Carl Rogers, Quiet Revolutionary by Richard Farson
From Carl Rogers: The Man and His Ideas, Richard I. Evans, 1975 E.P Dutton & Co., New York.
Carl Rogers is not known for his politics. People are more likely to associate his name with widely acclaimed innovations in counseling technique, personality theory, philosophy of science, psychotherapy research, encounter groups, student-centered teaching; his thoughts on human nature, his descriptions of the person of the future, his views on marriage and coupling, etc.each one a stunning contribution by itself. But in recent years, viewing the body of his work as a whole, I have come to think of him more as a political figure, a man whose cumulative effect on society has made him one of the most important social revolutionaries of our time.
I would like to explain that statement by beginning with a quote from Rogers’ autobiography. It describes a point at which he made the discovery that was to change not only his way of thinking about human relationships but just about everyone else’s, too.
I had been working with a highly intelligent mother whose boy was something of a hellion. The problem was clearly her early rejection of the boy, but over many interviews I could not help her to this insight. I drew her out, I gently pulled together the evidence she had given, trying to help her see the pattern.
But we got nowhere. Finally I gave up. I told her that it seemed we had both tried but we had failed and that we might as well give up our contacts. She agreed. So we concluded the interview, shook hands, and she walked to the door of the office.
Then she turned and asked, “Do you ever take adults for counseling here?” When I replied in the affirmative, she said, “Well, then, I would like some help.” She came back to the chair she had just left and began to pour out her despair about her marriage, her troubled relationship with her husband, her sense of failure and confusion, all very different from the sterile “case history” she had given before. Real therapy began then and ultimately it was highly successful–for her and for her son.
This incident was one of a number which helped me to experience the fact–only fully realized later– that it is the client who knows what hurts, what directions to go, what problems are crucial, what experiences have been deeply buried. It began to occur to me that unless I had a need to demonstrate my own cleverness and learning, I would do better to rely upon the client for the direction of movement in the process.
What a simple, obvious, marvelous, powerful, revolutionary idea. An idea that is now so much a part of our understanding not only of therapy but of every field of human endeavor that we have all but forgotten where it came from.
It is Rogers’ style to let go of ideas, to share them, to avoid ownership, to prevent them from becoming dogmatized and identified solely with him. By his having let go of them they have developed lives of their own and, as a result, have pervaded all human affairs. Many of those who practice his approach or have adopted his philosophy do not think of themselves as Rogerian. Some have probably never heard of him.
With that simple idea he empowered hundreds of thousands of professionals and laymen, who would otherwise never have seen themselves as personal counselors, to engage in genuinely helping relationships. His approach, though not easy to learn, is so elegant in concept and so dramatically rewarding in practice that it swept not only psychology but almost every other profession as well.
Rogers has always been a bit puzzled that he is taken more seriously in other fields than he is in his own field of psychology. Professionals from education, religion, nursing, medicine, psychiatry, law, business, government, public health, law enforcement, race relations, social work–the list goes on and on–all came to feel that here, finally, was an approach which enabled them to succeed on the previously neglected human dimensions of their jobs, to reach the people for whom they felt responsible but were often unable to help.
Rogers showed how the conditions for a therapeutic relationship could be generated by people who may not have had “proper” training. His research demonstrated that these conditions were neither mysterious nor dependent upon formal professional experience, and might in fact be present in anyone. Rogers described them this way:
. . . constructive personality growth and change comes about only when the client perceives and experiences a certain psychological climate in the relationship. The conditions which constitute this climate do not consist of knowledge, intellectual training, orientation in some school of thought, or techniques. They are feelings or attitudes which must be experienced by the counselor and perceived by the client if they are to be effective. Those I have singled out as being essential are: a sensitive empathic understanding of the client’s feelings and persona meanings; a warm, acceptant prizing of the client; and an unconditionality in this positive regard.
In effect he managed to demystify the practice of therapy. He showed how it really works. And he did this so convincingly and helpfully that thousands were encouraged to try to develop such relationships with their own clients, patients, students, employees, customers, or inmates. His demystification of therapy not only made extensions into other fields possible but it encouraged many other workers to further uncover the mystifying practices of psychotherapists.
