Thinking at the Edge

Thinking at the Edge is empowering

Thinking at the Edge (TAE) empowers us because it shows us how to think and speak from what we know from living.  Teaching TAE brings me joy and faith in the future of humanity. I love to see the smiles on my student’s faces as they experience their own generative thinking process. 

In this article, first I’ll lay out the problems with the common concept of what thinking is, then I’ll attempt to explain the new way of thinking that happens in Thinking at the Edge and give some examples. Next, I’ll show how Gendlin’s Philosophy of the Implicit takes us beyond the helplessness and despair of theories that deny that we can say what we mean. After that, I’ll give an example of how Thinking at the Edge has empowered me. Finally, I’ll give you a short guide on how to practice TAE for yourself.

What is usually meant by “thinking”?

Somehow, we think (feel, are accustomed to the idea, believe) that only very smart people or “experts” can think (formulate valid ideas, propose realistic solutions, understand what is going on). I have often felt that I was incapable of thinking (coming up with new ideas, understanding the big picture, knowing what would work). 

In the above paragraph, I have offered many different meanings for the word “think”. Post-modern Deconstructionist philosophers like Derrida have convinced society that words can no longer have meaning. Of course we can still look words up in the dictionary and find the meanings that are currently agreed upon. But we need new understandings. New words and phrases allow us to say new things. For instance, the meaning of “to think” has all the above meanings and many more, but the agreed-upon meanings do not contemplate the empowerment to think and speak that happens in Thinking at the Edge. 

What do I want “thinking” to mean?

I’ll attempt to define “thinking” in terms of Thinking at the Edge. First, you notice something you know but cannot yet put into words. There is a bodily felt sense of this. You can learn to notice and describe it instead of skipping over moments when you struggle for words. You’ll learn to welcome the felt sense with openness and receptivity. When you welcome the bodily felt sense of something that has no words, it responds to your interest. Words, phrases and images start to come. The felt sense will offer you examples of times when you have experienced the knowing you are trying to articulate.

At first, especially, it works best to have a listening partner who accompanies you in this space, writing down what you say.  It doesn’t take long: usually a 20- to 25-minute session is enough to make some steps in the process. Further sessions will enable you to speak about what was previously unclear. 

Some examples

Here are some examples that are similar to the felt sensing you use in Thinking at the Edge. You might recognize them.

  • An artist senses what color is needed next in a painting.
  • An actor immerses himself in a character. That feeling guides his portrayal.
  • A mother senses something in her child’s demeanor that tells her the child is becoming ill.
  • A musician ‘hears” the notes and chords that will convey a certain feeling.
  • A coach senses that one of his players has a problem, even though nothing has been said. 
  • Authors “love their characters”. From that love and receptivity comes an unfolding of what each character will do or say in a situation, and that in turn influences the course of the novel.
  • A gardener senses that a plant needs something, but cannot put her finger on it at first.

Once we have a felt sense, it can dialog back and forth with our intellect. As that dialog happens we must make sure that the felt sense is not left out.

Deconstruction can now be seen as making way for something new

Post-modern ideas like Deconstructionism have lead to a kind of helplessness, stagnation and despair. They make it seem that true communication is not possible. But Eugene Gendlin’s Philosophy of the Implicit, and its practice, Focusing, open up new realms that value and validate human experience in the creation of meaning.

Instead of trying in vain to agree on the lowest common denominator and impose definitions on experience, human experiencing can enrich meaning and make words more relevant to our situations.  We can actually pay attention to our experience instead of wondering automatically “Is it just me?” Thinking at the Edge empowers us to open up relevant meaning instead of imposing outside, publicly agreed-upon definitions.  When there is space to explore the experiencing behind words, real thinking and communication start to happen. 

How Thinking at the Edge has empowered me

Teaching TAE has shown me that I can think from what I have lived. For example, if I am looking at the subject of “communication”, I can 

  • Notice and name my own experiences. 
  • Acknowledge gaps in my understanding and, instead of skipping over them, go into them, explore them. 
  • Recognize what blocks communication, separating us and diminishing us.
  • Concentrate on communication that connects, validates and encourages us.

It reminds me of the Quakers, who stood up for the right to experience God in their own ways, by waiting in silence for the Light. They had no patience for “steeple-houses” (churches) and priests, the accepted ways of connecting to God. 

It also reminds me of the recent revolution in music distribution. Now everyone can hear “their” music through Pandora, Spotify, etc. As a result, the record labels and radio stations no longer determine what we can listen to.

Thinking at the Edge empowers us to make our own connections, based on experience.

