I triangulated on Carl Rogers recently. Marshall Rosenberg, whose work I’ve been interested in lately, studied under Rogers. I recently picked up again a really great book on writing called Writing Without Teachers, by Peter Elbow. In the latest edition he acknowledges a huge debt to Carl Rogers. And finally, I noticed that a really wonderful book I’m reading on art by Ellen Langer, On Becoming An Artist, pays homage in its title to Rogers’ On Becoming A Person.
So I thought it was time to check out Rogers. All I knew about him was that the computer program “ELIZA” was supposed to accurately simulate Rogerian therapy: that is, he was known as somebody who advocated mechanically repeating anything the client said. That didn’t sound promising. It sounded like a silly and fairly empty technique. But then, I’d only heard about it from people who didn’t think much of it.
As it happens, from what I’ve read so far, Rogers is a really important and deep thinker, and he seems to be either the origin or an early advocate of many ideas which are very important to me.
However, the impression I am getting is that he was so influential in the sixties that his ideas were borrowed, distorted, diluted, and turned into mush, both by people who liked him and people who disliked him.
For example, you know that whole weird cliche about “trying to find yourself”? (“But dude! You’re right here! You don’t have to find yourself! Ha ha!”) That’s an out of context echo of Rogers. To Rogers, “becoming who you are” had a very specific and fairly deep meaning — it meant learning that your core, authentic self, the deep “you” that you are underneath all your positive and negative reactions to other people’s expectations of you, is a positive, “prosocial,” good person that you can trust and embrace. It was a process he had seen many times, in therapy which went well.
But “finding oneself” became this empty meaningless phrase. That happens a lot with words and phrases which an author coins to mean something unusual, which isn’t well known in the culture at large — they end up in the culture at large anyway, but emptied of their particular meanings. For example, “deconstruction” has a pretty specific meaning if you read deconstructionists, but most people haven’t, and the actual meaning of deconstruction is a thing with which the culture at large is unfamiliar and which takes a lot of explanation. So the word has been emptied of its very specific meaning and turned into a pretentious synonym for “analysis.”
I’ve seen this a lot: when you discover something really important about life, either through experience or through reading a really profound book, or whatever, it often turns out to be a cliche. But that cliche never had a real meaning to you till you discovered it yourself through other means. You may have bandied the cliche about, mocked it, or refuted it logically, all the while completely failing to grasp it.
Back to Rogers. He’s widely mocked for his “reflective listening” technique. Couple things there. First off, it’s not something you can do mechanically. The point of it is to really understand what the client is saying and to show them that you do understand. People can tell if you’re bullshitting that, and it won’t help them.
Secondly, it’s something he came up with through some hardheaded experimental technique. Rogers was one of the first people to really do empirical research on outcomes and techniques of therapy, and his work was based on his research. One of the things he did was tape therapy — lots of it — done by himself and other therapists. He studied interactions between client and therapist, and found that when a client had an insight, and the therapist responded to it by interpreting it, or clarifying it, the client shut up and stopped exploring his insight and listened to what the therapist told him. But if the therapist reflected it back at him, trying to capture it and understand it but not expand on it, then the client kept on thinking and exploring and got further.
To Rogers, a client who kept thinking was doing better in therapy than a client who sat down and shut up and let the therapist tell him what’s going on, so the logical consequence of this research was to maximize reflective listening and minimize the kinds of interactions which shut clients up.
Important things of which Rogers was a big supporter?…
- The idea that people are basically good, not basically bad and dangerous.
- The value of unconditional acceptance.
- The idea that evaluation is damaging — both positive and negative evaluation.
- Rejection of authoritarian/heirarchical relationships
- The importance of process orientation vs product orientation
- The “DIY” factor — the notion that the most important things come from within oneself, not from outside oneself.
Probably some other stuff I’ve forgotten.
In any case, Rogers is good stuff and the picture you get of him from summaries in textbooks and what not is completely bogus.