Your Relationships

Listening sensitivities

The Seafarer by Jila Peacock

Here I will draw out a few of the subtleties which underlie the simple-seeming art of close listening.

As you are listening, you may be aware of many different streams, flowing side by side and mingling. Together they form the person’s consciousness. You need to be fluid and responsive, paying attention to them all – though few listeners do so.

This model of listening sensitivities is clear and simple. You can easily check it for yourself, in your own experiencing. By sensitivities, I mean awareness of these fourteen streams:

1 Words – narrative

We think in stories, we daydream in stories, we tell stories. The first stream of mental activity, of which we need to be aware, is the stream of words and thoughts.

At a simple level, this is a matter of following the stream of words, of getting the hang of the story-line.

2 Words – analytical

At a more complex level, we relate to the word-stream analytically.

We ask about reasons and evidence. We try to think clearly and accurately, coherently and powerfully.

We try to see what assumptions are being made, what opportunities are implied by our words, and how we are limiting our lives through the stories we tell to ourselves and other people.

Very often, we can’t yet see the wood for the trees. Yet we do need to see where our thinking has got stuck, where it is primitive, or enclosed in old patterns. We need to look for the inner connections between our thoughts. We are trying to be more objective, and less blinkered.

We are trying to achieve reflective transcendence: not just to think, but also to think about how to think. We are trying to think freshly.

We have to accept that we are fallible, that we can always be mistaken:

Here I am, still travelling, trying to broaden my mind,
for I’ve seen too much of the damage
narrow-mindedness can make of things,
and when I return home,
I will devote what energies I have to repairing the damage.

—Malcolm X, at the end of his life

This scheme of listening sensitivities derives its strength from its subjective character. I am inviting you to be clearly aware of your own experiencing, of your conscious field – to give definite priority to your own view of the world – the view from here.

I am not however suggesting for a moment that you should ignore the view from nowhere.

A person lives forward from an immediate local here and now. The reasoning which makes possible a non-local view takes place from where you are here and now. It contributes to the forming of your decisions and actions, your further living.

One function of analytical sensitivity (that is, of philosophical clarification) is to enable us to reach beyond the local view. We need to make an attempt to clear up the muddles in our thinking, for practical reasons.

But more than that: in my view it is impossible to think at all (that is, to reason), without giving reason the last word.

3 Actions – gestural

There is not only the story which words are telling. Underlying the words spoken, we are also aware of the non-verbal, faithfully conveying mood and meaning, in the subtle field of our interaction with one another.

Our gestures and body language, our verbal rhythm and tone, our emphases and omissions tell a story of their own. We engage in a kind of unconscious choreography, which always reveals more about us than we intend or can control.

4 Actions – intentional

Our lives are saturated with impulses towards action, both serious and trivial. We want to do this or that.

Much of the work of growing and developing as a person, of bringing balance into your life, and of achieving success, is about focusing and directing the process of action.

You need to clarify your intentions at every level, to eliminate evasions and acts which bring mere pseudo-comfort; and to centre your life around those activities which make life worth living – of which some bring real comfort, to ourselves or others.

5 Images – evocative

Our minds are not only full of words but of images – sights, sounds, smells or tastes, and sensations of touch, meaning and movement. Some of these recall the past. Some are our immediate contact with the world and other people. Some are evocative of future states, for which we long, or of which we are afraid.

These images have enormous power over us, for good or ill.

6 Images – mythical

Secret Water by Jila Peacock

We also have images of another kind – naturally arising metaphors, dreams and spontaneous symbols, which are charged with meaning. Often these images show us what we would otherwise not be aware of.

In our dreams, certain universal human images rise up and confront us – always in an idiosyncratic form, and with deeply personal significance. Amongst these are the archetypes: the Shadow, the Inner Child, the female image within a man, the male image within a woman

These natural images may exaggerate the way you are living, so that you can’t help seeing how you are carrying on. They may disclose a substrate of primitive passions.

Or they may have a compensating function, showing you a possible self, more realised than the self you know, or even wildly unlike it.

Once we get to know the language of dreams, metaphor and mythical imagery, we find that images throw both habits and biases into sharp relief. They point in unexpected directions, along paths which we might choose to follow.

We can ask, “Where does the dreamer disagree with the dream?” (The question is Gene Gendlin’s.) But we don’t have to side with either the image or the person. The point is that, usually, when we dwell just there, at that puzzling point in the imagery, some creative step comes.

Sometimes what comes is far sharper. It is clear that this road you must take. Too bad, that it may occasion you fear, embarrassment, insecurity and inconvenience.

You have had an encounter with destiny (but be sure it is not merely a brush with madness!).

7 Images – projective

For there is another side to awareness of the mythical imagination.

You realise – the world’s a madhouse,
and most people are operating in fantasy anyway.

—John Cleese

All human beings (I guess) tend to treat the real world as if it were a myth or story. We have images in our minds of “all fathers”, “all girls”, “all Arabs” or “all Americans”. We fail to see freshly who is before us in the world. What we see is what our minds are projecting onto the screen of the world.

We see not the situation itself, but what our myths and concepts are putting there. This is why close listening is so central to this work.

Myth belongs in art and imagination. It is a precious resource, a natural function of the mind – but may have twisted, cruel, absurd and embittering effects, when it is written across the landscape of other people’s lives.

