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Focusing in El Salvador

Saturday, May 19, 2007

It's working!

This week I started to traveling to teach NVC/Focusing to the teams of volunteer health promotors in the different towns where Provida has clinics. On Thursday I went to ilobasco, known for its pottery. The clinic is in a large house with a courtyard and ylang ylang trees in the back yard. The workshop went pretty well, but had several participants who chose not to share anything personal. I was reminded that now I am working with a more campesino population and the reticence to talk because of lack of trust in confidentiality is bigger than with the two last groups I worked with.

So the next day, when i traveled to the town of Berlin, in Usulután, I spent time talking about "chambre" (cham-bray in English), or gossip, and how almost everyone i have met has suffered from its harmful effects. I told the 9 participants, some of whom had walked three hours to get there), that we were going to be listening to ourselves and others, but that it wasn't necessary to share only painful things. It's also important to celebrate good things that have happened and to acquaint ourselves with the feelings that we have when our needs are met and we feel grateful.

In iIlobasco, the previous day, i had not done the skit about the irate father who  brings his daughter to the school counselor (mentioned in my last blog). I eliminated it due to time pressure, but in Berlin, I made sure to include it, because it really brings home the idea of listening to all the voices inside and not judging ourselves. Luckily, Eduardo, the doctor, and his wife, Yessenia, had been at the 2 and a half day workshop, so they were ready to be the father and the daughter in the skit. It all went very well. Also it is great to have two people that have taken the workshops  before, so that they can help with Feelings and Needs Poker, So we divided into three groups for the card game, and people went very deeply inside and came out feeling a lot better because they had shared and been listened to. That happened with all of the people in each of the three groups, which to me is a minor miracle.

Afterwards, we actually had time for some comments. Here are some of them:

"This has been a good experience because some things you carry inside without ever talking about them and that can really harm you."

"I feel relieved because I was able to share something that I have never told anyone before."

"We have been working together for four years, but we have never taken the time to tell each other things that we have kept hidden inside. I feel relaxed and rested. This helps us to be able to rely on each other."

"As co-workers, we have never shared like this. I feel relieved. I could feel deeply what my friends were saying, and i felt accompanied in my own pain. I am happy that we have had an experience of trust that I haven't had even with my own family."

"Everyone here has been very sincere. We meet often as a team, but we have never shared our feelings with each other. Sometimes we say that problems start in the communities, but the problems really start in our own homes. This experience helps motivate us. Crying is good. i feel peace, brotherhood, and that we have understood each other. We knew each other, but we didn't understand each other. I found I could really concentrate. This has helped me a lot."

"We were really listening to each other. This will help us hear what our patients are saying.  We have freed ourselves from the fear of sharing how we feel, and this will help us work better together. This will help us work with the communities. i can see how only 10 minutes of listening can really make a person feel better."

"We are not used to asking for what we need. We are always trying to help others, but we also need to express not only our feelings, but what we need from them, too."

So I feel very good about this workshop. i will do two more with Provida before i leave on Monday, May 28, and one with up to forty people next Thursday for CRIPDES.

While I'm at it, this week, many people told me how they are using focusing in their own lives. Two people told me how they had gotten rid of headaches, and at least  four people have told me how it has helped them in situations with family and co-workers.

I'm making plans with the people who have internet access to do focusing coaching via skype.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Non-violent Communication as a Door to Focusing

I've just completed a series of workshops with Provida, a grassroots NGO that provides medical and mental health services all over El Salvador. Before the workshops, a psychologist suggested that it might be better to start out with Non Violent Communication instead of Focusing, because there had been some conflicts on the staff. So I called Harbert Rice, who has been working with TAE on a theory of how to bring Focusing into NVC training. He said that not only does Focusing deepen NVC, but that the searching for feelings and needs in the NVC process provides the "holding" space necessary for a felt sense to form.

So I used the clever and engaging NVC teaching techniques (outlined below) to present NVC, but with focusing moments built in. The first, daylong workshop was almost entirely NVC. Participants reported feeling more hopeful and peaceful during the week, and noticing more how they were talking and listening. They were also paying attention to the feelings and needs that arose in different situations, in themselves and others.

