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Column

The Present Moment as
a Critical Moment
Daniel N. Stern

Like a musical interlude, the present moment hovers between becom-
ing the past and progressing into the future. Critical moments, for the
author, are moments in which the parties are fully in the present or
the “now,” caught in a pivotal space where any action, or even inac-
tion, will change the destiny of the situation and the actors themselves.
It is a transformative journey, taken together, that starts with moment
of suspense, and traverses a landscape of emotion and intention where
a world of change becomes possible.

T he process of negotiating and the process of psychotherapy seem to be
at polar opposites. In negotiations, to get the best results one does not show
their complete hand, neither in the beginning nor at the end. Also, one does
not reveal their strategy. In psychotherapy, the idea is to show your hand
as completely and rapidly as possible, using a shared strategy. Nonetheless,
in a negotiation one’s hand must be progressively revealed, at least partially.
If not, there is nothing to negotiate. And in psychotherapy, there are obsta-
cles to revealing one’s “hand”or life experiences: defenses, fears, inhibitions,
shame, guilt, and disapprobation, among others. So, in effect, the patient’s
“hand” gets revealed only progressively, along with emotional risks and
compromises.

Daniel N. Stern, M.D., is honorary professor of psychology at the University of Geneva,
Switzerland, and adjunct professor of psychiatry at the Cornell Medical School. He is author of
the forthcoming book, The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life (New York:
W.W. Norton, 2004). His e-mail address is danstern@iprolink.ch.

10.1111/j.0748-4526.2004.00000.x © 2004 Blackwell Publishing Negotiation Journal April 2004 365
There is another similarity that will occupy us even more. In both
processes, one does not know the final form that the process moves toward.
It is discovered en route. Nor does one know in advance the exact course
(and strategy) that will get you there. In spite of the best plans, one does
not know in detail where one is going or how to get there. It is this
similarity that I will explore.

The Time Parameters of Change
Most changes in the life of humans are relatively sudden, occurring in qual-
itative leaps. Changes in development of people, institutions, relationships,
and emotional atmosphere, for example, are quite discontinuous, compared
to growth. And even growth has its spurts. This reality forces us to consider
the time frame of experiences during which the larger trajectory starts to
bend. When and how does change appear on the scene all of a sudden, and
how? After all, a critical moment is not an infinitely thin slice of time. It is
a moment that has a duration wherein something happens, even if it lasts
only seconds. Let us look at this moment.
The duration of a present or critical moment depends on how we con-
ceive of the passage of time. The ancient Greek concept of “chronos” is the
vision of time that we use in the natural sciences, and in most of psychol-
ogy. In this view, the present instant is a moving point in time headed only
toward a future; it does not matter whether the course of time is viewed
as a straight line or a circle or a spiral, the present instant is always moving,
inexorably and evenly. As it moves, it eats up the future and leaves in its
wake the past. The present instant itself is very short; too short for anything
to take place without immediately becoming the past. Effectively, there is
no present. There is no “now” in which something could unfold heralding
a change.
Both the natural sciences and psychology have mostly been able to live
with the view of the present described by chronos. However, common
experience — our subjective sense of life as lived from moment to moment
— does not sit well with the idea that the present has no temporal thick-
ness. The experience of listening to music, watching dance, or interacting
with someone could not tolerate it. Life, at the local level of moments in
sequence, simply doesn’t feel that way.
Present moments (and critical moments that effectuate change) must
have both a duration in which something happens and, at the same time,
take place during a subjective “now.” Examples make this apparent contra-
diction clear.
A short musical phrase is the basic process unit of the experience of
hearing music. A phrase is the musical analog of a present moment in ordi-
nary life. A musical phrase is intuitively grasped as a global unit with bound-
aries. It has a duration that is sensed (usually in the range between two and
eight seconds). And most interestingly, the musical phrase, as heard, is felt

