser agreed that if the italicized phrase had been said back, something like: “You’re sensing something like a heaviness in your shoulders and upper arms…”, it would have helped her stay more directly in contact with the felt sense, rather than moving into her thoughts about it.

In an earlier draft of Eugene Gendlin’s book about Focusing and psychotherapy, there is a beautiful metaphor about listening. I haven’t been able to find it in the published book, so I’m quoting it here from the draft:

[Listening] is something like adding to the motion of a fly-wheel. The wheel is already moving and you want to add movement to it. Therefore you don’t stop it first, so that you can push it. You give it short spurts that can go with the movement it has already. (p. 372)

Listening is like touching an already turning wheel, in the same direction that it’s moving. Nothing dramatic appears to be happening. Yet a space is created for the greatest of all human miracles: how much more happens when we allow what is to find its own unfolding, than when we try to make something happen.

Flanagan, Kevin. 1998. Everyday Genius: Focusing on Your Emotional Intelligence. Dublin, Ireland: Marino Books.

Gendlin, Eugene. 1984. “The Client’s Client,” in Client-Centered Therapy and the Person-Centered Approach, eds. Levant and Shlien. New York: Praeger.

Gendlin, Eugene. 1990. “The Small Steps of the Therapy Process: How They Come and How to Help Them Come,” in Client-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapy in the Nineties, eds. Lietaer, Rombauts, and van Balen. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press.

Gendlin, Eugene. No date. Experiential Psychotherapy. Draft, distributed by The Focusing Institute.

Gendlin, Eugene. 1996. Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy. New York: The Guilford Press.

McMahon, Edwin M. and Peter A. Campbell. 1991. The Focusing Steps. Kansas City, MO: Sheed & Ward.

Rogers, Carl. 1980. A Way of Being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Rogers, Carl. 1986a. “A Client-Centered/Person-Centered Approach to Therapy,” in Psychotherapist’s Casebook: Theory and Technique in Practice, eds. Kutash and Wolf. Reprinted in The Carl Rogers Reader. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.

Rogers, Carl. 1986b. “Reflection of Feelings,” Person-Centered Review, vol. 1, no. 4. Reprinted in The Carl Rogers Reader. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.

Appendix: A Listening Session
A: OK. So I’m bringing my awareness into my body. And I’m sensing, like there’s a person inside me, a part of me. I feel her as a she, who feels — the word is shell shocked, and also — there is a sense of her coming back, almost like maybe even from a coma or emerging from a long period of illness (mmm) still weak and then coming out into a place where, uh, she’s looking around and there’s a sense of something she doesn’t even understand. Other things are kind of coming at her dragon-like like why didn’t you do this yet? Why didn’t you do this yet? And, uh, a little bit of a sense of being overwhelmed and behind and weak and confused — and I m just sensing what really feels central in all of that. (long pause) Her — it’s interesting, her emotion isn’t fear or guilt or any of those things. She’s really — bemused maybe more than confused. Like an innocent. She has an innocence about her (uh huh)

B: You can sense that there’s an innocence about this girl, female, woman, person.

A: Yeah, she’s a woman, she’s not a child. She’s walking through a battlefield where the battle is over. She’s touching pieces of cannon and bodies and things. Touching them with an innocence as if she were touching flowers. Like, just curiosity.

B: You’re seeing her walking through this battlefield, touching the dead, cannons, whatever with a kind of innocence like they are flowers, curiosity.

A: Makes me remember a poem I wrote when I was sixteen or something. I don’t remember it but the first line was: And if we pick our way through a battlefield…

B: Yeah, that comes there.

A: And tears are here.

B: You can sense tears.

A: (long pause) So many of my clients have been working lately with a part that’s stunned with pain and another part that’s anxious with moving forward with life. And so I’m looking, or beginning to get a sense of a counterpart that’s anxious.

B: Uh huh, so you’re starting to sense a counterpart right there that’s anxious.

A: That says “Come on, we can’t take any more time with this, we have to get moving!”

B: Yeah, you’re hearing it say, “Come on. We don’t have any time for this. Got to get moving!”

A: And that woman in the battlefield, she can’t be hurried. There’s no way. She doesn’t even hear, or she vaguely hears those urgings to move but they hardly penetrate. She’s much more involved in what she’s doing.

