Carl Rogers — Cultivate Great Relationships By Improving On This One Skill
In his book, A Way Of Being, psychotherapist Carl Rogers lays out the two kinds of memorable conversations he has had with people.
“In my own two-way communication with others, there have been experiences that have made me feel pleased and warm and good and satisfied.
There have been other experiences that to some extent at the time, and even more so afterward, have made me feel dissatisfied and displeased and more distant and less contented with myself.”
He expands on the positive types of conversations a bit further, stating that in these instances he felt that both people in the conversation came out feeling enriched and inspired.
“Another way of putting this is that some of my experiences in communicating with others have made me feel expanded, larger, enriched, and have accelerated my own growth. Very often in these experiences I feel that the other person has had similar reactions and that he too has been enriched, that his development and his functioning have moved forward.
He also expands on the negative types of conversations, stating that both people in the conversation usually came out feeling dejected.
“Then there have been other occasions in which the growth or development of each of us has been diminished or stopped or even reversed.”
Given these two choices, it’s obvious what kind of conversations we’d prefer to have.
He outlines a few observations that he believes will help us have more positive and transformative conversations and less negative conversations that leave us unmotivated and regressed.
It Feels Good To Hear Others
It’s harder to have genuine and transformational conversations these days. We have so many things to entertain and distract us throughout the day, even when we’re hanging out with friends and family.
We sit and share food, play games, and watch movies together, and somehow in between all those moments together we can’t seem to connect deeply and have meaningful conversations.
We find it harder to stay present in the midst of our smartphones, where if we feel a twinge of boredom or anxiety creeping in we can open up Instagram, Messenger, or Youtube to get a quick fix of entertainment.
We share things with our friends while they stare at their phones, half-listening, mumbling blank responses like “yeah I feel you” or “damn that’s crazy”.
We get slightly annoyed but we know it’s a momentary thing and we’ll have their attention soon after they get their fix of responding to messages or scrolling through their newsfeeds.
We understand and forgive because we catch ourselves doing the same. Everything seems urgent and fights for your attention.
We think we’re listening to our friends and family because we “hear” their voices and register what they’re saying to us.
We think responding with affirmative statements will make the other person believe we are listening to them.
We think conversation is something that everyone is “good” at because we’ve been engaging in them all our lives.
Sometimes it feels like we approach conversations like this: I allow words to come out of your mouth so that you will reciprocate and listen when words come out of my mouth. We each have underlying motives for whatever we decide to say (we want to be smart, funny, etc) but we won’t acknowledge it and we will allow each other to pursue these goals.
But what we miss, when we approach conversations like this, is a crucial piece of information for transformative and deep conversations: the underlying messages that are communicated non-verbally.
When we step away from the moment and lose ourselves in our phones or activities, we often miss crucial little details that the other person is trying to communicate.
Perhaps your friend was going through a depressive bout and wanted to talk about it and was trying to muster up the courage to open up to you.
Maybe your friend was looking for some sympathy in your eyes that indicated that you would not judge them if they decided to talk about their struggles.
Maybe in that one fragile moment where they looked at your face, looking for encouragement and sympathy, you were too busy scrolling through Instagram or responding to a meme in your group chat.
Maybe your friend decides from that moment to refrain from opening up, which could have potentially been a transformative and healing conversation, and digs themself into a deeper pit of despair.
This isn’t to admonish anyone. I’m not saying you should look to be someone else’s therapist. I’m not saying you need to be a shoulder that everybody wants to cry on.
But these are the conversations that we truly crave, if we pay attention and look carefully for them. We all know it feels good to be there for someone. We all know that if we had something painful we were going through, we’d also like to have someone to listen to us without judging or offering solutions.
In moments of vulnerability, people lose their personas and show just a bit of their humanity, a slice of the pain they had to withstand alone. It hurts less for them if you stand next to them, shouldering some of their burdens, the tragedies that threaten to crush them.
What is the other person truly trying to say? Do we listen close enough, to ever bother finding out?
“When I say that I enjoy hearing someone, I mean, of course, hearing deeply. I mean that I hear the words, the thoughts, the feeling tones, the personal meaning, even the meaning that is below the conscious intent of the speaker.
Sometimes too, in a message which superficially is not very important, I hear a deep human cry that lies buried and unknown far below the surface of the person.”
He shares a story of an adolescent boy who had indirectly communicated his pain. Carl Rogers was paying close attention and only because of this effort was he able to uncover a deep affliction in the boy and move onto healing.
“I think, for example, of an interview I had with an adolescent boy. Like many an adolescent today he was saying at the outset of the interview that he had no goals.
When I questioned him on this, he insisted even more strongly that he had no goals whatsoever, not even one.
I said, “There isn’t anything you want to do?”
“Nothing… Well yeah, I want to keep on living.”
I remember distinctly my feeling at that moment. I resonated very deeply to this phrase. He might simply be telling me that, like everyone else, he wanted to live.
On the other hand, he might be telling me — and this seemed to be a definite possibility — that at some point the question of whether or not to live had been a real issue with him.
So I tried to resonate to him at all levels. I didn’t know for certain what the message was. I simply wanted to be open to any of the meanings that this statement might have, including the possibility that he might at one time have considered suicide.
My being willing and able to listen to him at all levels is perhaps one of the things that made it possible for him to tell me, before the end of the interview, that not long before he had been on the point of blowing his brains out.
This little episode is an example of what I mean by wanting to really hear someone at all the levels at which he is endeavoring to communicate.”
Hearing Has Consequences
Carl Rogers points out that just by taking the time to hear the other human being, you can save them from their anguish.
“When I truly hear a person and the meanings that are important to him at that moment, hearing not simply his words, but him, and when I let him know that I have heard his own private personal meanings, many things happen.
There is first of all a grateful look. He feels released. He wants to tell me more about his world. He surges forth in a new sense of freedom. He becomes more open to the process of change.
I have often noticed that the more deeply I hear the meanings of this person, the more there is that happens. Almost always, when a person realizes he has been deeply heard, his eyes moisten. I think in some real sense he is weeping for joy. It is as though he were saying, “Thank God, somebody heard me. Someone knows what it’s like to be me.”
In such moments I have had the fantasy of a prisoner in a dungeon, tapping out day after day a Morse code message, “Does anybody hear me? Is anybody there?” And finally one day he hears some faint tappings which spell out “Yes.”
By that one simple response he is released from his loneliness; he has become a human being again.
There are many, many people living in private dungeons today, people who give no evidence of it whatsoever on the outside, where you have to listen very sharply to hear the faint messages from the dungeon.”
Sometimes we take our friends and family for granted. Maybe some of us have been fortunate to cultivate intimate relationships where we can be our true selves and not fear rejection or shame.
But how many countless individuals walk around every day, utterly alone, bearing the weight of the world on their backs without anyone to help them? Without anyone who is willing to listen to them?
Taking the time and effort to listen closely to another person can mean the world to them. You don’t need to be a trained psychotherapist, although there are sure to be situations where you can’t bear the weight of the individual’s suffering.
There are moments where you must be careful before helping someone because you don’t know how deep their tragedies are. You can potentially drown in the depths of despair with them if you’re not prepared.
But in every conversation hereon, it would help to be just a bit more attentive, a bit more watchful for cues that could help spur vulnerable and enlightening conversations.
These kinds of conversations are enjoyable because it is helpful for both participants.
They both come out of it rejuvenated, one because they have been helped and the other because they have been able to help.
You don’t need a bag of conversational tricks to have meaningful conversations with people.
You just need to be willing to pay attention and hear what your fellow brothers and sisters are saying to you.
Help them, so that when times get hard, they may help you one day as well.