(This text was originally written as a handout for participants on my Felt Sensing and With-Sensing (Focusing and Listening) Training.
In this text I am using the word Felt Sensing instead of the usual “Focusing”. This is signify that this is not about becoming more focused, and that it’s rather about getting in touch with the “Felt Sense”. The other reason is to point to the active move that Felt Sensing is: one might say it’s about actively and intentionally using ones feeling sense to get in touch with what is there in ones experience.
What is often called the Focuser, i.e. the one who is being listened to, I call a “Felt Senser”. This is to point towards this way of bringing one’s attentions inwards, into the body, the subtle, unclear places or senses “in the body”, a bit “behind” the easier accessible feelings, memories, opinions or thoughst, where we usually spend quite a lot of time in our lives. Or “downstairs”, as Gendlin often called it.
I have also chosen to call the one who is listening, the “With-Senser”. This is a made-up Norwegian word that I use to point to “the one who is sensing together with”, or the listener. I am doing that to get out of the more regular way of thinking about listening, as wither completely passive, outside of the interaction, or as the one who “sees/knows better”, such as a therapist or a counsellor etc. The word also points to the importance of feeling/sensing together with the other person, rather than coldly analysing, trying to figure out connections the other person seemingly doesn’t see, or also leaving the other person alone with what’s there.
Before going on, I also want to clarify that by “giving space”, I don’t mean the kind of giving space that we do with a friend or a partner who has said they “need space” – i.e. leaving them alone for a while. Giving space in this particular context means to give an open, curious and interested kind of directed attention from the right kind of distance that allows us to stay in touch with our inner experience. Felt Sensing can be said to be a “showing up” and an active “being with”.
«Having» one’s own experience
One of the things we often find hard is just “having” what’s there, felt, in our experience. Just “having it there”. Mostly we would very much like to change it, fix it, get it out of the way, think about something else or something nicer, explain it, stand it, drown it, find something new and/or better, or run away from it etc. In our worst moments we even “hit it (ourselves it might feel like) on the head”, by calling it bad names, judging it, etc.
Felt Sensing is a space where what is there can “be just as it is”, without being fixed or changed. We create a space of openness, curiosity and friendliness for what is there, and practice just “having it there”. We base this on the assumption that when the “body” is given the opportunity, it knows, all by itself, what is needed, what the “right” next step is, even if that would be the tiniest of steps (Gendlin, 1978). We can also say that we’re trusting in the paradox that when we accept ourselves exactly as we are, that’s when change can happen (Carl Rogers, 1961).
“Every bad feeling is potential energy toward a more right way of being if you give it space to move toward its rightness” (Gendlin 1978, p. 86)
In this idea of “having it there”, there is “someone” who is doing this act of “having it there” – you. So part of this whole concept is that there is you, who’s sensing, tapping, connecting to, noticing, allowing, welcoming “it” – the experience. Whether it’s fear, anger, sadness, frustration, panic, opinions, biases, hatred, criticism etc., by there being you turning towards “it”, something happens and instead of “being it”, you’re “having it”.
Having the little changes
In Felt Sensing we become aware of the tiniest little changes that tend to happen when our inner experiencing can feel us showing up and not trying to fix it, and we also take time to give space to those, and enjoy them. When you just “have it there”, you may experience that something is happening – there can be subtle, almost unnoticeable changes, like it seems a tiny bit easier, lighter, softer, more open, or darker, heavier or narrower, or that it gets a different “flavour” or “nuance” or something like that. All such small, subtle movements or changes are interesting to notice (not to do something about) in Felt Sensing, because they are a sign of movement towards a more right way of being (Gendlin 1978). (That is, right for the organism or for your life, not “right” in the moral understanding).
One can also have clear experiences that somewhere becomes more spacious, that the body takes a deeper breath all of a sudden, or the breathing deepens, that what was “sitting there” quite simply “releases”. One might also get the sense of new possibilities, or that an “old” way of seeing or experiencing something loosens or changes. By simply spending time with it and NOT expecting change!
The most important thing is a clear turning towards and actively «being there», noticing, «having it there», «staying right there», and “accompanying» whatever is there. And maybe even together with another human being with the same kind of attitude.
