Focusing evolved from research that has influenced much of the somatically-oriented, mindfulness-based work being done today. It has been linked to over 50 studies* with positive therapeutic outcomes and continues to develop new applications in psychotherapy and related fields. Continue reading to learn about how Focusing was discovered through research conducted by Carl Rogers, Eugene Gendlin and others at the University of Chicago.
Eugene Gendlin was a philosophy student at the University of Chicago in 1952. Influenced by existential phenomenology, hermeneutics, and the early pragmatists, he was curious about human experience, idea formation, and expression. Gendlin was specifically curious about “…how an experience that comes before words becomes an idea framed in words.” (Cornell, 2013, loc. 84). Gendlin held his own felt-belief that people have a kind of experience inside, which more than being spoken about, is spoken directly from. In such a manner of experiential-speaking, Gendlin firmly believed that meaning preceded concepts and the language to describe the experience. But how does one study the phenomenon of a person articulating their experience?
For Gendlin, it meant stepping outside his philosophical roots and making a visit to the psychology department. At that time, Carl Rogers was the head of the University of Chicago Counseling Center and was continually engaged in research on client-centered therapy, or as it was later known, person-centered therapy. Desirous of better helping both others and himself, Gendlin joined Roger’s team of therapists and researchers. By being a student of the therapy process and at the same time also a client in it, he was able to more deeply explore the question that gnawed at him. Notably, while remaining a philosopher at heart, Gendlin became a well-reputed psychotherapist receiving numerous awards and honors including: the American Psychological Association’s first ever Distinguished Professional Psychologist of the Year award, a Viktor Frankl award for outstanding achievement in meaning-oriented psychotherapy, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of Body Psychotherapy also known as The Hub of Somatic Psychology.
During his training with Rogers, Gendlin and his teacher began researching the question: Why is it that some people get better in psychotherapy and others do not? Cornell (2013) tells us, they identified two key interdependent variables: first off, the therapist’s quality of being with the client and second, the client’s quality of being with their own present experiencing. Hendricks (2001) further explains that Gendlin and a colleague developed an “Experiencing Level Variable” (n.p.) along with a scale to measure it.
Next, Rogers and Gendlin along with their research team, recorded hundreds of therapy sessions by many different therapists from many different orientations. From those tapes, they were able to predict very accurately which clients would get better after a year of psychotherapy as determined by certain outcome measures including the client’s self-report and the therapist’s report. Strikingly, this prediction, based on their experiencing scale, could be made after listening to the very first session. Gendlin and his colleagues found that improvements in therapy had very little to do with a therapist’s orientation, specific techniques, or with the type of problems being addressed. Instead, the important element of positive change had to do with how clients processed their experience internally and was evidenced by the quality of their expression.
The clients who got better did so because they could speak from their present/emerging experiencing process: as they spoke they slowed down, became less articulate, and checked their words with how the whole of a situation felt inside their body. This back and forth process of going between noticing the whole way something is felt in the body and searching for how to express that through symbols (words, images, gestures, and memories) produces change! Focusing is the formalization of what the successful clients did in therapy, and the product of its development into a teachable process that everyone can learn and benefit from. Subsequent studies* have shown that people who learn to Focus (learn to speak from their experiencing in this profoundly changing way) have better outcomes in psychotherapy than those who do not.
It is key to note that when the successful clients slowed down, they checked for the words that best fit their inner experience. What is this “experience” they were they checking in with? They were sensing the whole way a situation felt in their body. In Focusing we call that a felt sense. In the August newsletter I will discuss what a felt sense is and why Focusing is referred to as the essence of change.
Cornell, A. W. (2013). Focusing in Clinical Practice: The Essence of Change. New York: W. W. Norton & Company and Kindle Edition.
Hendricks, M.N. (2001). Focusing-Oriented/Experiential Psychotherapy. In Cain, D.J. and Seeman, J. (Eds.), Humanistic Psychotherapy: Handbook of Research and Practice. Washington DC: American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://previous.focusing.org/research_basis.html
*For a list of research studies on Focusing visit: