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Focusing/Listening Training Program in Business Corporations: A Personal Account of its Development in Japan

By Akira Ikemi, Ph.D.Certifying Coordinator, The Focusing Institute.
Professor of Clinical Psychology, Kansai University School of Letters

Research Data

Focusing & Listening has been taught in Japanese corporations as mental health training for managers.  In a study of over 1600 workers, Ikemi et at (1992) showed that Person-Centered Attitudes of managers had positive effects on workers anxiety, depression and fatigue as well as on perceived activation of the workplace and perceived democratic leadership of the managers.  Ikemi et al (1992) and Ikemi & Kubota (1996) introduced a listening/focusing mental health training program for managers, and demonstrated the program’s effectives through interviews with workers after the training and through a relationship inventory used before and after training.  Subsequently, Kubota et al (1997, 2004) continued to study the effects of listening training in corporate mental health, and Mishima & Kubota (2003) developed ALAS (Active Listening Attitude Scale) to access listening attitudes in managers.  Using ALAS, Mineyama et al (2007) showed that those workers who worked with managers scoring high on ALAS (those who had high listening attitudes) demonstrated more favorable stress reactions, more support at work and experienced more job control than those who worked with managers with low ALAS scores.  Meanwhile, Ikemi (1998, 2002) continued to refine the listening/focusing training for managers in his continuing work in training managers of an automobile corporation.

Ikemi, A., Kubota, S., Noda, E., Tomita, S. and Hayashida, Y. (1992): Person-centered approach in Occupational Mental Health: Theory, Research and Practice, Japanese Journal of Industrial Health 34, 18-29. (In Japanese)

Ikemi, A. & Kubota, S. (1996): Humanistic Psychology in Japanese Corporations: Listening and the Small Steps of Change, Journal of Humanistic Psychology 36 (1) 104-121

Ikemi, A.(1998): Sangyo Mental Health to Keicho Kyouiku, Occupational Mental Health 6 (4): 245-248. (In Japanese)

Ikemi, A., (2002): Counseling to Kenko Shinrigaku: Sangyo Mental Health deno Jissen. Kenko Shinrigaku (Ed. S.Shimai), Gendai no Esprit 425, Shibundo, Tokyo. (In Japanese).

Kubota, S., Mishima, N., Ikemi, A., Nagata, S. (1997): A research on the effects of Active Listening on Corporate Mental Health Training.  Journal of Occupational Health 39, 274-279.

Kubota, S., Mishima, N., Nagata, S. (2004): A Study of the Effects of Active Listening on Listening Attitudes of Middle Managers, Journal of Occupational Health 46: 60-67.

Mishima N. & Kubota, S. (2003): Learning Active Listening: Practice of Inventive Experiential Learning. Japan Industrial Safety and Health Association, Tokyo. (In Japanese)

Mineyama, S., Tsutsumi, A., Soshi, T., Nishiguchi, K. and Kawakami, N. (2007): Supervisor’s Attitudes and Skills for Active Listening with Regard to Working Conditions and Psychological Stress Reactions among Subordinate Workers, Journal of Occupational Health 49, 81-87.

A Personal Account

It all began to take shape during the late 1980’s to the early 1990’s.  The economy in Japan was good, riding high on the “bubble”.  People were making money, trading stocks, investing in real estate, and busy buying out the whole world.  Behind all the luxury and pleasures, however, lay the realities of corporate life: work, work and stress.  Physicians in corporations started to worry about stress related disorders in the work force, as their appointments began to crowd with anxiety attacks, ulcers, headaches, insomnia, and depression.  The word was “psychosomatic”, ringing like a church bell to alert the whole nation, until the word “karoshi” took over. “Karoshi” (Karo= overwork, Shi= Death: Death from overwork), continued to appear on the evening news, flash on the front page of the morning papers and in appear in conversations, from union leaders to business executives, from housewives to attorneys to congressmen and ministers.

The health and safety law was amended, clarifying that business owners were responsible for the health and safety of their workforce, including mental health. This meant: business corporations were to train the management and their workers in health issues, including mental health.  A subcommittee on stress in a subsidiary organization for the Ministry of Labor had assembled a model plan for training managers.  The subcommittee decided that managers in corporations should have some knowledge on stress and stress related disorders, about relaxation methods and about listening skills and attitudes.

 At the time, I sat on this subcommittee.  The President of the university (the University of Occupational and Environmental Health, School of Medicine: UOEH) where I had worked, had put me on this subcommittee, knowing that without such a forceful placement, I would never get around to researching corporate mental health which I promised I would do.  And thanks to the predecessors in the field, “listening” was included as one of the main training objectives in the THP (Total Health Promotion Plan) put together by the subcommittee.  Now the government was going to give out grants and other promotional measures so that business corporations would implement THP.

During promotional workshops offered by the government subsidiary to representatives of corporations, I met health and safety staff from many major Japanese corporations, including Daihatsu (now a TOYOTA owned corporation, specializing in compact cars).  It turned out that I would teach mental health at Daihatsu, and it turned out that this would continue for the next 20 years and ongoing. Etusko Noda (Focusing Trainer), an occupational health nurse who worked at Daihatsu (a UOEH graduate), had since become my colleague in this field for many years to come, until she moved and retired from this field in 2007.  Shinya Kubota (Focusing Trainer), a psychologist who was working at the department of psychosomatic medicine at Kyushu University, joined me at UOEH.  Shinya and I went all over the country, teaching listening to corporate managers in not only Daihatsu and Toyota, but to major Japanese corporations including Mitsubishi Chemicals, Sumitomo Steel, Nippon Steel, NTT and a number of other corporations, large and small. Shinya got his doctorate in medical sciences at UOEH for his research on the effects of mental health training in corporations.

In 1991 our paper on Person-Centered Attitudes in Mental Health (in Japanese) had come out in the Japanese Journal of Industrial Medicine, stirring up a small sensation. The study was introduced in a nationwide newspaper and in a local TV program. (A part of the contents of this paper is introduced in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology in English). To this day, I like this study.  While most studies tried to find who fell ill under stress, my studied showed that it was the manner of relationship that mattered.  Workers who worked with supervisors who showed empathy, unconditional positive regard and genuineness tended to score lower on fatigue, anxiety and depression.  While most researchers saw people as independent entities, my study saw people as living-in-relationships. 

Around the same time, our workshop for managers at Daihatsu also began to receive mass media coverage.  While most in-house training for managers tended to consist of lectures and presentations, ours consisted of experiential work, trying to get managers to listen, in a focusing way.  NHK showed parts of our workshop in the local evening news, then in their nationwide satellite program JAPAN TODAY, (in English) which was shot with an all American TV crew from my home.  NHK Educational channel also ran a 40-minute program on mental health training in corporations, with me as the commentator.  (I was so shy, I couldn’t bear to see myself in the tube. I hid under covers in a hotel room, while this show was being broadcasted on nationwide air.) The training program at Daihatsu was evolving into something special. Almost every year, other corporations came and ask to participate in this program (others corporations included PANASONIC, Toyota, The Osaka Police Department etc.), but no other corporation or organization has yet succeeded in replicating the Daihatsu program, perhaps because of the wonderful quality and dedication of the experienced staff at Daihatsu.

By this time, I had moved to teach at Okayama University, School of Education, where I met Sachiko Mineyama, who was an undergraduate student at that time. After graduating from Okayama Univeristy, Sachiko worked at a corporation for a few years then joined me again at Kobe College where I had moved to, and completed the masters program in psychology there.  In Kobe, she volunteered to help out with the Daihatsu mental health training program.  For someone who had experience working in a corporation, the Daihatsu program was deeply moving for Sachiko.  She went on to the doctorate program at Okayama University, School of Medicine (Public Health) where she completed her doctorate on the effects of Listening Attitudes on workers’ stress and work situation.

“Does the government run everything around here?” David Ryback said to me, in our symposium on Emotional Intelligence in Corporations, held at Kobe College in 2000. Well yes, to a degree, especially in “occupational health and safety”, where we had launched our Listening/Focusing program. Government recommended programs and grants did help to get us started with corporations. David had cited some lines from my article in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, in his book Putting Emotional Intelligence to Work. Later, I was to help two of my colleagues at Kobe College translate the book Emotional Intelligence in Everyday Life by Ciarrochi. Although Emotional Intelligence can be one angle at describing our approach, I think our experiential work in corporations have a distinctly Focusing-oriented angle. Research studies show the positive effects on mental health the training program has, as shown in another part of this article.

Evolution of the Daihatsu Program

The Mental Health Program at Daihatsu continues to evolve.  When we started the program, we did a 20-hour program, 5 four-hour sessions with two weeks in between them.  The rationale for this was that managers could take in what they learned and could try it out for two weeks and then come back to the next class.  As it turned out, however, the program took long to complete and few managers could complete the program without absences.  The program was then modified to a 5-day program.  The managers would stay over night twice (a total of 4 days) and a 1-day follow-up, approximately 6 month later. The program is currently shorted to 3 days, with one stay over (2 days) and another day approximately 3 month later. Daihatsu now intends to train all their managers, thus the shortened program run more often.

