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Glaser, K. & E.T. Gendlin (1973). Changes. Communities, no. 2, 30-36. Louisa, VA: Community Publications Cooperative. From

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Kristin Glaser

Eugene Gendlin

(Changes is a group of about fifty people who have been functioning as a community/help group for over two years. Started by University of Chicago graduate students in clinical psychology, now less than half of the people are University connected, most being community people from the Hyde Park neighborhood, The group has a high turnover rate, but a sizable number of the members have been with the group from the beginning or have been with the group over a year. There are an equal number of men and women and although the age range is from 15 to over 40, the largest number of people are between 25 and 30 years of age. Changes is housed in a room in the Church of Disciples of Christ (5645 S. University Avenue, Chicago 60637) but activities are apt to happen anywhere, including in our homes. We work closely with the Blue Gargoyle program which hosts numerous activities including a food co-op, craft shop, a coffeehouse, and neighborhood youth program in the building. Our office and phone (955-0700) are open every evening from 6-12 p.m.)

Changes is a therapeutic community/help network/crisis phone which is probably different from other networks in the following ways:

We are somewhat specialized in rapping, listening, psychological help; but we think of this as part of helping, and we try to get with whatever a person is calling about. This has included getting rides, fixing someone's car, helping people get on welfare, getting parents and runaways together, helping somebody move, making referrals, crashing people for a night or longer, helping someone down from a bad drug trip, suicide fears and stomach pumping hospital trips, and other practical help. But it also includes rapping, letting people say where they are at inside if they want to. We don't always hit the right balance; we want to lay no psychological trips on people, but also we don't want to ignore their insides while dealing with the world. If someone calls, they can get into themselves right there on the phone if they want to; and not if they don't.

Anyone who calls or comes is invited into our community and into almost everything we do. We might go to where the caller is if we are up for it, and we also invite people to come to our place right then. There is usually a group of us there, knowing eachother well (at least some of us are very close, some not). We also tell them of our big open meeting on Sunday nights. Our relations with eachother don't stop when new people are there, and so they can come into some ongoing closeness. We're not just a phone or a service but a community to come into, once, or from then on.

Changes people are into eachother—we're a community for ourselves, feeling that except for the phone service the best way to be useful is to let people into our own good thing (which means that both for them and us we want a good thing for us). So, we spend a lot of time on ourselves. The general idea is to make close relationships among ourselves, not each person with each person of course, but with some people. We emphasize "listening," which as we will say later, is a lot. We also teach each other and learn other ways of living.

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There is no difference between people who come for help and people who come to help. Sooner or later everybody is likely to do both, and we emphasize both when we talk about Changes to new people. Often new people just come and don't even say which concept they had about coming, to help or to help themselves, or both, or whatever. People come for different reasons: to talk about problems, to find a social group or sexual relationship, to be useful, to learn therapy skills or to get specific help with something just then. New people are told that everybody there might help, that we believe in asking people to listen, that one can try out six or eight people there and see who clicks. Whatever is happening, business, or closeness, training, hassling, the new people are part of it just by being there, and if they come again they aren't new anymore. Anybody belongs just by being there, and anybody might be asked to help. There are no distinctions.

Our structure has both this big, loose, open grouping and inside it a number of very close small groups. There are several encounter groups, two women's groups and a men's group, some people living together or in friendship groups. To a great extent these close people interact in an intimate and warm way with eachother even in the big meetings and the nightly phone-office happenings, and that gives the whole thing a quality of closeness which other people can get into.

We will now give more detail (and also some of the troubles) about these themes; our psychological (but not only psychological) emphasis, our openness to anyone, our being into eachother for ourselves, the absence of distinctions between helpers and helped, and our structure of small groups inside a big open one. It is important to emphasize that although this may sound smooth or easy, our group has struggled through many difficult phases, some of which we thought we might not survive. It is precisely because we began with the same problems that most groups have but have come up with what we feel are fairly special resolutions that we want to share our ideas. One of our resolutions is that we can accept working at good ways without being there all the way. Thus this paper describes how we function when we are at our best, which is some of the time.

For us, community is a bunch of people with whom you can carry your living forward in a growing way, and take the steps that are next in your life. We view hang-ups not so much as bad stuff inside someone, rather as messed-up relations or dead relations between people and as more living that needs to happen. So there isn't a difference for us between helping people inside or outside themselves. What we need and give eachother is support, not just in a general emotional way but with whatever each of us is up against, whether it's scared of going crazy or not able to face moving one's stuff to the new apartment. There isn't a line for us between psychological and situational troubles, either way it's about trying to live.

Changes tries to be a place where you can meet all different kinds of life needs—whether they are practical, spiritual, physical, etc. Thus Changes isn't just where you talk or have problems, but we try to act as a resource network for each other. Changes is where I found a friend, where someone taught me how to change the oil in my car, where I heard about a really fine dance teacher, where I found a roommate. A beautiful example of this was one Sunday night, a group of six of us were doing some encounter stuff and wound up talking about our current important needs. One girl was unable to decide whether to go to graduate school in New York, not having enough information about the program. Someone else remembered having a friend in that program who could be called. Then the second person laughed and said she wanted to meet a man but he had to have certain qualifications. After a moment's silence, a third person said he happened to know a guy who really might do, would she like to meet him? Then the third person said he wanted to find a job as a fund raiser and another one of us had just heard of a group looking for one that week. Another person didn't have a concrete need except to talk about her feelings. She was pretty depressed and fuzzy as to what that was about, so we spent some time listening and reflecting her feelings. So, we went around the circle and found that within our small group there was something to offer every person.

But apart from such specific needs, most people lack a community (sometimes they even lack people altogether, let alone a community). An important part of being a community is to be a place where people can try to find new ways of being themselves. For us, community is where you can be in touch with all parts of yourself, including the inside stuff that's not all clear, or that doesn't look good, or that's isolated or seems like nothing's there. This means needing a place that allows experimentation, that allows the old ways to go slowly, that tolerates crumminess. To let each of us live and be visibly there, it takes not being down on anything that comes out, it takes not thrashing eachother for our bad ways. This means that Changes needs great tolerance for difference. You don't have to be like me to come. I may want you to be like me, but it needs to be OK that you aren't. I may give you feedback, but I won't yell and scream and say you can't be a Changes person. By trying to feel comfortable with people who aren't like me, we can allow people to be with us who may still be very straight and stuck in life styles that we don't think much of or have a new ideology different from our own. Straight people also need support if they want to change, and everybody needs to be able to bring out their doubts and fears about where they stand—instead of always having to present what one believes as if it were air-tight and doubtless. When people want to hear where I really am, I can see more clearly where I have come from and also find out that I probably have a lot further to go. In Changes I feel OK about finding that out, and also OK that I am doing what I like. I don't have to have everybody else there be like me.

One of the differences in people that we accept is that the drive toward community varies greatly in people. Sometimes even the same person varies over time, wanting closeness at times and retreat from closeness at other times. Several times people in our group declared their sober intention of having a very close community and then didn't come back the next week. The way we have dealt with this is to not push for closeness, but offer opportunities for it. We accept the ebb and flow of close/apart as a natural part of our group process rather than a source of disappointment.

There are a number of ways in which we need to tolerate differences. One area in which people had very different ideas was on how the group should run. In the beginning [Page 32] there was trouble with this. One group of people wanted us to be a sort of "workers" group, modeled on New Left principles. We should all go out and find out what the community wanted, we should all share the shitwork equally, we should really get into our political ideals and liberal shortcomings, and above all, we should be more organized. The other group, the "organics," didn't believe in structuring or organizing things. People should only do what they wanted (and that didn't include canvassing the community), we shouldn't have any shoulds, working groups would develop naturally, and above all, "don't push the river." (This tension between high structure/low structure is apparently hassled by most groups. Our struggle, however, was couched in ideological terms.) There was a lot of strong feeling, pain, and time involved in this controversy, with some sense that one or the other factions might have to leave the group. Then, gradually, there began to emerge a resolution. It became clear that the "organics" had the ultimate power of non-action and non-participation in any structure but also that the group could survive if certain things didn't get done. On the other hand, we had some bad experiences in which the disorganization was very harmful. We began to see that in some ways structure was necessary but that in other ways looseness was good. People began to feel that the life and death quality to the ideological struggle was not real, that both points of view had some merit.

Specifically, what happened was that we began by trying to handle all the business as a group and found it was virtually impossible to reach decisions in any expedient way, that all our time was consumed in hassling housekeeping, and we didn't even get all of it done! People felt stuck and frustrated. Although this was a bad place, it also made clear that no one could take power and walk off with a group that was as loose and had as many points of view as ours. At this point we relaxed and began to feel more comfortable with allowing self-chosen leadership to do the housekeeping decision-making with the group's power being in the form of giving positive and negative feedback after the event. (Coupled with this was giving up making many policy decisions that affected the whole group. We found this just didn't seem necessary.) How this works is that the people who want to be the organizers and doers go ahead and do it and discuss it at a small meeting. Everyone knows about the meeting and is welcome to come. So, if someone decides they want to do some publicity (we usually need it) they will probably check around with some people about what has been done before and then go ahead and do it. Then, if someone in the large group doesn't like what they did, she can say something about it or just go ahead and put out her own publicity. What is important is that no one thing is crucial. Almost no work has to be done and it doesn't matter terribly if it's done "wrong." Somehow we aren't terribly invested in our "good" name. What has happened is that with a few notable exceptions, people have pretty much gotten the hang of what we are about before they launch into any kind of independent work so we have had little to regret from what people have taken on. Also, we find that the minimum work necessary to keep Changes afloat does happen, although somewhat sporadically.

As the concerned people began to make decisions about structural stuff, we developed a more solid program. For instance, we never had a training program because we couldn't agree on what kind to have. Then, the most concerned people (those willing to do the organizing) pulled together a training program and announced it to the group as a given. At that point most people were very excited and a few people decided not to participate. The general principle here is that whoever is concerned makes structural decisions that the interested people can participate in and others not. If there is violent disagreement, the whole group can strike it down. So, we began a Sunday night training program in empathetic listening, skills. Another group of people felt we needed to talk about phone training skills and interrupted our program several times to get their concerns aired. That was OK, too. So, for us structure is good if it is flexible, not mandatory, and open to change by the group. We just don't need unanimity about most decisions—the interested people go ahead and the others will do what they want.

This means that our large Sunday meetings are where training or other ways of getting into eachother happen while business is taken care of by a small group. We see this as a third model: the first might be the old autocratic one in which a small group decides everything (the board or executive committee). The second is participatory democracy where everybody has to decide everything. Our third model lets anyone participate in decisions who wants to (our little group meets at known places and times) but doesn't put the whole group into the interminable hassles on trivia, which the second model involves. (In a way, most organizations in the world don't put their main energies into what they are supposed to be about, but instead waste it on infighting and organizational hassles, and this seems just as true of the participatory model as it was in the old model.) It has been good for us to spend our main big group time on what we're really about and separate business off but keep it open to anyone who wants into it.

Although there are some problems with this division of business and training, getting into eachother, it worked wonders in getting us past a very bad time in Changes which seemed to be all hassling. We found that it is bad to mix business and getting into eachother—everyone is impatient to get essential business done and nobody wants to hear anybody. Personal feelings are just in the way, and aren't heard, but business also doesn't get done. The division makes it possible for necessary things to be done (and most people in Changes are glad whatever way they are made to happen) and also, in the personally focused bigger meetings, the division makes it possible to enjoy eachother's experiences and growth steps.

The main problem we now have with work happening in the small group is that the people who do the housekeeping don't get enough recognition from the rest of the group since there isn't much talk about it in the larger group. This is particularly difficult since although the group encourages people to take part in the administrative work and handling the crisis phone, we also basically feel that people should do or not do whatever work they feel like. This means that there are some people in the group who work an incredible amount and others who seem to do nothing. When we don't push, however, we find the do-nothing person may eventually be the one who surprises us by being able to step in with exactly the right talent in a pinch. This also means that we are [Page 33] comfortable when people quit jobs when they have had enough. When people have the freedom to say no or say enough without feeling guilty, they also feel comfortable about coming back for more.

Just as the ideological differences about structure were worked through, it became clear that other ideological differences would survive in the group and even enhance it. When there is open discussion between opposite views, there seems to be a lively tension generated that brings energy into the group. For instance, most of us are deeply opposed to hospitalizing anybody, but some feel that in a last resort this could be done. When a decision had to be made about a real person, it was much more important for us to listen to eachother, than to make an abstract policy rule. Those who were afraid to let the person remain outside got to hear how those against hospitalization felt and why. The person involved was present, and although very freaky, clearly became more sane just by being talked with honestly, and being cared about. The communication among us got much better than earlier, when we had spent a lot of time in group discomfort because people weren't willing to deal with this openly. When people were willing to stick their necks out and talk about what they wanted and why, we learned a lot from eachother. On all our differences about therapy, responsibility, money, and leadership we find that if we talk openly, give the other side respect, feel that we don't have to go one way or the other, and most important, listen to where people are at personally, we can accept all sorts of idea differences, The last point is central—we find that people often feel that they have to talk about their needs in terms of ideas and if we can stick with someone's idea and get to their feelings, the grimness with which the idea is held softens.

What is clear is that principles, values, ideas—all manner of head stuff—often "feel" very strong. "Should," "ought," "must," "we have to do it my way" are often attached to them. When principles have these feelings, it doesn't matter if the idea is new, we are still experiencing it in the old way. The old way is how you learned things from your parents when you were three—a finger shook in your face, there is a mystical absolute reason, there is no questioning an iron-clad rule—"it's good for you." There seems to be a craziness when principles about freedom, liberation, equality, and new life are applied with old coercion and lack of flexibility. There is mystification in a message of "there should be true freedom—but we have to do it my way" or "because I know we are all equal I am better than you." Yet these are the messages that we tend to give eachother when we become grimly attached to our ideas. It seems that when people get angry, forceful, or absolute about principles, it is an old, old way of being with people. Principles are there to enhance our living, giving us structure and guidelines rather than trapping and chaining us. When we find our principles stopping things rather than starting them, we know we got stuck in doing things in an old way.

One principle that we always had is that Changes should be an open group. This means that everyone is welcome at all times, there is no exclusivity, there is no distinction between new and old as far as participation goes. Yet, like most groups we had the problem of then always having to start over again for the newcomers, having to explain what Changes was each meeting, having to justify our ideas. Worse, it was hard to develop steady work relationships and get any closeness. Now Changes has an open large group with closed subgroups within. What this means is that the group as a [Page 34] whole is completely open—anyone can come and participate at any time, but that also, there have developed some natural groupings of friends, and special groups (like the women's group) that are relatively stable and may be closed to newcomers. Within these small groups there are intimate bonds and a sense of group development. The continual openness of the large group is fine as long as you also have the closeness of friends and a sense that work (or process or whatever) can go on without continually being flooded by newcomers. The small groups bring their style of close relating and their warmth to the larger group. For instance, women from the women's group bring their supportiveness and caring for each other into the larger meeting and in effect model an excellent process for the rest of us. We find that some people being intimate helps others of us be intimate, rather than cutting us off, as we had feared.

How does one avoid elitism when you have exclusive small groups? First of all, the groups are usually not secret and not completely exclusive; anyone can usually join if they want to make a commitment. But, if too many people want to be with that group, the old group can help the new people make their own thing. This was done by the women's group when it came to have 18 members. Obviously it could not then carry on with its own closeness. But neither did the original members send the new ones away to start another group from scratch. They wanted the new women to get the experience of being in the kind of closeness and mutual support the old members had developed. So they split into subgroups with new and old members in each subgroup. After a while it will be possible to let the new members form their own group. When we are willing to share what we have, we don't feel that we are being elitists.

We had worried that the small groups might splinter the large group. Why would they stick around once they had their small community defined? What happened, however, is that the small groups still need the larger group. People are still committed to the larger Changes idea of the therapeutic community, people still want to get the training, people still want to be helpful and they aren't getting all their social needs met. The smaller, specialized groups simply don't meet all the varied needs people have. What we find is a pattern of mutual nourishing between large and small groups. The large group offers the wider resource network, a broader choice of activities and people. The small group offers intimacy and concentrated work. These different offerings are mutually supportive to a total Changes process.

When new people come to Changes they are asked to participate in whatever ongoing process is happening, whether it's a heavy meeting or an intimate personal conversation. For instance, if a new person wanders into a meeting, someone will come over and say "hi," but then he will have to sit through whatever we are doing—whether it's a boring business meeting or a listening training session. Or, if someone wanders into the office when two people are into a [Page 35] heavy rap, he will be asked to draw up a chair and sit in. This means that maybe he will say nothing for half an hour but when he does it will be intimate, since that's what's going on. He may say something of how "I've had those terrible problems, too." The point of this is that we do not drop our stuff to deal with him and therefore his first response has be at our deep level rather than at a superficial initial contact level. Afterwards we try to get with him where he is at—either individually or by sitting down with all the new people to find out what they want for themselves. We think it's important for new people to see right away how we like to be with eachother and then they can tell fairly easily if that is what they want for themselves.

Our specialty is this: we like to be with eachother, getting with eachother in a good listening way that allows the talker to get as deeply into himself as possible. This process is discussed in depth in Gene Gendlin's Rap Manual (see page ), so we just want to talk about it briefly here. Our belief is that most people are very much caught up in the top of themselves. They are tied into roles, patterns of being that control much of their action and their thinking. Very rarely do we take the time to find out how we feel about what's happening, or what we are doing or about to do. In Changes, we try to encourage this and train eachother to help do this. If someone is able to listen well, not putting in much of his own thing, basically being with the speaker, reflecting the talker's feelings and giving him full attention, the speaker may be able to get past his immediate fast thoughts and into a slower, not so clear place that if explored gently, may bring him some kind of sense of how he feels. We encourage this process not just around specific situations (how do I feel about what you said) but also to explore ourselves in a more general way. If I am feeling vaguely upset, but am not clear what it is about, I may ask someone to help me focus on that, to help me relax, take a deep breath and get down into myself, into some vague liberated zone of myself that is not cut and drawn into all the pieces that I usually feel are me. Down there is some wide open, unmapped territory and when I get there I may get feelings, pictures, phrases that tell me what is going on. The person who is being with me supports me, guides me, attends to me, letting me find me in the fullest sense. What this process does is let me know how I feel so that I can then go on to the next situation, piece of action, with some clarity of what it means to me. "I know this is going to be difficult and uncomfortable, but here I come." Then after I am doing it, I may check inside again to find out how I am doing.

Our commitment is to each individual person's needs over what seems to be the group needs. This means that attending to one person's hurts and worries is always more important than the group's business. We don't always actually do this but we like to think that if a personal problem emerges in the middle of a group meeting, that we would get with that person, really taking the time to be with him and that process would be the most important. Actually, this only seems to obstruct the group's needs, because it seems like issues can be settled on the idea level. Mostly they can't, because people won't or can't say their inside reasons for taking the positions they take. If instead, we let them get into that, which takes listening to what they say and asking for more, then very different stuff comes out than could have been known about just from the general arguments. Anyway, those general arguments are interminable, so time can be saved by getting with someone, rather than arguing with them. So, this general policy is actually helpful to the group as a whole in the long run. When in the middle of a meeting in which people are hassling about ideas, someone bothers to take the time to get with individual concerns, we usually get a clearer sense of the conflict. For instance, one woman is advocating that Changes should stop crashing people. When we get with her, listening to her point, following it up and asking what this is for her, and letting her clarify her thoughts not once but twice and three times, we find when she gets more deeply into herself, that the reason she wants to stop crashing people is that she feels like she often is the one who has to take ultimate responsibility to take in someone if no one else will. She forgets she can't say no. So, she winds up with more crashers at her place than she can take. When we get to this place with her, the group supports her right to say no, and then we find that the crashing problem doesn't become a policy decision of "should we" or "shouldn't we" but of getting with this woman.

Part of our being a therapeutic community is that we can have some pretty heavy people in the community with us. (A "heavy person" is someone who is very unhappy, needy, freaky; someone to whom at first I get a gut reaction of "Oh, I don't think I can handle this.") The way we are able to handle this is by attending to our value on work—that you only do what you want to. A corollary to this is that we realize that each Changes person can only do so much. While it's really fine to ask for what you need, it's also OK to say no to what anyone asks you for. What this means practically is that we try to form teams around a heavy person so that no one ever works alone and you can feel free to only do as you want. Another point is that we can't accept ultimate responsibility for another person's needs and life. Rather than offering phony friendship or playing the doctor/therapist to a heavy person, each team person offers the heavy person a relationship similar to that he would to any person in our community. Being a community person means offering a basic level of caring, concern, and resources—but not offering to take over someone's life. If the heavy person wants it, this means a reciprocal relationship is possible. If she doesn't want to be at the helped end of a relationship, she can be a community person toward me. But, it's important to emphasize that we don't feel that we have to do more for a heavy person than we would for anyone else. We have an adage "We do what we can" that we try to keep remembering when we get tied up and feeling like we "ought" to do more but just don't feel we can handle it. It is really OK to back off when things get too deep.

Another part of the therapeutic community is that we don't make decisions about who can do what, who is capable of doing what as far as work goes. This is true for all Changes people—there are no qualifications for any jobs. This is particularly relevant to heavy people because by not labelling them "too crazy" to do something, they may be encouraged to act in more healthy ways. Again, because we aren't that invested in what happens to our name and because no one works alone, we can invite a heavy person to work for us and we even encourage them to sit on teams for other heavy [Page 36] people because they frequently know more than we do. If a heavy person does decide to take on a job, such as answering the phone, we will get someone to work closely with him (as we would with any new person) to make everyone more comfortable.

We don't do this enough but we try to understand hassles in terms of what is happening between people rather than as bad stuff inside a person. We call this a heavy interaction analysis or systems analysis. So, if there is a bad process going on in a group or someone is acting weird, we try to take into account what everyone's part in the interaction is. For instance, if someone is acting strangely, I need to understand that this piece of behavior is a communication that is necessarily a two-way process. He does this, and I feel that, so I do this. When I can understand my part in the process, maybe I can guess at his intent so I can act differently. (It's always easier to change one's own behavior than someone else's.) Maybe when I check inside I may find out that what the person is doing makes me scared and what I want to do is push him away. Yet maybe what he is doing is actually a backwards way of saying "I need to get close." If I sort this out, maybe I can get a little closer rather than going away. (A more detailed account of working with heavy people is in the July 1972 issue of Rough Times/Radical Therapist.)

When Changes is functioning anything like what we have outlined, we have a group going that allows its values and principles to serve it, rather than dragging it down. We value openness and find ways to allow closeness, we have structure but no one has to use it if it doesn't work, we have leadership but they can't control people, we acknowledge people's drive toward community but respect their fear of it, we acknowledge that we have crummy ways but allow them to change slowly and gracefully, we tolerate and welcome differences because they don't have to affect everyone. Basically we see a therapeutic community as one that welcomes people where they are at, not demanding change but making as much space as possible for people to change. We make that space for people by not making demands but at the same time making clear what is possible for people in terms of participation, work, relationships. We offer people a chance of indepth communication with themselves and others. As far as our group life goes, we are willing to strike a balance between our ideals and what seems to work. We seem to operate with a basic theme of acceptance of most of what comes up. We try to have a positive atmosphere, a belief that caring, trust, and being relaxed produces good things although you may have to go through a heavy struggle before you get there.

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