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A FOCUSING GROUP
Model for a New Kind of Group Process

MARION N. HENDRICKS
Illinois School of Professional Psychology

SMALL GROUP BEHAVIOR, Vol. 15. No. 2, May 1984 155-171
Copyright 1984 Sage Publications, Inc.

Introduction

Theoretical Background

Group Method

Note

References


Focusing as a process of therapeutic change, based on the work of E. T. Gendlin et al., is applied in a group setting. Examples of the focusing process calling for a bodily felt sense of situations and problems, are presented and implications and uses of the method explored.

Focusing is described as an essential process in therapeutic change (Gendlin, 1981). In focusing, one silently tries to discriminate the bodily felt sense of a situation or problem. When one attends to a "felt sense" and asks, "What is in this sense?" words or images emerge from it. One asks a series of internal questions and waits for a symbolization to emerge directly from one's experience. Over several such steps, there is often a distinct felt shift. What was closed and unclear opens and changes. This concrete, bodily felt shift is a process of positive personality change. Focusing is conceptually related to the experiencing level (EXP) variable, on which much research has been done (Klein et al., 1970). High EXP correlates positively with successful outcome in psychotherapy. Focusing is a high EXP process. Teaching focusing can increase EXP level and enhance the possibility of positive change in psychotherapy.

To illustrate this process, a taped excerpt from an individual focusing teaching session is presented. Because the client is new to the process, each step of the instructions is clearly spelled out along with the client's responses. It is this kind of process that is then adapted to the group format reported in this article.

The transcript begins after brief relaxation instructions have been given.[1]

T1: Notice what comes but don't go into anything right now. [Pause] Just accept what comes, notice it, and put it to one side. I want you to keep some distance from what's coming as you turn your attention inward. [Pause] Keep some space between you and what comes–notice it and put it aside. This is like clearing a space for yourself– a wide space that you can feel okay in. [Pause] If you notice anything at all that prevents you from feeling okay I'd like you to take whatever that happens to be, and just put it to one side. [Pause] You could then ask yourself, "Do I really feel completely okay now?"–and if there's anything at all that might still be in the way, I'd like you to take that and put it aside. [Pause] So there's that big wide clear space that you feel okay in-­[Pause] As you feel ready I'd like you to list some of the things that you put to one side.
[15 second silence]
What are some of the things that you noticed and put to a side as you were turning your attention inward?

C1: [Pause] Problem I'm having with my parents – put to one side – problem, problems I'm having at work – put them to one side [pause] and that's about all – those are the only two negative feelings I really had – that I needed to put to one side.

T2: Okay, so the problems with your parents that you're having right now, and also some work related problems came to your attention.

C2: Right.

T1: This is the first step in the Focusing Process: Clearing the Space.

T3: Okay, in that cleared space that you made for yourself, I'd like you to choose one of those problems, and put that in there. You're not gonna go into it–you're just gonna choose which one that you'd like to work on at this time– which one you'd feel most comfortable working on right now. [Client starts to say something–therapist breaks in] Don't go into it yet–just put it in the cleared space.

C3: Okay – I just put the problem with my parents in the cleared space.

T3: Client (C.) is asked to choose one specific problem to focus on.

T4: Okay [Pause]. I'd like you to forget about words and thoughts and images right now–and just ask yourself, "What does this problem feel like?" Think of a feeling quality– focus on the whole sense of the problem–you could ask yourself, "What is this feeling quality like?" We're not talking about thoughts right now– I know I said think before–but, I want you to put your thoughts aside for right now – and just let your body feel what the whole sense of the problem is like. Take as much time as you need and get in touch with the whole experience of the feeling. [Pause] Hold the words and the picture fr now and just let yourself experience the whole sense of what the problem feels like.
[13-second silence]