Reasons that one often tries to explain or fix etc., might be that one is also scared of “drowning” in a feeling that the feelings will “take me over”, or even take over my life. “Having it there” is neither being “washed away with” a feeling, or trying to get rid of or fix it, but taking a enough of a step back to allow us “hold it”, as if it were a “someone” who needs me to be there for it:
The body already “has it” anyway…
«Having» another person’s experience together with them: With-Sensing
One of the other things that is often hard is letting another person just “have” the feeling they have when they are in pain or are having a hard time or are wondering about something. We would very much like to be helpful by coming up with suggestions, advice, or by motivating the other person, or minimizing or trying to make them see the silver lining. These ways of meeting someone else can definitely be nice and very helpful in some situations, whereas in other situations, such strategies of “helping” tend to leave the other person with an even stronger feeling of being alone with what they “have there”. What they are “having there” doesn’t go away, and in some instances, it is enhanced exactly because of the feeling of becoming even more alone with it, after having made an attempt at sharing with another person.
As the “With-Senser” (whether you’re a layperson, a therapist or counsellor) in Felt Sensing, one has the opportunity to be there for another person in a very special way, namely being able to “have it there” together with the other person. And how does one do that?
I have come to say that empathy is the willingness to do one’s best to feel with the other person exactly how they feel right now. We all know its’ nearly impossible to know “exactly how you feel”, but knowing and feeling that another human being actually wishes with all their heart to try to feel it with me, feel how it is for me right now, can be a very wonderful and significant experience.
In some way, one could say that as a With-Senser you can be part of “carrying” with the other person what they “have there”, completely without being responsible for it, and without responsibility for it changing or feeling better… This might feel almost counter intuitive at first, but with some training and with experiencing how effectful it can be, it becomes more natural to trust that sensing with the other person might make the burden less heavy to bear.
One way of doing this is taking in the words of the other person, letting them “land” in your own “body”, to then sense how that resonates in you; “can I get a sense “in here” of what you are “having over there”?” This doesn’t mean that we can get some so-called “objective knowledge” about what the other person is feeling, but that we’re letting what’s there breathe, land, and make an affect on us. Taking in the whole sense of what is being said is another way of putting it. Then one can choose to say something back to the other person, usually just repeat the words they said, maybe more slowly, maybe with more emphasis on each word, with caring intonation, or saying something else that comes from “there”, where I’m “having it”. The intention will then be to have the other person correct what we say back and say the next thing that comes, rather than to have ben “good at understanding” or “getting it right”.
One might also just “have it there” as one feels it and choose to be silent. The main thing as a With-Senser is to actively have it there and feel the sharedness of the experience with the other person. Sometimes this can be enough, also outside of Sensing Partnership, for the other person to feel less alone.
“The essence of listening to another person is to be present as a living being. And that is lucky, because if we had to be smart, or good, or mature, or wise, then we would probably be in trouble. But what matters is not that. What matters is to be a human being with another human being; to recognise the other person as another being in there.” (Gendlin 1990, p. 205)
Describing what is there and resonating – giving the words back
The Felt Senser is the one that is directly in contact with what is there (the experience, the inner referent, The Felt Sense, a feeling etc.), and often what helps to then “have it there” is to describe what is there. A description can also be a gesture, a movement or a body posture, as well as words, images, metaphors, sounds etc. When the description comes from inside, the Felt Senser offers it back to the place it came from, to see if there is a response, if it resonates with that place, or if it has already changed a little and there is now a new nuance. The response can be that it tightens more, becomes more narrow, the feeling gets stronger etc., or the opposite: that something lets up or subsides etc.
Or there might be no response at all. In all those situations one might see if a new description, an image, a metaphor, a gesture or something similar comes from that place, saying or giving that back, and waiting for a response this time. The “description” comes from “that which is there”, what we’re in contact with. It doesn’t come from a result of the head analysing, neither from the Felt Senser or the With-Senser. What’s important is to give space (and often a little time) for that place that we’re in contact with to be felt and “had”. It might sound like a small thing, but sometimes it allows for a lot of change to come.
When might there be «too much» describing, or story telling?
In Felt Sensing it is not important to describe so that the other person understands, at least not from the head, but with the intention of having the place one is in contact with feel had. Some of the time, as few as possible words is the best way of making sure of that. Felt Sensing partnership isn’t a regular conversation between two people, where one describes and tells and explains, but a listening space for what usually isn’t “had”, to now be had.