It’s time for us to learn about our own capacity for generative thinking

“…I am very aware of the deep political significance of all this, People, especially intellectuals, believe that they cannot think! They are trained to say what fits into a preexisting public discourse. They remain numb about what could arise from themselves in response to the literature and the world. People live through a great deal which cannot be said in the common phrases. People are silenced! TAE can empower them to speak from what they are living through.”  —-Eugene Gendlin, Introduction to Thinking at the Edge

Right now, people are living through unprecedented situations. It becomes clear that economists and politicians, spiritual leaders, even scientists, don’t know the answers. This is an opening for new ideas, new ways of doing things. This moment is offering transformation. We need to empower ourselves to think and communicate from a generative place in order to meet the opportunities that might not come again.

Empower yourself with Thinking at the Edge 

Do you skip over moments where words are difficult to find?
Do you try to complete someone’s sentence when they struggle to express themselves?
Try welcoming those moments
. Here’s how:

  • First of all, take time to slow down right there and breathe.
  • Don’t strain your brain.
  • In that moment of pausing and relaxing, notice if there is a place in your body where the thing you are trying to express “lives”.
  • Next, describe how it feels in your body. It could be a pressure or tightness, a vague cottony feeling, a slight discomfort, a subtle feeling of excitement, an image, or many other subtle sensations.
  • Patiently go there and be with that place.
  • You might feel it start to unfold into the words you were seeking. 

Find out more about my online classes in TAE.

Here is a short experiment in Thinking at the Edge with “the personal is political”, based on an exercise from Donata Schoeller, a leading scholar and teacher of Gendlin’s Philosophy of the Implicit. Would you like to play?
1. Please choose one of the following 3 words:
“police”, “election”, or “hospital”.
2. Once you have chosen a word, notice what situation from your life “arises from” or “comes with” that word.
3. Check to see if the situation that came calls forth a bodily sensation.
4. Describe the bodily sensation of that situation with words, metaphors, textures, colors, shapes, memories, gestures, sounds.
5. Now take this description back to the original word and notice how it affects or reinforms the word you chose.
6. If it feels right to do so, reply below, or share your response in an email to me.
After this short form of Thinking at the Edge, can you sense how “the personal is political”?

Thanks for participating in this short form of Thinking at the Edge!

Behavioral science is being used more and more to “market” political candidates and opinions. According to an article in Motherboard, both the Trump and Brexit campaigns used Facebook data to create personality profiles that could identify the characteristics of voters, enabling messaging that would appeal to their cultural biases. If your personality profile showed that you were fearful, you’d get a message about how dangerous immigrants are.

This successful combination of behavioral psychology and marketing is moving our political system away from reasoned arguments and toward a form of manipulation customized to appeal to cultural biases.

Learning how to get the felt sense of a situation helps one move beyond the emotional triggers that lead to mind manipulation. Focusing puts you in the driver’s seat of your life.

 

Many of us are dismayed about the violent rhetoric in politics and on social media. We need ways to be able to communicate across social, cultural, economic and political divides. Both Nonviolent Communication and Focusing, when practiced, are accessible tools for change.

How NVC enhances Focusing

The basic NVC concepts help people learn the Focusing Attitude by experience:

  • Pausing
  • Self-empathy
  • Listening with empathy, without trying to give advice, consoling, trying to fix, etc.
  • Sensing inside
  • The intricacy of the inner world as revealed in the number of feelings and needs there are in any given situation

The “Needs consciousness” of NVC explicitly pauses the usual cultural responses to conflict, opening people to new ways of thinking and reacting.

Looking at a written list of Feelings and Needs is an exercise in resonating with what feels right inside, like Focusing with training wheels!

Dwelling on Feelings and Needs creates a “holding and letting” space where a felt sense can form about the whole, leading to changes in the whole mesh of experiencing.

What Focusing gives NVC

Felt sensing: the bodily felt sense of the situation goes far beyond the categories of “feelings and needs”.

Implicit intricacy: honoring the richness and complexity of each person’s life experience.

Carrying forward: by giving words to the felt sense, the whole situation can transform in ways that seemed impossible to the cognitive mind.

“When a direct referent [felt sense] forms and comes, something has jelled, something has happened, something–a great deal–has fallen into place.”
–Eugene Gendlin, A Process Model, p. 225

Recently I was treated to a wonderful production of A Lesson From Aloes, by the South African playwright, Athol Fugard, produced by the Hartford Stage in Hartford, CT. The play had a profound affect on me. It shows how friends who have worked together for a common cause can be pulled apart by not being able to talk about the difficult feelings that come up between them–their very human doubts, fears, vulnerabilities.

