Insights from the Helping Professions


Carl R. Rogers, 1985

Carl R. Rogers has been identified for nearly half a century as one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th Century. One commentator referred to Dr. Rogers as a man whose cumulative effect on society has made him one of the social revolutionaries of our time. He has personally involved himself in an attempt to resolve tensions in a variety of very disparate situations. In the discussion we had today he reflected upon his involvement in each of those situations and what he believes are the important learnings from those involvements.

Whiteley: Dr. Rogers, as we prepare to work together today, you singled out three involvements that you've had personally from which you think there are important learnings to be gained. Why don't we begin with the Belfast experience. Would you share first the background, how you happened with your colleagues to become involved in that, and then what happened in a step by step way.

Rogers: My colleagues and I were quite convinced that our experience led us to feel that we could be a positive force in situations like Belfast. There are centuries of hatred and religious animosity and economic disparity and so on between the Protestants and the Catholics. A great deal of careful background work went into this. We wanted to film interaction in a group and the group was carefully selected to include militant Protestants on the one hand, militant Catholics on the other, some that were in between. A British colonel, a retired colonel, represented the English aspect of it, and we met - we only had a small amount of funds - we met for only sixteen hours spread over several days.

Whiteley: Under what auspices did you get together? The mere fact that a group with these differences of opinion would sit down and talk is not at all usual.

Rogers: No, it's not. That was due to very good work by two of our staff who went to Belfast, talked with community leaders, got their help in selecting the group, and also their help in selling the idea to the members that this was okay to be a part of this. They had some very unusual, and in one instance, very frightening experiences. They finally, after being led from place to place to place, finally got in touch with a high up man in the IRA, and he listened to their case and gave his approval that, okay, he would be willing to see someone go representing the militant Catholic point of view.

Whiteley: So your intervention came at the time when there had been a risk by some people to create the forum, and your personal role was to work within this forum of a small number of people, and you had sixteen hours over several days. What happened?

Rogers: First, it seemed as though there was nothing but bitterness and horrible experiences. One man told how his sister had come to visit him, was in his home for a little while, went out to do a bit of shopping, was blown up. Nobody knew whose bomb it was, whether it was a Catholic or Protestant bomb. Another man told of how he and his family had had to huddle down behind mattresses when the shooting broke out in their street, and he had a part in picking up the broken and wounded bodies in the street. A young Protestant woman told how if she saw a wounded IRA man lying in the street she'd step on him. It was that kind of really hostile attitudes, and yet as they were encouraged to express their feelings, and their feelings were understood and accepted and not judged, their defenses came down. They weren't quite so vehement. Little by little they began to understand each other, sometimes dramatically so. One Protestant man said toward the end that he really pitied this Catholic mother trying to deal with her boys, that he thought she was in a worse situation than he was. He showed real understanding. That had to be cut out of the film for fear he would be shot when he got back to Belfast. But by the end of that time, there was much better feeling between the groups. We had no money for follow-up; we thought that was it. But no, on their own initiative, they met again and again in Belfast at the home of the English Colonel, because his home was the safest. They went out in teams of two, a Protestant and a Catholic, showed the film to church groups, school groups, other groups in Ireland. They were a real force for peaceful reconciliation. And that they were effective is shown by the fact that four copies of that film were destroyed by paramilitary forces, some by Catholic paramilitary, some by Protestant paramilitary, until they realized they should never let the film out of their eyesight. They had to really protect their copies of the film.

Whiteley: Would you share a bit more about what the role of facilitator was, and what learnings you think can be derived from this experience.

Rogers: I think the role of the facilitator was to be as acceptant as possible of the most divergent attitudes, to understand empathically this young woman who would crush an IRA man, to extend equal understanding to someone feeling equal bitterness on the other side. That enables the feelings to be present and accepted without their being dangerous or harmful, so that acceptance and empathy play a large part in the facilitative role. Then some of the learnings - I think I learned, and I think we all learned, that even - well, consider what happened there. Feuds which as I say had been going on for centuries, which have their roots generations ago, in sixteen hours melted to a point where individuals would form teams to go out and persuade other individuals to get together. So that it was definite evidence that even the bitterest of feuds can be helped toward reconciliation.

Whiteley: If you can create a climate where people get access to their deepest feelings and are heard and understood.

Rogers: Right, right. And we really have some understanding of how that climate can be created.

Whiteley: Share with us your experience in South Africa. That's a second one that you have singled out.

Rogers: Yes, that's the most recent one of these. In dealing with a large - an enormous workshop group of six hundred people, my colleague and I, Ruth Sanford, told of things we might do with the group. And I suggested at the end that one of the things I would like to do, but probably was too risky to do, would be to hold a group of Blacks and Whites meeting together on stage.

Whiteley: The setting was an auditorium like - with six hundred people, was it a mixed race group?