Once we begin to be aware of the bizarre ways in which we project myth onto the world, we can begin to withdraw our projections: to live in the world as it is, rather than as a stage set for our dramatic fantasies – and we laugh a great deal more.

More than anything else, it is laughter which shakes the nonsense out of us, and makes us human.

8 Feelings – pure sensation

We tend to be so caught up in our thoughts – in the stream of words or images and in the flow of activity, that we fail to notice the fine texture of our bodily sensations. Aware only of the grossest sensations, we are the living dead – until the body becomes clumsy or ill, until we are exhausted or broken, lose focus or screw up.

When that time comes, we will be forced to pay attention.

It is vital to develop a much more delicate and subtle awareness of the living body, if we hope for our lives to be happy or meaningful.

9 Feelings – browsing

Feelings and longings. Moods and emotions. Joy and hope. Anger, fear and sadness.

Let’s explore our feelings, touching and sensing them. A little here, a little there. The pattern is irregular, non-logical. This is not a straight path, but turns and winds – as a browsing animal will drift from one plant to another – yet always with a certain forward trend.

Nothing is passive about this browsing: it is a search – at least active, and often urgent or intense.

A listener must not intrude upon the essential loneliness of this search. The listener’s presence is a catalyst. Even so, the vision quest is a solitary journey. In one sense you must go with a companion; in another you are utterly alone.

True search can never be cosy. It takes you into the desert – into a place which is open, severe, vacant, neutral and spare – which is plain, colourless and transparent. For in the void there is no place to hide, and so you come face to face with the nonsense and evasion of your life.

There are four attitudes we can take to our feeling life: we can be controlled by surface feelings; we can be closed to our feelings; we can live as passionate beings; or we can live in wise awareness of our feelings, but without giving way to them.

  • To be enslaved by repetitive feelings is to be all at sea.
  • To be closed to feeling, to be frozen, is to miss out on life itself. It is to lose the great richness of our responsiveness to life and living, most of which never finds its way into words and thoughts.

These first two paths we surely do not want. Now we face a hard choice.

  • Will you choose the life of passionate being? Are you going to be open to feeling, fully alive in your felt responses? Are you going to leave yourself open to ecstasy, risk and self-abandonment? – hoping even so to avoid losing yourself? You would be living whole-heartedly, but meaning not to drown: opting for colour, emotion and vivid self-expression.

But beware! – for often when we seem most free, we wake to find it has been a mere surface appearance, whilst all the time we have been caged and dependent.

Moreover, is somebody paying the price of our spontaneity, and screening us from the censure of the world? And if so, does it matter?

  • So what about this exchange between Paulo Ferrucci and Roberto Assagioli:

“I –was just following my feelings.”

“But that is exactly what you must not do.
Your feelings must follow you.”

So will you choose a calmer path? Whilst being aware of the movements of your feeling-life, will you value peace over ecstasy, reflectiveness over abandonment? Are you going to opt (as many have) for a life of quiet courage, dignity and tranquillity of mind?

And could you do so, even if you wanted to?

10 Feelings – flooding

The Seafarer by Jila Peacock

Sometimes people will be overcome by waves of strong feeling, whilst you are listening to them – or may even go in search of their strongest emotions.

There is no need to fear emotion. It has its own cycle. But it is wise to discriminate between repetitive feeling, which is the destructive re-living of the same pain, over and over; and constructive feeling, which is a living forward.

The listener, of course, can never be sure which is which. But the person swept by emotion may soon get to have a shrewd idea whether it is repetitive or constructive.

11 Feelings – dowsing

In the sections on sensing the situation as a whole and situational focusing, I show how we can relate to a more subtle layer of feelings – our low-level feelings about whole situations.

It is when, consciously or semi-consciously, we allow such feelings to guide us, that creative steps come, which carry our lives forward, so that we find a way out of our predicaments, and see our dreams coming true.

Typically, it is when the forward drift of experiential search is stopped in some way, that a person will naturally make the turn to situational focusing. It is a turn to something more like dowsing than like browsing.

People seeking water dowse. Looking for water, one might hold a forked green hazel-twig, and move slowly around and about, never knowing where water may be. Only the twitching of the stick, suddenly, surprisingly, will reveal the presence of life-giving water.

So in this kind of process, we invite the feel of a whole situation to gell – and we wait. Should something come (just as when we find water in the desert) the whole situation is changed.

12 Feelings – peak experiences

Sometimes people are overtaken by experiences of awe, bliss, peace, love or transcendence. Such peak experiences may be vital to your wellbeing, opening up new ranges of human possibility.

During or after peak experiences, we tend to be open to hunches, intuitions, and thin slicings – flashes of insight or receptivity, or even sustained flows of creative inspiration.

Trust the flow. You will know later what to keep, what to throw out.

Most of the twelve listening sensitivities that I have sketched so far have two sides to them, for the actions of the person to whom you are listening are in some ways involuntary, in others voluntary. I will say a little more about this here:

13 Processes – dynamic

Whether or not you allow yourself to be aware of this, your life is moved by tides. You suffer from confusions, conflicts, ambivalences, uncertainties and self-doubt. You get caught in crossed internal forces, which pull this way and that.