Many of those from the political left now practicing various forms of radical therapy owe some debt to Rogers for his pioneering work in making therapeutic processes understandable and therapeutic methods available to any and all who would use them, regardless of the user’s academic credentials. In the radical therapists’ battle to rid psychiatry of its mystique and bring psychological help to people whom they feel are prevented, mainly for political, economic, or social reasons, from obtaining it, Carl Rogers is an important ally. His early effectiveness in demystifying the psychotherapy professions brought helping relationships to millions who would otherwise have been treated less knowledgeably and less humanely.
During the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s he was virtually alone in his struggle to keep medicine from gaining a stranglehold on the helping professions. Somehow he knew then what many have come to know now: that no single profession or discipline has a corner on the market of knowledge about human affairs. His lonely battles with medicine, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and psychoanalytically dominated professions such as psychiatric social work, are largely forgotten. It is difficult, sometimes, to remember the days when even highly trained psychologists could not practice therapy. Armed with impressive research findings and a bold vision, he forced the door open and held it open for all who followed.
It was not accomplished without hurt and humiliation. Once, in the mid-50s, he described to me his painful attempt to deliver a lecture to the assembled psychiatrists at a mental health conference at Harvard, all the while competing with Karl Menninger, the chairman of the meeting, who sat behind him reading papers, studying timetables, swatting flies, taking great pains to avoid showing Rogers the attention and respect that he was ultimately to gain from this profession.
Great respect, even adulation, did eventually come his way and no one has ever handled success better. One of the strengths I admire most in him is his ability to resist the continuing efforts to make him a guru, an idol, the leader of a movement. He has been asked many times to give his name and his leadership to professional associations that might be formed around the basic concepts he has introduced–associations of client-centered or nondirective therapists, for example –but unlike other major contributors he has always eschewed the leadership role, never endorsed anything bearing his name, never tried to become the leader of a school (although he certainly is), never encouraged the fanatical devotion that could easily have been his, never tried to limit the practice of his methods only to those disciples whom he personally anointed.
His determination to avoid such a role has never wavered. I remember one San Francisco lecture audience of a thousand or more enthusiastic supporters who came to have Rogers lead them on a crusade but heard instead a sober and scholarly report of his work. When I asked him after the lecture why he had chosen to address the group in this way, he said that they seemed to him a bit too eager to be carried away by rhetoric and demagoguery and that it was probably better that they hear this material.
He has not only been able to demystify the profession of psychotherapy in general but his own behavior as a therapist as well. Until Rogers changed the rules of the game, psychotherapists only knew about each other’s work from dramatic descriptions after the hour was over, possibly tending to present themselves as being somewhat more brilliant than they actually were. Rogers, on the other hand, is willing to document his work, not from his selective recall but from the verbatim transcripts of the interaction. In 1938, on a wire recorder, he was the first to record a therapeutic hour.
Not only was he the first to audio-record his hours but also the first to film them. For years, when no one else had the courage to show what he or she actually said or did in the development of therapeutic relationships, Rogers turned the camera on himself. He is still doing it. One cannot help but respect a person who will show himself both failing and succeeding when it would be easy to play the game the way others have played it, letting us see only that which makes him look wise and competent.
Rogers’ fascination with the way things really are, his willingness to carefully document his own and others’ behavior, and his fundamental interest in sirnply making sense out of things combined in him to produce psychotherapy’s first scientific researcher. He became the one to bring science into a field previously regarded as unknowable on any scientific basis – more like art or magic. He insisted, against strong opposition, that the seemingly potent phenomena of personal change could be studied with seientific methods of controlled investigation, that the previously sacred therapeutic hour could be recorded and analyzed without damage.
Almost no one thought it could or should be done. But with these new data he was able to assess, phrase by phrase, even word by word, the therapeutic events which led to defensiveness and those which led to insight and exploration, those which built the relationship and those which hindered it. The results were too much for the opposition. Single-handed, he had opened the field of psychotherapy to scientific scrutiny.
Perhaps more than anyone he made psychology the business of normal people and normal people the business of psychology. Before Rogers, psychology conformed to a medical model, to heal the sick. People were thought of as either disturbed or normal and, if the latter, there was nothing psychology could or should do for them. There was nowhere further for normal people to go in their own personal development.
When Rogers came along, he built a base for what was to become psychology’s largest area of interest, the normal person and his or her potential for growth and creativity. Rogers did this through a combination of several ideas. First of all, his personality theory made no assumption of diseased processes, unconscious motivation, or developmental history. It wasn’t that he believed that these constructs didn’t matter or didn’t exist, but that an explanation of personality and behavior is most powerful when understood in ahistorical and interpersonal terms. So while Rogers was not the first person to theorize in these terms, he was the person who had sufficient impact on psychological thinking to make it possible for the field of humanistic psychology to emerge.
Actualizing human potentialities for creativity and growth, regarding the person in the here and now, emphasizing the centrality of the self, and placing significance on experience as well as behavior were the fundamental building blocks of humanistic psychology and Rogers supplied them. In this he was clearly the forerunner of people like Abraham Maslow and Rollo May, who eventually came to carry the banner of humanistic psychology and to focus attention on the idea of self-actualization rather than treatment of the sick.
Rogers saw people as being on an endless growth journey–a journey which is sometimes blocked by negative or incongruent images of oneself, sometimes by inhibiting cultural conditions. Freeing people so that they might accelerate this journey became the great challenge of humanistic psychology. Although he might wince at the term, he is in great measure responsible for what came to be called the human potential movement, and he is surely a major force in the development of more than three hundred growth centers in the United States.
His focusing on the achievement of human potentialities has cut two ways, of course. It has given us a new consciousness of what we might become, of human rights and human needs, and has influenced and improved every part of life–from marriage and childrearing to executive leadership.
But by raising our expectations he has also given us a new level of discontent. The discrepancy between what people are ordinarily able to make happen in their relationships and what they have come to believe is possible to make happen as a result, say, of reading a book by Carl Rogers is the cause of much disruption in their lives. High-order discontent, which comes from rising expectations, is the reason why many people divorce or quit their jobs. But that, of course, is the inevitable, paradoxical, and sometimes calamitous effect of the experiences we value most–education, art, etc. To the extent that these activities give us a new picture of ourselves and our world, a new vision to work for and hope for, the world becomes both a better place and a more difficult one in which to live. And high-level discontent is the stuff upon which revolutions are built.
It is this sort of paradox with which Rogers has the greatest difficulty. By and large he is unable to recognize either the coexistence of opposites or the enormous complexity of human affairs. His is essentially a linear theory, as opposed to a curvilinear one; maximizing rather than optimizing. His concepts, like most others in humanistic psychology, are based on the idea of “the more the better,” as opposed to “there can be too much of a good thing.” Rogers would have you believe that the more congruence, the more honesty, the more intimacy, the more closeness, the more empathy, the better. Sounds good, but, as is the case with most linear thinking, it fails in the extreme, and that unfortunately is where it is taken by both Rogers and his students who seem to believe that all human problems from marriage to international negotiation should yield to the application of his principles of human communication. They cannot be solved with these techniques because they are not problems in an ordinary sense but complicated paradoxical dilemmas. It is both impossible and ultimately undesirable to try to deal with them in a linear fashion, as if human experience could be smoothed out, as if we could have peaks without valleys. For a revolutionary, Rogers has paid precious little attention to role, power, status, culture, politics, history, systems, technology, and, perhaps most significantly, the paradoxical quality of human experience. There is a kind of omnipotence and optimism in Rogers’ work, a belief that all is possible with the tools of client-centered therapy.
In this connection, he continues to try to justify psychotherapy on its weakest point, that it produces constructive behavior change. It sometimes seems to me a pity that psychotherapy derived from medicine, a field where the benefits are expected to last. If it had developed instead out of a different field, say, for example, theatre, then we would not expect it to work after it was over, but only while it was going on. We have unfortunately burdened psychotherapy with an expectation on which it cannot very often deliver, that it will change behavior. In the process we have missed its great value.
We have expected it to fix people, to reform them. People do not need fixing, they are pretty good the way they are. It is more the situations which victimize them that need fixing, but we will not get to that task if we continue to believe that until we get people straightened out there is no point in trying to make changes in organizations or in society at large.
I, for one, hate to see Rogers bother with such a pragmatic, utilitarian question about therapy as “Does it work?” Everything “works”–all brands of therapy, even the off brands, work. So do all forms of religious conversion. Another way of putting this dilemma is that nothing “works.” All these endeavors yield similar results. None of them is able to show much permanent change.
Rogers has given us a much more powerful and important idea. He has given us a way to be with one another, an ethical basis for human interaction, guidelines for the important considerations in assessing not just the outcome but the process of a relationship.
Rogers has changed behavior all right, but not in the way he believes. He has changed the way we all think about human relationships, the expectations we have about intimate personal contact, the nature of interpersonal and organizational behavior. Without realizing it he has revolutionized our ideas about human affairs. It is in this process that he has changed individuals by the millions.