Sometimes we end up “telling a story”, which might also be helpful. But to make sure we’re not doing just the same as usual, in regular conversation, we can take care to bring our attention back to the body and the place where the story maybe comes from, to see if there is a response that will make it possible to feel if it’s “right” to tell or describe. Another way of saying it is to check with the “aboutness” of what is felt.
The With-Senser might also describe “too much”, and hence almost unconsciously “encourage” the story. Then the With-Senser can also shift their attention back to their own body, to see if what they say back “fits” there. Since it’s the Felt Senser’s session, the Felt Senser can choose whether to take all or some of the words back to what’s there, or whether to let the With-Senser know when it’s a bit too much. See the section about the field between us for more here.
Sensing into the field or the space between us
When we human beings spend time together, a lot goes on, and when we listen to each other we can also feel in the “body” how we inter-affect (Gendlin 1992) each other. If we have our attention on the other person, our own “body” and in the “field between us”, we may also feel when something doesn’t feel ok. It might feel like “cold”, or like the “energy” drops, or like talking to a wall, or like there’s an insurmountable distance between us all of a sudden, etc.
When it feels ok or nice, it might feel like we’re on the same «flow», it may feel «light», connected, warm, close or similar things, and as if our words «arrive at a place», or are being received, etc. It can also feel like our words are “coming to somewhere” or being received.
Here the Felt Senser may also notice whether the With-Senser «is there» or not. If we think about what we’re having for dinner throughout the whole session, or are bored etc., that will, consciously or unconsciously, be sensed and hence affect the Felt Senser. It does in normal conversation too, really. This becomes very distinct in a Felt Sensing relationship if one notices what is going on inside oneself and in the field between.
If this should happen, it’s not that it is necessarily a crisis, because sometimes that’s just where we are, and then the With-Senser also has the chance to just “have that there”, whatever is in us. And this is not to say that thinking about dinner can’t be done at the same times as being attentive to the other person. Seeing as we humans are inherently relational beings (Gendlin 1978), this field can be a great source of further development (Josselson, 1996).
Differentiating and process
One of the things that are helpful in Felt Sensing, can be discovering the multiple facets of the complexity of experience or feeling one «has there». This is one of the reasons it may be helpful if the With-Senser says the words back to the Felt Senser when they have been said, maybe slowly, with different accentuating, or from an inner place where one really “senses” and is in contact with what the Felt Senser “has there” (empathy).
This does NOT mean that we think the With-Senser “knows better” or “sees better” or has any responsibility for the making of distinctions. It is, as mentioned, the Felt Senser who is in direct contact with what’s there, and hence can know what might suddenly let itself be differentiated or what differentiates itself, here and now.
The process has its own logic, its own right steps, its own tempo, its own forward movement (Gendlin, 1996), in Felt Sensing, and this means that “logical” suggestions and regular “understandings” are not what we are looking for here. We wish to let the process teach uswhat it needs. And with that we mean each process – that is, a Felt Sensing session can also be called one Felt Sensing process. Each process is unique and what will come, what will differentiate itself, and what happens, will come from each new process itself.
Summarised we can say that Felt Sensing is about freshly and actively spending time with what “is already there”, or that which “comes” when we turn our attention inwards and spend time with it in the current Felt Sensing process. We do this by describing, checking and attending to resonance or response from what is there. The With Senser “has it together with” the other person, as much as possible, by having a sense form in one’s own body, and talking from that instead of from “Upstairs” (analysis, the head etc.). In this way, we are letting thea process teach us what it needs to make another step towards the organisms own right way of living and becoming alive.
Gendlin, E. T. (1978). Focusing. New York: Bantam Dell.
Gendlin, E.T. (1996). Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy. A manual of the experiential method. New York: The Guilford Press
Gendlin, E.T. (1997). A process model. New York: The Focusing Institute.
Heuman, L. (2011). Focusing. Retrieved 09.10. 2018 from Tricycle: https://tricycle.org/magazine/focusing/
Josselson, R. (1996). The Space Between us. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc.
Rogers, C. (1961/2004). On Becoming a Person. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd.