How I Listen to Couples using the Interactive Focusing Process

Kevin McEvenue

About me and my practice-

I see a variety of couples in my practice, which is an integration of Wholebody Focusing and the Interactive Focusing Process. I have worked with heterosexual couples, homosexual couples, people in business together as well as parent-child relationships. What they all have in common is that the relationship has broken down. This is usually around their ability to feel empathy and compassion for one another and their ability to communicate in a deep and caring way. This erodes their connection. What I am wanting to facilitate for them is an opportunity to explore what is there between them now, with compassion and empathy.

In the beginning-

I start with a relaxation to bring the attention into the body as a whole and to let go of everything else that seems to be chattering away. I take some time to see what the body might want, what wants some attention. And then I just invite those parts to have some breathing room without having to get into the details. This helps to open up the body to itself a little more, and ground the mind’s attention in the body.

Using a flip chart (First Part of the Interactive Focusing Process) I outline what I would like to do. How I would like to Listen to each one of them as they tell their story of why they are here and how they are sitting with all that in this moment.

I model listening-

I then proceed to listen to each person, using the structure of the Interactive Focusing Process right down to giving that person an opportunity to experience the “double empathic moment.” Using the Interactive Process enables me to guide a person to pay attention to the life-bearing parts of their story and to express themselves from their bodysense of this. This way of guiding-listening through reflecting back what I sense as most potent, tends to take them deeper into their body, and grounds them more into the bodysense of what is there. In this way, the mind slows down and connects more with the body feel of the issue. I remind the Focuser to keep checking to see if what I am saying back resonates with what they are now experiencing.

I continue to reflect back and to ask for help and clarification, as I need it. I continue to ask them to check inside to see if I, the Listener, have it the way they intended it to be heard. I proceed like this until we come to a kind of resting-place that I call “a piece.” A piece brings us to a resting-place that seems to ask for a check-in from whomever is out there listening. It isn’t the whole story, but enough of the story to want to check for feedback to see if it is okay to continue. It is like pausing to check to see if this is a safe enough place to put more of this material out.

The double empathic moment is grounded in the bodysense-

This is the point where I describe what the “double empathic moment” is, and I invite us both to take a moment inside to see how all this might be for the Focuser from the Focuser’s own frame of reference. I take a few minutes to allow a bodysense to form in me about how this might be for the Focuser. I wait until I get a physical sensation in the body that is clearly not me. There may also be words or images. I tend to stay with the physical as much as possible. I find that if I can share what comes in my own body in very physical words I seem to be on safe ground as I ask the Focuser to resonate to see what parts of that fits for him. And then it is the Focuser’s turn to share what came for him, and I reflect that back and the Focuser resonates the reflection.

About feeling fully heard-

When the double empathic moment is complete, I ask again if he feels fully heard? And if so, I ask permission to turn to the other person and begin the Listening process all over again. Once a person feels fully heard, and this is often a new or unfamiliar feeling in them, they are more than ready to be open to my listening to the other person because now they feel heard! As I say this, this sounds familiar: “It is only when we feel fully heard ourselves are we open to listening to another’s story!”

I invite the second person 1) to tell his side of the story, or 2) what got touched in him from the first person’s story, or 3) just to share what is there right now…something like that, depending on what has come and where I sense he might be right now

Once both people have been fully heard, and I am satisfied that they do feel fully heard, at least in this piece of their story, together we sense what might happen as a next step. I have also been alert for certain signals all along. As the story telling proceeds I look for openness, compassion, empathy, vulnerability, understanding grounded in the body, anything that would signal a change and a softening in the Interactive Space between them.

The possibility of a relationship shift-

This is how I start: I listen to one and then the other to enable each person to get their story out without being attacked. It is often so different from what they are used to. I often find that something happens between the two of them when they are listened to and feel seen and heard in this way, initially by my modeling healing listening.

And this is what I am looking for…that something happens between them (relationship shift) as they each tell their story to me. I find that the double empathic moment is the crucial piece in shifting the energy in the room. It brings us all to a deeper level which is often totally new and unexpected. Both of them feel more heard and often feel more connected to one another without the stuff that seems to get in the way. I can’t stress the importance of the double empathic moment enough! It is healing energy that comes with the double empathic moment that brings the biggest change!

The importance of the “double empathic moment”-

The term “double empathic moment” is very body specific for me. It is really sensing in my own body a physical structure of how a person is carrying the story, in a way that is clearly not part of my own experience of me. This takes skill and practice. It also feels like taking a risk. I feel like I am going out on a limb to attempt to sense in my body how another person might be experiencing something. And yet, in a Focusing- or bodysense-based practice, would there be any alternative. The Focuser does the same thing with himself. He senses in his own body what has come for him with compassion and empathy. After resonating and reflections, the Focuser takes a final moment to feel compete in receiving all that has come. This can be a powerful “self-actualizing” experience for all concerned. That’s the word that comes to me to describe this poetic moment.

Empathy: “My own experience of how that might be for the other”-

When I share what came for me I clearly identify what I share as my own experience of how that might be for the other. I might say something like, “I don’t know if this is my material or yours, but I invite you to take my words inside to check and see if they resonate with anything of your own material. Maybe something of what I share will be helpful. Please let go of what doesn’t fit.”

As I mentioned above, I try to just describe the body sensations and then perhaps add a word or two that seems to come out of that physical experience. I stay away from anything that might seem like an interpretation of this experience, and I avoid rehashing the story itself. I try to get under all that in a wholebody kind of way.

To illustrate, I might begin the double empathic moment with something like this:

Kevin: “What I am sensing in my own body is a kind of tensing on the top of the cheek bones. That feels like it is related to a tension in the hips right here (point to the places). And the word that comes for me is “releasing” as in letting go. See if any part of that resonates with something that came for you. Just take what fits, if anything, and let go of the rest.”

Focuser: “That fits! Yes…and what came for me is that I am more present now. I can take up space, I can have my own space here!”

A shift in the Interactive Space-

What I now noticed is there in the Interactive Space determines how I proceed from there. The shift in the Interactive Space between the couple is the gold I am looking for. I am hoping to get a sense that they are now more open to one another, more receptive to how each other has experienced this issue. Maybe there is a sense of empathy and compassion there now, rather than a drowning in hurt feelings? Are they ready to listen to one another? Are they able to care about one another at all? These are the kinds of questions that are at the back of my mind.

The Next Step:

What I suggest next comes out of what has come before! It will also depend upon the time we have left and other factors. I will name just a few possibilities.

  • If I sense they might be ready to speak to each other directly, I will invite them to do so in the way I have just modeled. I will act as coach and keep them in on track.
  • Or I might invite another round, the next piece of the story, and I will continue to listen to one and then the other.
  • Or I might share what I have observed as a third party. I keep the sharing general, and not interpretative. For example, I might mark the differences in the way they process and how natural that is, how we don’t all experience life in the same way, etc. I might even add how we compliment one another in our different ways and how mutually helpful and supportive that can be.
  • I don’t invite the couple to listen to one another’s story until I feel they are in a frame of body/mind that points to a positive outcome in the listening and story telling. In other words, I wait until I feel they are willing to listen to one another with some caring! I am looking for a positive connection to happen between them beyond the words that are spoken so that the words are there to support that connection!
  • If appropriate, I might give them some simple homework to do. One exercise I like is a ten minute walk/talk where each shares in turn how they are, what’s going on in them right now, starting with naming body sensations. Both are given equal time to say their piece without interruption. The other is there just to listen. This simple exercise often reveals that what is going on in the other is not what I think is going on!
  • I might give them a handout, the first part of the Interactive Focusing Process, and ask them to explore it and give me feedback about how it was for them.
  • Or I might suggest that they hold off exploring the Interactive Focusing Process on their own until they feel more comfortable with this way of Listening.
  • If I feel that there isn’t any desire to really connect with one another in a caring way, I might mark this and ask that we explore this issue next time. I want to be clear that this Process is useful when people are able to listen to one another with a caring, non-judgmental attitude, even if they sense there is a lot of stuff in the way of deep connection
  • My job is to model healthy listening skills in everything I say and do. This means I stay with the body sense. I reflect and resonate from the bodysense. I respond to what is there with empathy and compassion. In short, I am there to teach a way of listening that might be helpful in this relationship.


One thing I have noted is how the word “empathy” can be understood in different ways. I am wondering if there might not be a better word to describe the “double empathic moment” because of the different kind of energy it seems to bring? In a general way, I think of empathy as essentially receptive, receptive of another’s experience in the way they are experiencing it. But the double empathic moment seems to bring more than this. I find that it often (not always) creates a kind of pro-active experience. It tends to be expansive rather than just receptive. It tends to pulse with new energy. The only words that come for me here are “I feel graced.” I have been opened, I have been receptive, and now I feel gifted in what has come in my body itself. It often brings more than the understanding of why; it often brings a sense of the new and how that might be…and so much more. In fact, it has much more of the life of new possibilities in it…for both the listener and the storyteller! It often changes the way the Focuser carries the story, and it often expands the listener’s experience of himself beyond what he knows. It is as though we have both been expanded in our human possibilities because of who we are (the gifts we bring), and what we have just shared.

A Familiar Situation: The story-

This couple is at an impasse. Allison wants to be seen and appreciated, even listened to from time to time…not always…just sometimes! Gerard doesn’t know what Allison is talking about! The more she complains about not being noticed and appreciated the angrier he gets. What is going on here?

Gerard really doesn’t know what Allison is talking about, and that brings up old helpless/powerless feelings in him. He feels powerless to do anything because he doesn’t know what to do, and he feels bad about himself because maybe he should know and he doesn’t. The fact that Gerard cares about her makes it all the worse inside him. Now he is in a rage, and all he wants to do is retreat inside and find a safe place for himself where he doesn’t feel so bad and so full of pain and discomfort.

On top of it all, his own experience tells him that the only way one gets their needs met is from an internal source. “Don’t look to others for support. It’s not there. I take care of myself.” He says this with pride because he feels empowered. Gerard knows that love and support has to come from within. Why doesn’t she take care of herself like he does?

As Gerard backs away, Allison’s own pain increases, and now she, too, is angry as she senses him slipping away and abandoning her even more. She reacts in a cry of pain that sounds like anger. She feels so alone and so unloved! She says something that sounds like “you don’t love me…,” and that is enough to remind him about how she always wants him to be someone he is not, that she needs him to be someone else, that he’s not enough for her. Now he, too, feels unloved and unappreciated!

Both of them are stuck in rage for not being loved, not being appreciated. The more Gerard withdraws to find a safe place inside to recover, the more Allison reaches out, further and further, desperately searching for something that’s not there. Two very different worlds, two different pains, one feeling unloved in not feeling good enough and the other so needy of love and support and not getting it. Two very different ways of dealing with the pain of being unloved and unappreciated as the person each is. That is the crux of it, both now feel unloved and unappreciated and alone, each in their own way, cut off from one another.

Another way-

Familiar story? So where do we go from here in the Interactive Space? What I do at this point is to help them listen to each other’s story when it feels safe enough to listen. In this way an attempt is made to sense how the other is experiencing her pain. What comes is very different from how they experience this situation inside themselves. This new knowing brings appreciation for the other’s response because it isn’t the same as their own! And since it feels different, they don’t have to own it as theirs! It comes as a relief that it is happening out there and not in here. This is another person’s experience, not their own. At the same time the empathic moment has expanded their own possibilities, and that feels enriching

The kind of empathy that enlarges and engages-

This stretch of human potential becomes the groundwork of the new connection between them. This way of being empathic allows each of them to grow and become larger than they were as they include something of the other’s experience without denying their own. In sensing empathically from a bodysense how it is for Allison to feel so alone and so unloved when he retreats when she needs attention, Gerard will be able to taste how it can be natural to look for love and support outside himself, too. And Allison can sense empathically how he might feel cornered and powerless when asked to do the impossible. This gives her the opportunity to taste the possibility of giving herself the love and support she needs and sensing how self-empowering that is.

As a result of giving each other a “double empathic moment” both have discovered new possibilities in the way they feel connected to themselves and each other. In this new connection they can feel full of compassion and loving for one another in the knowing that they are able and wanting to mutually support one another blessed with the gifts they both bring to this relationship. In short, both their worlds have just expanded. This is what Interaction is about!

Kevin McEvenue 2002