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The Politics of Giving Therapy Away: Listening and Focusing

by Eugene T. Gendlin




Socrates once said: "The Athenians, it seems to me, are not very much disturbed if they think that someone is clever... But the moment they suspect that he is giving his ability to others, they get angry." Many professionals fear the day (which is surely coming) when people will learn the skills of psychotherapy routinely in public school and practice them with each other. Actually they need not fear. The more people engage in processes of this sort, the more experts will be wanted and needed. It is true, however, that such experts will have to be more able than the general population. Currently this is often not the case; some of the self-help training is better than the so-called professional training. Many professionals know a large vocabulary of general terms but no specific practical skills. In the future most people will have been trained in specific skills. They will also know what helpful change feels like within themselves. They will be able to recognize when an "expert" can do more than they can do alone or with a partner.

In this chapter I will first discuss the two therapeutic skills we are giving away. I will then discuss some political principles that I think apply to all genuine forms of giving therapy away. These principles have implications both for the politics of therapy and for politics in general. Finally, I will present our own organizational model.


Carl Rogers first opened psychotherapy to the possibility of self-help. He was constantly attacked for "splitting psychoanalyses", for "practicing without a license", for opening psychotherapy to nonmedical people, and above all, I think for demystifying it and dethroning the medical model. By demystifying I don't mean that the process of human growth stops being mysterious. It becomes more obviously sacred as we learn more about it. But Rogers specified what the therapist does. Other approaches can be specified, too.

Specifying makes training systematic, and it makes research possible. Yes, the very same specificity that lets something be taught also enables it to be observed. It lets one decide with sureness whether a particular procedure is or is not being done just then by a given therapist on a given tape recording. Applying that to a large number of cases, one can observe what results occur.

With Rogers it also became obvious that current doctoral training is mostly irrelevant to psychotherapy. Whatever would prevent someone from learning to do it well, it isn't a lack of intellectual knowledge.

In addition to specificity, Rogers' method brought it home that the decisions a person must make are inherently that person's own. No book knowledge enables another person to decide for anyone. That goes for life decisions and life-style as well as, moment by moment, what to talk about, feel into, struggle with. Another person might make a guess, but ultimately personal growth is from the inside outward. A process of change begins inside and moves in ways even the person's own mind cannot direct, let alone another person's mind.

These developments made it possible to think that psychotherapy might be given away.

Tom Gordon has been the one who made all this fruitful with his P.E.T. organization, now imitated by a host of others. Half a million people have been taught Rogerian listening in his network alone, and it is now taught by many others as well.

As self-help skill training spreads and becomes varied, it is necessary to spell out some principles. As I see it, these principles are already being violated - or at least, forgotten, so that they soon will be violated. Even if not everyone agrees, I believe a discussion of these points will be valuable.

Specificity enables skill training. It is training that we are giving away! What differentiates the credentialed professional from anyone else? It is the pretension - or reality - of training.

1. If we don't give the training away, then we are not giving therapy away. In many networks today large numbers of people are given growth-promoting experiences, but they aren't taught how it was done. It may be called "training", but what the trainer knows is not available. Then people cannot continue the process in themselves or with others. All they can do is urge others to attend the same organization. Therapy has not been given them as a process they can continue in themselves and with others. Someone has kept it for his or her organization, for his or her power, and is not empowering the people coming through. In some networks people are even made to promise that they will not spread what they have learned, that they will not even describe it, so that the mystification of the public will continue and so that people must come to the horse's mouth itself, whoever the horse is.

We want to give people the process, not the experience. We don't want to give them a fish: we want to teach them how to fish.

If the intention is clear, then the skill has to be defined specifically. Giving away and specificity are inherently related because skills that cannot be specified cannot be taught to others.

2. Skills can be formulated so that they are done by individuals from within and help them to find, rather than bloc them from finding, their own inward source. To do this we may have to specify what it feels like from inside when one does the skill effectively, and we may need to define it from a new vantage point. In that form it can be given away.

Each person must find the inner source of growth, change, and life direction. This cannot be done by running people through arranged experiences that have an impact on them that they cannot fathom. Whatever we do, let us rework it until people can do it from inside themselves.

For example, Skinnerian operant conditioning is done to people. An institution arranges with a psychologist to reward certain behaviors in some population, perhaps jail inmates or schoolchildren. But the same skill can be taught so that each individual can use it. It them becomes an extension of the individual's own power and self-control over life. In that form it can be given away. People can define for themselves what behavior they would like to eliminate or increase. They can keep a chart of when and how it happens, and they can reward themselves by celebrating or by giving themselves something they like. They can change the "target behavior" when they wish and as they themselves change.

As we become more and more able to enter into the fascinating territory of personal development, we meet the problems that have always come along with this dimension throughout history. One such problem is the rigidity of doctrines and churches. Today both psychological and spiritual offerings show this same tendency. Every network demands that we engage in just one practice and tells us that all others are bad or useless. The guru says we must find our inner source, but in practice he may demand that we silence it. In our own development - just where we must need to be free - we are also most willing to make sacrifices. Those who want power can use our willingness to control us.

An individual is not an appendage of anyone. Each person is a unique being and has an open life to direct and an individuality to develop. We may make bad messes. But self-direction from inside is the essence of the human kind of being we are. Would we trade that in for some set of "good" results if we could be a different kind of being, one that can be managed from outside?

3. When we teach specifics, we can research and count whether these specifics are indeed being practiced and just what happens when they are. Research publicly defines what we teach and makes it available, rather than its being the property of some mystifying leader or special group.

4. In giving therapy away we can come to a kind of knowledge, a way of using concepts, so that each assertion is tied to an aspect of experience. Mystification is saying truths in such a way that an individual cannot find those truths directly. The statements have to be kept and transmitted, because there is no direct access to what the statement is about. One example is the therapeutic interpretation that does not, just now, corroborate itself within the individual. It has to be believed on the authority of the doctor. Some other time the statement may help bring up some thing in the individual that is internally valid as soon as it arises. But if this does not happen now, the interpretation must be discarded for not. Therefore, it should be given tentatively, as an invitation to sense directly, not as a fact.

Indeed, theoretical concepts in general also need to be like that. They need to point directly to an aspect of experience anyone can find. When psychological knowledge is translated into such an "experience-pointing" form, it can be taught to anyone.

Knowledge needs to be reunderstood not as expert property but as directly relating to and articulating someone's experience. Physical technology creates experts who alone know the science. These experts work for politicians who control what the science is used for. The politicians, in turn, take their orders from the powers that be. This social structure is a problem. A human science that is desirable is not like that.

For example, it may help to know that generally a depressed person may discover a lot of anger later on, with experiential exploring. Or it might help to know that people who have been violent against others could turn the violence against themselves. Such knowing can enable a helping person to be more sensitive. But knowledge helps only if we change how knowledge is usually used. The human process is inherently unique and implicitly complex in everyone. No set of abstractions can equal or undercut what concretely arises. Knowledge of general patterns can only help one to be sensitive to what may emerge. The general expectation cannot substitute for what actually emerges and must be worked with.

What arises directly in the individual must have priority over any concept. A concept may help one lift out some aspect of experience. Even so, at the next moment further steps can move quite differently than that very concept would have led one to expect.

Until now "knowledge" was said to be too complex and too good to give away. I think it has been too poor. If we make "giving away" the model for knowledge, we move toward the kind of human science we want: concepts that refer specifically to what can be experienced and a use of concepts that modifies them by what is newly experienced in a free individual.

5. People can learn to recognize whether they are helped or not; they can sense concrete change events in their bodies and in their lives. In medicine the doctor determines whether there is improvement or not. The doctor tells us whether we have to keep going to the doctor.

People go to traditional psychotherapy for years and believe that they must be changing. To say "must be" shows that it is an inference, rather than a direct sense of change from within. People infer that they must be getting something, since the doctor keeps working. After five years or nine years patients/clients may begin to doubt this. The public has not yet grasped that psychological "doctors" cannot know that something is helping when the person does not know it. Self-help networks that involve trained teachers pose a similar problem. The "accredited" teachers are assumed to be effective. A person who went to someone "accredited" is made to believe that whatever went on "must be" how the offered process is intended to work. I do not deny the need for training. We may keep a list of those we trust to teach it well. We may institute various checks, and we should. But we need to tell the public not to trust an accredited person. Rather, let us tell people that they must inwardly check and sense, in a bodily way, whether a good change is happening. If not, they should work with a different person. When the public grasps this, it will be the best quality control.

Focusing enables a person to experience this inward bodily sensing of bits of concrete change. Having once experienced that, people can recognize when they are changing.

Some important by-products of Focusing: One comes to know how to find one's own inner source, in regard to almost any situation or concern. It puts one beyond depending on a therapist or a guru for how to live. One also discovers, "Oh... I am not these problems, I am here, and they are over there... I have them, I am not them." One discovers a "me" that is not anything one could name.


The next chapter presents a description of our organization. Here I would like only to present a few innovations that seem valuable.

