It's widely recognized that fundamentally new strategies are needed to address the challenges facing our world; Focusing - a simple means to listen to our embodied wisdom - offers one such strategy. Focusing can teach people how to call on their own experience to address individual and social challenges, heal conflicts and to develop confidence in their own abilities.

Changes Groups draw on Focusing and empathic Listening to strengthen and empower grassroots social movements. The first Changes Group emerged in 1970 to support the Vietnam War protests. Changes groups and Focusing have been used around the world ever since, notably in the traumatic situations that exist in Afghanistan and El Salvador.

What is Focusing?

Focusing is an experiential process developed at the University of Chicago by Eugene Gendlin in the early 1960s based on research into the key factors needed for successful psychotherapy. Those who could be in touch with their inner body sense, which Gendlin calls the 'felt sense' were more successful in therapy regardless of the method of therapy. But Focusing has immense value outside therapy and is easy to learn. Focusing can reduce collective and individual psychological suffering and facilitates community building. It does this by teaching people how to:

  • find small next steps of positive action as individuals and as groups;
  • make decisions that ‘sit right’ for them, rather than simply obeying leaders:
  • resolve personal and collective trauma;
  • speak from a deeply personal level that undercuts ethnic and cultural divisions and mediates diversity form a wider bodily sense of their whole present situation so that they are not re-traumatized by strong emotions.

Changes Groups in Transition Towns

It’s obvious how valuable Focusing and Changes Groups can be for the Transition Towns movement, but here’s a few suggestions based on examples from the Focusing Changes webpage:

  • Going to a movie together and then sharing our Felt Senses can add another dimension to the conversation; a Changes group meeting after watching The Age of Stupid could be very powerful.
  • The Group can support members going through difficult stresses, like dealing with eco-collapse anxiety.
  • Listening/Focusing skills can be useful in working through out interpersonal conflicts arising during group decision making.

The Focusing Community model

The Focusing Community model for supportive community teaches two basic skills, Listening and Focusing, and shows how to use them for personal growth, helping others, and resolving conflicts in relationships and groups. It relies upon the mutual exchange of peer counseling turns. These are useful skills in personal growth, work, and political action situations.

The exchange of Listening/Focusing turns creates an atmosphere of respect and empathy, which is basic to community building. The model has been developed in interaction with reevaluation co-counseling (Jackins, 1975), Rosenberg's (1983) nonviolent communication, and the Quaker meeting format for consensus. It combines aspects of these models with the client-centered/ existential work of Carl Rogers (1975) on empathic listening and Eugene Gendlin (1981) on experiential focusing.

In its simplest form, the model involves sitting down with one to ten friends, reading a manual on starting a supportive community (McGuire, 1981), and practicing Listening and Focusing skills. Each person has an equal turn as the helper (Listener) and the helpee (Focuser). During five to ten practice sessions participants learn to use the skills, not only for personal growth, but for conflict resolution in relationships and decision-making in groups.

People who exchange Listening/ Focusing turns also quickly find themselves becoming bonded together into a supportive community, which reaches into many aspects of their everyday living and enables them to be more politically responsive.

The personal growth skills stressed at a Focusing Community are not a luxury but a kind of psychological literacy that should be basic equipment for every human being. One skill practiced is Focusing: becoming aware of and responsible for one's own feelings and implicit bodily knowledge. Focusing is a way out of the irresponsibility that comes from blaming uncontrollable, "unconscious motivations" for one's behavior.

The other skill is Listening: being able to set aside stereotypes and prejudices and to meet another human being through empathy. Listening is a way of bridging the gaps in understanding that lie at the base of polarized and seemingly irresolvable conflicts.

Listening is the most valuable tool one can have on hand when wishing to change attitudes within a culture. A persuasive discussion with an everyday person about nuclear power, conservation, racism, sexism, or another cause will go more smoothly if first you attempt to hear that person out on his or her view. Then, having felt heard, the person will be more willing to hear your alternative position. If threat runs high again, a return to Listening can defuse a potentially explosive situation. Listening/Focusing skills are also essential for maintaining cohesion within social movement groups.

While Listening/Focusing can be practiced by as few as two people exchanging turns, it's better to have at least three, so that someone can act as observer and give feedback. Typically, a small group of four-to-six people practice Listening/Focusing together, each having a 10-20 minute turn. It takes about ten 1 and a half to 2 hour sessions to learn Listening well enough so that it will become available in less structured, everyday situations. The manual, Focusing In Community, gives detailed instructions for practicing Listening. The author has very generously given permission for me to pass on copies of this manual to Transition Towns activists; for details, see Kathleen N. McGuire's article, The FocusingCommunity. If you would like a copy please contact me.

Interpersonal processing

Listening/ Focusing skills can be used to resolve conflict, often with the use of a third person as a listening facilitator. Whenever two people have an irresolvable tension, they can sit down for the exchange of empathic listening turns on the matter. The addition of the Focusing skill allows each participant to go below the level of communicating the already-known and into the deeper levels of the self that are involved in the conflict.

Collaborative decision-making

Adding Listening/ Focusing skills to traditional consensus decision-making methods opens up new possibilities for conflict resolution. Often, if a person can get listened to on his or her emotional investment in a particular position, something will emerge that will allow the person to see the situation from a slightly different angle. Or, as the group really hears someone's deep reasons for a particular position, someone in the group may suddenly see a new solution that encompasses everybody's needs. Having Listening / Focusing at a decision-making meeting is very much like having the services of a kaleidoscope. A slight turn of the problem through Listening and Focusing, and a whole new way of looking arise.

This briefing is largely based on an article called 'The Focusing Community' by Kathleen N. McGuire, Ph.D.

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