Eugene Gendlin is a philosopher/psychotherapist who initially developed his ideas in close collaboration with Carl Rogers in the 1950s. His key idea is that each of us has a bodily, somatic experience of our situation, an experience, which he called a felt sense:
“A felt sense is the wholistic, implicit bodily sense of a complex situation” (Gendlin 1996 p.58).
This felt sense is most often experienced in the stomach/chest, though it can also be felt in other areas of the body, such as sensation in muscles, as can be found when actively working with the body (“ok, how about you stand up and show me in your body what that’s like …. What comes up for you from that position”).
Gendlin argued that the felt sense allows for a deeper, more complex and nuanced understanding of ourselves in a situation than reason alone:
“… a felt sense is more reliable than reason because more factors can be sensed than reason can manage” (ibid).
The following is a nice summary of his view:
“Your body feels the complexity of each situation, and enacts much of what you do all day without your needing to think about each move. What you think is of course important, but you can think only a few things at one time. It’s your body that totals up the whole situation and comes up with appropriate actions most of the time. Human bodies live immediately and directly in each situation” (ibid p. 181).
His point is that in our everyday living and familiarity with situations, our bodies respond appropriately to what’s needed without us having to think about it all – as when we drive to work and realise when we arrive that we’ve given no deliberate thought at all to the driving; we’ve been on ‘automatic pilot’ and arrived safely. Put another way, our whole body ‘knows’ what’s happening, what to do next; we have an implicit, embodied understanding which is mostly never articulated or thought about (reminiscent of Gallwey’s Self 2).
Gendlin’s practice of ‘focusing’ is a way of paying attention to the felt sense, which is initially experienced as an inarticulate somatic ‘something’. You can try this for yourself if you sit for a moment, allow your attention to centre on your body, and ask yourself something like ‘how am I’, or more specifically ‘How am I as I’m going into this meeting (or)about to meet this client …..”. It’s likely that as you do this you’ll become aware of a feeling in your body that isn’t an emotion or a feeling that you can name, something that is hard to articulate but which, at the same time, is intimately connected to your situation. The next step in focusing is finding a way of making that inarticulate felt sense meaningful, symbolising it, most often by finding the word or image that really resonates with it (though I find a memory may come up, or the refrain from a song). For me this focusing process – attending to and making meaningful my felt sense of a situation – is the most powerful and reliable way of making sense of situations I am in, and I trust what comes up far more than I trust my thinking about things.
Gendlin’s view of psychotherapy (and the same for coaching) is that for an intervention to be facilitative it needs to touch upon the client’s felt sense, as the fundamental datum of the client’s own experience of their situation. For example, empathy (the practitioner entering into and giving voice to a sense of what it’s like to be the client in their world) can be so powerful when it helps the client viscerally connect with what’s happening. Or again, gestalt awareness raising (“let’s just stay with that …. What are you aware of…) is all about helping clients connect with and deepen their contact with their felt sense of situations. As the client touches and articulates their felt sense, understanding emerges of the situation and what needs to happen next. In Gendlin’s view, any approach that enables such a process to happen can be facilitative, whether it be psychodynamic (for example an interpretation that really ‘hit’s the spot’), cognitive behavioural, transactional analysis, or whatever. On the other hand, interventions that do not connect with that felt sense will be mostly ineffective; words or activities that engage thinking or doing but have no real purchase on the client’s actual involvement in their world.
You’ll have gathered that I concur with Gendlin’s view, and I think that reading his book ‘Focusing’ (2003) was the single thing that has most profoundly affected my practice over the years. There have been so many occasions when clients have found just the right word or image that resonates with their felt sense of the situation, and this has both brought relief and transformed the work we are doing. The concept of ‘felt’ sense and the practice of focusing also makes sense of other key concepts and practices in coaching, for example, ‘counter-transference’ as the practitioner’s ‘felt sense’ in their relationship with the client, and ‘focusing’ as a reliable way for the practitioner to attend to and make sense of their ‘counter-transference experience. In addition, as indicated above, attending to my own felt sense of what’s going on has been the single most powerful and effective way I have of making sense of situations that are challenging/distressing/confusing.