At the same time, in paying attention to these currents, you may become aware of a deep directional tendency, an inner dynamic process, a reliable natural flow within you, astonishingly fertile and trustworthy, which carries you forward in your life.

None of this is voluntary. The felt life-process is a given. But it is not the whole of who you are. It is something with which you have to work.

14 Processes – agential

Finally, there is the activity of the will, your agency, your capacity to be a free person. You are acting freely in the midst of all the inner and outer turmoil.

Every person is an agent – an “I” – with an independent point of view, individual needs and desires.

I am responsible for my actions – for what I do with my attention, for how I deal with my feelings and impulses, for how I run my life, for how I treat other people.

I am not only the life-forward process, but an active agent in the world. I am a free person, with both the curse and the blessings of individual responsibility.

Still, our responsibility is not for outcomes, but only to do the best we can, in the circumstances as a whole.

Listening sensitivities in everyday life

When you are listening to a person, you need to be sensitive to all fourteen of the streams of awareness which I have just described. Each stream has a job to do, which none of the others can get done.

The Seafarer by Jila Peacock

Unfortunately, almost everybody favours certain streams of awareness, paying far more attention to them than to the others. Almost every method of human development, consequently, is to some degree off-balance.

In almost every relationship, the two people are tuned in to different experiential streams. Opposites attract. This should be a resource, but may cause havoc.

Two people may be drawn together, when each is at home in those streams of awareness where the other is not facile. In a crisis, they will be at daggers drawn – unless they draw wisely on these complementary powers.

When you learn the art of close listening, your situation will ease. When you also learn to be quietly assertive, you begin to be able to shape your own life. You can step out of the raging flood. Everybody’s life eases.

When two people each want to listen to the other, the case is more hopeful still.

The skills of close listening and quiet assertiveness are not only for intimate situations. They are essential in the workplace too, and when dealing with officialdom.

You need these skills, in fact, in all situations where misunderstanding is likely, or where human relationships are getting tangled, or where you are being threatened, or where you are getting pushed around.

Gradually, as you develop a wider range of listening sensitivities, you come to feel more and more alive. Your judgment seldom fails, since you are picking up on so much more of what is going on within and around you.

Your thinking is more fully informed, and so more powerful. You feel at home with yourself, confident in your work, and welcoming to your friends.

You shed trying to be who you think you ought to be, and get on with being who you are. You cease urging other people to be who you think they ought to be, and let them be who they are.

These are immense gains, in any life.

Your Relationships

Simplified listening

Sometimes close listening is too complex – more subtle than a person can handle, who is very young, or severely wounded, mentally frail, dying, brain-damaged, freaking out, unable to process complex language, fading in and out of consciousness, crazy, or profoundly limited just now in some other way.

Simplified listening has its uses at ordinary times too – when meeting a person for the first time, or when two people share only a few words in a common language; when a person is very tired and trying to focus, or just waking, or drifting off to sleep, or changing from one context to another, or busy gathering their energy for a performance of some kind, or when a person feels frightened or suspicious.

Simplified listening was worked out by Garry Prouty (he calls it ‘pre-therapy’), during his many years of devoted and selfless commitment to the lives and well-being of deeply troubled people.

Learn these simple-seeming, necessary moves now. They are a basic resource, which you may need in a hurry. Here they are:

Situational reflection

You can say something simple about the physical surroundings – “It’s raining”, “The room is cold”. The plain saying of what is real and present helps the person to be in contact with the world – that world which just now is so unstable, so volant, so elusive and so unreal.

Facial reflection

You can say something simple about the person’s facial expression – “You look tired”, “You look sad”, “You are frowning”, “You look scared”. Saying what you are seeing in the face may help the person to be in contact with their feelings, and to be in contact with you. The person is cradled in the tenderness of your immediate understanding.

Body reflection

You can say (or copy) the person’s actions – “You are curled up in a ball”, “You are sitting up straight”, “You are lying still”. The person comes back into contact with the body, into the most immediate contact with life and the world, as you echo their bodily attitude.

Word for word reflection

When the person says something, you can say it back, exactly.

You are not feeling underneath for a deeper meaning. You are not making sense of what is said. This person (alas) is beyond all that, just now. You are meeting the words head on, in a sense – accepting with great simplicity and directness just exactly those words which the person can and does form.

These are the words which this person can make sense of just now. Why would you force a person to make an effort, which they cannot make, to grasp other words – your words – which you add to the situation?

No – let’s stay with the person’s own words, their words, the words they can deal with, the words which happen here.

Re-iterative reflection

Sometimes you see a response. Something happens in the person, when you reflect the situation, the face, the body, or the words that they say.

Oh! You said something right. Well, why not say it again?

Since it was helpful, let’s do it some more (now or in a little while). That way, it can have its full effect.

From isolation to contact

Baby Dervish by Jila Peacock

This wonderful method of simplified listening sounds, I guess, like nothing. And yet at the right time it is a life-saver – a bridge from isolation to humanity, to belonging, and to the world.

People need to be in contact with themselves, with you, and with physical reality. Simplified listening is a direct path to this contact, to being in touch.

Until you are in touch, you know nothing but isolation. Perhaps not even pain. Once there is contact, other things can happen.

It may be possible to live – to eat or to wash, to step out of trance or delusion, to rejoin the human community, or to die in peace. Where contact is, there life begins again.

The pace of simplified listening is slow, the manner patient. Much of the time, you will be silent – quiet and present, simply waiting and being with. Occasionally, you reflect something, by word or action.

It is helpful when you are not afraid. The more you are at peace with what is happening, the better.

And of course, you may be afraid, and far from peaceful. Well, so be it. We listen from where we are. There isn’t anywhere else to be, after all.

Your Relationships

The laws of encounter

People struggle when they are isolated, or have feelings of alienation or mistrust.

We need to belong, to be in contact with other people:

In the Sound by Jila Peacock

A human enters into being
in an encounter with another human being,

and in no other way.

—Mary McGuire

But specifically, under what conditions is it likely that it will be helpful to a person to have the attention of a listener?

In a famous paper, Carl Rogers tried to answer this question. The following four laws of encounter go on in the person-centred tradition which he and his colleagues began.

There are important nuances here, especially about what we can and can’t genuinely commit ourselves to offering to another person.

The four laws are:

  1. the law of humanity
  2. the law of solidarity
  3. the law of assertiveness
  4. the law of understanding (invitational sensitivity).

The law of humanity

When I talk about “humanity”, I mean something about being fully human, being a complete person, open to life and experience.

In the widest sense, if I embody the quality of humanity, it means this:

Inasmuch as I am myself human,
I hold nothing, which is human, as being alien to me.

—from the Latin playright, Terence

But in particular, the idea of humanity with which we are concerned is about being real, being sincere – being role-free, not pretending to be anything I am not, or hiding behind any kind of status or position.

There are two sides to this being real:

  1. I am always translucent – I fully intend that I will always be open to my own feelings and experience, always sincere with myself; and that unspoken openness is radiated to the other person without content – rather as light may be diffused, without clear images being seen.
  2. I am sometimes transparent – I judge for myself whether it fits here and now for me to say something about my feelings and experience – so that you do see the images as well as the radiance of light.

Above all, I am a human being, and that is enough. The greatest gift I can give to another person is my humanity, my willingness to be simply human, open and vulnerable.

The first law of encounter reads –


The law of solidarity

Solidarity means equality. We are just two equal people, side by side.

Solidarity is not passive or receptive. It is an active, vigorous being-with, loyal and dependable. It has these two sides:

  1. There is the side that can be willed, intentionally. I am committed to your cause. I am neutral, willing to stay with you wherever the path of your life may lead. I am determined to treat you with respect. All of this, I am free to choose.
  2. There is the side which cannot be willed, but can only bloom spontaneously. I like you. I accept you. I feel tenderness for you. These warm feelings come when they come. I will not fake them, and if I could, a counterfeit would be a betrayal.

Solidarity is wonderful, both sides of it. It is wonderful, that I can make a solid commitment (even to a person I may not like), and know that my commitment is secure – invulnerable to the winds of feeling.

It is equally wonderful, that deep feelings of liking and even love so often do break through:

So that I have learned not to worry about love;
but to honour its coming with all my heart.

—Alice Walker

A final thought. Solidarity is rooted in taboo, in an understanding about what we will and will not do with one another. This understanding may not need to be articulated or spoken out loud. But it forms something like a cradle, a little world of perfect safety, in which solidarity can be tangible.

When solidarity is warm, safe and affectionate, it is resting on a shared ground of belonging.

The second law of encounter reads –


The law of assertiveness

There is something in us, a deep inner necessity, which obliges us to assert ourselves, to be stubborn or thrawn, to proclaim our independence and the autonomy of our will and judgment.

I could say a lot about assertiveness in general. Here I am writing about the necessity for assertiveness in you as a listener – about the law of assertiveness as one of the four laws of encounter.

Without that assertive streak in us, what use would there be to anybody in our having a merely passive sense of humanity or solidarity?

If the listener is passive and defeated, this is certain to communicate itself to the other person. Instead of close listening giving the person heart, they will tend to become fearful, untrusting, confused, hesitant and anxious.

Don’t get mixed up about the listener’s assertiveness. You are not going to start interfering in the person’s life, advising, fixing, making your own interpretations, or anything like that. Very often, your assertiveness is expressed precisely in your stubborn refusal to do those things, your determination not to take destructive short cuts.

(Nobody was more stubborn than Carl Rogers!)

But mostly, your assertiveness comes over as warmth and friendliness, interest and hopefulness, in a positive attitude to life, and in the way you take care of your own needs.

Assertiveness in the listener releases, uncovers and straightens out the channel for natural assertiveness in the other person. It inspires courage, and frees the person to act, to take on the world.

When we listen to a person, they may well experience the renewal of a natural urge to assertive and independent action, a lively sense of themselves as agents in the world.

The person discovers the “I” – not some part-self, but “I”.

This is crucial – for without that “I”, integrity is in ruins.

The third law of encounter reads –


The law of understanding (invitational sensitivity)

The secret of human relationships is understanding and acceptance.

Everybody says, “I’m listening”. Few are. When did anybody really listen to you ? When did you last feel deeply understood?

When you really listen, you come with beginner’s mind. You start freshly, here and now, letting past and future fall aside, letting your own anger, fear and sadness wait for a little while, letting yourself be receptive, letting the listening mind be an empty space.

We are not afraid of what comes.
We know that there are no enemies in the inner world.
The spirit is one of inclusion, not exclusion.
The attitude is one of welcome.

—Ann Weiser Cornell

In the space of your emptiness, you are open to the fullness of the other person’s life-world. You look directly into the person behind the eyes.

You are sensitive to words and feelings, to images and observations, hunches and intuitions, action-impulses and sensory evocations. You make yourself easy to talk to.

I call this “invitational sensitivity”.

You are hoping to understand:

People often hate each other because they fear each other;
fear each other because they don’t know each other;
don’t know each other because they don’t know how to listen; and
can’t listen because they are already full of pre-conceptions.

—Martin Luther King (adapted)

This process of understanding is intensely active. You need to check with the other person over and over. Please don’t assume you heard it yet. What you are hearing – is that what was meant?

Are you receiving the colour and texture and flavour of it all? You know you heard it, when the person says more, or sighs and says, “Yes. That’s it. Exactly”.

You are hoping to enter the other person’s world:

…as if you were that person,
but without ever losing the as-if.

—Carl Rogers

The challenge of radical acceptance is to be with whatever is really there.

Be deeply real. You are not pretending to feel anything you don’t feel. You are open to what you do feel. But whilst you are trying to understand, you don’t say any of your stuff, unless it may help the person to feel heard.

You are open to your own hunches and intuitions, your own sense of where the person is at. Sometimes you do say what comes to you. When you go wrong, as a listener often will, it is easy to back out of the person’s way.

Your active understanding need not be invasive. It does not have to come over as cloying or touchy-feely. Nor need it always be serious in tone. Sometimes a listener is playful and subversive, and the encounter full of laughter.

You are simply meeting the other person where they are standing, from where you are standing. Everybody loves to be listened to in that way.

The fourth law of encounter reads simply –


Your Relationships

Quiet assertiveness

Entertaining the Angel by Jila Peacock

Listening isn’t everything.

Relationships of all kinds fail, when one person is unassertive.

I have studied many models of human relationship, but none of them worked for me. Although this model looks naive, it seems to work nearly all of the time.

Quiet assertiveness has four phases, and there are a further four refinements:


  1. clarity
  2. contact
  3. persistence
  4. immunity


  1. flexibility
  2. self-respect
  3. words that heal, words that wound
  4. a note about violence

Assertiveness is about conveying to another person what you feel and think, and what you want to happen; communicating in a way which is clean and direct – likely to get through, and to provoke minimal opposition and reactive nonsense.


You may have to fight for a little time and space, to get clear in your own mind what you want, or want to say.


You may have to catch the other person’s attention. Many people find it hard to stop what they are doing, in order to hear what you are saying.


You may have to persist, to stay close until what you want is actually happening. Don’t expect people to do what they say they will. Just hang in there, but without bugging them.


You may have to be like a cloud, so that nonsense, obstruction, malice and negativity simply pass by without hooking you. You don’t want to get caught in mind-games, or led down side-paths. But do listen carefully to everything the person says – for you may learn something.


You are actively seeking a win-win solution…


…but there are times when self-respect is threatened – when you may simply have to say, “No deal”.

Words that heal, words that wound

It’s not just that you persist. It’s the way that you do it. Persistence needs to be directed by clarity.

Here is a further note about how to achieve clarity (these ideas are taken from Marshall Rosenberg’s work in Nonviolent Communication).

Try to find language which is free from any hint of accusation:

  1. Separate what you are observing,
  2. from the effect on you.
  3. Ask yourself what underlies your feeling, and
  4. try to be specific (not vague or peremptory) about what you would like to happen next.

In other words:

  1. “What exactly happened?”
  2. “And how did I feel?”
  3. “What need of mine is not being met?”
  4. “What would I like to request of this person, and would I definitely be able to tell, if they did it?”

A note about violence

Coercion has many forms. Threat and violence may be gross or subtle, open or hidden – emotional, verbal, economic, political, social, sexual, or crudely physical.

It is wise (I think) to become acutely sensitive to power and aggression; to learn to recognise violence, even in veiled or charming guise – and to be aware of its roots in primitive emotions and feelings of inferiority.

Dealing with violence is not easy. You will have to be canny, as well as strong; assertive as well as patient; wary as well as clear-headed; steady as well as non-violent.

I cannot teach you violence,
as I do not myself believe in it.

I can only teach you
not to bow your heads before anyone.

—Mahatma Gandhi

Sometimes, you may need to take direct action, to protect yourself or others.

Assertiveness is kindness, both to yourself and the other person.

Your Relationships

Close listening

Dear Fish by Jila Peacock

Listening closely to a person is a subtle art. Much of what is going on in the person is veiled from the listener. The listener goes astray, and needs to be set back on the path.

Here are four kinds of response which are often helpful, when you are listening to a person (they are based on a clear model developed by my friend, Kathy McGuire):

Saying what you heard

You say back the gist of what the person just said. You say it back bit by bit, one little piece at a time. You are following along very closely beside the person.

Why would anybody say back what another person says? You are giving the person a chance to tell you, when you are not following. Often we feel sure we are right there, and find we are not.

So you are simply checking to see if what you heard is what was meant. That’s all. You try to say it exactly the way the person means it and feels it.

You say back:

  • the point being made,
  • any intention to act,
  • any imagery in the words, and especially,
  • the feeling words.

Usually, your response is partly OK. The person will correct the part that was not OK. You mostly get several chances. Soon the person will sigh (or laugh or cry), saying “Yes, that’s it. Exactly.”

What is meant is not static – it moves forward in that moment of opening, relief or surprise. Nor is the person static, who just now lived forward a little, is a little less torn and fractured.

Asking for more

When what is said is vague, or you weren’t listening, or didn’t follow, you can ask for more. Say back whatever you did get. Ask for the person’s help to understand more fully.

Slowing things down

One person may already be taking time to sense into feelings, and need no help to do so.

Another person may pause in response to what you say back, sensing how close it comes to the intended meaning. People slow down with you, as you feel your way into their meaning.

Sometimes you may need to be direct – “I wonder how this whole thing feels to you right now.”

Saying what you are feeling yourself

You will be feeling your own sense of what is going on for the person. You might share this, if somebody is stuck, or feels out of touch, or seems to be getting bogged down.

Once in a while, it may help to say what is going on for you, in response to what you are hearing.

Your Relationships

The way of the listener


Since I became a listener, I don’t think there has been a day in my life, when I have not been practising my listening.

I am a creature of opportunity where listening is concerned. When there is a chance to listen, I don’t like it to slip past me.

Once you are a listener, you live in the consciousness of the listener for the rest of your life. You are choosing to be open in a radical way. You are a different animal, with different ways of hearing as compared to normal folk.

You are always a listener. Always stretching, always balancing. It is ongoingly keen. This is the only reality, the only way to live. In a flash of distraction, you fall off into the river.

It is an adventure filled with poignancy and laughter.


Fullness by Janet Pfunder

Listening is less a matter of skills than of sensitivities.

All of us have some of these, to some extent. Unfortunately, our sensitivities cast a shadow, in which it is hard to see that other sensitivities lie dormant in us. They are not active yet.

You know how it is at night, when one area is brightly lit. You see nothing in the shadows. In just this way, we are blinded by the light of our own sensitivities.

Whenever we seem to lack a certain sensitivity, people we listen to are thwarted. An avenue is closed to them. We need to celebrate sensitivities which are already awakened in us, to be aware of sensitivities lying dormant.

A small awakening of sensitivity may have a big effect.


As a listener, you face dangers.

Yet all dangers come to this – that you may be unreal, inhuman, less than half alive to the fullness of your own feelings and responses.

You face being vulnerable too, as the depth of pain in the world is borne in upon you.

The listener treads delicately at all times, in this wild and intricate world – for people are in more pain than they can bear to feel.

You will always be helpful, since you are there, and are not afraid.


To follow the way of the listener, you must be empty.

Set down, beside you, your feelings, knowledge and know-how. When you are already full, how can there be room for the other person?

In emptiness, the listener responds freely to the fullness of the other, sensing the movement of life, the subtle ebb and flow of relational depth.

The empty space is a sacred space, if only we can keep it empty.

Your Relationships

Your Relationships


Life is other people. We are social beings. What we think or feel or do is embedded in our connections to others.

Listening is the key to deeper and more natural human relationships in every area of your life. When you listen deeply, other people find themselves becoming open to what you have to say.

You need to bring other people to an understanding of what you have to give.

And so the foundation for all personal development is listening.

We listen with heart and mind, tuning into other people and their situations. As a result, there are fewer misunderstandings, less conflict, and less wasted effort.

What I have to say about human relationships is summed up in two practices – close listening and quiet assertiveness.

There are seven sections in this part of the site –

  • The way of the listener speaks about listening in a personal and poetic way
  • Close listening describes the art of listening in simple and practical terms
  • Quiet assertiveness talks about the vital need to stand your ground, both for your own sake and for the benefit of others
  • The laws of encounter presents four general conditions under which the combination of close listening and quiet assertiveness is likely to be helpful in any relationship
  • Simplified listening describes an ascetic or purified listening, which has many uses, especially in extreme human situations
  • Listening sensitivities invites you to develop specific sensitivities, through which your listening will become more and more subtle and finely responsive, and
  • The situation as a whole is about inviting the person to whom you are listening to sense the whole thing, rather than any part of it.
The Human Way

The Human Way

The Seafarer by Jila Peacock

Mentoring is an ancient art.

For thousands of years, people have looked for companionship in the search for a life-path; and when crossing each threshold in the lifelong process of human growth and spiritual development.

Often people seek counsel at times of change – at the great natural life transitions of youth, midlife or old age; when struck by sickness, accident, unemployment or bereavement; equally, at times of opportunity and fresh beginning.

Over a period of more than twenty years, I have been teaching experiential focusing – slowly evolving a style which is person-centred and humanistic, open to the transpersonal, and committed to the principle of non-violence.

About being person-centred

The person-centred approach is about trust.

The discovery is that when one person truly listens to another, that person is set free to find their own way in life. In close listening, the listener does not lead, but follows.

It seems there are no “masters”, no wise beings to whom we can turn for counsel or direction. There are only those of us who judge for ourselves; and those who, lacking confidence, yield to others.

As Fanny Price insists:

We all have a better guide within ourselves,
if we would attend to it,
than any other person can be.

