Ann Weiser Cornell is an author, educator, and worldwide
authority on Focusing, the self-inquiry psychotherapeutic technique
developed by Eugene Gendlin. She has written several definitive books on
has taught Focusing around the world since
1980, and has developed a system and technique called Inner Relationship
In our dialog she
want to say first of all how much I admire your work and how much I
believe in what you are doing, because I believe that empathy can move
mountains. Empathy can change the world!
So the power of empathy to open a space where something new can happen
is enormously impressive and yes, in 44 years now of working with Focusing
and listening, I've seen it over and over and over again.
Now that is very powerful.
So what I would say is, empathy releases
That is true and we see it all over the place when it's possible
in groups, in working groups,
even people who
You've been teaching focusing since 1980 and I understand you were one of the
first to start offering Focusing as service. Is there more by way of
introduction that you would like to add?
I'll just say that I am very proud that I have taught in 20 countries and I am
really happy that Focusing has a world wide presence.
What we want to do is talk about the relationship of empathy and Focusing. As I
understood it Gene Gendlin was grade student with Carl Rogers and became a
colleague and build on his work. Carl Rogers would reference him. I see
Focusing as a real next step on top of Carl Rogers work, so I wanted to
dialog with you about empathy and Focusing. We wanted to talk about general
understandings about empathy to begin with.
Empathy can change the world.
And it changes situations when we
I want to say first of all how much I admire your work and how much I
believe in what you are doing, because I believe that empathy can move
mountains. Empathy can change the world. And it changes situations when we bring
I had a story that moved me very much that I heard recently. A woman came into a
children's section of a hospital and a child was having an absolute emotional
melt down. She had been told she couldn't go home today. And she is screaming,
"I want to go home. I want to go home." And all the kind people around her, the
aids, the nurses and so on, her mother are offering her, "Here is what you can
do instead. Here is a doll. Here is a toy. And she is screaming, "I want to go
So the woman walks in and kneels down to the child's level and says, "Sweetie,
you want to go home"
And the child stops screaming. There's silence in the room. And her attention
shifts. Without even saying another word, now she is interested in the toys and
the dolls and the so on. So what we see happening over and over again, is that
people hold fixed positions until their position is heard and then there is a
shift. And if we look at the world today, what makes us frustrated, sad,
and angry about so many of the things that are going on, is people holding fixed
positions, and unable to hear each other, and even the people that we believe
in, who we think ought to be the ones who are prevailing, are also hold fixed
positions and not hearing or being heard.
So the power of empathy to open a space where something new can happen is
enormously impressive and yes, in 44 years now of working with Focusing and
listening, I've seen it over and over and over again. Now that is very powerful.
So what I would say is, empathy releases impasse.. That that is true and we see
it all over the place when it's possible in groups, in working groups, even
people who love each other. I just came from a committee making some decisions
about Focusing and how it's taught in the world and there were two strong
positions there and at the start of the meeting people were feeling I will never
accept, I will never agree.
One faction in favor of creating some standards and
another faction in favor of being flexible and trusting. I mean it's often
this kind of both and situation where really both have some rightness but they
got to hold of their position. But by the end of the meeting , because we
listened to each other, because we could hear where each other were coming from,
each side relaxed and a new solution emerged that wasn't even being thought of
before. And so I see this also Edwin, that in groups there is an intelligences
that emerges because people listen to each other, and that is very interesting
So the power of empathy to open a space
where something new can happen
is enormously impressive
What I'm hearing there is that people get fixed in their way and they don't want
to change until they have been really heard. So in a sense that when we start
beginning empathized with with we, we get heard, we start softening and
are more willing to listen to others but we have to be heard with.
That's right, and right now this moment of feeling empathized with with by you.
I feel already in my body a kind of relaxing, a smile, a sense of deeper breath
coming. So we right now are having that moment of empathy. And it feel
like ok, it forms a kind of solid foundation. Now we can continue. If you had
not understood me, we could have worked it out. But if you had not understood me
and had not said anything, then we would be in trouble.
I know in terms of the benefits of empathy the one I like is what Carl Rogers
says, "It feels damn good."