The second workshop with the same group was a day and a half long. By the end, nine of the ten participants had experienced felt sensing and felt shifting (we didn't have time for one person to do it). After these workshops I can say that I think Harbert's theory is correct. Looking for the feelings and needs behind a conflict is new territory for many people here. Getting conversant with exploring feelings and needs did seem to foster an inner atmosphere in which felt senses could form. The whole experience has helped me see that NVC can be a door to Focusing in El Salvador.  Finding a way for people to be comfortable being with the feelings and needs that arise in different situations is very relevant and helpful to them now, and will lay the groundwork for further Focusing work.

The group consisted of five doctors, four health promotors and one administrator. Before the workshop, I gave them all copies of cases written up by Dr Juan Prado Flores of Mexico City, who uses Focusing in his medical practice. These stories appear on TFI's website in Spanish, and will soon appear in English in The International Focusing Institute's newsletter and in the Folio. Dr Prado's stories are striking but very simple and heartfelt examples of how Focusing works. The relevance of these stories to situations encountered by Provida workers helped to engage their interest in learning Focusing.

Lesson plans:


1. NVC theory:
the game of giving and receiving versus the game of naming and blaming.
All humans are united by the fact that we all have needs.
Giraffe and jackal language with respective puppets and ears;
the four NVC movements: non-evaluative observation, feelings, needs, requests
Bringing in Focusing; Feelings and needs are alive in our bodies in each situation we encounter.We often feel contradictory feelings, but can listen to all of them with compassionate giraffe ears.
We don't have to agree with our feelings in order to hear them.
To illustrate this, I did a skit with preselected participants that i took from Gene's "Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams". In the skit, I am a school counselor and an irate father drags his young daughter into my office complaining about her "being afraid" to go to school. The school counselor listens to the father's anger, but then asks to be alone with the little girl to listen to her fears. After some awkward silence on the girl's part (how can she be expected to reveal her fears when her father is always yelling at her?) she says she is afraid that if she goes off to school and leaves her baby brother alone with her mother, that her mother might forget all about her. Of course the school counselor doesn't have to agree with the little girl's point of view (nor with the father's) but now they have both been heard. People here really "get" this skit.

2. The first part of NVC: making a observation about what happened to set off a conflict.
The observation has to be non-evaluative:
"When you told me "Take out the garbage!" instead of
"When you yelled at me".
Or, "When you entered the room and didn't say hello" instead of
"When you completely ignored me".
The observation must be something that could have been recorded or filmed, so that both parties can be in agreement about what happened.
Pieces of paper with evaluative and non-evaluative observations written on them are handed to participants. The ones with evaluative statements go to one side of the room and the ones with non-evaluative statements go to the other side. Each group talks with each other about their observations and sometimes people change from one side of the room to the other. Then i help them see the difference if they are not clear about it.
They asked for more time with this, because people are so used to making observations that imply blame of other people. We talked about the words "always" and "never" and how they create a defensive attitude in others.
Then they think of a conflict situation in their experience and write a non-evaluative observation about it. We go around the room reading the evaluations and discussing further what non-evaluative means.

3. When everyone has an observation sentence,  we divide into groups of two or three, depending on the number of  people in the group.
One person talks about the situation they wrote their observation about.
Bringing in Listening: They talk for five minutes and the other two just listen.
Feelings Poker:
When the person is finished talking, the other two go through a deck of red cards with feelings written on them. They try to pick cards that represent what the speaker might have been feeling and lay them out in front of him/her.
Bringing in Focusing: The speaker looks at the selected cards and picks the ones that resonate for him/her, discarding those that do not resonate. The speaker  checks inside for a feeling of incompleteness, and looks through the rest of the cards to see which feelings might not have been selecteded by the others. If there are feelings not mentioned in the deck of cards, the speaker can write them on blank cards.

4. Needs Poker: The speaker goes through a deck of blue cards that represent needs. The speaker picks the needs that were behind the feelings s/he felt, checking for inner resonating with each need,.

The procedure from #3 above is repeated with all three members of the group.