Rogers: It was a mixed racial group. There were many more Whites than Blacks, but there was a good solid representation of Blacks because the man who organized it made it known to the Black groups who are very low in their economic status, that any Black who wanted to attend would be given a free ticket. So it was an unselected Black group - self-selected would be better - selfselected Black group and also self-selected white group. The audience was very enthusiastic about having such a group, but I knew that Blacks who volunteered might be risking their jobs. So we emphasized the fact that no one should volunteer unless they were really ready to. First, as two Blacks volunteered, then two more, then there were plenty of Whites, so it ended up being a group of four Blacks, seven Whites, and the two of us as facilitators. And again, the first attitudes were decidedly bitter. An older man told of his anger at the fact that when he did work equivalent to that of a White man he was paid just a fraction of what the White would receive. He also gave a very vivid account of how it felt to be invisible; he wanted to be visible, and he told about going into a butcher shop and a White person came in at the same time, the White person was waited on. Another White person was waited on, and another, and another. He was invisible until finally a White woman said, 'this man has been here a long time; I think he should be waited on.' And here he was an educated man, a professional person, and yet undergoing indignities of that kind.

On the part of the Whites, the primary emotion was fear, and they gradually expressed that quite fully. The fear of what would happen to them if the Blacks who, then stood 80% of the population, if the Blacks took control, what would happen to the White?. Another attitude of the Whites was this was the first time in their lives they had ever had a chance to talk to Blacks as equals. Always the Blacks were in subservient positions. One of the Blacks who said very little, said at one point, 'This is the first time in my life I've ever said anything to a White person except yes boss, yes boss.' In other words, he had never been anything but a subservient person, and here he was speaking as an equal.

Whiteley: How long into the process did it take for this to come out?

Rogers: The whole thing only lasted an hour and a half, and yet, by the end of that time they were speaking to each other individually, and with much more understanding. One of the Black women was very vocal in saying that she was glad the Whites were afraid because they had caused her so much trouble raising her children with the feeling they could be proud that they were Black. And to show some of the progress that was made, one of the Whites expressed attitudes that were quite unpopular with the audience. He said, 'The Blacks should be more patient; things are moving, but you've got to be patient.' Well, the audience was not in a mood to be patient, and they booed him. And toward the end, Daphne, the Black woman, turned to him and said 'I didn't like it when the audience booed you. I don't agree with a word you said, but you have a perfect right to say it, just as I have a perfect right to say what I feel. And I can work with you because I know where you stand.' It was that kind of better respect for each other as persons that developed very strongly.

And then the other thing that happened was that the time set came to an end. There's suppose to be a tea break, and in South Africa a tea break is sacrosanct, but nobody would break for tea. They just kept on talking and talking on stage, talking and talking in the audience. It was only the beginning of a dialogue, but it showed that a dialogue could begin and could move toward - could make progress toward better understanding. And since then we've had letters saying how much that experience meant to them.

Whiteley: Okay. A third experience that you've had that was influential on your thinking was with a health group opposed to both consumers and providers. What was the background leading to that being established?

Rogers: The National Health Conference decided one year - I don't know how they came to this decision - that they would invite health consumers into their annual conference, and they permitted the health consumers to be selected by local agencies. It turned out to be mostly people on welfare, Blacks, Chicanos, for the most part, and Whites, poor Whites, and they were brought into this fancy New York hotel for the annual conference. Fortunately, sometime before the conference began, the organizers began to realize this might be explosive, it might have difficulty, and so they called on The Center for Studies of the Person to know if we would be willing to help facilitate that conference. And we agreed to go for expenses only. And it was fortunate that they invited us or it would have blown up in their faces.

In the first session of the conference, the health consumer said they were not going to stay, this was a token business, they were disgusted with it, they were leaving. And also, they had heard that some West Coast group was going to make a lot of money out of managing this conference.

Whiteley: You were the West Coast group.

Rogers: We were the West Coast group. So we took the floor and told them that we had come at no profit to ourselves, simply because we wanted to make sure that everyone had a chance to be fully heard, and we hoped they would give us the chance to show that that was true. And so then, very dubiously, they stayed, and we broke up into groups of twenty or twenty-five, each one with a facilitator from our staff. And the attitudes there were just deadly. One Black marine said 'They taught me in the marines how to kill, and if I don't get my rights I can turn those skills to use in this country.' And the Whites, especially some of the physicians, were really frightened, and really not knowing what to do with all this anger and fury that was present, and feeling "It's not that way, we're an honorable group, we're doing our best," and so forth. The process was similar to what I've described - I won't go into great detail there - except that by creating facilitative climate, one example is that one Black woman just hated health insurance companies. She had had bad experiences with them. But there was a health insurance executive in her group, and she had to realize he wasn't a demon; he really was a person, and was trying to be understanding of her, so that greater closeness developed.

Then the health consumer groups, on their own initiative - they didn't know each other before they came there - but they began to formulate resolutions that they wanted passed, meeting in rump groups outside of the conference. And they were told that no, the National Health Conference did not pass resolutions. It didn't take stands. Well, when the last session of the conference came up, the organizers had a whole group of speakers who were going to summarize the conference. And one of the health consumers got up to move that the speakers be dismissed with thanks, and that the conference take up the resolutions that had been formulated. And there was hot debate on that motion, but it passed by quite a sizable majority. So the speakers were dismissed and we spent the whole last afternoon passing a bunch of resolutions. And the fascinating thing to me was the great majority of those were put into effect the following year by the National Health Conference. So it was again, a very constructive move toward reconciliation of differences and the positive realistic action that can come out of that.