Yes exactly. To put it briefly. It does feel damn good. That's right
and in so many instances. I was in a group recently where I was a participant
and I was in a little bit of a tangle with the group leader, trying to say that
something he had done didn't work for me. And he way kind of defending it, and
then suddenly he paused and said, "You know, I noticed I getting into a
defensive moment and I would rather just really hear that your are feeling
frustrated and confused. And at the moment he said that my whole body changed.
And I felt more open more flexible, more open to understanding him, and one of
the insights from Gendlin's work and from Focusing is that hearing and being
understood is a body process as well as a mental process. We are body, as we
need each other, we need each other heart to heart, gut to gut, not just head to
head. And you notice, I'm sure that you've noticed that if you only hear
somebody as an intellectual exercise. If you parrot back their words, it doesn't
work. It doesn't have the impact and effect that we love and that feels damn
Yeah, it is what I love about Focusing is it's really going into and
tapping into that felt experience and there is a plenty of research, especially
by Frans De Waal, saying that we really start by connecting thought this felt
experience. Sometimes there's this notion that people connect through this
intellectual level and then it kind of goes into the feelings. But he's really
saying it's a bottom up biological process, from our biological evolution, that
we start connecting by the feelings and then it might go into a more of an
organized cognitive metalizing way of being. So the Focusing really takes
the relationship into this felt sense, I think that it really does a lot to
facilitate empathic connection.
Focusing really takes the relationship into this
felt sense, I think that it really does a lot
to facilitate empathic connection.
Exactly, because it is already true that our bodies are tuning into each other
and it is trough my sense of you that I can empathize with you. The words follow
along, the words come from, actually, that bodily felt place. Gendlin is fond of
saying... Well let me first define Gendlin's viewpoint, because it
actually is quite radical. We have to understand some terminology that actually
isn't in the common discourse. Most people know that there is a kind of concept
of the unconscious. That we either have feelings, that we can feel now, or that
they are kind of buried or repressed. And this is from Freud and his tradition.
But what Rogers began to do and what Gendlin continued, is an understanding of
the person in a very different way. And so that our bodies are not layers of
conscious versus unconsciousness. But that our bodies are doing something
Gendlin calls, implying forward.
That what it is to be alive is that our bodies 'know', and this is a funny use
of the word 'know', the next steps of life process. That in other wards the
bodies next step of life process is implied and ready to happen but may not
happen and when the next step of life process happens, there is a kind of relief
or release. Now at the physiological level we can take hunger and eating as a
simple example. When you are hungry, that is the implying of something like
eating or taking in of nourishment. You body is ready for, or prepared for, or
wanting, and the technical term is implying eating. And then when eating
happens, the implying changes. There is a new implying. Now the implying might
be for digestion, or for taking a nap. If you eat when you are not hungry, that
is a very different thing to do than eating when you are hungry. So weather you
are hungry or not makes all the difference in what the act of eating means or
is. And so implying is so important because the state we are in, or the
readiness that we are in, when something happens, determine what that is. Now
eating is a physiological example.
Maybe I can reflect my understanding of that because, that actually helps. Not
only does the empathic reflection help the speaker feel heard, but I find
it really helps me in integrating what it is that I am hearing.
Is it like an intention of what is going to happen next?
It's not intention. What I am talking about, the implying process, even plants
do it. So you don't need a central nervous system in order to be in the implying
process. A plant, if it doesn't get enough water, implies water. It it doesn't
get enough sun, it implies sun, so you can say that implying is the need for
something. But that need is known in the body tissues. And then when you
move from plants to animals and then to humans, we get more and more complex in
the needs. So you could use the concept of need, but what we want to do by using
the word implying instead is to say that there is an implicit dimension, that is
not yet formed, from which meaning forms.
And so for example, take somebody that says, "I was angry all day. But then when
I paused and really sensed my self, I realized I had actually been sad."
Now was the sad repressed? Was the sad hidden? Was the anger, untrue? No
what we see happening there is that anger was there, but with a pause, the
feeling of sad emerges and forms. It was implicitly. It emerges and forms.
It does then overlap with other approaches that say that we have these needs,
that is something like a deep inner need that we have. And this is a little bit
along those lines. There are these underlying, implicit in our being, as human
beings, there are qualities that are implicit in just being a human being. That
we are biologically, wired for implicit qualities, and in any moment there is an
implicit next steps that could happen?