The emphasis on having people stay overnight seemed to be important to us.  People needed to get away from their daily interactions at work to interact in another way.  Managers needed to interact from a felt sense, which was something they were not used to.  Without felt sensing, the treasures of focusing and listening would be lost. Therefore, the emphasis of the program at Daihatsu is to get people to come into their felt sense.

The program begins in the morning at a mountain spa and resort owned by the corporation. (The location happens to be out of reach from cell phone networks.)

The enrollment is limited to no more than 25 people, and average enrollment is around 20.  On the teaching staff are: 4 occupational health nurses (2 of these nurses have taught listening/focusing with me for more than 15 years); myself (sometimes replaced by other Focusing Teachers); and two graduate students who work as assistants.  When added, this would mean 7 teaching staff for 20 to 25 people.  One of the reasons that other corporations failed to replicate the Daihatsu program lies in achieving this ratio of staff to participants.

The program opens with an executive or senior manager introducing the program, and the rationale for having this program.  (It helps to have an executive motivate the managers --- sometimes managers don’t understand why they are chosen to come to a mental health program.) Then occupational health nurses give a 45-minute talk on stress, health and resources within the corporation and outside (including EAP). The rest of the morning is devoted to “coming into the body”, i.e., some bodywork and relaxation.  The emphasis is on bodily felt sense and relaxation.  Some managers have difficulty with the former, some with the latter and some with both.  “Coming into the body” seemed to be essential for this program.  Many managers cannot relax or feel inside their bodies, especially in a room full of other managers.  Thus, we feel it necessary to spend a whole morning on bodily awareness.

Listening is introduced in the afternoon with a demonstration.  The demonstration is often following by a discussion on how listening is different from interactions in everyday life.  A short talk on the Experiencing Scale (EXP) follows.  Due to the fact that a lot of Daihatsu managers are engineers, they seem to like scales and numerical ratings.  They often realize how low they are on the scale in their usual interactions.  Some say that they now realize that they were afraid to show their personal emotions at work, preventing them to go no further than EXP level 2 and 3.  I often say the creative process comes from EXP level 5, while what is called “emotion” is at level 3.  To be creative and think further, one needs to go further than level 3 and think newly from the felt sense.  The EXP scale seems to work well with Daihatsu managers --- many of them turn out to be good raters and seem to get an orientation to Focusing through the scale.

The group is then broken down into smaller groups so that everyone can have the experience of being listened to. Sometimes some Focusing responses are introduced as more advanced forms of reflective listening.

At night after dinner, participants socialize over a few drinks.  We believe this is also an important aspect of the program.  Often managers have time to share and support each other. A sense of “feeling supported” lasts for a long time after they return to work.

The second day begins with light bodywork and the whole morning is devoted to making a collage. I call it “Experiential Collage Work” (ECW) and have just written a paper on it, about to be published from the Japanese Journal of Clinical Psychology (in English.)  The rationale for collage here, is to do some experiential work on the felt sense and after some experimentation, we stumbled on collage making as a powerful way of working with managers.  In the afternoon, participants return to the small groups and do listening/focusing on the meaning of the collage they had made. The collage is full of personally felt meanings and it is wonderful to explore in a focusing way.  Before we introduced collage, managers often talked about their situation at work and tended to work about it in an intellectual way or seek advice.  Collage makes them turn inwards and explore inside.

Some time is devoted to free discussion in the afternoon.  Often, with our facilitation, the discussion involves difficult people at work and becomes more like an encounter group rather than a solution seeking discussion group.

Everyone attending says a few words about what this 2-day workshop meant for them and the first 2 day segment of the program is brought to a close. On the 1-day follow-up a few months later, managers convene in a hotel near the corporation headquarters.  Bodily relaxation, Felt sense, Listening is reviewed and Clearing a Space is introduced. Again, everyone summarizes what the whole program meant for them and the program is brought to a close.

I feel that the whole program is teaching managers how to attune into persons --- their selves, their family members, their employees.  The interest in persons is said to be crucial in business, but often, this gets neglected when work, not the persons doing the work, becomes the center of attention.  Focusing/Listening is a mode of relating to and caring about oneself and others, and the change in the mode of relating results in enhanced mental health.  I feel it is important that the entire corporation knows about the training the managers are doing.  Otherwise, a few managers here and there, trying to listen may be seen as “weird guys” trying to listen without saying much and wasting time. (This has happened before.)  I am wishing that listening and valuing the felt sense become part of corporate culture rather than something atypical.  If all managers can listen, that would surely mean a lot to the 12,000 employees of Daihatsu and their families!



Last Modified: 11 September 2007

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