In the last post, we looked at Carl Rogers contention that it is relationships, far more than specific events, that lead to transformation in individuals. In this post, we’re going to take a closer look at the kind of relationships that do it most effectively.
This is part 3 of a series on the theme of Metamorphoses, looking at what causes change and transformation through the lens of pioneering humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. Why would Caveat do that? It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Read all entries in this series here.
Larry’s Magic Words
Larry Harvey changed my life, in part, by telling me that I had changed his. Among other things, he told me, very early in the first encounters out of which our friendship emerged, and then our collaborations, that my writing had influenced his own thinking on Decommodification.
I was shocked. I was flattered. But what I didn’t realize at the time was the degree to which that admission set up the relationship that followed. And I don’t mean “that it was true” — I am sometimes skeptical myself that I influenced his thinking very much. I mean “that Larry went out of his way to say it to me.” We had the relationship we had in no small part because Larry would say things like that, and behave as though they were true.
Because Larry followed up that statement with actions, what kind of messages did this send to me about the kind of friendship and collaboration we could have?
It said, among other things:
- That he was paying attention to what I thought, and that what I thought was important to him.
- That when I thought something different than he did, he didn’t find that threatening. He was interested.
- That he was open to change as a result of what I thought.
- That these changes would involve things that were meaningful to him, not just trivial.
- That he was not setting himself up as a leader, or even a senior partner to me in our shared endeavors — though he so obviously was. But rather, that we were engaged in our common interests together, as equals.
Larry always behaved, at least with me, as though those things were true. And the result was that this relationship in turn brought out my own capacity to pay attention; to make what he thought important to me; to be interested in the ways he challenged me, rather than interpret them as threats; and to be open to change as a result of our interactions, even … especially … though he never once asked me to change.
It’s an incomplete, but still great, example of the kind of relationship that Carl Rogers says helps us change. Rogers frequently referred to this as a relationship of “unconditional positive regard.” It’s a phrase that would have made Larry’s eyes roll, conjuring visions of unearned trophies meant to boost self-esteem at the expense of clear observation. But “unconditional positive regard”, as Rogers actually uses it, is in fact a very conditional thing — conditional not for the person receiving it, but for the person giving it. And in that context, it’s something that Larry was not only capable of, but could create environments that helped facilitate it.
People Who Change, Change People
Perhaps the most important aspect of the transformational relationship that Rogers discusses is the point we made last week: that it is dynamic, rather than static. “Real relationships tend to change,” Rogers wrote, and the point is precisely that a static relationship encourages stasis, while a dynamic relationship not only allows but encourages, even requires, change. Larry’s opening salvo in his bid to establish a relationship with me was to say: “I have changed as a result of you.” Over time, that had an enormous impact.
“If I accept the other person as something fixed, already diagnosed and classified, already shaped by his past, then I am doing my part to confirm this limited hypothesis,” Rogers wrote. “If I accept him as a process of becoming, then I am doing what I can to confirm or make real his potentialities.”
But what would the impact have been if, over time, I hadn’t believed Larry? If I had decided that Larry was lying because he wanted something from me? That would, over time, have had a very different impact — created a very different kind of relationship.
Bullshit is the Enemy of Transformation
Which is why, for all that Rogers talks at great length about “unconditional positive regard” and creating a climate of emotional safety in which one feels “liked and prized as a person,” the very first thing that a transformational relationship needs to be based on is honesty. The truth. No bullshit. Keep it real.
“It is only in this way that the relationship can have reality, and reality seems deeply important as a first condition,” Rogers wrote. Even if your reactions are negative — if they are disgust, hostility, disapproval — you need to be transparent about it. It is possible to fool people, to get them to think that you are feeling something other than you are, in a particular encounter. But over the course of a relationship? Someone’s going to suspect, if not outright know, that you’re repeatedly lying to them. And once that happens, a level of trust — not in your judgment necessarily, but in your honesty, in the nature of the relationship itself — is impossible to maintain.
“Thus the relationship which I have found helpful is characterized by a sort of transparency on my part, in which my real feelings are evident,” Rogers wrote. He would frequently refer to this as “congruence” — which he defined as the ability to know and express what you’re actually feeling. Someone who understands their own motivations, who is clear on how they are feeling in any given moment and why, and expresses that clearly, is “congruent”; and people who exhibit congruence are trustworthy partners in which to undertake the kind of relationship that can create profound and lasting change. If nothing else, you know that a congruent person isn’t bullshitting you. Is, in fact, fully present with you, from moment to moment.
The links to Immediacy and Radical Self-Expression should be obvious, but let’s put that aside for now and come back to the 10 Principles much later.
So, okay, thus far what we’ve figured out is that a potentially transformative relationship is dynamic — it doesn’t lock either party in roles or assumed behaviors. It accepts that they are in a process of change and becoming. And it is transparent — it is aware of what it is feeling, and why, and wears those feelings and thoughts on its sleeve. You always know where you stand, and why.
Relationships that are not Honest Cannot be Safe
But of course, that’s not enough. These things are the preconditions to transformative relationships, but they do not themselves produce them.
But it is essential to emphasize how important these things are as a bedrock, because fairly often (at least in my experience and observation) people who try to create atmospheres of “emotional safety” and “unconditional positive regard” fail, and fail badly, because they are bullshitting.
They are not actually open to you as a dynamic, changing self — they are trying to lock you into a set of behaviors and attitudes that are the only ones they will accept. Nor do they take seriously the idea that they might change because of you: they envision dynamicism as a one-way street. You are expected to change, they are not.
And they are not transparent: on the contrary, they are so committed to a kind of emotional double-speak that they simply can’t admit what they actually think about you. Nor do they really want to know what you think of them. They are trying to create atmospheres of emotional safety where no one is allowed to go off script.
Under these conditions, a transformative relationship — or even a really good one — is simply not possible. Trying to convince someone they’re in an emotional safe space and have unconditional positive regard is impossible over time if you are also trying to lock them into a role or bullshit them.
But if you have actual dynamicism and transparency, then you have the conditions under which a transformative relationship can occur. We’ll examine what else is needed in the next post.
Top photo by Tom Stahl