Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Creating a helping relationship: questions to ponder

Carl Rogers, 1902-1987

In a 1958 essay titled "The characteristics of a helping relationship", Carl Rogers, the noted humanist psychologist, formulated the following ten questions, which I present in his own words. He crafted them in the context of being a therapist, but they naturally apply to all kinds of relationships, including the relationship between a teacher and his/her students:
  1. Can I be in some way which will be perceived by the other person as trustworthy, as dependable, or consistent in some deep sense? 
  2. Can I be expressive enough as a person that what I am will be communicated unambiguously?
  3. Can I let myself experience positive attitudes toward this other person --- attitudes of warmth, caring, liking, interest, respect? 
  4. Can I be strong enough as a person to be separate from the other? Can I be a sturdy respecter of my own feelings, my own needs, as well as his? Am I strong enough in my own separateness that I will not be downcast by his depression, frightened by his fear, nor engulfed by his dependency? ...[for] then I find that I can let myself go much more deeply in understanding and accepting him because I am not fearful of losing myself. 
  5. Am I secure enough within myself to permit him his separateness? Can I permit him to be what he is --- honest or deceitful, infantile or adult, despairing or overconfident? Can I give him the freedom to be? 
  6. Can I let myself enter fully into the world of his feelings and personal meanings and see these as he does? Can I step into his private world so completely that I lose all desire to evaluate or judge it? 
  7. Can I be acceptant of each facet of this other person which he presents to me? Can I receive him as he is? Can I communicate this attitude? 
  8. Can I act with sufficient sensitivity in the relationship that my behavior will not be perceived as a threat?
  9. Can I free him from the threat of external evaluation? In almost every phase of our lives --- at home, at school, at work --- we find ourselves under the rewards and punishments of external judgments: "That's good"; "that's naughty", "That's worth an A"; "that's a failure." "That's good counseling"; "that's poor counseling."... in my experience, they do not make for personal growth and hence I do not believe that they are a part of a helping relationship. Curiously enough a positive evaluation is as threatening in the long run as a negative one, since to inform someone that he is good implies that you also have the right to tell him he is bad. 
  10. Can I meet this individual as a person who is in process of becoming, or will I be bound by his past and by my past?
I like this list. A faculty member at another institution pointed me at it, saying that he likes to consider these questions before teaching class, as a way to reflect on how much "regard, empathy, and genuineness" he could "experience (and express clearly) in every class."

For me too, many of these questions resonate with the way I like to interact with students, particularly my Ph.D. advisees. I have learned over time that it is most rewarding to view them not as resources to be exploited, nor as clay to be molded and shaped according to my inclination, but as individuals to be supported in their own personal journeys towards realizing their potential. 

These are not easy questions, and I believe that answering them all in the affirmative represents an ideal that may not always be achievable in practice. For instance, question 9 poses a conflict for a faculty member given that a significant part of their official responsibility when teaching a class is to provide an evaluation of the student's performance. But these questions are certainly worth pondering if we aim to be helpful to others.


Julie K. said...

The eighth point reminds me my piano teacher who once told me: "Let's go farther, I don't have nerves for this!" when I couldn't realize the mistake she was pointing out to me. What was the use of the lesson, then? She apologized later and justified her behavior by saying that she was going through serious obstacles in her private life. Though endowed with courage and spontaneity, sometimes she lacks more important qualities a proper teacher should have: a rational approach and patience. After all, we are only humans.

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