"Changes" is our self-help network. We also have Focusing teachers all over the country who charge a fee. Changes is free, of course, and if you get Focusing there, you are in a good position to know whether you get anything more or better for pay.

We began as a hotline for troubled people but soon found that they best way to work with "them" was to invite anyone calling into "us." We work with each other, and we don't ask or know whether someone is most interested in getting or giving help. We have no leaders who only give. It is always good to do both. No one should go home without having got something. Everyone is listened to for ten minutes or so in a small group, unless someone doesn't wish to be. This eliminates the service role. One goes home sustained, rather than tired. It is a very important innovation. Many organizations offer those who come only sitting and being passive attendants to "program" for the evening. People go home as they came, only tired.

Before listening begins, we give Focusing instructions to help everyone to come to a deep level where something opens. This can be done with the whole group or in a little group. Focusing instructions teach Focusing, but they also enable people to go deeply to their own edge so that then, whatever happens in the group, comes from that deep opening.

There are special subgroups later in the evening that teach Focusing and listening, as well as other groups. Some go for many weeks, others just that evening. Anyone can announce that a group for any purpose will form if others want to join it. That brings us many viewpoints and skills and takes the leadership away from the usual few who do everything.

From the political point of view, the two most important innovations are the next two.

The group as a whole never does any "business" or makes any decisions. Such business as we have is done by a small group at a different time, usually before or after a big meeting. The time and place are known, and anyone can come and be a part of the directing group.

Group decisions bind! Once a decision is made I must abide or leave. If there are decision meetings, I must convince the group. If you disagree with me, I cannot listen and cannot help you make sense, because the decision will go against me and I'll be bound by it. Instead of helping you show the good sense of your point, I may have to hope that you fail to convey it to the others, even if I know what you mean.

At the National Training Laboratory, years ago, certain laws of groups were formulated. We have discovered that these laws don't hold when a group is free in this way. The laws hold only on the constraining assumption that all must agree and that all must remain in the group unless the group decides to break into smaller units. And, believe me, we are very well off without what some of those laws state, which is regularly found in most groups!

In most groups a person cannot go in steps into whatever is discussed or done. Each person gets one try and must then wait until a turn comes again. On one try, one cannot express the deeper layers of what one means. So on one's next turn one can only say the same thing again, the same opener. The pace is frenetic: few listen. To be sure, if the group knows listening, then it is not like that. People invite each other to go more deeply into what they mean, and it is much better. But we must go further to change what group has meant.

Although we didn't notice it and didn't think of it that way, what we have meant by group and by democratic decisions is really a binding structure. We are told that since we attended, the decision is "ours." Usually it isn't. Those few who function know the facts and know how the decision has to come out. If we decide otherwise, there will only be another meeting to set it right.

In our way everyone is a member by being there, and no decisions are made that can bind anyone. This means that those who want to do something do it, without requiring that everyone do it or agree to it. One stands up and says "I or some of us will such-and-so now (or at a given time)." All those who would like to do it also, meet in this part of the room during the break (or at a given time and place). No one's approval is necessary in advance of doing this. It is never assumed that all will do anything. During almost any meeting some people are in the hall talking, socializing. When one wishes, one goes out to joint them. Those who are in the room are there because they want to be.

This innovation has many powerful effects: First, it frees the main space for interpersonal processes or whatever the people need. Most organizations spend most of their time and effort on business to hold the organization together and relatively little on what the organization is supposedly for. To prevent this, we split business and substance. Business is best handled by those who want to. They are usually few, but since everyone can come and is then equal, no one feels helpless. People come either when something they care about isn't happening as they wish or if they happen to like, and be good at, administrative work. That little group is therefore usually surprisingly trouble-free.

Mixing business and interpersonal process is very hurtful and ineffective. We are all told by "participatory democracy" that all should make every decision. Usually that means even a window can't be easily opened or closed. Bright people can be reduced to a state in which they cannot even leave the room because they cannot decide what activity to do next or whether to break up into small groups. Most of us have been in such sessions, and we know from experience that they have not helped us grow - although we were told that all this wrangling and hurting each other was great training for life.

When business and interpersonal process are mixed, neither can happen. People who care about the issue have little patience to listen to another person who seems in the way of getting things done. Conversely, many people take part in business when they really don't care about the issue and want to engage each other. What two people could do easily, twenty cannot do at all. People hurt each other, express "feelings", attack each other, then pretend to make up, hug each other -- and never forget the hurt they felt from the other person, even years later.

When business is dealt with separately, the main space is open for interpersonal process as such. The air is free and there is a sense of depth. It is all about me, not bootlegged, not hurried, no fight for air time, nothing indirect. You listen to me and help me discover that my feelings make sense -- not about how we should pay for coffee, but about me and my life.

