Focusing in the Counselling Room
Updated: Jun 28
Counsellors are often interested in how Focusing might support their therapeutic work. This blog stems from my own experiences of bringing Focusing to the counselling room. It includes inner processing whilst I am with clients and interventions that can be of benefit.
As a Person-centred practitioner counselling involves paying attention to my client whilst having an awareness of my own experiencing. I am interested in understanding how things are from their point of view. Not just cognitively understanding but really understanding in a feeling way, so that when I respond my empathy is genuine and hopefully the client experiences this.
At the same time I need to be in touch with my own reality. Becoming swept up into the client's world would not be helpful. They might be exploring something painful and frightening. As their counsellor it is important to be calm and containing as well as empathic.
There might be something that bothers me in what the client is saying. Perhaps I would have behaved differently in a particular situation. Or maybe there is a more subtile attitude that I am barely aware of. When I am sitting with my client, I have the intention of accepting them and whatever they are telling me without judgment or criticism, so that it is safe for them to speak freely.
Furthermore, it is my intention to be openly myself with my client. This is not about talking about my life or personal issues. Rather it involves being honest and real, and therefore trustworthy in the relationship, also known as congruence. For this I need to have as awareness of my inner experiencing.
Self-awareness and Focusing
Focusing is a gentle way of deepening self-awareness. It involves pausing and noticing a vague sense of something fuzzy and indistinct. This ‘something’ is so slight that it is almost not there. It is like the feeling that we are left with on waking from a dream. Gene Gendlin, the founder of Focusing calls this the ‘felt-sense’
Focusing is the name that Gendlin gives to the process of paying attention to the felt sense and describing it. As we find words, sounds and movements that resonate, the felt-sense gains substance and becomes more concrete and clear. It can hold a weath of information. Often new understandings and insights emerge.
When something is experienced as a felt-sense and is not clear enough to be put into words it is implicit and at the edge of our awareness. Once it has been described and articulated it is explicit and available to us.
When I notice that very vague feeling inside, I know that something is going on. I can let it float by, or I can stay with the feeling. Whilst counselling this can simply be a matter of noticing where and how I feel it in my body. I might keep returning to the feeling, adding descriptions and noticing any changes.
I find that there is much to gain from this. The felt sense gives me access to my inner experiencing. I am more likely to to notice something that is affecting my empathy and acceptance. I am more connected with myself and with my own experiencing as it relates to the client and perhaps to our relationship. This gives me the option to share with the client when it seems helpful to do so.
An example of working with the Felt-sense
On this particular occasion I was listening and responding to a client who I will call Aimee. At the same time I was sensing 'something in the air', a sort of heaviness.
I became aware of a slight uneasiness in my chest and acknowledged the feeling inwardly.
Our conversation continued. Every so often I gave some attention to the feeling in my chest, adding to my description of it with a word here and there.
At one point I put a gentle hand on my chest, by now it was aching a little. As I put my hand there to give it some soothing, I felt very sad.
Aimee stopped talking and also put her hand on her chest. We sat together for a while, and then she spoke about her loneliness.
Occasionally, I am impacted by a client’s material to the extent that I am not as attentive as I would like to be.
On one particular occasion, a client who I will call Steve was telling me about his work stuation. I found myself becoming increasingly angry with his manager and realised that I was no longer empathising with Steve, I was caught up in my own sense of injustice. This was more than feeling a little bit angry, I was enraged and felt my body heating up.
Ann Weiser Cornell and Barbara McGavin have discovered a way of being with intense emotion that allows us to experience the feeling without becoming overwhelmed by it. This is a powerful state of being which they call self-in-presence. It involves having an open and accepting attitude towards ourselves and everything that we are experiencing. This attitude is captured by the title of Anne’s book The Radical acceptance of Everything (2005)
Focusing with my anger
I pressed my feet into the ground, feeling its solidness and my own steadiness. I also leaned back into my chair and felt its support around me. Whilst still furious with Steve's manager I was more calm.
Ann Weiser Cornell and Barbara McGavin have developed language that supports self-in-presence.
Saying to myself ‘I’m sensing something in me that is feeling furious’ enabled me to be in relationship with the furious part. With my acknowledgment and genuine acceptance, this part became more relaxed.
The phrase ‘Something in me’ reminded me that there was another something. A part of me that was empathising with Steve and feeling his stuckness at work.
Rather than becoming merged with either feeling, I greeted, heard and accepted both parts. This allowed me to hold both and to give Steve my full attention.
So far, I have looked at the counsellor's inner process. Clients may also benefit from Focusing interventions.
Focusing suggestions are gentle offerings. They include ‘cushions’ such as, ‘If it feels right, you might like to…’ These respectful invitations trust individuals to know what they need.
Here are two examples of suggestions:
‘You might like to see if you can feel that in your body’
This suggestion can help people who are expressing thoughts whilst wanting to be closer to their emotions.
It can be easier for people who are trying to connect with vague feelings to locate and feel them in their body. For example 'butterflies in my tummy'
‘If it feels right you might like to put a gentle hand there’
If the client is feeling a painful emotion, perhaps in their chest or stomach this suggestion can bring soothing.
This is something that the client can do for them self which they may find empowering
Introducing Focusing sessions
People can see from my website that I practice Focusing. Some clients ask to try it out and may choose to continue in subsequent sessions. A few people naturally work with their material in a Focusing way.
My intention is to be non-directive and to follow each person’s process and preferences.
There are times when it seems to me that Focusing might be beneficial for a particular client. In offering this as a possibility I am always clear that there is no obligation and that we can stop at any time.
Usually I start with a guided ‘lead in.’ This involves bringing attention to the body and checking inside for the felt sense. I invite the client to share their experiencing with me, and I reflect back in a Focusing way.
I find that Focusing in the counselling room enhances my work. It offers me a way of grounding myself when necessary. With Focusing I am closer to my inner experiencing and therefore more self-aware. This enables me to be open and genuine in my relationships with clients.
I present Focusing interventions as invitations so that clients are free to try or discard them, depending upon what suits them best. When Focusing is a client’s choice and inclination, it adds to the depth of their explorations. Focusing can enable greater self-understanding and new insights.