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Facilitative Focusing

By Mary Jennings

How to use focusing with ‘non-focusers’ in work situations

I learned focusing by happy accident over ten years ago. It has been of great benefit to me in my own personal development. Some years ago, I began to develop an interest in the philosophy behind focusing, to explore Thinking at the Edge (TAE) and, more recently, to explore how to apply focusing to work situations.

I work as a business consultant, principally in the area of marketing communications.  I get paid to ask people questions that help them clarify what they want to say: areas where there is as yet an unclear sense of what they want to communicate; areas with a ‘fuzzy edge’. You can see already why this is a ripe area for focusing/TAE.

A focusing epiphany

One day, I had a real epiphany. I was working on preparing a report with my business partner, a person whose favourite word is ‘logic’; a person who would be wary of anything that smacked too much of ‘touchy feely’ stuff. I was wrestling with a felt sense of ‘something’ not right in what we had prepared when he leaned nearer and said, “You have your worried face on, so you’ve spotted something ….” And then he waited, giving me the opportunity for my felt sense to unfold. I realised, with something of a shock, that he had become my focusing partner, without any understanding of the formal process.  As we worked, I began to notice when this ‘non-focuser’ was also experiencing an unclear edge (usually indicated by a long ‘uhm’, sometimes accompanied by the (very logical) words, ‘let’s take a step back’). Without saying anything, but through my body posture and my presence, in my turn I was creating the space for his felt sense to unfold. Over the next few hours, I could feel that the work was flowing, while focusing was happening quite naturally.

Spot the Focuser

After that, at meetings and work sessions, I began to play a little game which I call ‘Spot the Focuser’. Once you begin it, you will spot focusers everywhere. I began to notice when people had an unclear edge, something they were in touch with but could not yet articulate. They show this fuzziness sometimes like I did in a ‘worried face’, sometimes in hesitations, in ‘uhms’ and ‘ahs’ and other mumblings and mutterings. Often in the business world these are taken as signs of ‘indecisiveness’; ‘lack of clarity’; ‘being unstructured’ – all of them potentially major faults!  Instead of seeing unclear edges as portents of discomfort, areas to be avoided, cured or pitied,   if we recognise them as felt senses then they become portals of discovery.

Tentatively, and in informal ways, I began to apply what I had learned about the focusing process  from the more structured setting of a focusing/ TAE partnership to work situations, populated, I was beginning to realise,  by lots of non-focusing focusers!. What I was attempting to do was to be with people in a way that would allow them to ‘speak from’, as Gendlin puts it, their felt sense of a situation so that it could unfold and carry forward. I want to emphasise that of course it is still their process: this is not about manipulating people into doing focusing: rather it is being with them in a facilitative way as they are ‘focusing’; I call it Facilitative Focusing.

Before and after example

Let me give you a before-and-after example of how my work practices have changed. On one occasion I was helping a client prepare an internal newsletter. She said she wanted this issue to have an ‘edgy’ feel to it. Before my Spot the Focuser discovery, I probably would have jumped straight in with three bright ideas of how to create that sense of ‘edgy’ since I knew the organisation quite well. Instead, this time, I paused and treated her ‘edgy’as a place where she was, appropriately enough, thinking at the edge. I simply asked that most essential of TAE questions, “So, what would you like ‘edgy’ to mean in this situation?” She then paused, and after some fits and starts said, “Something that’s way beyond where they are right now, something that will really challenge the complacency and ordinariness that has crept in”. “Oh, that kind of edgy”, I replied, now with some better sense of what she meant. It’s not what I would have understood by the word, it’s not the dictionary definition either. But, for her, it fitted this situation.

Then, using the idea of ‘facets’ from the TAE process, I asked : “Can you think of a time when  you have seen or experienced  this kind of edgy – anywhere you have seen it, not just in a publication, but anywhere”. Here, I was inviting her to fish in the deep lake of her whole experience, her whole intricacy, to find a facet, a pattern, she could use. She caught a Big One: “It’s like a piece of jazz, like you don’t quite know where it’s going to go”, she said. I reflected that back to her and after some further discussion she said suddenly, “I think Eamon is the right person to do a piece for this issue, he has that edge and he’s not what they will expect”. The right next step had come from her unfolding felt sense and the pattern of ‘unexpected’ from her music example. Now I could really contribute those bright ideas; ones that would be more in tune with our shared understanding of what was required. Had I been working in my old way, I would have jumped in too early with my own suggestions, my own assumptions and solutions (trying to be helpful, you understand!) and crushed her forming felt sense. Our work would have then missed out on the implicit wisdom she had for just this situation.

Small differences, big shifts

Working in this non-formal-focusing way is beginning to flow more naturally now. I have practised it, reflected on it, tried things out and found out what works. On one level, the differences in the way of working I am describing seem small, obvious even; on another level they come from large shifts in my understanding of how rich our experience is, how we use language creatively to say what we mean in situations, how we can develop and apply new concepts, how powerful (and difficult) real listening is, how natural a process focusing is and how powerful it can be when you are open to its exacting surprises.

 These shifts in understanding have come largely from my study of Gendlin’s Philosophy of the Implicit.  I have found that this has deepened my appreciation of both focusing and TAE. It has given me confidence that there is more to explore, use and trust in my own experience, my own ‘ongoingness’ in interaction with others and my environment.

A new protocol

While I enjoy studying philosophy, I also have a strong practical side and like to find ways of applying ideas and concepts in everyday situations.  To remind me to work more in this new way, I have developed what I will now grandly call a protocol:  I remind myself to HISSS! There’s how it goes:

This little memory aid helps me hold all of that new understanding and to remember to bring it with me in whatever situation I am in. Just saying the word itself, with all those slow sibilants, helps me to actually slow down, to pause, to put myself in a focusing space. From this space, I know that I have a better opportunity to access my rich, intricate experience and, through Facilitative Focusing, to help others to do that as well.

I invite you then, next time you are a meeting to try some HISSSing; I think you will be richly rewarded when you do.

Mary Jennings is a business consultant and lives in Dublin, Ireland. She can be contacted at maryj@eircom.net

Last Modified: 11 September 2007

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