366 Daniel N. Stern The Present Moment as a Critical Moment
to occur during a moment that is not instantaneous, but also not parceled
out in time into sequential bits like the written notes. Rather it is a contin-
uous, enduring, single, flowing whole, occurring during a “now.”
A musical phrase stands as a global entity that cannot be divided up
without losing its gestalt. You cannot take the equivalent of a photograph
of a heard musical phase as it passes. It is not a summary of the notes that
make it up. It takes its form only over time. The mind imposes a form on
the phrase as it unfolds. The melodic and/or rhythmic line is grasped while
it passes. In fact, its possible endings are intuited before the phrase is com-
pleted, while it is still unfolding. That is to say, the future (as well as the
immediate past which is still echoing) is implied at each instant of
the phrase’s journey through the present moment. It is an example of the
philosopher Edmund Husserl’s tri-partate present: the past of the present
(retention); the present instant; and the future of the present (protention),
all occurring in a subjectively coherent “now.”
The same happens during interactions. The moves of the interaction
are the phrases, making up each present moment. The same will apply to
interactions that are composed of phrase-like groupings in verbal and non-
verbal behavior seen in ordinary life, psychotherapy, and any negotiation,
dyadic or with a group.
To view the present moment, a different sense of the flow of time is
needed. The ancient Greeks conceived of a subjective stretch of time in
which events demanded action or were propitious for action. They called
this “kairos.” Kairos is a moment in which events come together and meet,
and the meeting comes into awareness as a coherent aggregate such that
intentional action must be taken now to alter your destiny. If no action is
taken, your destiny will be changed anyway, but differently, because you
did not act. It is a small time window of opportunity for action or inaction
relative to a situation. Kairos also means the coming into being of a new
state of things. One of the origins of the word comes from shepherds watch-
ing the stars. As the night progresses and the stars turn in the sky, they
appear to rise and then fall against the horizon. The moment during the
night when a star has reached its apogee and appears to change direction
from ascending to descending — that is its kairos.
Every present moment is a “critical moment;” some more, some less so.
And every critical moment is a moment of kairos. This is because every
moment creates the context in which the next moment will take place. And
the immediate context is crucial in determining the direction and final form
of what will happen. In other words, each present moment influences the
destiny of where things will go next. And the next moment will serve as
the context for the moment that follows, and so on. Perhaps what deter-
mines how “critical” a moment is, is how far into the future its context will
remain active in influencing the moments that follow. There are moments
of kairos with a big K or a small one.

Negotiation Journal April 2004 367
Psychotherapy as a Model for Change in Processes
of Negotiation
A group of psychotherapists, calling ourselves the Boston Change Process
Study Group (Boston CPSG), study the process of change in psychotherapy.
This change process may provide some parallels with many kinds of inter-
action, some negotiations included, where two or more people are trying
to arrive at a goal, but where the goal cannot be precisely known in
advance. Only some of its boundaries are preconceived. The actual final goal
(not the desired goal) is to be created not discovered, because it does not
yet exist a priori. And the process for getting to the goal is created as they
proceed, within certain boundaries.
To conduct our study we focused on what we call the “local level.”
This is the scale of small events that last only seconds, but act as the
critical points of change. Thus the importance of the present moment and
critical moment as the stage on which change will show itself.
The goal in psychotherapy is to share similar mental landscapes so that
one can understand and be understood. We call this sharing of subjective
experience “intersubjectivity.” It includes both the explicit (verbal) meaning
of what one says and the implicit meaning, which is nonverbal and more
concerned with feelings. Sometimes the more important action is in the
implicit, sometimes in the explicit. The mix is crucial. In any event, “inter-
subjective sharing” is the primary goal. It occurs verbally and nonverbally
at the local level. The units of interaction at this level are called relational
moves. The immediate goal of relational moves is to adjust or regulate the
“intersubjective field,” that is, the shared mental/feeling landscape. These
moves can consist of a spoken phrase, a silence, a gesture, or shift in posture,
or a facial expression — no different from what makes up a negotiation.
We call the process of arriving at these goals “moving along.”This term
is meant to capture the forward movement, relational move by relational
move, as well as its frequent wanderings, wrong turns, and surprising shifts
in direction. We view these wanderings as “sloppiness” in the negotiating
process. “Sloppiness” results from the interaction of two or more minds
working in a “hit-miss-repair-elaborate” fashion to cocreate and share similar
worlds. Because the process of chaining relational moves together (some-
times very loosely) is largely spontaneous and unpredictable from one move
to the next, there are many mismatches, derailments, misunderstandings,
and indeterminacies. These “mistakes” require a process of repair.
Nonetheless, sloppiness is not an error or noise in the system but rather
an inherent feature of interactions. The sloppiness of the process throws
novel, unexpected often messy elements into the dialogue or group dis-
cussion. But these can be used to create new possibilities. Sloppiness is not
to be avoided or regretted but rather is necessary to understand the almost
unlimited cocreativity of the moving along process (or the negotiating
process).