Closely related is our way of not having any policy and of making no decisions. We think we are a whole step past "participatory democracy."

Decision making in large groups is a pretense. Only from functioning can one know what one needs to know to decide. There is always a little group of people who function administratively, and they know everything and run everything. To make things democratic means to open that little group to those who wish to participate in it. Few do, but everyone wants that right.

Now about policies: in Changes anyone can put a statement on the wall and can argue or state any policy. But there is no way "we" can adopt it so that it binds everyone. This is very frustrating to outside agencies, but it has also at times saved the group from them and their pressures and even from being closed down. We do not need a policy! Those who want to follow a particular way will do that. Why do we need to bind the others?

The individuals who begin a Changes sometimes don't grasp this principle. We are all still in the orbit of participatory democracy. The leaders assume they shouldn't be seen as leaders. Instead of arranging training and some structure, they ask the group to decide. Those asked don't know anything about it, but the question becomes the occasion for the usual half-personal, half-business wrangling. People believe that wrangling is "the group process" and that it must be valuable. But soon they don't come back, and others come and have the same experience.

Instead, our way is for the small group to set up whatever way seems best(and to hear from people who didn't like it or have a different idea later on). Kristin Glaser, who is the actual originator of Changes(together with four other women and some ideas from my class, but without me), began this new way one day. Wrangling had pretty well been all Changes had done for some time. She proposed that we train everyone in listening and that we not even ask the group about it. We few who met between times to arrange Changes were stunned. How could we foist this on everyone? We knew, as with anything else, that some people wouldn't like whatever we proposed. Of course, those who didn't want the training could do something else(and did). But at that time we had not yet had the insight to open our little conspiratorial leading group to everyone -- because we were not yet able to avow it and admit we were leading the group. But leading is fine if everyone can be in the leader group and if no one must follow. Later we could invite anyone into the group. I say "we," but I soon stopped being in it.

Now, wasn't that a policy? Yes and no. Nothing is binding on everyone. But this fact, that nothing is binding, isn't that a policy? It is a sort of metapolicy. Those who want a policy can have it but only for themselves and those that agree with them, not as defining what others must do.


Current political organizations don't include interpersonal processes, and political people are typically not interested in them. Indeed, if done without training, personal self-expression tends to be sick and hurtful in groups, as just described. Some politically interested people have had that bad experience and want no more of it.

Politics is about people organized together. Any organized group, even a small organization, is a miniature society. The vital question of politics is not this or that program. The vital question is how people might better organize so as to be together in a more livable way and one that enables them to act.

Gandhi said long ago that if an organization oppresses its members, then the society that that organization will bring will be oppressive. It is the main blind spot of Marx to have missed that.

Ideas are important for social action. Many people are interested in ideas(I am one of them), but people get worn out just thinking and talking or doing small actions. And then, too, many more people cannot afford to spend time and effort getting dressed and coming if they are only going to listen to abstractions and perhaps now and then say a sentence or two. For them nothing is offered and they go home untouched.

How different would it be if politics were about human organizing! We would attend to how we are together with one another. We would make our organization a space in which each person is inwardly aided and strengthened and finds an inward source of good sense and energy. Each person would go home stronger, having got something of importance from every meeting.

The basic principles would be lived, concerning the freedom and inward source of each person. Each would find that source. Acting together does not mean concentrating only on externals and leaving one another to inward aloneness and starvation for contact and new energy. There is no inherent conflict between the political and the interpersonal if they have the same spirit. Above all, we do not need to bind one another. We don't need to eject people who happen not to want to do something with us, and they need not stop those who do want to do it. We can form subgroups, announced or otherwise, for anything we need, without losing the larger free space.

People can be equals if all are free to join whatever directing group or groups there are. That way the fiction of leaderlessness is not a cover for a few to control others(or carry all the weight of responsibility even when they are tired of it and don't want to).

Under such conditions individuals grow stronger and more able to act: they don't(as some fear) become interested only in themselves. But those who genuinely want to take action are better able to do it when those who don't aren't in the way.

Of course, this is not the whole answer. It is only one piece of the larger political problem. But these developments do move slowly toward a new meaning of politics.


From The Folio Volume 14, Number 1, Spring 1995 (originally appeared as a part of a chapter that Eugene Gendlin wrote for the book "Teaching Psychological Skills: Models for Giving Psychotherapy Away". Laresen, Dale (Ed.), Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Co., 1984.)

Last Modified: 11 October 2005