4A. if this can only be a half day workshop, we go from this step to creating a request. This is about all that can be covered in a 4-hour workshop. We end with my reading the observation of each person as they wear the giraffe ears. Another person has the jackal puppet and responds defensively to the observation. Another has the giraffe puppet and responds by trying to feel what could have motivated the person who said it. Another wears the jackal ears and puts him or herself down for what they are feeling. Finally, the person with the giraffe ears listens to his or her own feelings and needs, We switch puppets and ears until everyone has had a chance to play each role.

Questions and break

5. Review of non-evaluative observations
Everyone chooses a life situation and writes a non-evaluative observation about it: "When i see/hear......."
They give their written observation to a partner. If the observation is non-evaluative, the partner goes to one side of the room. if it is evaluative, they go to the other. The partners and the teacher talk about the observation and suggestions are made to change the observations if necessary

6: Reflecting back feelings and needs without cards
Bringing in focusing: One partner (the speaker) senses inside for the feelings and needs that come up when thinking of the observation. The other partner listens in silence. The speaker says the feelings and needs as they come up, seeing if they can let the feelings and needs arise from what is alive in their bodies. The listening partner writes the feelings and needs down as they are spoken and repeats the feelings and needs back when the speaker indicates that they are ready. Speaker checks inside for any change in the way they are holding the situation.

7. Making requests
Bringing in focusing: The speaker checks inside for a bodily feel of what they would like to request of the person involved in the situation they are working with.
First they might want to make a connection request "Could you tell me what you heard me say?"
Or, "How do you feel when you hear my feelings and needs?". Once again, these requests are not directed at the partner in this exercise, but to the person that the observation is about.
Finally, the speaker might be ready to make a very specific action request: 'Would you be willing to...."
The listener and speaker change places and repeat the process.


Homework: This week, notice the feelings and needs that come up in you and others in situations. Use the NVC steps if you can.


1. Comments from the week: Have people noticed their feelings and needs this week?
In a potential conflict, have you thought about your feelings and needs and those of others involved?
Has anyone used the four steps of NVC?

2. Bringing in Focusing: Our bodies know more about situations than we can usually say. If we let ourselves feel our feelings and needs in a situation, we can often tune in to "more", the intricate totality that is sensed by our bodies. We can access this knowing through the felt sense, a bodily sensation that has meaning for our lives.
In order to access the felt sense, we need to learn how to listen to ourselves and others with empathic giraffe ears.

Exercise with what the felt sense can feel like, how to be with a felt sense:

In the large group, one person puts on the giraffe ears and draws a "felt sense" card. These cards say things like
"I feel an emptiness in my chest",
"I sense a knot in my stomach."
"I feel a vague discomfort about this situation"
"I feel a lump in my throat"
"I know that I am leaving something out"

The person next to them puts on the jackal ears and draws a jackal card that says things like:
"Let's see what's on TV."
"I shouldn't be so sensitive."
"I must be crazy to feel this way."
"I'm being so childish!"
"Let's not waste time wondering about things we can't put into words."

The person with the giraffe ears reads the felt sense card and the person with the jackal ears reads the jackal card.

Next the person with the giraffe ears looks at a list of possible ways they could be with their felt sense:

Can I
say hello to it?
be kind to it?
treat it with respect?
see things from its point of view?
let it know I am interested in it?
be curious about it?
tell it I am here and will give it my loving attention?

The person with the giraffe ears chooses a way of being with the felt sense card that resonates for them.

3. Talk about the history and philosophy of focusing


4. Guided focusing. At this point i felt this group was ready for guided focusing. Because it was a group of 10 with only one teacher, I let the ones who were sleepy take a nap. The ones who wanted to focus and observe did so. Because they were acquainted with empathic listening to their felt sense, i didn't have to do much guiding. After focusing, people would go off and rest in a hammock. Toward the end, the people who preferred not to focus in front of others came one by one, with no observers.

5. While I was guiding other people, some people practiced focusing and listening, using the first card adapted from the Afghani system, or they could work on the NVC steps.

The next step after this would be to form focusing and listening partnerships and give them some coaching.

This weekend I taught a morning NVC workshop to the staff and board of a local community radio station. Below are pictures of people playing Feelings and Needs Poker.

Here are some photos of people playing the NVC teaching game "Feelings and Needs Poker" at a workshop I gave last Saturday for a local community radio station.