I think you've got it Edwin. there are implicit next steps. One example that is
nice is if you see a crooked picture on the wall. I see some pictures on the
wall behind you and they look very straight. But lets say that one of them was
crooked. Seeing the crooked picture, gives us the this feeling of offness or
wrongness. and the feeling of offness has in it the knowing of 'I or someone
else could walk across the room and straighten out that picture. So one of the
things Gendlin is famous for saying is that ' every bad feeling, is potential
energy for a more right way of being if you give it space. the crooked
picture on the wall is one metaphor that helps us understand that even feelings
that we are having that are unpleasant, uneasy, fearful or even very depressed
or down, contain a kind of knowing of what would be needed, what would be the
right next step.
So even if you are in pain, if you are feeling angry, or had different types of
anxiety or fear, that underneath that is a sort of a next step or a know of what
the solution would be to address that? So it's almost as if that problem feeling
or pain is like a source of it's own resolution, in a sense.
That is what I'm saying and what we found, and so it's very interesting to live
that way, because in general the culture in general tries to push away, negative
feelings. To control them, to handle or manage them somehow. And yet, it turns
out that if you turn toward them, with a quality of inner empathy, like "hello,
I'd like to get to know you better." There are step of change that emerge. We
kind of speak in general in the common culture about our feelings as if they are
kind of unchangeable. I have this fear of public speaking, or I have this anger
at my brother, as if it is some kind of piece of furniture that is always going
to be there.
But the word 'emotion' points to the fact that every emotion, is on it's
way to being something else. And yet we do experience emotions recurring, and
recurring in certain situations over and over again, so why is that? I believe
it is because we treating the emotions as if they are unchangeable. Now you
didn't mention in your introduction of me, that my degree is in linguistics. I
bring the study of language to the work I do in emotional healing. I all it the
art of facilitative language and one of the things I try to remind people, watch
out for nouns. Notice the difference, between 'my fear", which is a noun, and so
that the fact that it's a noun makes it seem kind of unchangeable. What if we
say instead, 'afraid'? And I would add a little more language to that and I
would say something in me is afraid right now. And now we have a very attitude
toward what we are feeling than if we say it's my fear.
So your creating more of a space around it. It's not this I am this thing and
it's fixed. It's this I'm afraid, and it's quality within me and there's more
space around it.
That's right, and in that space what has become now possible, is curiosity.
the way, curiosity and empathy go together very well, don't they? I
curiosity is another very powerful force. If someone is attacking me, verbally
or is somehow holding fixed position that I just can understand. Probably the
first step I'm going to need to empathize with that person is to get curious. Is
to say to myself, "there must be some good reason why that person thinks that is
so important. I wonder what it is? Let me see if I can understand?
the way, curiosity and empathy
go together very well,
Something that comes up a lot in the work around empathy, is the theme of
curiosity. For example, here in Berkeley, in UC Berkeley, I interviewed Jodi
Halpern. She has a book on empathy in healthcare about the needing curiosity in
medicine as a doctor with patients. So it comes up a lot.
Yes, empathy, curiosity and compassion of course. I would theories that they
come in this order. First curiosity, then empathy the compassion.
Here is a question I do want to say. In Focusing, the empathy does not seem
central to Focusing. I've put empathy as this core foundational value and
organize around that value. And Focusing, while empathy is mentioned, it doesn't
seem to be central. For example you are saying what comes first, curiosity,
empathy.... I coming from the position of mirror neurons and
neuroscience that we are in a constant empathic environment. So it's almost like
we wouldn't even function as a society if we didn't have this ongoing empathic
relationship, it's just that we are not being as good or effective at empathy as
we could be. So it's starting from that presence of empathy versus saying
we have no empathy and you have to do all these things to have empathy. So I
wonder about any thoughts around that?
it's just that we are not being as good or
effective at empathy as we could be.