I wish that I could have given the characters in the play the tools of Focusing, Listening and Empathic Communication.

Focusing and Listening help you pause and tune in to the bodily felt sense of situations. When you are accompanied by a Focusing partner who gives you space to notice what is happening inside without advising, consoling, or trying to fix things for you, you can gradually express complex feelings that are hard to put into words.

Empathic Communication helps you identify your beautiful human needs so that you can request what you need. When you see how well that works, you become interested in listening for the needs of others, instead of trying to diagnose what is wrong with them.

When activists and those close to them engage in these simple practices, deep things that have been held inside can finally be expressed, and relationships become a source of support, transformation and renewed energy.

A brief glimpse into A Lesson from Aloes:

Piet is a white Afrikaner bus driver and former farmer who was greatly inspired by Steve, a black anti-apartheid activist. Piet joined the anti-apartheid movement during the bus boycott of 1957, and he and Steve became close friends, “comrades” as they say in the play. Because of his activism as a black man, Steve becomes subject to “banning orders” which limit his activities. He defies the orders by going to a party with his comrades and is discovered. He is arrested for violating the banning orders, and sent to jail for 6 months. There is suspicion among the comrades that someone among them was an informer who reported Steve’s presence at the party to the police.

Piet is married to Gladys, a white woman of British descent, a poet. After Steve’s imprisonment, Gladys and Piet’s home was raided by police. Her diaries were read by the Special Branch agent and confiscated. She felt violated by this, and started becoming suspicious and withdrawn, finally ending up with a nervous breakdown. She was interned at a mental hospital where she was subjected to shock treatments.

The play takes place after Gladys has been home from the mental hospital for about six months, and after Steve has been released from jail. Piet and Steve run into each other in the street. Steve, his wife and four children have decided to leave the country for England. Piet invites Steve and his family for a farewell dinner at his home.

In the first scene of the play, Piet and Gladys are preparing to receive their guests. We learn of Piet’s fascination with aloes, plants that survive and bloom in the desert, even during droughts. He goes out into the veld, collects aloes, and tries to identify them according to their scientific names. Aloe identification gives Piet a way to keep up his natural cheerful attitude. He tries to share his fascination with Gladys, but she feels ignored as a person. She is trapped in her own inner struggles, with no way to express herself. Piet tries to cheer her up, and is very attentive, but he doesn’t know the transformative power of listening–so Gladys sits there, getting more and more frustrated, silently blaming herself for being antisocial and unbalanced, not knowing how to get the understanding she longs for. When Piet is not talking about his aloes, he is reciting English poetry. He took up this hobby when he was asked to speak at a child’s funeral, and didn’t know what to say.  Now he has a whole treasure trove of poetry and quotations that he comes out with, hoping that the eloquence of Shakespeare or Longfellow will make up for deep feelings he feels powerless to express.

Some excerpts that illustrate the communication problems in Fugard’s play:

Piet: I’ve been through my book twice, page by page, and but there is nothing that looks quite like [this aloe]. I don’t think I can allow myself to believe I have discovered a new species. That would be something! I would name it after you, my dear. Hail aloe Gladysiensis! Sounds rather good, doesn’t it! And yet, as little Juliet once said: What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Gladys: Are you talking to me?

Piet: Who else, my dear?

Gladys: The aloes…….or yourself. I’m never sure these days.

Piet: They and the thorn trees were the only things still alive… when I finally packed up the old truck and left the farm. Four years of drought, but they were flowering once again….surviving where I had failed.

Gladys: Is that the price of survival in this country? Thorns and bitterness?

Piet: For the aloe it is. Maybe there is some sort of lesson for us there…..We need survival mechanisms as well.

Gladys: Speak for yourself, Peter. I’m a human being, not a……prickly pear. I want to live my life, not just survive it…..[The aloes] frighten me….They’re turgid with violence, just like everything else in this country, and they are trying to pass it on to me.

Piet: (carefully): What do you mean, my dear?

Gladys: Don’t worry. I won’t let it happen. I won’t! (She pauses)

Piet: (Trying to break the mood) Well. (Looks at his wrist watch) Time to get ready. They’ll be here soon.

So Gladys is left alone, trying to control her feelings, with no hope that Piet will listen to her and understand what she is going through.

In Scene 2, Gladys mentions how strange it is that none of the old comrades have come around since she has been back from the hospital. “Is it because of me?” she asks.

Piet: No, you mustn’t think that.

Gladys: Then say something! Every time I mention it, you either ignore me or change the subject.

Piet: (Trying to placate her.) All right, my dear. Relax.