368 Daniel N. Stern The Present Moment as a Critical Moment
Sloppiness would be of little value if it did not occur within a cocre-
ative process. Both the sloppiness and its repair or unexpected usage are
the product of minds working together to maximize coherence. (If moving
along or negotiating could follow a straight predictable line there would be
no need to negotiate.) Along with other unplanned emergent events, slop-
piness and cocreation bring into being the surprise discoveries that push
the negotiation to its uniqueness. Potentially, they are among its most cre-
ative elements. These elements had no previous existence even in a latent
form. They arise from the negotiating process. This is why in a psy-
chotherapeutic dialogue, sloppiness creates something that needs to be
lived through and used rather than understood and analyzed. Its psycho-
dynamic relevance may be minimal because it is mainly a product of the
present interaction, and less the result of a reactivated past. Similarly, in a
negotiation each step is more the result of the immediately prior inter-
active moment than of the original negotiating strategy.
Moving along can lead to sudden dramatic therapeutic changes (or
shifts in a negotiation) by way of “now moments”and “moments of meeting.”
The intersubjective field gets suddenly reorganized at key present moments.
This occurs when the current state of implicit relational knowledge is
sharply thrown into question and basic implicit assumptions about the
relationship are placed at stake.
These moments capture the essence of kairos. A new state is coming
into being or threatening to do so, with consequences for the future. There
is novelty and an “upset,” as well as a mounting emotional charge. The
situation emerges unexpectedly and something must be done (including
the option of doing nothing). This confluence of elements results in the
emergence of a “now moment.”
Suppose that a patient has been in psychoanalytic therapy on the
couch for a few years and has expressed concern from time to time that
she does not know what the therapist is doing back there — sleeping,
knitting, making faces. Then one morning without warning the patient lying
on the couch says, “I want to sit up and see your face.” And with no
further ado, she sits up and turns around. The patient and therapist find
themselves staring at each other in startled silence.
That is a now moment. The patient did not know she was going to do
it; certainly not that day, that moment, in that way. It was a spontaneous
eruption. Nor did the therapist anticipate it, just then, in that way. However,
now they find themselves in a novel interpersonal and intersubjective
situation. Kairos hangs heavy.
When such a major emergent property declares itself, it immediately
occupies the center stage. A now moment is so called because there is an
immediate sense that the existing intersubjective field is threatened, that an
important change in the relationship is possible (for good or ill), and that
the pre-existing nature of the relationship has been put on the table for

Negotiation Journal April 2004 369
renegotiation.These realizations (most often felt rather than cognized) make
the atmosphere highly charged. The therapist feels disarmed and the level
of anxiety rises because he or she really does not know what to do. Usual
technique is not up to the job. Also, in such moments the participants are
pulled fully into the present moment that is staring them in the face, now.
Often in therapy, one is not fully “there” in the present. One is evenly hov-
ering in the past, present, and future. But as soon as a now moment arrives,
all else is dropped and each partner stands with both feet in the present.
Presentness fills the time and space. There is only now. Usually the ongoing
present is a nonsensory, implicit aspect of experience. In a now moment,
it becomes felt and explicit.
There are many types of now moments, within, outside of, or at the
edges of the therapeutic frame. However, a clear frame is necessary for this
process to take on meaning. In brief, the essence of the now moment is
that the established nature of the ongoing relationship and the usual way
of being with each other (or doing business) is implicitly called into ques-
tion. Because it is an emergent property its appearance cannot be predicted.
It cannot be prepared for. And the usual techniques or ways of handling the
interaction are not necessarily applicable. Something else is needed to
resolve the condition of suspense that has been created by the now
moment. The something else is a “moment of meeting.” It is the moment
that resolves the crisis of the now moment.
The moment of meeting seeks to use the disorganization of the now
moment to enlarge the intersubjective field in ways not thought of before.
Intersubjective “fittedness” is sought, where both partners share an experi-
ence and they know it, implicitly. A moment of meeting requires an authen-
tic response finely matched to the momentary local situation. It must be
spontaneous and carry the therapist’s personal signature, so to speak. In
that way, it reaches beyond a technical, neutral response and becomes a
specific fit to a specific situation.
Take for example the patient who suddenly sat up to look at her ther-
apist. Right after the patient sat up, the two found themselves looking at
each other intently. A silence prevailed. The therapist, without knowing
exactly what she was going to do (here comes the moment of meeting),
softened her face slowly and let the suggestion of a smile form around
her mouth. She then leaned her head forward slightly and said, “Hello.”
The patient continued to look at her. They remained locked in a mutual
gaze for several seconds. After a moment, the patient lay down again
and continued her work on the couch, but more profoundly and in a new
key, which opened up new material. The change was dramatic in their ther-
apeutic work together. It was a nodal point when a “quantal” change in the
intersubjective field was achieved. In dynamic systems theory it represents
an irreversible shift into a new state. After a successful moment of meeting,

