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Three Rules for Safety in Focusing Partnerships

by Ann Weiser Cornell
"Adapted from an article by Ann Weiser Cornell appearing in The Focusing Connection newsletter, January 2000."

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1. Never never never mention the content of the Focusing session, even after the session is over, unless the Focuser brings it up.

This is really important. Many a Focusing partnership has broken up on the rocks of this one. A seemingly innocent, well-intentioned comment can compromise the safety of the partnership for both people. And its so tempting to do it! You have to be really clear, and really conscious, on this one, because the easiest thing out of your mouth is probably something that will violate this rule. We have thousands of times more practice being social in a non-Focusing setting than in a Focusing one. What could it hurt? Answer: a lot.

Lets say your partner is Focusing on feelings around an argument with their spouse. During the session you scrupulously follow the guidelines, and just reflect their feelings and their point of view, without putting in any opinions of your own. But after the session is over, when the two of you are still sitting there, or standing up to go, or in the kitchen sharing a cup of tea, you find yourself saying, X [the spouse] is really a difficult person. What happens? The next time your partner wants to focus on that issue or a similar one, there is a tilt, a slant. A part of them thinks it can win you to its side. Another part feels unsafe, like you have taken sides against it. You have shown your bias, and bias creates an unsafe space.

Its even worse if your casual comment implies some judgement or criticism of the Focuser, like: I would never put up with the kinds of thing you put up with from X. Now the bias includes a judgement of the Focuser, and the space is even less safe for Focusing.

Worst of all: advice of any kind. Giving advice unasked-for implies both judgement and lack of trust. Think about it! When you say Why don't you try... or "Have you thought about..." or "What I would do if I were you is...", you're actually saying that you don't believe they can handle this situation wisely without your input. Is that what you actually believe? You may want to Focus on that with another partner!

It's another matter if advice is asked for. "What do you think?" or "What would you do?" are clear invitations to give your opinion. The problem I think for many people (and I'm not just talking about Focusing partnerships now) is that they hear the statement of a problem as if it were a request for advice. Y was talking about her painful wrist during a Focusing session and her listener Z, after the session was over, started asking, "Have you tried orthobionomy? I can give you the name of a really good practitioner." There is no doubt that Z had the very best of intentions. But the loss of safety from the intrusion was a greater cost than the possible gain from the good advice. Y has plenty of people to give her advice, but only a few Focusing partners.

No matter how you met your partner, whether they were a friend to start with, or someone you met in a workshop, this close relationship will start to feel like a friendship. And then there can be a clash between the rules and mores of friendship, and the stricter ones of Focusing partnership. It might be good to recognize the potential for conflict within yourself, the part of you that wants the ease and flow of a regular friendship, the part of you that wants the safety of a Focusing partnership. Friends express opinions, friends give advice (although probably a lot more than they need to!), friends share stories of similar experiences. You have to ask yourself, is the feeling of relaxed unstructured friendship with this person really worth the risk to the Focusing partnership? I'd say no, don't risk it. A good Focusing partner is not that easy to find!

"What do I do if my partner mentions the content of my session and I'm uncomfortable with that?"

If you catch it at the moment it happens, you might say something like, "It feels like you're talking about the content of my session, and I know you mean well, but I'd like to leave some space around that." Or "....but I'd like to leave that whole topic alone now."

If, as often happens, you only realize later that you were uncomfortable with your partner commenting on your content, that's a trickier situation. You might ask yourself, in a Focusing way, if your sense of safety with your partner needs for you to bring up the subject of what has already happened. If not, you could just resolve to catch it if it happens again. But if you do need to bring it up, you might say, "Do you remember last time when we were chatting after the session, and you said, "I would never put up with the kinds of thing you put up with from X."? I realized later that it felt like you were commenting on the content of my session, and I'd like to make a request that we not comment on the content of one another's session unless the Focuser brings it up. Would that be OK?" There are two key points here (with appreciation to Marshall Rosenberg's Non-Violent Communication, even though I'm not following his system exactly). One is to quote, to the best of your ability, exactly what your partner said, as opposed to something like: "Do you remember last time when we were chatting after the session, and you criticized my relationship?" Two is to remember that your partner was well-intentioned and this is not to judge their behavior as wrong, but just to let them know that you would like something different in the future.

"What if the Listener gets triggered by the Focuser's material?"

First answer: Good! What a great opportunity!

Second answer: As the Listener, you are responsible for your own feelings and reactions, of course. You are a real person, not impervious to being moved or touched or shaken or stirred by what the Focuser is working on. But they are yours. I'd recommend saying "Hello, I know you're there," silently, to any feelings of your own that come up while you're listening to the Focuser. That may be enough. There is no need to share them. In fact, better not, not even after the session is over. They're too likely to infringe on your partner's content.

If your turn is next, there may be a way to sensitively Focus on your issues that were triggered by your partner's work. If you can really own them as yours, not in any way "about" your partner, it should be OK. If you're in doubt, you can check with your partner by briefly describing what you want to work on and asking if that would or wouldn't violate their space. This sort of mutually inspired work can actually be rewarding for both people.