Gladys: God, I wish you would stop saying that!

Piet: There’s no mystery, Gladys. A lesson in human nature maybe, but that’s all. It’s a dangerous time and people are frightened….Everyone has crawled away into his own little shell. It’s as simple as that….I don’t accept it easily, but there is nothing else to do. I can’t change human nature.

Gladys: Not even a complaint about its lack of courage and faith. After all, it has meant an end to “The Cause.”

Finally, Gladys asks Piet if their friends think he was the one who informed on Steve.

Gladys: Peter. Do all the others think it’s you?

Piet: I don’t know.

Gladys: Are you lying to me, or to yourself? (She waits)

Piet: Yes….it looks as if…..they all think…I’m the one….

Gladys: (Quietly) My God! I want to scream…..How long have you known?

Piet: It isn’t something I “know” in that way. There is no one day on which a drought starts. But there were meetings to which I wasn’t invited, and then…I realized people were avoiding me. There is only one conclusion.

Gladys: And you didn’t tell me because you thought it would aggravate my condition. Didn’t you know I’d realize it sooner or later?….

Piet: It’s not as simple as that, Gladys. Obviously I wanted to avoid upsetting you. But even without that, could we have talked about it?  (He speaks with deep emotion) Sat down and discussed over supper that I was considered a traitor? That’s the correct word…..God! It’s the ugliest thing that has ever happened to me. It makes me feel more ashamed of….myself, my fellow men….of everything!…in a way I never thought possible.

Could we have talked about it?”

Gladys and Piet had no tools for talking about their vulnerable, difficult feelings. So those feelings remained inside. Piet was not only unable to listen to Gladys, but also unable to talk to her about his own distress.

I identify a lot with Piet. I was in a situation 23 years ago, as president of our local food coop, where an unexpected series of events triggered suspicion about me from some of the members. I felt confused, ashamed that people were suspicious of me, and “put upon” by others. I ended up getting into a lengthy spat with another board member whom I viewed as someone who was mobilizing people against me. I finally resigned. It was one of the most upsetting situations of my life. If I had known Focusing and Empathic Communication at that time, I would have realized that the members needed communication, clarity, information, and a sense that we would move forward together. I would have relied on my felt sense to shed light on my feelings of shame and embarrassment. I will explain more about this below.

In the second act, Steve arrives at Piet and Gladys’s house without his family. It turns out that Steve’s wife is convinced that Piet was the informer, and doesn’t want Steve to visit because she fears it is a trap that will prevent them from leaving the country. Steve admits that he was suspicious of Piet, but didn’t want to believe the rumors because he was sure of Piet’s friendship. The affection between Piet and Steve is obviously deep and sincere, but Piet doesn’t see how Steve could doubt his loyalty, despite the reality of his friend’s precarious situation. Piet doesn’t defend himself, telling Steve “If you could have believed it, there is no point in denying it.” Steve doesn’t see a way to make things better. He leaves. Gladys decides that she must go back to the mental hospital. Piet is left alone with his aloes.

Each of the characters, based on Fugard’s comrades from the apartheid struggle, shows a different reaction to the “drought” of a police state. My heartfelt feeling is that, as more humans learn how to communicate empathically with each other and with their children, authoritarian states will not be able to take root.

Examples of how they could have talked about it

Here is my made up attempt to give an example of how Gladys, Piet and Steve could have communicated differently if they both had learned how to Focus and Listen.

Piet: I have been through my book twice, page by page, and but there is nothing that looks quite like [this aloe]. I don’t think I can allow myself to believe I have discovered a new species. That would be something! I’d name it after you, my dear. Hail aloe Gladysiensis! Sounds rather good, doesn’t it! And yet, as little Juliet once said: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Gladys: Piet, I feel nervous and insecure right now. Would you be willing to sit down and listen to me for a while?

Piet:  Of course, my dear. (He comes over to Gladys and sits next to her, looking at her and listening in silence.)

Gladys: When I see the aloes, I feel afraid. They remind me of the violence in this country. There is something in me that fears they will pass the violence on to me.

Piet: You are noticing something in you that is afraid that the violence will be passed on to you.

Gladys: Yes, I feel that in the pit of my stomach.

Piet: Would it feel OK to be kind to that feeling in the pit of your stomach?

Gladys: No, I feel too fearful.

Piet: Maybe you could put your warm hand on that place for a moment, and tell it that you know it is there.

Gladys: (putting her hand where she feels the discomfort, then remaining silent for awhile, as if she is listening to something inside) I feel so powerless to change anything.

Piet: Powerless. Would it be OK to stay with that powerless feeling in your stomach for a while?