C4: I think I hit on a feeling–

T4: Therapist (T.) is instructing C. to let form a bodily felt sense of the problem with his parents. Notice that she draws his attention to how he is right now experiencing this particular whole problem in his body. She is not interested in his thoughts about the problem. In the last sentence T. is pointing C. toward a felt, but preverbal sense of the whole problem. This is the second step.
T5: Okay, as you touch this feeling quality, ask your body, "What is this feeling like?" Said you hit on a feeling-­perhaps you touched that feeling quality. I'd like you to wait for a little while, and let a word or image emerge from the feeling that you just hit on. It's not gonna come from your thoughts–the word or image is gonna come from the feeling that you touched on. As you experience that sense of the whole problem, you could ask yourself, "What is the worst of this for me?" And let a word or an image emerge from that feeling.
[30-second silence]
C5: [Sigh] Well, the feeling I had was pain­-
T5: T. now instructs C. to let words or images come directly from this immediate-felt sense of the problem with his parents. Asking himself this kind of inward question helps direct his attention to the body level and encourages him to wait for an answer to emerge. This is the third step. Notice the silence as C. does directly attend to this felt sense, rather that speculating or describing what he already knows about the problem.

T6: Okay, why don't you put yourself– give yourself some distance front the feeling quality. Take the problem and put it outside yourself. You're here and it's there (C.: Uh-hum). You're not into it– you have some distance from it. You're not falling into the feeling. It's at some distance from you. And just get in touch with it –but so you can have some perspective on it, and then see what emerges from the feeling.

C6: [Pause] Okay– I see pain all over as a result of you know, in terms of this problem. Not only my own pain, but the pain of others who are involved in it. I saw that more clearly when I took sort of a little outside [inaudible] distance. (T.: Okay). You see when I keep it in it is more like my own problem, whereas when I looked at it at a dis­tance, I could see it as not only my own but the problem of others who are involved also.

T6: T. does not want C. to move into a cathartic process or to sink into a bad feeling. Neither of these would be focusing. She wants the implicit felt complexity of that problem to form into words or images.

T7- Okay, as that word pain comes to you, I'd like you to check that word against the feeling and see if that fits.
[11-second silence]

(7: [Quietly] Yes, it does.

T7: She takes his "handle" word "pain" and "checks" it–step number four in the Focusing Process. Does this word really capture the directly felt quality of the problem? The therapist misses one edge of the client's articulation. What has freshly come for the client is that the pain in not just his, but that the situation is making pain in everyone involved. It would be been a more exact response to ask the client to check the phrase "pain, not just for me, but in everyone involved," instead of just checking the word "pain" against the felt sense.
T8.-Okay–um, the word "pain" matches with the feeling that you got in touch with before– do you feel what do you feel in your body when you put the word pain next to the feeling?
[8-second silence]
T8: She's not satisfied with his verbal assent, but wants him to see if there is a body response that says, "Yes, that is the quality of this problem."
C8: [ Pause] Well, I kind of feel–[pause] I don't know – in a way I feel kind of good. I was able to– I've identified something–I finally– I think, identified what it is that's bothering me about this problem–and I think that's the pain that's being inflicted on everyone involved. And also the pain inflicted on oneself by oneself–by everyone­-by each individual involved. And I think [pause], I don't know–it kind of makes me feel good inside because it's one of the hardest problems I've had to deal with–ever. T8: An odd and characteristic feature of Focusing is illustrated here. Even though the content that emerges (pain) is distressing, the unfolding into words (or images) of the bodily felt version of the problem feels good. What is actually in C.'s vague, distressed, tense experience with his parents is beginning to become clear.

Therapist and client have now almost completed one round of Focusing. The therapist then goes on to step five of the Process, asking:

T9: Okay, as you take the word pain could you go underneath that and see what comes from that. Ask your body in the same way that you asked it before–and see what comes­-  

Of course, this is just the initial step of this problem, but it illustrates clearly the form of the Focusing Process. For a fuller understanding of technique the reader may refer to Gendlin's book, Focusing (1981), which presents a theory of this process as central to personality change (Gendlin, 1964).

Focusing has been used primarily in individual psychotherapy. For demonstration and teaching purposes focusing instructions are sometimes given to groups of people. In such a setting some people seem able to focus immediately, but to others it makes little sense. In this article an ongoing focusing group is discussed as a model for a new type of small group. The intent is for each member to go through the above process simultaneously and then be able to share his or her experience. This can be an effective teaching format, but more important, it generates a particular kind of group experience. This particular focusing group arose in the context of CHANGES, a crisis-intervention therapeutic community run by University of Chicago graduate students for other students and community members. Initially, the group was designed to teach focusing to people who were having difficulty learning it. However, a powerful group process soon developed as people began to focus together on a regular basis. The structure described here is easily combined with other group methods or adapted to specific task groups. I have used it in various combinations including stress reduction groups in a medical school and training groups for clinical staffs in hospital settings.