I think that one of the by-products of the process I've been describing is that as people express their bitterness and their anger, the irrational aspects of that get sort of dissolved. And what's left is the realistic aspect of why they're angry or why they're bitter, and then they begin to take realistic steps toward resolution of the real problems, not the hyper-emotional aspects of it.

Whiteley: Okay. You've shared with us today three experiences, each in a different part of the world. And in the process of sharing those three very different kinds of experiences, you seem to be talking about a number of common denominators of the nature of conflict resolution, the nature of conflict, and the role of facilitators. Can we take those one at a time and ask you to share with us the learnings you'd like us to gather. Let's start with the nature of conflict. How do you see that beginning?

Rogers: Conflict is inevitable in life. It's when it gets solidified into a pattern of "I'm right and you're wrong," and especially when it gets to the moral judgment of "I'm good and you're bad," then it becomes a serious and basic antagonism that can result in conflict.

Whiteley: And it has inherent in it the capacity to escalate.

Rogers: That's right. It's very easy to escalate because I'm no longer dealing with persons, I'm dealing with you bad objects over there, and that in turn gets turned backward. It's a reciprocal escalation.

Whiteley: This is essentially a very simple mechanism for how conflict occurs, how it escalates.

Rogers: It's very simple, and last mission, very true. This is the way that conflict escalates.

Whiteley: Okay. What's the role of conflict resolution? How do you begin the process of de-escalating, resolving, intervening?

Rogers: First of all, and this is an aspect I haven't mentioned before, first of all, it's necessary that people be willing to sit down in the same room. That was true in the Belfast situation, you brought that out. It's true in the other situations. Sometimes progress can be made when they're not in the same room but I feel it's pretty much a necessary fact that they'd be willing to face each other. Then that gives the facilitator opportunity to understand each in the way that I've described. It gives the facilitator a second aspect of it, a second learning. The kind of conflicts we described as escalating may make conflict almost inevitable unless there is a facilitative person present, and unless the contending parties are willing for that facilitative person to be present. That, for example, was true at Camp David. It's what led to its success. I think when the facilitator shows understanding of a group, that helps the feuding group, the other hostile group to develop some understanding too.

To take an example from Camp David. Sadat and Begin at one point near the beginning of the conference were really at each other's throats verbally; there was just no agreeing, contradicting each other and so on. President Carter couldn't calm the storm so he simply took notes during that interchange, and when they were finished he said, "Now I think it would be useful to go over the issues on which there was strong difference of feeling and opinion." And he went over it in a cold fashion, outlining the objective points on which they differed. And that's a very facilitative thing to do because it helps each to understand a little bit, ‘Oh, I see. the other was saying such and such. I do differ.’ But the difference has become clarified and objective and real instead of dead ends of emotion and hatred and vituperation. So by that kind of a facilitative process embodied in the individual or individuals that groups can move toward greater understanding and greater accommodation to each other and often toward reconciliation.

Whiteley: Do you believe that the provision of the type of facilitation that is necessary is within the capability of our resources as a society?

Rogers: Very definitely. To mention one thing about the Belfast situation. We obviously, by dealing with that small group, didn't make a dent in the Belfast fighting and so on. But as one of the citizens of Belfast said afterward, "If there had been a group like that on every block in Belfast, that would have made a difference." And you might ask but where would the facilitators come from? It wouldn't be difficult at all to immediately have hundreds of facilitators ready who are experienced in this kind of thing. It wouldn't take more than a few months to train others to be facilitators. So that we're not talking about an impossible pie in the sky proposal. If the public will is ready for this kind of technological attitudinal social advance, it would not be too difficult to implement it.

Whiteley: We've demonstrated our national will at providing for the common defense. We've demonstrated the capacity that we have to focus our energies on the technological investment of the marshaling of the best and the brightest in our society to think their way through the necessary problems involved in weapons systems and their deployment. Why hasn't our society done as good a job in thinking through the application of these insights from the broader social and behavioral sciences and putting them to work with the same singlemindedness of purpose?

Rogers: I think it's simply a lack of readiness in our culture. There was a time when science was very young, and technology very young, when it was scoffed at. You couldn't possibly make an engine that would lift a plane off the ground, for example. I feel society then became ready to adapt scientific technology, industrial technology and the like. We're not sufficiently educated, we're somehow not sufficiently ready to adopt social technology, and I'm not sure that I reason for that is that we have become so invested in material technology, that we can't believe that anything that has to do with attitudes could be of any importance. Only gradually and slowly are we recognizing that perhaps advances in material technology may have pretty well run their course. That unless we can make equal advances on the social front, it will simply lead to our own destruction.

Whiteley: Dr. Rogers, thank you for sharing with us today your insights from three experiences that were impactful on you, and which in your view, contain many learnings to avoid conflict in the future.