Sunday, April 15, 2007

Focusing in Organized Rural Communities


In developing Focusing as a model for community mental health in El Salvador, I am very fortunate to be working with the Association for the Development of El Salvador (CRIPDES) the largest rural organization in the country and a leader in the Salvadoran social movement.

CRIPDES was founded in 1984 to support people displaced by the Salvadoran civil war. CRIPDES organized and accompanied re-populations, strengthened local organizations so that people could stay in their communities, and called for a negotiated solution to the war.

After the Peace Accords were signed in 1992, CRIPDES became the Association of Rural Communities for the Development of El Salvador. Its current mission is to strengthen and develop organizing in rural communities as they struggle for an economically, politically, and socially just society. Day-to-day, CRIPDES supports community organizing of the rural population, popular education and mobilization for political advocacy.

Today, CRIPDES is made up of 300 rural communities organized through seven regional organizations. National and regional leaders are elected democratically from among community members. Many CRIPDES communities have sister cities in the US, organized by US/El Salvador Sister Cities. See

Despite El Salvador's reputation for violence and gangs, CRIPDES communities are quite peaceful. They are all composed of people whose families joined the popular uprising during the 70's and 80's and were combatants, or had to flee to the mountains or to other countries during the war. They do not want to relive the war experience. Although the peace accords were signed 15 years ago, poverty and lack of economic opportunity are still prevalent. Community organizations like CRIPDES give structure and meaning to people's lives, and help them continue to fight for social justice.

New drawings of the Focusing process

When i read Rob Foxcroft's poetic focusing steps on the Discussion list, it inspired me to make a drawing of the process. My final version is below, on two pages. it helps a lot to have these drawings, because I can explain the process to new people more easily and even if more experienced people are there, it helps them understand it better. We can refer to the steps as we are doing focusing as well.

Many  people here have not had the opportunity to go to school and many are still learning to read. Having the pictures helps non-readers be able to understand and  talk about the process.

The Río Lempa runs through this area, and everyone responds to the metaphor of problems being like eddies in the river, where things go round and round and can't  get back into the flow.

Focusing steps 1 to 4
1. In the river of your life there is an eddy. It sometimes causes pain, or it can be something new that you want to realize.
2. Say hello to the pain or the difficult places
3, Make your spiritual connection so that the pain and strong emotions can settle down, and create a clear space inside to invite a felt sense of the whole situation
4. At first it will be cloudy and you might think that nothing will happen. But if you give it time, a sense of the whole situation starts to form. As it becomes clearer, it also might have many facets.

Focusing steps 5 to 7
5. Words, images, textures and memories might come from the felt sense. As you show them to the felt sense, it will give you feedback on whether they are relevant or not. If they are relevant, the felt sense will ease.
6. All the things that come to you should be welcomed as guests who have new gifts to bring you.
6.1 Sometimes there is something inside that does not want to welcome the gifts of the guests, and sees them as dangerous. It might seem like it wants to save you from something bad, but it is often a part of you that is afraid of change. Sometimes you just need to ask that part what it needs in order to be comfortable. Then, if you reground yourself in your spiritual connection, this voice often calms down, and you will feel a new green plant growing inside. Like all small, tender plants, this new green shoot needs to be protected from too much sun, and needs to be watered with love and care. It may contain new steps forward that you can take in the situation.
7. Thank your felt sense for what it has shown you. Hopefully, you will feel the river of your life flowing again, and even have a little boat to travel on it more easily.

Lesson Plans

It helps a lot to have these drawings because it enables me to explain the process as a whole at the beginning of a class. As you all know, it is rather difficult to explain focusing to new people without their having experienced it.

I use the pictures to show where we are headed, and then i work on Listening. i have found that it is fun to use the giraffe and jackal puppets and ears that I bought from the Center for Non-Violent Communication. The puppets help a lot in explaining about empathic listening.

In the first class i talk about the focusing steps in the pictures and then i have people just listen to each other for three minutes each. Even in this simple exercise, people feel different, because they are not used to being listened to.