For all the positive reasons above for writing about Gendlin, there is an additional reason which is indicated in the title, i.e. being-in-the-world, and that is the strong resonance between Gendlin and the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. Those who know me will know that I have been fascinated by the work of the Heidegger and the ideas in his magnum opus Being and Time (1978). At the heart of his existential approach is the view that our being arises out of the world of which we are a part (we are socialised into a particular culture – my words not his) and that our everyday living takes the form of absorbed involvement with familiar situations; doing ‘what one does’ (the cultural norms and expectations) mostly without prior thought because we just know what to do. In fact, if asked we’d mostly find it impossible to clearly articulate the ‘rules’, rather we have an inarticulate, tacit understanding of what to do (like standing the right distance apart in a lift). For Heidegger the existential challenge is that, in the face of our embeddedness in the culture such that it fashions our very being, nevertheless to live an authentic life we have to ‘take a stand on our being’, that is, catch hold of and hold fast to the possibilities in any situation that address what matters to us, to live the ‘right life’ rather than go along with what ‘one’ does, with what might be expected by others. I have found this existential framework to be very powerful in coaching, where clients are so often lost in ‘doing what everyone does’, going along with what is familiar and expected, and in the process losing their own sense of direction and what matters. Coaching has been about reconnecting with their own sense of what matters, what’s right, or, to quote a recent client “getting back to myself”.
I’ve found one particular aspect of Heidegger’s work particularly revealing, his analysis of Befindlickheit which is often translated as ‘mood’ (it can also be translated as ‘attunement’), and I’ve written quite a bit about this in relation to coaching (2014; 2016. If you are interested I can also send you an unpublished conference paper). Simply put, Heidegger says that moods are not just private feelings of the individual, but our embodied experience of being-in-the-world – a tacit resonance with our situatedness in the world encompassing what concerns us. Heidegger argues that moods contain a deeper understanding of our situation than is possible by thinking alone. In words which bear a striking echo of what Gendlin was later to write about a felt sense he says:
“... the possibilities of disclosure which belong to cognition reach far too short a way compared with the primordial disclosure belonging to moods” (173).
The affinities between Heidegger and Gendlin was underscored by a paper that Gendlin wrote on Befindlickheit (Gendlin 1978-79), which offers a sophisticated and extensive discussion of Heidegger’s writing and his own approach.
I’m not sure how legitimate this is, but I’ve worked on the basis that Heidegger’s moods and Gendlin’s felt sense, are addressing the same kind of phenomena, an embodied tacit inarticulate resonance of the person and their situation, and that focusing is a practical way of tapping into and articulating that knowing, both of the situation and how people ‘find themselves’ in the situation (their concerns, what matters to them, what they need to do to ‘get back to themselves’).
I’d be really interested to know what you’ve made of what I’ve written here, and ways in taking the themes developed here a bit further.
Gendlin, E. T. (1978-79) Befindlichkeit: Heidegger and the Philosophy of Psychology Review of Existential Psychology & Psychiatry: Heidegger and Psychology Vol. XVI, Nos. I, 2 & 3,
Gendlin, E.T. (1996) Focusing-Orientated Psychotherapy: A Manual of the Experiential Method. The Guildford Press
Gendlin, E.T. (2003) Focusing: How To Gain Direct Access To Your Body's Knowledge: How to Open Up Your Deeper Feelings and Intuition. Rider
Heidegger, M. (1978) Being and Time. Wiley Blackwell
Pelham, G. (2014) Not Just Personal: The Meaning of Moods Coaching Today
Pelham, G. (2016) The Coaching Relationship in Practice Sage
Coach, Psychotherapist and Supervisior