THEORETICAL BACKGROUND

A focusing group is an interpersonal structure that enables an inward focus and articulation of experience for each member. In our present cultural milieu, socially expected behavioral and emotional patterns often fail to fit experience. Our interpersonal routines often seem to hinder felt life. For example, marriage is supposed to enable intimacy, but some people find new freedom in relating only after terminating the marriage structure. When a degree is granted at the end of 15 or 20 years of formal school structure, some people become freer to read and think for themselves; "genuine" education begins. When intimacy, interaction, and thinking are required by outside structures, many people only cope, produce, and seem to have the experiences the structures arc designed to enable and support. On a deeper level, however, the structures can oppress what they exist to enable.

When an individual can make contact with her or his own structuring process, then patterns emerge that facilitate one's felt experience. In focusing, one refers directly to and differentiates one's own experience. Focusing is a structure-creating process (Gendlin, 1964). For example, when one selects books to read on the basis of an inwardly felt need, it turns out that the reading material forms a pattern. This pattern expresses the person and facilitates an evolving intellectual process in a way not possible if one merely follows another's curriculum. Many people don't know how to differentiate their own experience, how to make structure with others, and how to discover that their actual feelings are rich–and directly guide action. "Transition structures" are those forms that teach people how to move from the entrapment of imposed social patterns to the freedom of making new forms. A focusing group is such a transition structure. Each person generates her or his own interactive structure by means of a self-aware inward process. When organized around Focusing, a unique kind of group evolves.

GROUP METHOD

Initially the group can be a training group to teach focusing. This shifts after some time to an ongoing group process. The group I am going to describe met weekly for two hours for one and a half years. Between 8 and 12 people were present at any given meeting. The group was closed (to keep size down), but there were no agreements to attend regularly; during the training stage only I agreed to be there each time. Pressure for attendance violates a structure intended to express an inner need. It makes it an obligation, one more task. The point of the group is to focus – each person silently but not alone. An introverted, individual process goes on in the company of others. (Most group situations demand extraverted process.) The group is structured to facilitate peoples' attention to their own inner processes through relaxation, silence, and focusing. Each individual is ensured privacy and safety from external intervention. Within this context full attention to internal process can begin. Mobilizing to meet responses (positive or negative) to others (as we usually do in group situations) interferes with focusing.

The group should meet in a quiet room where people can be comfortable and undisturbed. In this group, people usually would take a mat and lie down. Before focusing, I gave relaxation instructions followed by a minimum of 10 minutes silence, which is a long time to share silence in a group. People slept, dreamed, fantasized, thought, cried, as they were moved, with no instruction or response from anyone else.

It came to be that as people arrived, took off their shoes, and lay down, they would sigh with relief: "This is the only place in my whole week where I can come and just be myself, with other people, and not have to interact and be tense. I can go into myself and see – take time to catch up with what's going on in me." Simply entering the room became a powerful experience. The silence was a time in which one could disengage from the momentum of a fast-paced day and find one's larger sense of center and balance.

At the end of the 10-minute period, I would give some version of focusing instructions. The leader can give the standard instructions at each meeting–also available in Japanese, German, and Dutch (Gendlin, 1981 translations); however, as the point of focusing is to let fresh symbolizations emerge from one's immediate sense of a whole situation, it seems preferable to model this capacity. Within the general framework, the leader can make up fresh focusing instructions each time. This helps members sense how to make up their own instructions– a more powerful process than using externally derived instructions. To do this the group leader must understand the focusing process thoroughly and not himself or herself be tied to the literal formulation.

The standard instructions begin with, "How am I now?" Instead, near the end of the silence period, the leader can ask inwardly, "What open-ended questions would help me sense the whole of my immediate experience?" Then one waits for a question to emerge. One can ask again, silently, "What instruction next?" Then, as the leader gives the instructions out loud, she also follows them herself. (One point of the group is for the leader to focus with the others.)

The rest of the sequence of questions arises from a specific process. For example, if I find my mind wandering, I say, "If you find your mind wandering, gently bring it back." Or, if I sense something in the way of a feeling, or trouble shifting or opening, I say, "Ask yourself, 'what's in the way of this feeling shifting or opening?'" One generalizes whatever instruction arises from one's own process. If I get a sad feeling, my next step might be to ask myself silently, "What is this sadness?" I then say out loud, "Ask yourself now, 'What is this feeling I'm working on, what's in it? Just wait and see what words or images come from the feeling.'" The content "sadness" is mine. The generalized spoken question is an instruction applicable to any feeling.

The steps are timed by how long it takes the leader to get a bodily felt response to the given question, plus time to sense a next instruction, and 10 or 20 extra seconds. If she gets stuck on a step, then there is a long pause before the next instruction. The whole focusing process usually requires 20 or 30 minutes –composed largely of silence between spoken instructions.

Since the instructions arise from the leader's process often they are not right for others, although there are some typical events and troubles in focusing that provide some basis for sharing. As members learn to focus, they can ignore instructions and make up their own or follow their own timing. Still, the minimal structure of someone giving instructions is important. Also, the depth of the leader's process helps deepen that of others especially in silence when one's pace slows and inner sensitivity deepens. The inward-turnedness of another is keenly felt.

I am stressing a reflexive principle here–the leader focusing to formulate focusing instructions, and then focusing herself as she gives the instructions. Fresh structure is thus derived from process. The process of teaching focusing instances focusing.

During the instructions people often cry, laugh, or sigh, as a feeling shifts, releases, or opens. This is each person's private process and calls for no response from others. After the instructions, all are invited to tell what happened for them at each step. This is both to share (which sharpens one's own understanding of what was just experienced) and to work on difficulties in focusing.

Here are sonic examples of sharing, extracted from early sessions:

(1) I felt unhappy. My job won't let me go. I didn't think anything good could happen for me tonight because I was so tense. I couldn't relax during the relaxation period. When you said to ask, "What do I want to work on?" I didn't know. I had tried to think before I came what I wanted to work on. I couldn't think of anything. But when I followed your instructions and asked myself, "What do I want to work on?" what came was, "I want to be able to ask for what I need!" I was surprised, but it felt good to get that. Then right away three images of three situations in which I need to ask, and feel I can't, came to me. Then, when you said to ask ourselves, "What needs to happen for this to shift or open up?" I tried asking in fantasy for what I need in each of these situations. And you know what happened? Nothing! No one got upset. Now I feel like I can go and try it. For instance, I can say that I need to meet once a week with this person instead of twice; that it's too fast for me. 'The outside instructions were very important. I couldn't have done it if left to myself.

(2) There were too many words. I didn't listen to the instructions. I stayed with my feeling. I got an image of what on the outside could make the feeling change. Then as the image came, tears came. Then anxiety– a wanting it to go away. The feeling started with a place in the body, my chest, and a tightness in the throat. Then words came: "Oh, it's a sadness." I spent a long time feeling that sadness; I never did feel it as parts. It was one big feeling and then the image came of what would change the feeling.

(3) My mind kept wandering. I decided to focus on my breath. It was hard to get into a feeling. The instructions seemed too vague. When you said. "Let yourself have a feel of the whole problem," that seemed vague. I didn't know how to do it.

(4) When I asked myself, "How am I now?" I immediately felt anxious and slightly nauseous. 'Then when you said to let a phrase or image form from the feeling, I saw myself as a scared little girl wanting to hide. When you said to see what was in that feeling or image, I couldn't get anything because there were too many reasons; I didn't know what to attach the feeling to. But there was a shift in that it felt good to get to the place where I really was rather than the social "out there" place.

When people share their exact process, one can work with their difficulties. One can make up simple exercises to address a given difficulty with focusing: how to discriminate a felt sense of a problem; how to let words or images form from it. For example, the man in example three above is not yet able to get a felt sense of a whole problem. I o help him experience a felt sense, I asked everyone to think silently about her or his mother–to let images and memories of her come up and then find a phrase that she typically said. When all group members had a phrase, I asked them to get ready to role-play mother saying the phrase, with all her voice tones, gestures, and feelings. I then asked them to put their attention in their bodies and notice that a holistic quality is perceivable there–the felt sense of mother. Such a felt sense includes a vast number of implicit aspects of one's living relevant to any given event, person, or problem. (Specific exercises are included in Focusing [Gendlin, 1981], but it is preferable that the leader understand focusing well enough to make up exercises directly relevant to a member's difficulty.)

Members are encouraged to share their difficulties specifically– "What you said, 'let the feel of that whole problem come,' this is what happened... "At Step three when I tried to let an image come nothing happened, just a lot of old thoughts went around in my head." Describing with internal precision is the goal. To describe a difficulty exactly is itself a kind of focusing. It involves attending to the feel of the difficulty and letting words that exactly capture the trouble form from it.

As members learn focusing, the discussion afterward changes from teaching to sharing. The time available is divided by the number of people. Each person typically has five minutes and a lot can happen in five minutes. Those who wish to say something do so. Anyone is free to not use the time. The leader may reflect in a client-centered fashion, but there is no other interaction unless the person sharing specifies a desired response. Each person's sharing is received, not judged, not sympathized with, and not argued about. The norm is not having to deal with people's reactions to one's inner process. The group members are silently attentive. When something is trying to emerge into articulate form, one usually does not wish to he disrupted by external input. One's few minutes belong entirely to oneself, made safe within the group.

This no-response format at times is difficult for some people. However, helping each person move into the private inner process with the support of others who are doing the same is different than the process of an interaction group. People in need of active interaction can be referred simultaneously to another group if they wish.

The experiencing theory (Gendlin, 1964) states that our bodily sense of a problem can be "carried forward" by allowing a symbolization to form directly from this bodily felt sense. Such symbolizations can be words, images, or actions. For instance, during this group I formulated a question as basis for a carrying-forward action: "Ask yourself, 'what could I do here', in my few minutes, that would be a right next step on this issue... on the issue that I'm focusing on?"

To illustrate this step more clearly, let's return to the individual-focusing teaching session cited in the introduction. The therapist has taken the client through several rounds of focusing and is now asking him to sense what is needed to resolve the problem with his parents:

T1: Okay, why don't you ask yourself', "Is there something I need to do to let this be okay?" and give yourself some distance from it, and try to not have so many thoughts or to keep it in the realm of thinking and thoughts–and just let your body get a whole sense of "Is there something I need to do to let this be okay?" Focus inward on that –away from thoughts [pause], away from mental processes–and just get a whole felt sense of "Is there something I need to do to let this be okay?" And as you experience that–wait and see what comes– see what emerges from the whole sense of the feeling "Is there something I need to do to let this he okay?"
[26-second silence]
T1: Notice T. is directing C.'s attention to a holistic sense of the entire situation, not simply his thoughts about the problem. C. is not being asked to problem solve in the usual manner – rationally thinking out possible solutions. Instead we want to let an action step form directly out of one's whole-body sense of the situation. What actually comes may surprise one and even seem quite irrational because the step is formed by many implicitly functioning aspects. This whole sense is much larger than what we can think separately and clearly at any given moment. (Mapping this level is central to creativity, as has been shown in a number of studies–see Gendlin, 1967).
C1: Okay. [Pause] This may sound too mundane, but I think I need to write a letter-­to my mother–a joint letter signed by my brother and myself. C1: C. is silent as he attends at least somewhat to this sense of the whole. Notice how the step that comes seems to his rational judgment to be too simple. He defensively says, "This may sound too mundane."
T2: Okay, as you say those words, how do you feel in your body? What does your body feel–as you say those words? T2: T. here nicely asks him to check to see if his body actually responds to this step, or whether it's just a thought. If the action step has emerged from the whole-felt sense of the problem, the body, which carries this sense, changes slightly. One sighs, feels a tension release, and sometimes laughs or cries. Some slight, involuntary body response occurs to signal a step of movement coming from this level.
C2: Relief. Because I think that [sigh] the only way the problem can be solved is–is a very direct and concise and clear communication by my brother and myself to my mother explaining in detail, if necessary [sigh], the nature of the problem, and what she's doing to–and contributing to it. And I think that's really the only thing we can do. [Pause] If we do it properly, if we do it with enough thought, and enough love, and enough dignity, it may be the first step in the direction of solving the problem. C2: C. indeed reports relief, a bodily feeling, and he sighs several times as he articulates this step further.

This five-minute process is, of course, as C. states, only a "first step in the direction of solving the problem."

Most people are not familiar with this focusing level. Problem solving is generally restricted to rational thinking or to seeking advice from others. The point here is that one can refer directly to one's own whole complex implicit sense of the problematic situation and, from that, allow a next needed step to emerge.

In the group format, instructions were given to sense what one could do in the group at the time that would constitute a needed next step toward problem resolution. Then, in the sharing circle each person was invited to actually do whatever action step had emerged while focusing. This is a powerful procedure and can be included routinely. The following are some examples of carrying-forward actions: making up and singing a song, asking to be massaged to release a tense back or neck, doing yoga postures for five minutes (instead of only wishing she would do it), standing at the podium preaching, claiming the power and authority he felt but was embarrassed to show, turning her back on us and screaming at her mother to get out of her way so she could have room to live, or bursting into tears and crying with no words. With actions such as these, a lot of discharge happens, because when one takes a life-freeing step, it releases feeling. As one moves forward– cries, laughs, takes a deep breath –the body lets go and changes.

Instead of being given a sentence to elicit discharge by a Re-Evaluation Co-Counseling teacher, or being touched on pressure points at the judgment of the bioenergeticist, people in this group derive their own discharge sentences, discriminate where they need to be touched, and so forth. Neither form nor content is externally imposed. Each person's step is unique and emerges directly from one's own structure-making focusing process. This derivation capacity is a dimension of a self-healing process. It is therapeutically powerful to be self­generating and to watch others being so. A tremendous sense of group cohesion and mutual support develops.

During the last months of this group some people focused on how they would each lead a focusing group. (This is another example of the reflexive principle mentioned earlier.) As each felt ready, she or he led the group for a number of sessions, trying out original focusing instructions and structures. Some members have gone on to organize their own focusing groups in a variety of contexts and places, such as with cancer patients, with teachers in school systems, in creativity classes, with therapy clients, and with women's groups. The group did not seem to pass through typical stages of group development (Beck, 1974), yet members felt close to each other and worked at a deep level.

Persons with a low experiencing level (nonfocusers) have a poor prognosis for therapy. Such people might benefit greatly front an adjunctive or pretherapy focusing group, in which they would be gently sensitized to their own inner processes.

In addition to the therapeutic context, this group model may be appropriate for use in a wide variety of settings, including work situations in which creative thinking, leadership skills, and problem solving arc emphasized.

NOTE

1. My thanks to Barbara Ritter for permission to use her Focusing Tape Assignment.

REFERENCES

Beck, A.P.(1974) "Phases in the developmental structure in therapy and encounter groups." C. Wexler and L. Rice (eds.) Innovations in Client-Centered Therapy. New York: John Wiley.

Gendlin, E.T. (1981) Focusing. New York: Bantam Books. (Focusing:Uitgeverij De Poorts, Amsterdam 1981; Fukumura Shappare, Tokyo 1981; Otto Muller, Salzburg, 1981.)

Gendlin, E.T. (1964) "A theory of personality change" in P. Worchel and D. Byrne (eds.) Personality Change. New York: John Wiley.
(Reprinted in A. Mahrer(ed.) Creative Development in Psychotherapy. Cleveland: Case-Western Reserve 1971;
Collected Papers: Nurase, T. (trans.) Tokyo, Muki, 1966;
Das Selbsterleben (Experiencing) in des Psychotherapie, Bommert Dahlhoff (Hrsg.), Munchen, 1978.)

Klein, M.H., P.L. Mathiew, E.T. Gendlin, and D.J. Kiesler (1970) The Experiential Scale: A Research and Training Manual. Madison: Psychiatric Institute. University of Wisconsin.

Murayama, S. (1979) "A note on focusing practice–a study of theory and practice of focusing (3)." Research Bull. Educ. Psychology 24 (Faculty of Education, Kyushu University).

 

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