B: Mm hum, you can sense how she can’t be hurried. She’s involved in what she’s doing. The other voice is just… she hears it but just barely.

A. Mm hum. So I’m saying to the other voice, “Yes, I know you’re scared. You’re scared something will be damaged or fall apart if attention isn’t paid.”

B: You’re really letting it know you hear how it’s scared.

A: (long pause) That part, yeah, it’s beginning to show me its wanting as well, at least one level of it. It’s like there’s a yearning, it feels like that part is carrying that right now. A yearning to express our messages into the world and have them be heard there. Like even, I have, even as I do this session there’s something in me that says, “You know this could be animated!” (laughter) Technology isn’t that hard anymore and we could animate lots of these typical parts and counterparts and people could really relate to that. And that would really help. And it’s like (uh huh) [big sigh] a sense of a big, at least that part feels, a big gap, a distance between what I feel capable of …

B: Yeah, you can sense how this part is carrying the longing for all the potential…

A: Yeah, the gap between the reality and the potential feels really big (yeah) right now. And this part feels like one of the problems is this woman in white who’s looking…

B: It’s like from its point of view this woman is the problem, or a problem (one of the problems, right) in between the potential and where you are right now.

A: Right. And I want to just acknowledge the feeling of the gap and acknowledge to that part that it’s so much wanting that to change that it’s so much trying to figure out what the problem is.

B: Mm hum. Yeah, you’re really letting it know you can sense how much it’s wanting to reduce that gap.

A: Yeah. Huh. The way you said that made me want to ask what having a reduced gap would feel like.

B: Mmmm.

A: And I felt that for just a moment, and my awareness bounced over to the woman in the battlefield to invite her to sense what she would want as well. And she said “Don’t rush me. I’m not finished yet.”

B: Yeah, she has something she needs to do first. She’s not finished with something.

A: Yeah. And saying that way, and hearing you say it back that way, she shifts a little. She was looking really dazed and again, what was the word at the very beginning? Shell-shocked. And now she looks more purposeful. (mmm) She has something she needs to do. That’s right. (uh huh) And she’s wanting to do it and not be rushed, because it wouldn’t be right to rush. (uh huh) It can’t be done in a rush.

B: Uh huh, whatever this is that she needs to do it can’t be done in a rush and you can sense there’s a purposeful quality to her now. (yeah) Sounds like there’s a kind of strength there.

A: Yeah, I feel — well I’m feeling really touched. and not only by that but I also went over to the other one (uh huh) and it shifted too (ah) ’cause in the presence of her purposefulness, it’s sensing that its purpose right now is to just hold the intention and hold the awareness of the potential and it’s feeling good and proud that it has that purpose.

B: Yeah…

A: All of that is touching me. [tears]

B: You can sense how that other part is holding the potential. It is like a container for it – or something like that.

A: Yeah, yeah.

B: And it’s feeling proud (yeah) that it has this purpose.

A: Yeah, it’s feeling much more able to be patient.

B: Uh huh. As it senses her purposefulness, her needing to do something.

A: Yeah, and again as I feel its willingness to be patient, I feel touched. Tears come. (yeah) I feel touched by the willingness to carry the purposes of both these parts. (yeah) Oh, fabulous.

B: Yeah, you’re sensing touched by the willingness to carry the purpose of both these parts.

A: Yeah… we’re coming to a good stopping place.

B: And there’s about two minutes.

A: [big sigh] Yeah, I think it’s the whole thing about being heard that this anxious part shifted from being anxious (yeah) to being honored. Its job is to remember the potential. That’s still true, it was true before. But when it’s heard then it shifts from being anxious about remembering the potential (uh huh) to being honored to remember the potential. Cool.

B: And it doesn’t have to be pushy.

A: Yeah, yeah. And it doesn’t have to — there’s some kind of being part of a larger team and it doesn’t have to feel alone (yeah) and the “anxious” comes from feeling like nobody is going to hear it.

This article appears in The Radical Acceptance of Everything, by Ann Weiser Cornell, PhD and featuring Barbara McGavin (Calluna Press; 2005). Learn more about this book.