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The Ethics of Focusing Partnerships and Felt Community

by Marilyn Frankfurt, Trainer, NY, USA

Marilyn Frankfurt, M.A., MSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City. She is on the Focusing Institute Planning Committee.

A Focusing Partnership takes place when two people agree to Focus and Listen together on a regular basis. It works best when the partner is someone with whom one is not in a close relationship. The usual model is for each partner to give a half-hour of attention to the other, at least once a week, either in person or on the phone. After each has taken a turn, the conversation is over. There is a strict injunction against commenting on what has transpired, in order to protect the speakers' sense of all that has happened from being intruded upon.

In a Focusing training program for psychotherapists, I Focused with a stable group of nine other students for two years. We each Focused with an assigned partner on a weekly basis. Every two months we were assigned a new partner. By the end of the two-years we had each experienced all the others as partners.

As a result of Focusing and Listening with everyone, I became more gentle, non-judgmental, and caring in my attitude toward the others. I developed a sense of safety with them and with the Focusing process. I had gotten to know them all at the heart of themselves. This knowledge of one another equalized us and made us more accessible to the other. We forged connections that felt valuable, not only to one another, but to the invariant structure of the Focusing technique as well. It worked. We learned that we could count on it to attend to our own felt sense in such a way that meaning would emerge, and with it a sense of accomplishment and relief. I think Focusing became a symbol for us of "all of that."

The Focusing Partnership Situation Itself

Everything of meaning to us happens inside a situation. A Focusing Partnership itself creates a situation. It is a very unusual, constructed conversation, within which each partner's individual situation is constantly being bodily sensed and explored, and out of which bodily felt meaning emerges. I propose that when we experience the situation of a Focusing Partnership itself, over time, the partners become witnesses for one another.

By "witnesses" I mean that our attentive or pure listening and carefully phrased reflections can be counted on to provide confirmation and validation . I believe that a feeling of relational intimacy needs to develop gradually for the role of listener to evolve to that of witness. In this special situation we come to know one another on a very deep level. This knowing is deepened by our awareness of our own and the other's bodily felt sense as they emerge around the conversation's issues. We "get" ourselves and one another "inside out."

 An Ethical Presence

The transformation into witnessing is aided by what I would call an ethical presence that "lives" in the Focusing situation itself. This ethical presence shapes the way we are responsible to one another as we speak and act within the Partnership. It becomes a living part of our sense of intimacy. As it crosses with the utterances and expressions that go back and forth between us, it becomes a part of our experience and helps to form our social identity.

The partners understand the crucial importance of being answerable to one another in the conversation by reflecting, taking turns, and providing feedback to check for accuracy of reflection. These are basic elements of an ethical relationship. I believe the ethical presence is the engine that runs the entire process of Focusing with a partner.

The partnership situation itself grounds the participants in ethical practice. It takes on the role of supra-witness to the conversation (Bakhtin, 1986). The partnership situation becomes a "third party" to the conversation and we find ourselves acting in response to its felt presence. It occupies a space between us as we talk. It becomes part of the background environment for our saying and saying back. Its "watchful eye" lends us an ethical vision by which to guide our actions within ourselves and with one another as we speak.

A Different Kind of Ethics

The ethical presence implicit in the Focusing Partnership exists only "in" the activity of the relationship or conversation itself. As a bodily felt relational ethics it bears a family resemblance to an ethics of care, yet it finds greater inner depth in the rich intricacy that materializes as we Focus. This Focusing ethics emphasizes the bodily felt sense, separateness as well as interdependence, the particular over the universal, mutuality, intimacy, absence of hierarchy, development, process, and life-forward direction. It highlights context and novelty, and looks to empathy more than to rules to solve moral dilemmas. It also promotes our valuing of the sense of "just right" that we all find within us. This sense of rightness is what tells us which exact word, gesture, or image best fits any given situation we are in.

I want to follow this bodily felt ethical vision because it helps me to figure out the best way to be with someone for the good of us both. I am able to listen as carefully as I know I will be listened to. Such freedom permits the expression of novelty. As Gene Gendlin observes, what helps to keep the Partnership pattern alive is the intimacy that comes from hearing from another person what he hasn't yet heard himself say.

Imagining a Felt Community

The idea of a "felt community" emerged for me during a six-day long Focusing retreat. For the first time in my life I felt that I belonged to a group of people whose way of being with themselves and others expanded, rather than contracted, my best sense of myself. I had a fantasy there of more and more people developing Focusing Partnerships, forming a virtual felt community throughout the world.

In "building" the felt community we need to imagine a way of speaking together spontaneously that would include attention to our bodily felt sense and to the ethics of the Focusing Partnership. I propose that we add John Shotter's joint action, a collaborative, spontaneous relational process that includes the voices of all who join in ( Shotter, 1993). Its not-knowing-in-advance way permits others to feel the movement of our beings, to which they want to, indeed, feel they must respond. With Focusing-oriented joint action, we can move ( but not too far) from the protection of the structured Focusing Partnership - our base - to a more spontaneous "back and forth" around a particular issue or situation.

Such a communal life will allow us all to experience being together as more real and more trusting. This community of felt meaning, based on mutual confirmation and recognition, will be our safe place - a place to feel at home.


Bakhtin, M. (1986) Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Shotter, J. (1993) Cultural Politics of Everyday Life University of Toronto Press, Toronto.



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