370 Daniel N. Stern The Present Moment as a Critical Moment
the therapy resumes its process of moving along, but does so in a newly
expanded intersubjective field that allows for different possibilities.
It is essential to add that this moment of meeting, in the previous
example, was never fully discussed until years later when the patient said
in passing that the “Hello” was a nodal point in her therapy. It made her
realize at some implicit level that her analyst was “on her side” and “truly
open to her.” For her, it changed their relationship. However, this moment
was not verbalized at the time, nor was it ever interpreted during the treat-
ment. It had worked its magic implicitly.
The moment of meeting is one of the key events in bringing about
change. A moment of meeting creates an experience with another that is
personally undergone, that is, actually lived through in the present. When
this is done by two or more people, I call the experience a “shared feeling
voyage.” It is a kind of journey, lasting seconds, taken by two or more
people, roughly together, through time and space.
During a shared feeling voyage (which is the moment of meeting) two
people traverse together through a feeling landscape as it unfolds in real
time. The present moment is also a lived emotional story with a beginning,
middle, and end. During this several-second journey, the participants ride
the crest of the present instant as it crosses the span of the present moment,
from its horizon of the past to its horizon of its future. As they move, they
pass through a microemotional narrative-like landscape with its hills and
valleys of affects, along its river of intentionality, which runs throughout,
and over its peak of dramatic crisis. It is a voyage taken as the present
unfolds. A passing subjective landscape is created that makes up a world in
a grain of sand.
Although this shared voyage lasts only for the seconds of a moment of
meeting, that is enough. It has been lived through together. The participants
have created a shared private world. And having entered that world, they
find that when they leave it, their relationship is changed. There has been
a discontinuous leap. The border between order and chaos has been
redrawn. Coherence and complexity have been enlarged. They have created
an expanded intersubjective field that opens up new possibilities of ways
of being with one another. They are changed and they are linked differently
from having changed one another.
Shared feeling voyages are so simple and natural, yet very hard to
explain or even talk about. We need another language that is steeped in tem-
poral dynamics. This is paradoxical because these experiences provide the
nodal moments in our lives. Shared feeling voyages are one of life’s most
startling yet normal events, when our interpersonal world is changed in
either a small step or a leap. In psychotherapy they are often the moments
most remembered years later, those that most changed the course of
therapy.

Negotiation Journal April 2004 371
What we are talking about is basically as simple as “doing something
together.” A moment of meeting is a particular case of doing something
together. It has some special features. The minds of the participants must
be partially permeable to each other so as to enhance intersubjectivity in
the sense of affectively participating in another’s experience. Thus, they can
maximally share the same mental and feeling landscape for a short while.
The emergent issue that arises must have some consequence and thus be
charged with affect. It must qualify as a moment of kairos so as to get ele-
vated as a sort of peak amidst the other surrounding moves and present
moments. The something done together must include a shared time voyage
of riding the feeling shapes of a present moment across its short span. When
all these conditions are met, a nodal event occurs that can change a life —
and presumably the course of a negotiation.
Practically speaking, how can this be useful; and, given that it involves
spontaneity and authenticity, can it be taught? Yes and no. Once the general
idea about change processes presented here has been taught and assimi-
lated, one gains a different perspective or vision about the process one is
engaged in. It is this shift in perspective that makes the difference. One
becomes more ready to identify, and even expect, key moments of change
in an ongoing process. With that, one becomes more ready to alter strategy
in midstream. And one becomes better able to tolerate the anxiety that
inevitably accompanies these moments of shift. In addition, one is given
greater “permission” to use themselves, their spontaneity and authenticity,
at key moments when something beyond strategy and technique is called
for to move the process along.

NOTES
This column was based on, and parts excerpted from, The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and
Everyday Life by Daniel N. Stern (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004).
The author would like to thank the Boston Change Process Study Group for their contribu-
tions to this column. The current members of the Boston CPSG are N. Bruschweiler-Stern, K. Lyons-
Ruth, A. Morgan, J. Nahum, L.S. Sander, and D.N. Stern

372 Daniel N. Stern The Present Moment as a Critical Moment