First of all, I love the position that empathy is already here and it's woven
into who we are and what we are as a human society and that is completely
consistent with what Gendlin says. He has a phrase, "Interaction first", by
which he means that we are born into relationship. There is no time when we are
not in interrelationship and really that our bodies and our environment are not
separate. And so where we are when we are in touch with ourselves is also in
touch with what is around us, especially other people. So yes it is at the very
heart of what we are as humans and that Focusing works at all, and it does, it
works because we are tuning into something that is mutually felt, that is felt
as a tuning in to what is here in a field, you might say. That is only beginning
to be talked about in the Focusing community, if you hear most of the
discussions being about a kind of self relationship. But it was clear to me from
the very start, and most people do understand that we are tuning in to a kind of
a shared field.
So in my work which is moving on a little bit from Gendlin, it's called Inner
Relationship Focusing. I especially emphasize that there is a relationship
inwardly between person as a whole self. I call 'Self in Presence'. And
something inside that feels bad, so we had, 'I'm angry', then we have 'something
in me is angry', and because of saying something in me is angry, there is
a space, there is curiosity, and I am turning toward this place that is angry.
Now the next step in Focusing, would be to describe the way it feelings in my
body. That is also empathy, because sensing and describing how something simply
is right now is an empathic move instead of all the other things we could do
instead, which is, arguing with it, trying to get rid of it, being afraid of it,
being afraid of what it means, and so on. So sensing and describing is actually
an empathic move toward how it is feeling.
What I am hearing there is, you didn't use the word. but it's almost like a self
empathy. A feeling into ones self and there are things or energies that block
that feeling into oneself and you mentioned several of the blocks. Would that
work as a term of self-empathy? Does that fit?
Yes, I saw on your website, self empathy was a term and I would classify
Focusing as a self-empathy method. I would say that my work of Inner
Relationship Focusing we put that self empathy even more to the forefront. I'll
just show you the steps to Focusing.
1. The first is to pause and allow a body feeling to form.
2. Then to turn toward it and describe it.
3. Saying that description is all ready an empathizing move.
4. But then there is a deeper move which is to sense how it is feeling from it's
point of view. I surprise a lot of people when I teach that
once a woman who said "my throat is tight" and I said, "well, how does it
feel?". And she said, "It feels uncomfortable". And you can tell
when she says it feels uncomfortable, she is not empathizing with it.
And you can tell when she says it feels uncomfortable,
she is not empathizing with it.
I said to her, ok, it feels uncomfortable to you, would you be willing to sense
how it, itself is feeling? She was willing and she paused a moment and closed
her eyes and then opened her eyes with surprise and said, "it is scared."
And so it is teachable, this move of empathy with, the feelings we are having
from their own point of view. And by the way Gendlin called these feelings, Felt
Sense. The Felt Sense is the forming of the bodies felt experiencing at this
moment. And he has an interesting story, a nice little story about what
can happen and how things can really change when you give yourselves this kind
of empathy. He tells the story of a client that he had, she was a student
in college. She said, "I sabotage myself when it come time to turn in a paper, I
Now you can imagine many conversations that could evolve from
there. A therapist and a client would discuss, better study strategies, or what
were the childhood sources of this, but what he said instead was, "Ahh, maybe
you can sense the pull back, the pullback, in order to make is something that
can be sensed. And then she was silent, and that is an odd thing to happen
in therapy too. That people wouldn't just talk about their problems.
She said, "OK, yes I feel it." Then she was silent and then she opened her eyes
and said, "This is an all good place that would rather be hidden, than come out
and be tromped on. " And the point is that by empathizing with the place in her
that had not been handing in papers, it took a step. Everyone including her
thought that was some kind of the bad guy. The saboteur inside. And by pausing
and empathizing with it's point of view, she was able to sense, something
completely surprising and completely different. It changed her whole body
constellation. It's not just a new information, it's something new in the whole
way the issue is held. So, this inner empathy leads to really new possibilities,
So let me just reflect what I am hearing so far. You can feel into yourself, and
you can feel different qualities, within yourself. And you can find one of those
qualities, and you can actually role play, in a sense, - take on the the
characteristics of it. For example if I'm feeling a tightness in my the throat,
I can say, "I am the tightness in my throat, what is my experience as
being the tightness? And have a role play with different part of my self? Is
that along the lines of what you are saying?"
That's kind of surprising and I'm really glad you shared, because that it not
quite what I am meant.
Back to the story of the woman who could feel that her throat felt scared.
What I hear you doing is trying to imagine how did she do that? Did she do that
by role playing her throat. And that is actually a little more complicated and
not necessary at all. Because actually, we have the ability to empathize
with something we feel inside us. In the same way that we can empathize with
someone sitting next to us. And if I am sitting next to a friend who is not
talking, I can still feel what mood the friend is in. I don't have to do
that by imagining I'm the friend. I do it because, as we have already
seen, we have that ability to know how someone else is feeling.
Like imagine walking up and have a great joke, and you had a great day, and you
want to share your joke with a friend. You knock on their door and they open it
and you can just see from their whole face that you have better not share the
joke. It happens instantly. I didn't have to role play being the friend.
I see, in the tightness in the throat then, is she is empathizing with the
tightness. She's getting closed to it, she's feeling her way into the experience
Yeah, and she doesn't' have to become it in order to to do that. In fact that is
why my work is called Inner Relationship, what she actually needs to do is feel
that she is not it. That there is something there, that she stops saying,
" I am tight, or I am scared", and starts saying, "It's tight, it's scared," so
the sense of a separation or a relationship with it, allows an inner empathy to
so the sense of a separation or a relationship with it,
allows an inner empathy to happen.
An experience I had that is perhaps similar. I do this feel style dance here in
Berkeley sometimes. One time I was noticing an anxiety, within my body. I'm
feeling anxious and it is in the core part of my body.. And I will usual and
dance and ignore a feeling like that, and more around and avoid it or what ever.
I said, "no", I want to to really get close to that anxiety. I want to really
feel the anxiety, I want to get so close to it that it opens up and I can feel
the minute granular quality of that anxiety in me. So I started moving and
dancing and kept moving toward that feeling. And it kept getting bigger and
bigger, and actually then metaphors started forming. Like, oh, it feelings like
thousands of little knives cutting away. And I kept getting closer to that and
it was so interesting because I got closer to it and it was as if it just
disappeared or dissolved. It's gone, where did it go?
But within about 5 or 6 seconds, a new kind of anxiety, that was more like a
cloud over and around my head. A heavy cloud over me like a weight formed. I
said, "Ok, I'm going to go to that." I started moving toward that, and had
a similar experience getting closer to it and then dissolving. I did a
whole series of these, going from one to another, and kept going into it.
Is that a little bit like what you are talking about, is going toward the
feeling, getting closer to it, feeling your way into.
It makes me happy, what you are saying. I really happy about it. And actually I
use a method just like if I have injured myself. And if there a purely physical
sensation, that I just want to help move forward and release. But anxiety was a
meaningful component. Also I so respect what you did, I would differentiate
Focusing from what you did and say that if I was you, I would have said "hello"
to something in me that is anxious, and said I would like to feel you, but I
wouldn't feel it by becoming it. By entering into it. I would feel it by letting
it be felt somewhere in my body.
Maybe noticing where I feel it the most, and then describing that. And then I
would ask what it is anxious about. What is got it anxious? I might also, first
check the work anxious, it that is actually the right word for it. So there is a
kind of a communication and it's not like it exactly talks, but it shows images.
I think yours showed you images. And metaphors come. So everything you
said makes me happy and included in what we do but the one thing you didn't say
is that you found out what was getting you so anxious. And there was an Aha
moment. I even wonder, this is kind of daring of me, but I even wonder, if you
had done that it might have really finished. So it wouldn't have to some back.
36:32 Outline Form. Following is not word for word transcription.
You engage in a relationship with the feeling instead of moving
I'm dialoging with the feeling and it's showing part of itself in the
Underneath that I'm gaining some insight what the message is that the
anxiety has for me instead of moving though it.
there will be something surprising about it
what we no from interpersonal states that when they are heard they
relax and a new state emerges and the same is true inwardly
When something inside of us is heard it no longer needs to feel the
If you are still feeling the feeling there must be something about it
that, it feels has not been heard yet.,
sure enough, if you go back, something will emerge,
when something is hear there is a physiological response, a relaxing,
a relief, a deeper breath and it doesn't return
I'm amazed at the subtleties and nuances.
