We live in a society where everybody talks, nobody listens, and everyone bewails the fact that they are not understood. (Anon).
The solution to what sounds like a swirling eddy down the drain of all our life-times might appeal to some as the universal acquisition and use of the late Carl Rogers’ method of counseling, i.e., to mostly listen and repeat back in a reasonable rewording only what the speaker has communicated. Often the first reaction to this ploy, at least inwardly, is “Maybe somebody else understands me!”
Rogers is known in annals of counseling as the client or person-centered therapist who, teetering on the shoulders of Sigmund Freud so to speak, carefully documented hundreds of therapy sessions in an effort to show that Freud’s notions of psychoanalysis were too esoteric and divorced from the “self” of the patient. He was obviously not alone in this effort and undoubtedly Rogers’ technique had practical value in some situations. He also pioneered his own teaching and group therapy methods. During the 70s and 80s, together with many other therapists he journeyed to Vienna to meet with Viktor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning) in order to explore his vision of potential international peace efforts. It was on one of these junkets that I met him but my first impression has to be limited, like all such brief before or after program encounters, to externals --the memory only of a cheerful, soft-spoken, affable man who might, at first impression have been a clergyman, (several of whom were in attendance). Rogers, who was born in Oak Park suburban Chicago, praised Frankl’s work highly; he and the Vienna-born Jewish psychiatrist Frankl with his Logotherapy, ironically enough and in a back-handed sort of way (and contrary to intent), probably helped to bring ordinary religious concepts back within the confines of clinical practice. Both men were avowed and vocal champions of their own particular efforts at saving mankind from itself, which as usual was sorely needed. It was Frankl, a survivor of three years of concentration camp imprisonment, who wrote that “Men” not only built the gas chambers at Auswitz but are also the ones who marched to their deaths with the Lord’s Prayer or Shema Yisrael on their lips. He advocated the importance of personal love as a core value in the ongoing struggle, using his own experiences as praxis and method. In an interview toward the end of his life he admitted to a long standing belief in God but did not, like his wife of later years (who was a practicing Catholic), follow even Judaism. Rogers, on the other hand, had become an avowed agnostic and in opposition to his rather dogmatic parents married a woman of whom his parents did not approve. He gave up his study for the Ministry in New York to follow the popular cultural trends of the 50s and 60s; he in fact became enamored of Buddhism and the Baha’i faith. His position was then clearly a version of humanistic as he continued, apparently, to overturn and undo the relatively rigid fundamentalism of his earlier years. It has been noted that Rogers’ “Fully Functioning Person” was similar to some Buddhist characterizations.
An example of Roger’s methods can be played out within a large county prison population with its potential for outbursts of violence, often sparked by frustrations common to prison life. Guards, usually police personnel, have to sit on top of all the “beefs”, real or fancied, that crop up daily. While there is undeniably a master-slave relationship between prison staff and inmates, there is also often an underlying parent-child relationship which may go some lengths in explaining problems of recidivism and apparent irrational reactions to incarceration. Within this relationship a sense of being understood is crucial to day-to-day relational stability. Consider the following scenario: Agitated prisoner approaches a guard in the open compound and asks, “Do you think I will be out of here by Christmas?” Guards could usually respond in one of two ways, both of which are known to the inwardly frustrated inmate as out-right fabrication. One is, “Oh sure you will be, don’t worry about it”, the other is, “How the hell do I know, I’m just doing my job?” The latter at least has the ring of truth, but represents another unhelpful and unconcerned attitude to the potentially explosive inmate. The Rogerian response is less rejective, something like; “Sounds to me that it is very important to you to leave here by Christmas.” Though it is not an answer that might lead later to a charge of false prophecy, the attention of the petitioner is in fact directed back at himself and away from the authority figure -- who has after all apparently understood the main concern. This is one example of Roger’s idea of felt empathy. At the same time it is unlikely that Rogers had forgotten what the Bible informs us in Proverbs 15:1; “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger”. (Most of us know this simple truism but how many remember it, let alone put it into practice?)
Rogers, a bright and somewhat “driven” man who was clever and innovative in his studies, was not however the sort of intellectual in the sense that obtained in the Vienna group; he was a mid-western lad torn between a study of the Scientific Agriculture of his successful business-man father and the rather narrow religiosity of his mother. Roger’s orientation to the external world was directed to the school and the classroom, towards which he devoted a lot of his writings. In his earlier years he tended to be inwardly private and not popular with his peers; his self had been closely restricted all during childhood and adolescence, at least to age twenty. His parent’s social attitude was described as recognizing that there were mostly a lot of fairly bad people in the world; one had to simply accept them and also to keep to one’s distance. At age twenty he enrolled in a university course entitled Why I Am Studying for the Ministry, but soon after dropped his ecclesiastical ambitions for the study of psychology. From then on he began to make it a principle of his life to try to regard all people as basically good and the “self”, his own and everyone else’s, to be presented to the world as an honest and open book. He saw Freud as a “genius” but looked to Otto Rank, more “self-empowered”, as his mentor. Freud, Rank, and even Frankl, were schooled in medicine and in psychoanalysis. They had undergone some form of training analysis, had received classical European schooling in historical antiquity, and were conversant with a world-view of both psychoanalytic and existential thought (as see Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger).
In short, they knew their cultural and clinical fundamentals, but in review the psychological concepts of Rogers may strike some as rather two-dimensional in nature, lending a solipsist character to his idea, (Philosophy 101?), that all that we know is what impinges on the self; therein one’s images of an inverted white triangle, a red triangle and a blue oblong always turn out to be a man in a blue suit with a white shirt and a red neck-tie. He wrote that all he could know for sure is what he himself experiences --“the touchstone of validity is my self”. Abraham Maslow, former APA president, who was at first agreeable to Rogers’ self actualization notions, later merely exclaimed, “Self, self, self!” The rather misleading simplicity of his therapeutic “method” even led to an early attempt at AI, or artificial intelligence. A professor at MIT, Joseph Weizenbaum (1967), developed a computer program named ELIZA which mimicked Rogers’ responses to his patients in treatment. That idea of computerized therapy was not offered seriously by the author nor was it taken as such except by some computer buffs who still see ELIZA as a curious game.