The most dangerous type of "being triggered" is when you don't realize it, so that instead of you taking responsibility for your reactions, they emerge as criticisms, judgments (of the Focuser or others in the Focuser's life), advice, or rescuing behavior. Earlier, I said that giving advice is probably out of social habit or because you mistakenly believe you've been asked for help. Actually, the urge to give advice, rescue, help, or judge may well be coming from a place in you that is having a hard time just being with the Focuser's process. Be alert for the urge to help, fix, or rescue. These urges can be golden signposts that there is something in you that needs some company.

2. Remember that it is the Focuser's session, and it is not your responsibility as Listener/Guide/Companion/Ally to make something good happen in their Focusing, or even to make sure they're Focusing at all.

This used to happen quite frequently: We would finish the Level One Focusing class, and the people would go forth to practice with each other as partners. Then I would start getting the phone calls: "I'm not sure that my partner is really Focusing. What can I do about it?"

My answer: "Nothing. There is nothing you can or should do about it. The Focusing is your partner's responsibility. You're there to listen, hold the space, be present. That"s all."

I got tired of the phone calls, so I got smart, and now I teach this in the course. The locus of responsibility between Focusing partners is this: when someone is Focusing, it's their session. It's their time. Period. If they want to use it to talk about instead of sense into, that's their business. If they want to use it to brainstorm or set goals or meditate, that's their business. Just ask how they would like you to be with them. Then you don't have to worry about your role.

"I get bored when my partner tells long stories about other people. I keep waiting for them to get a felt sense."

Here we have a paradox. On the one hand, we teach you that what really brings change is to do Focusing: to bring interested awareness to a felt sense. On the other hand, we say, it's the Focuser's session, whatever they want to do, just be with that. How to resolve this? How about this: what if you really knew, what if you really trusted, that your partner's stories are part of a holistic process? Would you still be bored? Or would you, perhaps, sit back and watch curiously, interested to see where and how that process would unfold?

There is one legitimate way to influence your partner's Focusing, and that is, when it's your turn, do great Focusing yourself. If they really aren't getting satisfaction from whatever they're doing, and they see how much you're getting from Focusing, they'll change. In their own time, in their own way.

3. Divide your time together into equal turns.

I had a lovely and precious Focusing partnership that lasted, weekly, for fourteen years. For approximately the first eleven years of that time, I would drive up to my partner's house, switch off my car's ignition, and think, "Too bad nothing's going to come up for me tonight." Week after week, without fail, that same thought would come, even though week after week, without fail, I had Focusing sessions in which something did come and unfolded and brought insight and relief. (Even though you can trust the Focusing process, you cannot necessarily trust your thoughts about it before it starts!)

If my partner and I had not had the rule, "Divide your time together into equal turns," I might have been tempted to say to her, "I don't need to Focus tonight, why don't you take all the time." And that would have been, as I hope you can feel, profoundly undermining to the partnership relationship. It also would have been a shame, because I would have missed all those great sessions.

People are different. Some have a lot going on, a lot of the time. We call that (as I learned from my first Focusing teachers, Elfie Hinterkopf and Les Brunswick), "Close Process." Some people, like me, usually think that nothing will come. That's called "Distant Process." Both kinds of people can and do get a lot out of Focusing. They can even get a lot out of being partners for each other. But the Distant Person should not, repeat not, be tempted to give away their time to the Close Person because the Close Person seems to need it more. They don't. Everyone needs Focusing. (Besides, a person who is upset or going through a tough time can get a lot out of being the Listener,a feeling of centeredness, the self-esteem of being able to be there for someone else....)

"Equal turns" can be equal in time, or simply equal in opportunity. For example, if two people make an agreement that they will each Focus as long as they want to, that's equal, even if one session is forty minutes and the other ten. Also, the turns don't have to be at the same time: some partnerships have a deal where one week is one person's turn, and the next week is the other person's turn. That's OK. It's even OK if one of you always wants to go first and the other one always wants to go second. The only thing that's not OK is not taking your turn, because that alters the power relationship of the partnership, and marks one person as "needier" and the other as "the giver." Giving away your turn is not a trusting thing to do, neither trusting in the other, nor in your own process. Trust, and take your turn.

On the other side of the coin, if you happen to be the partner with the Close Process, be scrupulous about finding a comfortable stopping place for your session when the agreed ending time has come. If you're full of feelings, of course there will be a temptation to go over, especially if you're enjoying the space your partner gives you. Don't. It's a dangerous indulgence, because, maybe not the first time, and maybe not the second time, but if this happens too often, then you will have become the "needy one" and I guarantee you won't like how that feels. Unless you are really sure that the other person feels relaxed about time, as you do, better to respect time boundaries as agreed. It's part of the "care and feeding" of a Focusing partner.

Of course we are not machines and it should always be possible to renegotiate time agreements if needed. If I give a two minute warning and my partner says, "It feels like this needs five more minutes, is that OK?" I feel much better about being asked, like that, than if my partner goes over time without asking. I also feel better if such a thing is asked for only rarely, as a special request, rather than regularly. Others may feel differently. The key is to respect your partner's needs,and your own.

Ann Weiser Cornell may be reached at ann@focusingresources.com or http://www.focusingresources.com.