Your seeing the feeling into it is form of empathy
There seems to be another form of empathy which I would call
imaginative empathy. We can role play just about anything. I can role
play my own emotion, I can role play an inanimate object. I think it
was Einstein who was role play a bean of light . I am a beam of light,
what is my experience moving through time and space. It seems to open
that creativity that is behind the experience.
Do you do an empathic role play?
No, that is not part of our work,
Make me happy that exists
It is more the being with, it is because I am sitting with
Empathy does not seem like it has been a central part of Focusing. It
is embedded, it seems like highly empathy process, perhaps one of the
most empathic processes I know.. But from the literature it doesn't
seem to be talked about so much?
Am I not seeing it or what's going on?
I think you haven't seen it because it is not the very first thing
you'll see, but it's going to be the second thing you will see.
When we teach Focusing in our classes we teach Focusing partnerships
and that is two people exchanging the skills and what the partner does
is pure empathic listening. Saying back the essence, or the felt
meaning of what the person Focusing is saying. And that process of
listening, is what allows Focusing as a process to happen. Because if
you respond in any other way, like, even just saying "Oh I've had
experience like that too.. It tends to shut down, the Focusing process
because as you have observed, it is a very subtle process and very
individual and unique. Focusing allows us a contact with a dimension
in ourselves that is not like anyone else. And this was so exciting
and I was 22, I joined this community in Chicago that Gene Gendlin had
started where people were listening to each other and you would go to
party or go to a gathering and somebody would say something and
somebody else would say, "how is that for you, say more'.
It just blew me away. It was nothing like I had every experienced in
my childhood. Focusing is a kind of inwardly and it's ideally
facilitated by empathy, by an empathic relationship, or an empathic
So why are we excited about bringing empathy, which we also sometimes
call listening, into group. settings and into every kind of setting,
hospitals, schools, political arenas, an so on. Because when people
listen to each other their individually unique felt meanings are able
emerge. Otherwise they have to hold fixed positions that are
uncreative, that are actually a kind of impasse or block or for their
own process and for everyone else's. So at a group level the
emergence of felt meaning, is facilitated by empathy. That is
something in the Focusing world we absolutely know and teach and
How does the group environment look?
In a group it means that when someone speaks there is not an immediate
response from somebody else. That there is a space. The person can
ask, would someone say what they heard. It is not routine or
automatic, but someone says everything that anyone says. It can be
Also we have these white cards that say, "I need a pause" where we can
just hold them up in a group.
The essence of bringing Focusing into the world, that we want to teach
is the 'pause'. You can ask for a pause would be a revolutionary step.
The pause means wait a minute, I need moment to take in what you are
saying. Or I need a moment to get myself back here and it changes the
energy, it changes what is going on. And so in a group setting, and
individual, you're in a stressful situation and something is coming at
you. Give yourself the right to ask for or give yourself a pause. It's
a revolutionary act. Because when you pause, you are no longer
barreling forward and caught up in the energy of the moment. Reacting
impulsively to what's going on.
Although Focusing has a lot of details since I've been doing it for 44
years. How I would sum it up very simply is to say,
3. be with what you were sensing. whether or not you speak, you can
at least have and respect your own felt experience at that moment.
so when you speak, speak from that felt experience?
I have to get better at that.
We do an empathy circle. It's a group of 4 to 6 people using empathic
I've used that for family empathy circles.
I've been looking at how to bring in Focusing.
great, I would love to support you with that.
I'm tremendously excited about the empathy circles, this is so, so
fabulous, and if people are only hearing what is being said, and not
what is under what is being said. Than something is missing. I'm not
saying they should be interpreting or guessing about what is under
what is being said. It is really something the speaker needs to learn
And so there can be in addition to the culture of listening, there can
be a culture of pausing and sensing.
About Empathic Design. I'm looking at integrating these different
empathy building processes around the empathy circle in a group.
wow that is really good news, I'd love to know more.
