Focusing as a Counselling Skill
Focusing is a counselling skill that involves actively listening to what the client is bringing, and then choosing an area to focus down on.
Focusing is like zooming into a detail in a photograph. The counsellor zooms in on the emotions behind the story, or narrative, that the client is bringing.
Focusing in Person Centred Therapy
Carl Rogers, the founder of Person Centred Therapy, took the idea of focusing from Eugene Gendlin who worked with Rogers in the early 1950's.
Gendlin recognised that focusing helps the client to explore, in more depth, the emotions that lie behind the story.
Focusing is sometimes misunderstood as a term, quite understandably.
When we think about the word ‘focusing’, we may be drawn to thinking that it’s about us paying more attention and really focusing our concentration on something that the client is bringing. But it’s not this at all.
Focusing involves making decisions about what issues the client wants to deal with.
The client may have mentioned a range of issues and problems, and focusing allows the counsellor and client together to clear away some of the less important surrounding material and concentrate on the central issues of concern.
Focusing may involve prioritising issues and making decisions about the urgency of the issues the client has brought.
Choosing Where to Focus
So where do we focus the client's attention?
First, the counsellor aims to maintain the focus on the client's agenda and needs in the counselling session.
One of the places we might choose to focus on is if the client brings up a feeling word.
For example, the client may say:
"When I left I felt devastated, realising I could never return again."
The feeling word in this example is devastated and the counsellor may reflect back:
"I hear you were completely devastated."
The above example shows an invite to the client to dive deeper on the feeling word "devastated".
It often happens in counselling that the client will come in with a story. Although they bring in the weight of this material, there is also an element of safety in staying in the story, because there’s a distance between this and the feelings that underlie this.
Some of these feelings may be really painful. And that’s our work as counsellors - to be there in those painful feelings with people.
"Focusing can encourage a client – if they wish – to go and explore a feeling or movement more deeply. This deepens the bond, taking the therapeutic connection to a new relational depth."
How to Focus
When we have decided where to focus on, how do we then focus down on that? Do we stop the client and say, "Hold on; let’s talk about that"?
My approach to counselling is person-centred – which is, by nature, non-directive.
There are different approaches where the counsellor may be more directive and more solution-based – but in person-centred counselling, we would need to invite the client to explore something.
How might we do this?
First of all, we need to be in their frame of reference. The client is bringing their story. Maybe they will touch on a feeling word as they’re going through that story.
And as a person-centred counsellor, I might just use a really simple reflection of the feeling word that they brought.
That would be me acknowledging that that feeling is there – and inviting the client (if they choose and feel ready to do so) to go to that feeling and to focus on it, drilling down to bring more of themselves.
Therapeutic Focusing example
Counsellor: "But when it comes to making that choice of doing something for yourself, you use the word ‘selfish’."
Client:"Very much so. It feels – when it is for my own gain, want or pleasure – I guess, it really feels selfish."
In this example, the focus word is ‘selfish’.
That’s because when the story was brought, the word ‘selfish’ didn’t seem to fit for the client; she didn’t seem to resonate with it; it seemed to be a pain area.
So I purposely reflected that word back. It was her word that she brought, and it was an invitation to focus down on what ‘selfish’ meant to her, allowing the client to explore that.
So look out, among all the material that the client brings, for when a client uses a ‘feeling’ word. That’s a great place to go back and focus down on.
It’s like the client is taking a flag, bashing it into the material that they’re bringing, and saying, ‘Look, there’s a feeling that lived under here!’
It may well be that the client chooses not to take up that invitation and so not to look at that feeling right now, and that’s OK.
At least you have acknowledged that by focusing, and that in itself lets the client know that they’ve been understood.
Prioritising Issues and Goal-Setting
Focusing involves thinking through the implications of prioritising. If one issue is dealt with first, how will this affect the other issues? What will this mean for the client?
Questions the counsellor may consider are:
- Which issues may need swift action?
- Which may be left until later?
Focusing also involves an estimate of the length of time the counselling is likely to take, and discussion of this with the client.
Aside from this, the counsellor also needs to look at his/her own level of experience as a counsellor.
Are there concerns around coping and competence regarding the client's issue? Do you need to refer on?
Focusing may involve goal-setting, and/or contracting with the client.
It involves a realistic assessment of what is possible.
Moments of Movements
Another place where we can use focusing is if there has been a moment of movement within the counselling session.
If the client has experienced some development or growth – no matter how small that is – that may be a massive win for the client and so it is a good place to focus.
Counsellors are not there just to dig and find pain, and take the clients to places that are uncomfortable for them.
Counsellors can also focus on something that the client feels is a win or a small moment of movement.
We can acknowledge these moments and say, "Yes. Wow, look at that!"
"If the client has experienced some development or growth – no matter how small that is – that may be a massive win for the client and so it is a good place to focus."
Client: "Not to assume what the other person would like, need or want from that, but to allow them maybe to express that, to bring what it is that I would do and maybe not be so sensitive if it’s not taken up or accepted, and to allow for whatever the situation is that occurs, that it’s not a rejection of me. It’s just ..."
Counsellor: It’s not a rejection of me.
Client: "Yeah, it’s just a choice or a decision or a like or a want or whatever, but it’s not ultimately rejecting me."
Client: "Just the thought or the ..."
Counsellor: "That feels massive. That really feels massive when you say, ‘Not a rejection of me,’ because mere moments ago, you were talking about that as being a rejection.
It feels like, looking at it and examining it, you may be able to see that slightly different now. You’re acknowledging that not as a rejection of you and, I guess, as maybe their opinion, want or need.
But at the same time, I recognize how fragile that want and need of self is, feeling that it does take second place.
So I guess it’s about maybe that courage to bring your wants and needs out, measured against the idea that ‘it’s not a rejection of me’."
Client: "Yeah. It doesn’t feel as make or break, or life and death anymore.
The idea of me purely expressing something that I’d prefer is not the ultimate ‘this is going to be you liking me or not liking me’. It’s purely a thought or an idea."
Just hearing those words that it’s not so ‘life and death’ anymore really warms me.
It’s just amazing, and it’s what counselling is all about. It’s a massive moment of movement.
Only moments before, the client was speaking about how she felt judged and evaluated by other people when she was making decisions for herself.
And now, thanks to a little focus on that moment of movement, it doesn’t feel like that anymore for her. She’s able to see that there is a change.
Focusing is a very useful and necessary skill in what we do as counsellors.
I challenge you to practise focusing. You can use various different techniques to focus, for example a one-word reflection or a paraphrase.
Why not try sharing with peers what it feels like for you to invite somebody to focus down on something?
Focusing can encourage a client – if they wish – to go and explore a feeling or movement more deeply.
This deepens the bond, taking the therapeutic connection to a new relational depth.
I hope you’ll go out there and look at the skill of focusing with a new focus!