—Jane Austen (Mansfield Park, chapter 42)

Everything I do is rooted in this way of being, in an attitude of stubborn trust in the other person.

About being experiential

The experiential tradition is about self-trust.

It is about listening to your own feelings, thoughts and meanings, letting your own sense of things shape your life and actions from inside. It is about integrity and self-respect, about keeping faith with yourself. It is about freedom.

It is about the taste of your life.

For many people, discovering the richness and subtlety of the inner life is like coming unexpectedly upon a new continent, a world undreamed of.

When this richness ceases to move forward, we are sometimes brought by our puzzlement to a further level, that of situational focusing – which lifts us out of any situation, so that, standing above or outside it, we find ourselves sensing it as a whole, and open to seeing that whole in a new way.

About being humanistic

The birth of humanism was at least twenty-five centuries ago, in Greece, India and China. There is no one tradition, but rather, a mesh of interleafing elements.

When I describe my work as “humanistic”, I mean that I would like it to embody a wide synthesis of ancient elements:

It is about placing trust in immediate human experience.

It is about myth-making and imagination. I take seriously both dreams and fantasies – the visionary, the symbolic and the primitive in us; and the expression of them in art, music and literature, in sport and in ritual, on stage and on screen.

I don’t cling dogmatically to any particular view. I am sometimes a little sceptical of inherited beliefs and traditional teachings; preferring to rely on human reasoning, on philosophical, historical and scientific enquiry.

I care about peace and justice; ethics, politics and human rights; freedom, equality and solidarity.

I am sensitive to the human search for meaning – which may take either a religious or a secular form.

I delight in human diversity: in that deep, lasting toleration which accepts and welcomes visions of life irretrievably different from those we ourselves live by.

Each of us faces a profound existential dilemma. We may yearn for intensity, desire, openness, spontaneity, variety and passion. Or we may seek to be sincere and dignified, to lead lives of quiet courage and deep tranquillity. Torn between two pictures of the good life, we are forced to choose – or faced perhaps with the undecidable, having to leave room for both.

My work is (in the main) about this life. I find joy in the beauty of nature and in the senses. I value present friendships and present happiness.

In these authentic forms, humanism has always been a wise and generous vision – inclusive, intelligent, realistic and hopeful.

About the transpersonal

For thousands of years, people have been having transpersonal experiences – states of awe and dread; of love and compassion; of clarity, joy and silence.

The ordinary sense of self tends to fall away. Fear and discontent dissolve. We are lifted out of ourselves.

There may be lasting change in the way we feel and understand the world. We no longer wake up with an arid sense that life is empty, meaningless and absurd. We are less anxious, less volatile.

There may come a constant sense of being at peace and at home in the world – a vast existential relaxation.

Naturally, having access to a transcendent perspective does not remove us from our personal lives. We still have to live from here – to face our problems, to build our lives, to make our way in the world.

About non-violence

All of us at times are treated unjustly, or shaken by injustice done to others. We come face to face with violence, oppression or abuse. It may take gross or subtle forms – but whatever form it takes, we have to decide what we are going to do about it.

There are three ways to deal with violence and injustice:

  1. We can fight back. But violence breeds violence, and so an aggressive response is usually no response, but primitive and reactive, and merely escalation.
  2. We can give in. But passivity participates in violence. Submission is a form of cruelty, both to ourselves and to the violent. Submission destroys the soul.
  3. We can resist peacefully. We can choose to stand our ground, patiently and warily, inventively and non-violently, refusing to be aggressive, and determined not to submit.

The path of non-violent resistance to injustice is the path of compassion, both for ourselves (and others who are oppressed), and for the oppressor.

About ‘the human way’

For many years I have been asking some questions:

  • What is the good life? – and how can we set about leading it?
  • What is the happy life? – and how can we find happiness?
  • What do we mean by words like “self-respect”, “integrity”, “conscience”, “success”, “fulfilment”, “balance”, “meaning” and “happiness”?

I have been struggling to draw a blueprint for life – to write a guide to the art of living. I wanted to be complete; and yet to be concise. To leave out whatever could be left out, whilst saying everything needful.

This unique form of mentoring is the result.

Ten goals

I have clear and hopeful goals. I help people:

  1. to listen to one another
  2. to explore their feelings and attitudes to life
  3. to make sense of experiences of beauty, awe and transcendence
  4. to develop their imaginative powers
  5. to give up operating out of fantasy
  6. to think clearly and honestly
  7. to find the courage to act
  8. to act according to conscience
  9. to develop poise, rhythm and timing
  10. to go on learning, whatever happens in their lives.

Above all, I encourage people to be open to their capacity for love.

Six practices

I use a set of six interlocking practices:

your relationships

  • close listening
  • quiet assertiveness

your integrity

  • being in the body
  • experiential focusing

your projects

  • the cycle of action and learning
  • the act of creation

Close listening is about taking in what others say; quiet assertiveness about making sure that others do hear what you are saying.

Being in the body and experiential focusing (in their various forms) are ways to explore your feelings, and so escape various kinds of insincerity and confusion. These practices tend to generate new insights, new ways to live forward.

The cycle of action and learning and the act of creation are about getting things done: one is about efficiency in daily life; the other about bringing to life the creatures of your imagination.

Various sections of the site elaborate these six practices.