I just want to tell you a story. A woman locked into feeling
critical of her husband. There is a whole territory of empathizing
with the inner critic inside of us, that I just want to point to.
those vicious critical voices, that tell us that we are no good, that
we are hopeless, that lead to shame. They are one of the reasons why
people get violent. Because they have these kind of shaming, voices
inside them. We can turn them around by teaching people to turn toward
that voice. And say, "Might you be worried about something." My
friend had been feeling so critical at her husband for not cleaning
up, the house always being messy.
Had been doing self work.
She used the pause and it helped her, gave her curiosity. Then she
used empathic listening and there was a big shift. We see that
all the time and to see how inner work prepares us on how to be truly
empathic toward another person. Otherwise you are trying to force
yourself to be interested when you are actually full of your
frustrations and upset.
So there is a complete relationship between the inner empathy and the
So there is a complete relationship between the
inner empathy and the interpersonal empathy.
How to Listen So Change is Possible by Ann Weiser Cornell
All around us, people are barricaded in fixed
positions, polarized to one extreme or another, both sides sure that they
are right and the other is so wrong. Change seems impossible when people
hold their positions so fiercely.
We think: If they could only listen to each other
respectfully, something might change.
That’s true -- because entrenched positions come from
fear and the need for self-protection. A person proclaiming a strong fixed
belief doesn’t necessarily look fearful. But they are.
Empathy helps people feel safe. And a person
who feels safe can be open, curious, and flexible.
I’ve been listening to people for over 45 years. My
teacher was Gene Gendlin, who learned listening from Carl Rogers. Here are
two main things I have learned about listening for change.
One: Have No Agenda
Of course we hope that our empathy will change
matters. But if our main agenda is for the other person to change, it
won’t work. People can “smell” you trying to change them, and they don’t
feel safe. (Who would?) We need to do enough inner work so we are clear on
our intention: to meet the other person genuinely, to discover who they
are, and to hear what matters to them. Not to change them. (Though of
course they — and we! — will change.)
Two: Listen for Why It Matters
What people need you to hear and understand is why
their position matters to them. This is more important than listening
for their factual position (“You are opposed to all gun laws because you
believe they threaten the Second Amendment”) or to their emotions (“You
are angry”). Both factual positions and emotions are secondary results of
something deeper, which is unique for each person. You are listening for
something that isn’t being expressed in words, so you don’t get there
unless you really pay attention, don’t assume, and be willing to try and
I’m convinced that empathy can change the world, and
it’s the main thing that can. We also need to get clear on our motives,
and have empathy for ourselves. That’s why I teach Focusing, an inner
awareness process where inner empathy brings life change.
I’d love to invite people to watch my new video
series, Four Keys to Lasting Life Change, starting on January 14, 2019.
You can sign up for it here: http://4keys.focusingresources.com/
Ann Weiser Cornell is the CEO of Focusing
Resources. She has been teaching Focusing and listening around the world,
and now online. She is the author of The Power of Focusing and three other
Empathy with the Fear "Once we are compassionately aware of the fear (worry, concern…) in this
part of us, we can give it empathy for what it’s afraid of. Empathy can
often be expressed with the help of phrases like “no wonder” and “of
course.” This manner of speaking helps to carry and convey the attitude of
understanding how it feels from its point of view.
A man who was starting out to be a meditation teacher was Focusing on a
difficult area of his life. Suddenly he reported: “This part of me says,
You have no qualifications to be a meditation teacher, because you’re so
screwed up!” We’d often done inner work on the criticizing process, so I
just said: “Wow, it must be really scared about something!” He sensed into
it with the possibility that it might be scared, and reported: “Oh… It has
a belief that if I’m teaching I have to present myself as having no
problems myself.” I suggested he say to it, with empathy, "
"Focusing provides powerful tools for releasing blocks to action. A “block
to action” is an experience which can be described as “I want to do it, but
I don’t do it.” Some examples of blocks to action are: procrastination,
writer’s block, inability to get organized.
In working with the action block with Focusing, we assume the existence of
two parts: the part that wants to do the action and the part that doesn’t
want to do the action. We guide the Focuser to listen compassionately to
the part that doesn’t want to do the action. Three typical patterns may
emerge, although a particular session may not follow any pattern. These
are: the pattern of protection, the pattern of rebellion, and the pattern
of wanting something else. There may also be an Inner Critic who needs to
be heard with compassion."