In the second class, I explain the different between the giraffe, who has the biggest heart of all the land animals (25 pounds!) and who quietly observes, listening for feelings and needs in itself and other people. The jackal represents the way most societies communicate today, blaming, analyzing and judging others. We play a game where one person draws a card with a feeling written on it (excitement, anxiety, etc.). The person who draws the card says "I feel...(whatever the card says)". The person wearing the giraffe ears reflects back what the first person said. Then i, with my jackal ears, show them what they are not supposed to do--console, give advice, minimize, agree, disagree, etc, etc.. My examples give them inspiration to play with the whole thing in a second round, where they take over the jackal ears, and there is usually a lot of laughter.

In the third class I give a demonstration of a focusing partnership, now that i have people in each community that know how to handle a focusing exchange. If I am working with a new group, i do a demonstration of focusing myself. Then we work more on listening.

In the fourth class, I focus and and we go around the circle, having people repeat back what i say at each pause in my focusing session.

In the fifth class, we work with the felt sense, and having people listen to each other.

After that, i try to work with small groups in a coaching format. Depending on the number of people, we either exchange focusing turns, or have one or more people as observers. That way people can practice and have me there to help them if they have questions. Right now I have four small practice groups in one village, one group each in two other villages, and a practice group in San Salvador.

Current up-date

In one of the villages, my faithful student L. and i did a demonstration of a focusing partnership this week, and two new people observed. It felt really good to have a focusing partner in one of the communities. L has learned that all he needs to do is listen quietly. I had a very deep focusing session with him during the demonstration. He has what he calls his "inner friend". Last week he could not get in touch with his inner friend during his session, but this week he did, and it brought tears of gratitude to his eyes.

In another village, I have four practice groups based on already existing friendships. In one group, M wanted to work with what to say to people who were trying to run her life. She had told them off, and then later didn't feel good about how she had acted. She felt really angry at them, and I told her about the "fight or flight" response. When she focused, it seemed like she just needed to say hello to her violent feelings and they calmed down.

P said she has actually hit people and pulled their hair when she has been really mad. She said that some people were spreading rumors about her and she wanted to focus about that. Her sister had advised her to address the situation by asking those people to forgive her, but her felt sense told her that she had done nothing wrong, and had nothing to ask forgiveness for. I asked her what she does to feel strong and at peace. She said, 'First I go to a room where I can be alone. Then I cry. Then i ask God for help. i feel I am talking to God, and i end up feeling an indescribable peace.' I asked her how that peace feels inside, then asked her to bring the situation into that space. After awhile she said "I need to forgive THEM". That made her feel better inside.

In another village, where i hadn't been for quite awhile, R, L and M came as always. L was going through a difficult situation and was able to let her feelings out in front of everyone. M tried to tell her that everything would get better, and R tried to tell her what he thought the reason for the trouble was, so i was able to model just listening and repeating until she had expressed everything she needed to say. They could see that her smile and laugh came back after that.

I also did a fun non-violent communication workshop with the CRIPDES San Vicente staff, and another one at a place by the river.

I have done one NVC workshop with the staff of Provida, an organization that provides health and mental health services. We will do another one this weekend. I am introducing Focusing concepts as i teach NVC.Then we will do three Focusing workshops.


So far i am working on building people's trust to do focusing exchanges with each other. I have only found a few people who are willing to demonstrate the process in front of other people, and many express reservations about focusing with their neighbors. Gossip and rumors seem to be one of the biggest problems that  people struggle with here. When i taught focusing to Marcos of CRIPDES in 2003, he was interested in it because you do not have to reveal the content of what you are focusing about. But often neighbors seem to think they know what their neighbor is focusing about, so that whole thing has to be worked on.

My own focusing process told me that this is a reality that i must accept. That gave me the clarity to discuss the whole issue with my village class. They all agreed that  it would be best to divide into small partnership coaching groups, made up or friends that trust each other and couples.

The other challenge is consistency. All the people I am working with are very busy with work and meetings, so it is hard to find a regular schedule. The people who are really interested make an effort to come, even though they can't always make it. I am learning that sometimes I have to pay more attention to tracking people down. There is a lot of resistence to letting one's true feelings out.

I have about a month and a half left in my 5-month commitment to be here. I see teaching focusing here as a longterm commitment, and plan to return.


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