The language of the soul

My work with people is about the cycle of action and learning; about doing something, and learning from what happens.

It is about the whole of human experiencing: about trust and listening; feelings and fears; hope and imagination; about thinking clearly and honestly.

It is about your sense of wonder, your deeper longings and sense of search; your spiritual depths and heights.

It isn’t always easy to stay in touch with your own experiencing, your own freshly forming words and symbols, in a world which is every day trying to coerce you.

For this reason, it is good to have a companion who is passionately committed to your right to live and move and have your being in your own way – and who will hang in there with you, whilst you are asserting your freedom of action in the world.

We need to value both reason and experiencing. To take account both of the practical immediacies of our lives, and the meaning and significance of our spiritual search.

This work is about standing on your own two feet; about thinking freely and independently; and making your actions your own.

It is also about surrender – about grace and inspiration, awe and creativity.

Finally, it is about being alive, and the joy of living. It would hardly be possible to overstate the value of fun and laughter, toleration and happiness.

As Pablo Neruda writes:

La risa es el lenguaje del alma.
Laughter is the language of the soul.

—Pablo Neruda



What are you looking for?
—A few words about Experiential Focusing and Listening

Personal development means different things to different people. It means listening to your hopes and fears. It means taking a fresh look at how life is going. It means setting free your future. It means action.

For me, it means finding a human path.

It seems natural to suppose that, when we are born, each of us is able to develop a certain creative and emotional intelligence. This would help us to find our path in life.

Yet does not something tend to go awry? Does not intelligence of this kind get crushed or warped as we are growing up? Yes, sadly, it does. Were your natural powers of sensitivity and imagination somehow closed down? And if so, can we open them up again? Yes, it seems that we can.

I am not a counsellor or therapist, but a teacher. Many years ago, I began to teach piano-playing; and since 1988 I have also been teaching a practice known as Experiential Focusing. When I am teaching, and always in my life, I try to be emotionally intelligent myself; and to set up conditions in which the natural awareness and resourcefulness of the student or the other person will thrive.

I see Focusing as having four pillars:

1. Relational depth

As relational beings, we need to be able to tell when we are in touch with one another, and how to evoke a sense of encounter, when contact is thin or not yet present.

2. Experiential search

You are the expert on your life, both on what to say and on how to move forwards. It is your life. My role is keep you company whilst you are feeling your way forward, to follow attentively the fine workings of your emotional intelligence.

3. The transition to the new space

Suppose you’re exploring some problem or situation in your life. After a while you come to a halt. You’ve said all the part you know, and find yourself stuck or puzzling. Something new needs to come, and you don’t yet know what this will be. As you begin to dwell at that point of uncertainty, you let some mild new sense come to you of the-problem-as-a-whole. What is this whole thing like? What does it feel like, as a whole?

4. The open space

Finally: when you are with another person, you can lean into a flow of listening, wrinkle by wrinkle, trusting the other to find a way forward. Listening is a beautiful open space. In that open space, something may come to you. Why not say it? You can say anything at all which seems likely to be helpful, or just because you feel like it. And then you listen carefully once more, to see how they are taking what you said.

These four pillars are the foundations of my work. They are simple, clear and poignant.

Typically, it may take about thirty individual sessions for a person’s natural Focusing ability to revive. Sometimes a few lessons may be enough. Quite often somebody will stay for many more lessons than thirty. Still, on the whole, people are ready after a short while to do Focusing alone, or in the flow of life, or with a Focusing Partner – a friend who has also learned Focusing, and with whom you exchange Focusing and Listening time.

I offer a deeply personal response to each single person who comes my way.

We all have problems in life – both practical and spiritual. There is no way to turn away from life, to forget our dreams, to hide from our realities. We have to go forward.

I believe there are two keys to solving our life-problems:

  1. We must face our fears, and
  2. we must come into contact with our capacity for love.

The way is one of hope, love and commitment.

In every human community from the earliest times, there has been some form of vision quest. This is simply an intrinsic feature of human societies – as is the part played in this search by a mentor or companion of some kind.

My work is rooted in a tradition which goes back more than twenty-five hundred years. It is about helping you to make your own judgments in life, about breaking free from submission to authority.

It is about listening to your heart. It is about truth.

My methods are simple, gentle, hopeful, thorough, tender, clear and practical.

I find that everybody needs a sense of solidarity. We need to know there is somebody beside us who has a vivid and accurate sense of who we are, who is not going to give in to feelings of defeat or insecurity, and who inspires us to be resourceful when faced with the challenges and joyful openings of life, or with its bitter surprises.

When our natural warmth finds expression in love and gentleness, laughter and irreverence, courage and commitment, it transfigures the world in which we live.

The White Rainbow by Jila Peacock

Start where you are.
Use what you have.
Do what you can.

—Arthur Ashe

This site is here simply to tell you about my work. The writing is meant to be clear and plain. I have done my best to be straightforward – to clear away all trace of advertising or persuasion. I hope you will feel this, as you read on.

The pictures are by my generous friends Jila Peacock and Janet Pfunder, the illustrations by my friend Beatrice Blake. Thank you all for allowing me to share here your haunting and evocative images, which add such magic and poetry to the site.

To learn more about Jila’s and Janet’s work, go to and Beatrice has a blog about her work with Focusing at