It is my thesis that Rogers’ greatest contribution has not been in giving us a technique to fix people, but in creating a new form, a new definition of relationship in which people can function more fully and be more self-determining. It is this new form that has had such an impact on every social institution and is to a great extent responsible for the revolution in participation that has dominated the social development of the United States in the last decade.
His work is basic to the restructuring of almost every field of human affairs. Consider some of the areas of influence. His ideas are the main ones used to support efforts toward democratic or participative management in industry. There has probably not been a single organizational development or management training program in twenty-five years which has not been built on his theoretical formulations. His ideas opened the way to student-centered teaching and learning and this philosophy of empowering the student contributed subsequently to the students’ rights movement. His ideas cleared away the mystique of professionalism in psychiatry and the helping professions and gave impetus to the development and uti]ization of lay and paraprofessional resources and to the radical therapy movement. His ideas gave strength to dissident clergy unwilling to accept the hierarchical authority of the church. His ideas emphasized selfdirection and personal responsibility in all the fields of health and welfare and helped spawn thousands of self-help groups. His idea that the greatest resource for the solution of any problem is the very population that has the problem has led community organizers, welfare specialists, architects, and city planners to involve citizens from all segments of the community in the decisions which will ultimately affect them. His ideas form the core of the encounter-group experience, an experience in participation which has now been a part of the lives of perhaps as many as ten million Americans. His ideas about child-rearing have led millions of Americans to try to solve the problems of parenting in less power-centered, authority-based ways and have contributed directly to the new concepts of children’s rights.
Taken together these developments describe and define the participative mood of America. Rogers becomes responsible along with a handful of other social revolutionaries for the healthy subversion of our blind obedience to authority and for the development of a new sense of trust and confidence in ourselves. We must include Rogers’ name, not peripherally but centrally, as we identify the people who set the stage for this revolution of participation.
Surprisingly, Rogers has never thought of himself as a political person, never identified himself with social movements. But his work has had a consistent theme–that people can and should be trusted to direct their own lives. To a slogan which he has probably never used, “Power to the people,” Rogers has given real substance and meaning.
Unfortunately, in spite of its proven impact, Rogers’ work has been corrupted over the years by practitioners who have discovered the technique but not the philosophy. Rogers showed that marvelous things happened when a person was trusted and accepted, when a person’s feelings were dignified and respected, when the person was given a sense of safety and understanding. With amazing sensitivity Rogers could stay right with a person’s feelings, whatever they were, through all forms of defensiveness and hostility and fear. He followed every turn, every subtlety, and always let the person set the pace and the direction. And while there were many aimless, plodding hours, there were also many breakthroughs of insight and emotionality. When people were allowed to discuss their deepest feelings, whatever they were, and came to feel loved and accepted in the relationship, then they did indeed go into their feelings intensely and the emotions would run high.
But today’s practitioners are impatient. They are not satisfied with such a pedestrian approach. They argue that if it is beneficial for people to talk about their feelings, then perhaps it is good to make sure that they do. To accomplish this all sorts of gimmicks have been invented to elicit the expression of feelings. From there it was a srnall step to force a person to talk about feelings. If there were no feelings to talk about, ways could be found to make sure that there would be feelings to talk about. And if tears accompanying the experienced feelings gave them more validity, then screams or nausea would be even more valid. So it has gone, and in the process Rogers’ idea of respect for the person is in danger of disappearing. Authoritarian gimmickry seems irresistibly satisfying, even to humanistic psychologists. Rogers himself is sometimes caugllt up in this trend. Performance seems to be winning out over safety, aggressiveness over acceptance, emotionality over dignity. The newest forms of treatment to which people are flocking by the thousands are almost neofascist in their willinglless to use coercion and threat to evoke feelings which supposedly can then be explored to advantage.
As we become aware of the social and political consequences of these authoritarian movements, I believe they will be replaced by a new insistence on the dignity and worth of the individual and the right to selfdetermination I would predict, therefore, that we may see, in the not too distant future, a dramatic resurgence of interest in Rogerian psychology. Not because his methods are more potent or intensive or exciting. They aren’t. But because they dignify us as persons. We recognize that Rogers cares most about the quality and integrity of relationships and the protection of human rights. When all the varied approaches are weighed, we will see that his protects people best because it protects them against those of us who think we know what’s good for them.