Gladys: (pausing in silence) It reminds me of how powerless I felt with my mother. I felt she never saw me, never listened, never knew me.

Piet: You felt she never saw you, never listened, never knew you.

Gladys: Yes, that is exactly how it was.

Piet: Maybe you could take a moment to see and hear and get to know that little girl inside.

Gladys: (Weeping) Yes, I can imagine holding her and letting her cry.

Piet: I will sit here with you and hold you as you let her cry.

Gladys: (after weeping in silence) Thanks so much for listening to me. I feel much less nervous and insecure. I know where my fear is coming from. I feel much more open to the reunion this evening with Steve and his family. I need a few minutes to rest and relax, then I will come back and help you get ready.

Comments:

  1. Piet is not trying to cheer Gladys up. When she expresses her fear, he reminds her that she is more than the fear. He reminds her of this with the Focusing phrase you are noticing something in you that feels afraid.
  2. This ability to remember that one is a whole person who is feeling fear allows Gladys to separate her sense of self from the part that is fearful. This inner awareness lets her get in touch with how the fear feels in her body. She locates it in the pit of her stomach.
  3. Piet leaves it up to her to determine whether she is willing to be kind to the feeling in the pit of her stomach.
  4. At first, Gladys feels that it is too uncomfortable to accompany the feeling. Piet suggests another Focusing move: to put her warm hand where she feels the discomfort. Putting her warm hand on her stomach lets the discomfort know that she feels it and wants to know more about it. Gladys takes the reminder, and is able to sense that the feeling is not only fear but powerlessness.
  5. Piet reminds her that she can choose to stay with the feeling of powerlessness if it feels OK. She decides to stay with it, and this leads to the body memory of feeling that her mother never saw her, never listened to her, never knew her.
  6. Piet reflects these words back exactly as Gladys says them, because they describe an awareness that comes from the felt sense. Gladys confirms that Yes, that was exactly how it was.
  7. Piet invites Gladys to get to know the little girl inside, and Gladys imagines holding her inner child and letting her cry. As her husband, Piet offers to hold Gladys while she accompanies the little girl. This holding would not usually be offered by one Focusing partner to the other, but because Piet is her husband, it seems natural and appropriate.
  8. Focusing and listening have helped Gladys feel the origin of her overwhelming fear. She is no longer fighting herself to keep it under control. She is no longer projecting violence onto the aloes and fearing that they will pass the violence on to her. She knows that she needs a few moments to rest and recuperate, but feels a natural willingness arising within her to help prepare for their guests.

In my made up version of Scene 2, Gladys is able to help Piet cut through his tendency to distraction and listen to his inner distress.

Gladys mentions how strange it is that none of the old comrades have come around since she has been back from the hospital. “Is it because of me?” she asks.

Piet: No, you mustn’t think that.

Gladys: There must be some reason they don’t visit us.

Piet: There’s no mystery, Gladys. A lesson in human nature maybe, but that’s all. It’s a dangerous time and people are frightened….Everyone has crawled away into his own little shell. It’s as simple as that….I don’t accept it easily, but there is nothing else to do. I can’t change human nature.

Gladys: Peter. Do all the others think it’s you?

Piet: I don’t know.

Gladys: (She waits). Is it OK to stay with that not knowing for a moment?

Piet: (Pauses) Yes….it looks as if…..they all think…I’m the one….

Gladys: (Quietly) You are sensing that they think you are the one.

Piet: It isn’t something I “know” clearly. There is no one day on which a drought starts. But there were meetings to which I wasn’t invited, and then…I realized people were avoiding me.

Gladys: You weren’t invited to meetings and people started avoiding you. You started fearing that they thought it was you.

Piet: (He speaks with deep emotion) Yes. And I was afraid to sit down and talk to you about it. It felt so bad to be considered a traitor. That’s the correct word…..God! It’s the ugliest thing that has ever happened to me. It makes me feel more ashamed of….myself, my fellow men….of everything!…in a way I never thought possible. I feel it like a coating of grime all over my body.

Gladys: You feel it’s like a coating of grime all over your body. Is it OK to say hello to that feeling and be with it?

Piet: It feels so uncomfortable. I never felt this way before. I cannot believe they would think that of me………But I’ll stay with this feeling for awhile, even though I can hardly stand it.

Gladys: I am right here with you.

Piet: (After a long silence) Now it’s like a storm in my chestI So many parts of me are fighting with each other. I don’t know how to express it all.

Gladys: Just take your time to feel all of it.

Piet: There’s the part that is furious with the government for making Steve suffer. There is the part that is so shocked that my friends would think I betrayed Steve. There is the fear of bringing it up at all. What if they are convinced that it was me and they don’t believe me?  There is the part that reminds me of when my older brother stole some money from my father’s wallet, then blamed it on me. Nobody would believe me. There was nothing I could do.

Gladys:  So many things! you’re furious at the government for Steve’s suffering, you’re shocked that your friends would think you betrayed him. You’re afraid to bring it up, because they might not believe you. It reminds you of when your were unjustly blamed for stealing from your father, and there was nothing you could do.

Piet: Yes, and I am heartbroken, Gladys, that all this has taken such a toll on you.

Gladys: You’re heartbroken that it has taken such a toll on me. Thank you, Piet. (She gives him a hug and he returns it)

Piet: (Silence.) Yes, I feel like I am understanding all the things that were warring inside me.  (Silence.) I feel calmer now, Gladys. I know I am not a traitor, no matter what the others think. And I can really understand how suspicious we have all become of one another with all this government repression.

Now, when Steve comes, Piet will have processed all that he was feeling.  He will be able to acknowledge the suspicions Steve and his wife have without having their suspicions mixed up with his former trauma of being unjustly accused.  He and Steve will be able to embrace and say goodbye, and their friendship and respect for each other can remain intact.

So where’s the drama?

Most dramatic plots are about people not understanding each other, not attempting to listen to each other. When you add empathic listening, the drama fades away. People get in touch with their own inner reality. They become able to put it into words instead of holding it silently in their bodies, where it festers and alters their view of reality.

In my non-dramatic version, Piet and Gladys don’t try to give each other advice, or to console each other or smooth things over. They encourage each other to be present to the uncomfortable feelings held in the body. Those bodily-held feelings often lead to a previous life situation where vital needs were unmet. The listening and reflecting back given by the partner helps the felt sense to be acknowledged and expressed. The end result is empathy for the younger self whose needs were unmet, and the ability to separate the former trauma from present experience, not only intellectually, but in the body. When the understanding happens in the body, there is an actual shift in the bodily felt sense. This shift means that the situation can no longer be seen and acted upon in the old way.

All this requires training. Our natural tendency is look for who or what is to blame for how we feel. It takes practice to learn to bear with uncomfortable feelings in the body, acknowledge them and listen to them. There are so many systems that need changing in order for our planet to survive. That is suspense and drama enough. We don’t need our interpersonal dramas to stand in the way.

Often, people in activist movements feel that they have to remain “strong” and cannot “give in” to their very human vulnerabilities. Others feel that they have to tune out from current events because the news is too distressing.

Today’s world calls for all of us to take our humanity into account. We especially need flexible organizations that provide space for human vulnerabilities to be expressed.

Organizations that train members and staff in systems for processing human feelings will have more of a chance for reaching their full potential. This training fosters cohesiveness and mutual respect, stimulates creative thinking, and turns conflict into an opportunity for growth and realization. I have seen it work many times in the organizations I am involved in.

With Focusing and Empathic Communication you come out in a different place than where you started. After you have become aware of your feelings and needs, a fresh sense of the problem emerges and you can see new steps toward addressing it, steps that you wouldn’t have thought of when you were stuck and upset.

Of course, this means slowing down for non-judgmental, non-evaluative listening. The reward is flowing human interaction, which actually can make solutions more relevant and organizations more efficient.

More on Empathic Communication and Focusing

Empathic Communication is based on Nonviolent Communication (NVC), developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. It provides guidelines for how to talk in a way that does not put people on the defensive. The guidelines help people move out of labeling, blaming and judging, all deeply ingrained cultural behaviors that block connection. NVC promotes seeking out and addressing the unmet needs that give rise to conflict instead of only determining who is right and who is wrong.

According to the Philosophy of the Implicit of Dr. Eugene Gendlin, the developer of Focusing, stating what someone IS, ignores the reality that life is a process that is constantly developing toward more life, the way a plant grows toward the sun. This life-forward direction can become clear through listening gently to the pre-verbal “bodily felt sense” of situations. The body “gets” the intricate sense of the whole situation, often in a way that cannot easily be put into words. When one attends to the bodily felt sense in an open, empathic way, words, gestures, images, and memories emerge from the felt sense, giving meaning and indicating the next steps forward.

The paradoxical conclusion

Efficiency and efficacy in today’s activists and activist organizations depend on slowing down long enough for feelings and needs to be heard and acknowledged, and for felt senses to emerge. This can lead to personal and organizational resilience.

Beatrice Blake: I became a Certified Focusing Trainer in 2000. Working closely with colleagues in El Salvador since 2007, we developed ways of teaching Empathic Communication as a doorway to Focusing.  In my online class, Generating a Culture of Peace, people learn and practice the theory of Nonviolent Communication, and apply it to their interactions. They also see how the wisdom accessed by the bodily felt sense can give new and deeper insights on what the conflict was about in the first place. My experiences have taught me that far-reaching developments can come from listening to the felt sense.
I specialize in helping people develop their next steps in life, especially when the new direction is only a feeling that can’t yet be put into words (http://possibility-space.com).

I am going to give you a play-by-play example of Focusing from my own life.

Triggering experience: I was at an online meeting with a group of friends. We started meeting over 25 years ago. We all used to live in the same small town, and had formed a support/listening group with each other while we all had young children. We each would take 15 minutes to share whatever we were going through without being interrupted. This “15 minutes for me” proved invaluable to us all as we navigated the seas of motherhood and selfhood.

So here we were, reunited after several years of not meeting. Five of us were together in one room in the town where we used to live, and myself and one other were online, via Skype. Skype was not working well, and I was getting increasingly annoyed. I had suggested before the meeting that we could meet by Zoom, which works much better than Skype when there are more than 2 computers involved. But no-one had encouraged me to pursue this idea, and I had not insisted. My annoyance with the inadequate technology was affecting my sharing when my turn came up.

Later I decided to Focus on this, because I didn’t understand why I had been so upset. In one way, it seemed like such an unnecessary attitude on my part. I hadn’t devoted a lot of energy to thinking about the technology before the meeting, and I had not prepared an easy way to shift over to the new technology if problems arose. So why couldn’t I just accept that, instead of getting mad about it? Also, I noticed I was blaming people in the group for not listening to me about the technology. I could have judged myself for overreacting and left it at that, but luckily, I had a Focusing partnership coming up, so I decided to look at what was going on that had made me so upset.

What came to me first: “I know that Zoom is much better than Skype for multi-person calls because I use Zoom all the time for my online classes. The other people in my women’s group don’t have to deal with these issues all the time, so they aren’t aware of the potential difficulties. If I had thought about it more, I could have gently guided everyone over to my Zoom room and used my experienced knowledge to set up a more successful online meeting.”

I noticed something in me that didn’t want to impose, didn’t want to insist, even though I clearly had the knowledge and experience to make the meeting better. The “not wanting to impose” felt like a buzzy, chaotic sensation in the lower part of my head. When I noticed and welcomed the sensation, I could feel that there was much more going on there. The feeling lowered into my throat, as if there were a war going on between two opposing tribes. “Yes, there does seem to be a lot going on inside about all this”, I realized.

I stayed with it in a Focusing way, and soon I could sense that the war was between my mother and my grandmother. My grandmother projected an aura of self-confidence. She was sure of herself. This led her to a lot of successful creative endeavors which are unbelievably inspiring. But her self confidence did not leave room for other people, especially for my mother, who was always doing her best to follow in the footsteps of her mother, all the while feeling an inner frustration and resentment at not being seen for her own merits, her own selfhood.

The felt sense of a battle had lowered into my body, where I could feel it as a pressure in my heart. As I stayed with it, I could feel that my loyalty was to my mother, and that implied a rejection of my grandmother’s tendency to steamroll those around her. In a restaurant, my grandmother would imperiously send food back if it were not to her liking. I always found that embarrassing. It seemed to symbolize everything I rejected about my grandmother, everything I didn’t want to be.

I could now see that insisting on having the right technology for my women’s group meeting reminded me too much of my grandmother. Even though I was very familiar with a better system, it would have meant imposing my will on the group if I had insisted on using Zoom. It was less complicated internally for me to just go along, without sharing what I know. That way I could maintain my inner loyalty to my mother, and not risk becoming a steamroller of others, like my grandmother.

Wow, interesting. So what is this showing me about my larger life now?

It came to me that I want to emerge from this period of my life with more confidence to share what I know. To find a balance between sharing what I know and feeling that I am imposing on others.

That evening I was going to go to a dinner for cancer survivors. I could feel myself facing the dilemma all over again–how can I share what I know in this new group of people who don’t know me? I realized that I could go to the dinner “armed” or “prepared”, by making copies of articles about the research done with Focusing and breast cancer by Doralee Grindler Katonah and Joan Klagsbrun. The research shows that even doing simple Focusing exercises like Clearing a Space, can prolong the lives of cancer survivors. This gave me a jumping off point for sharing what I know. At the end of the dinner, there was a brief time to introduce oneself and say what we were involved in. I mentioned the articles, and several people asked me for information afterwards.

So, gentle reader, if you have gotten this far, I have been describing an experience that can happen in a Focusing partnership.

I had an uncomfortable, triggering experience. I Focused on it with my partner and found that there was a lot more going on there than I had been aware of.

I already have a negative and a positive “instance” of the way this acts in my life:

Instance 1: I got angry at my women’s group for “not listening to me” about meeting on Zoom instead of Skype, even though I had not really explained the advantages or set things up to implement what I know.

Instance 2: I went to the cancer survivor’s dinner “armed” with articles about how Focusing has been proven to increase longevity in cancer survivors. It led to several inquiries about Focusing.

Thanks for listening!

To hear yourself think…it helps to have somebody listen!

A Listening Partnership is not an ordinary conversation. It sets the stage for a special kind of listening.

There are two roles: the Explorer, person who speaks. And there’s the Listener.

After the Explorer’s turn, the Listener becomes the Explorer. But, at any one time, one person is either the Explorer or the Listener.

It’s different from an ordinary conversation.

Ordinary conversations are usually not focused on listening. Often, what we call a conversation is actually an argument – – you’re trying to convince each other that you’re right. Or one person is trying to be helpful, offering solutions, giving advice. In both cases, the listener is actively trying to make a point.

Of course, there are many situations in which giving advice or suggesting solutions is very appropriate, but not in a Listening Partnership. If the Listener starts to help or give advice, it takes away some of the Explorer’s precious space.

This is a very special space, a space where there is room for you, as the Explorer, to hear yourself think.

The Explorer

When you’re the Explorer, things slow down. The Listener is focused on listening to you. This helps you listen to what you feel in all its complexity. You go beyond the surface.

You will actually welcome moments when words seem to fail you, or when the words that come to mind don’t quite make sense. You listen for the “more” that is there, waiting to be sensed and expressed.

It’s a very special kind of paying attention. Like the way people pay special attention when they are at a wine tasting–holding a sip of wine in the mouth for a while, curious about all the nuances of the experience, as opposed to just saying: “It’s good” or “It’s bad”.

Like wine tasters who try to put words to their experience, you might struggle to put words to your experience. Don’t try to squeeze your brain to find the right words. Allow words to come out from the “taste” of the situation.

The Listener

How does creative thinking emerge? Not by putting pressure on yourself, but by making space, allowing fresh ideas to arise. The very presence of the Listener makes this more possible.

The Listener is there for you, patiently listening to what you say, sometimes saying it back to you so you can hear it too. The Listener does not complete your sentences for you, doesn’t urge you to go faster or to be more articulate… The Listener simply stays with you so that you can listen more intently to your own thoughts.

It’s as if the Listener were saying. “I want to listen to you. I’m interested even in the process of your meandering, not knowing what you want to say. I’m going to stay with you as you go through it.”

Checking for resonance 

Each time a word or phrase comes, the Explorer stays with it, gently comparing that word or phrase to the experience. Does it feel right? Does it describe the feel of the situation as a whole?

This is not about being logical. It’s about sensing whether it feels right or not. If it doesn’t totally feel right, then you, as the Explorer, can keep on exploring.

At some point, you find a word or phrase that fits your feeling more precisely. The Listener is there with you, so you can give yourself the time and space to make sure that what you say “resonates” with what you feel.

Wow. When you find that resonance, it feels so right!

It’s like it had been hiding in plain sight. As you are able to pay attention, to see things as they are, to hear yourself think, you get this “Wow!”

The Listener simply stays with you so that you are able to listen more intently to your own thoughts. This creates the space for fresh thinking to emerge.

Welcoming awkward silences

As the Explorer and Listener patiently wait for the Explorer’s words to come, there are moments of silence. In everyday life, that could be very uncomfortable. Here, instead of rushing to find something to say, you actually see the silence as a sign that something new wants your attention.

You welcome those moments when words seem to fail you. Of course, it can feel weird or troubling. It’s like you’re in the twilight zone, instead of the bright sunlight where everything is sharply defined. Being in that twilight zone, noticing the feeling without the words, actually stimulates your mind to go deeper.

The Listener stays with you so you know it’s OK to be have lost contact with the firm ground of clear meanings. This is where you can notice the “felt sense” of what is not yet in words.

Play with it!

Just do it. Explore your thoughts, or your feelings, in a Listening Partnership. Don’t worry about doing it right. Play with it.

You take turns, so that each one of you can have the space to hear yourself think, or feel. At the beginning, just take 15 minutes each.

You will get better at it with practice.

Thanks to Serge Prengel of activepause.com for developing this with me!