Metamorphoses, Part 4 — “Transformational” or Dehumanizing?

This is part 4 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.


In the last post, we looked at two of the preconditions that a “transformational relationship” requires of the person offering it. First, they need to allow for change, both in the person they’re trying to help and in themselves, understanding that dynamic relationships lead to dynamic people, while static relationships create conditions under which people enter stasis.

If you want to create a relationship that will help someone transform, you need to be open to their ability to change in whatever directions seem meaningful to them, while you yourself are equally open to change in ways you will not see coming.

Second, people offering these relationships also need to be transparent (or “congruent”).  You need to be aware of what you’re really feeling, and how it affects you, and be open and honest about that at all times.  You can’t try to bullshit people into thinking you’re feeling something that you’re not, or try to hide what’s really going on with you. Not from them, and not from yourself.

Excuse Me For a Moment While I Get Angry At HR Consultants and Life Coaches

These are the preconditions for a transformative relationship. But more is needed, which is where we start to get into concepts like “unconditional positive regard,” which make cynical fucks like me and Larry roll our eyes and say nasty things to perfectly nice consultants who have come in to give a talk about how people should communicate with one another … but who are in fact full of bullshit because the minute someone gets a little sarcastic they freak and accuse us of “negativity.”  You’re goddamn right we’re negative, you sanctimonious hack.

Larry didn’t usually go to these meetings. It was for the best. But when he did?  Oh, man, you wanted to be in the back with him and me, taking the piss out of everyone.

But where was I … oh yeah … “unconditional fucking positive regard.”  Hey, would you like a ribbon?  Sure, here, have a ribbon. You’re so special. It says so on the ribbon. And I wouldn’t lie to you — I’m giving you a ribbon.

Wow, I have some real hostility here, don’t I.

(To be clear, that was me talking. Not Larry. Larry would have focused on designing the insulting ribbon, figuring out what the symbolism on it is. His ribbon would have come in way over budget.)

But … but … but … this is also kind of the point. People who try to be a change agent for someone, but can’t handle sarcasm or (god forbid) negativity … are they really trying? It really doesn’t matter how honest and dynamic and transparent someone is willing to be with me, if I don’t get to be honest and transparent about my feelings with them — let alone if a precondition for the relationship is that I must never express things that my so-called good influence won’t approve of.

At that point they’re trying to make us what they need us to be, rather than seeing us for who we really are, which is dehumanizing. And I think it’s fair to say that dehumanization does not lead to any kind of “transformation” that we’re actually interested in encouraging.

Indeed, the problem with the consultants coming in hell-bent on teaching … I dunno … non-violent communication, or mindfulness, or whatever else the consultants are big on these days … is not the material itself, some of which can be pretty good.  I mean, hell, I’m here telling you about “unconditional positive regard.” The problem is that there is a presumption that if material like that makes you roll your eyes or tell a joke or feel hostile, that your honest response is out of bounds. Your hostility, your joke, your eye roll, is not a legitimate reaction.

And you cannot offer a transformative relationship to someone if you are also declaring a part of their honest experience out of bounds.

You need to encourage them to be congruent too — to feel what they feel within, and then express it without.  Even if you find it offensive, reprehensible, or obnoxious.

Carl Rogers called this encouragement “receptivity.” And here’s how he described it (using the example of therapist and client, while being elsewhere explicit that this does not apply only to therapy):

“By this I mean that whatever his feelings — fear, despair, insecurity, anger, whatever his mode of expression — silence, gestures, tears, or words; whatever he finds himself being in this moment, he senses that he is psychologically received, just as he is, by the therapist. There is implied in this term the concept of being understood, empathically, and the concept of acceptance. It is also well to point out that it is the client’s experience of this condition which makes it optimal, not merely the fact of its existence in the therapist.”

Or as Rogers also put it:

“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?  Can I enter it so sensitively that I can move about in it freely, without trampling on meanings which are precious to him? Can I sense it so accurately that I can catch not only the meanings of his experience which are obvious to him, but those meanings which are only implicit, which he sees only dimly or as confusion? Can I extend this understanding without limit?”

If you can, says Rogers, “then I am assisting him to become a person: and there seems to me great value in that.” Not, mind you, to decide which direction they are going in, or to convince them of anything — only to open them to transformation, which you can assist in but not determine.

And indeed, the effort to fix something you think is wrong may actually be detrimental to the experience of transformation. “The more I am open to the realities in me and the other person,” he notes. “The less do I find myself wishing to rush in to ‘fix things.’”

Transformation Requires Courting Contradiction

The heart of a transformative relationship is the simultaneous existence of these often contradictory elements: that you are simultaneously congruent AND receptive; that you are at once clearly able to articulate what you think and feel while also holding on to your regard — yes, your unconditional positive regard — for the other person no matter what they think and feel.  And that you are as open to change in yourself, through them, as they can be through you.

Most transformational gurus and HR consultants aren’t doing anything like that — they’re telling you how they want you to behave, upon pain of social or company sanction. It’s a crucial difference.

Larry could be won over by a consultant peddling some obnoxious theory of how we should all be nice to each other. It was easy, actually:  you just had to be able to meet his skepticism on its own terms, rather than to try and talk him out of it. You had to be confident enough in what you were saying that you didn’t have to demand that people respond to it in a way you are comfortable with. You had to let people start with who and where they really are, rather than who you want them to be.

Larry cared deeply about the intellectual rigor and integrity of a presentation. He cared deeply. But he cared even more about the qualities that such presentations brought out in the people listening: an invitation to be honest and open that wasn’t really encouraging honesty or openness was an immediate target for him, however compelling the ideas were. Whereas a mediocre presentation by someone who was sincerely and honestly grappling with the ideas, right in front of us, and open to our input, that was okay. It was an invitation that he could answer in kind.

He figured out how to create such experiences for others in his own life. When he wanted to. And if Larry could do it, anybody can.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Or the only way you can approach people. We’re not talking about marching orders here: if you don’t want to accept somebody or something, if you don’t want to offer receptivity, you absolutely don’t have to. I mean, of course not. Obviously.

But if you want to have a transformative effect — if there’s a certain kind of change that you want to be a catalyst for — then this may be the most effective way to do it. And maybe there are certain kinds of change that almost never happen without it.

In the next posts, we’ll look more at the conditions under which these relationships happen, and what a “transformation” involves.

Top photo: LOVE by Alexandr Milov (photo by Lung Liu)

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

6 Comments on “Metamorphoses, Part 4 — “Transformational” or Dehumanizing?

  • Whore is me says:

    This story is incredibly inspiring. I first went to Burning Man in 2004 and I met Larry Harvey at First Camp. I didn’t even understand how the City was laid out, and I also met Crimson Rose. They both took me under their wing It was an amazing experience…

    Then on Tuesday before the Burn, Larry turned me into a newt. It didn’t last very long, but someone brought a dog and I had to hide. On Monday, I didn’t really know what happened but everyone told me I had a great time and I was offered a 6 figure salary for full-time work. I lived in Noe Valley at the time and that much money wasn’t enough so I continued to work for Google. I’m a whore.

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  • Jujulooloo says:

    3 years ago at Burning Man, I was with a camp of 50 people. It was amazing. I accidentally drank an unmarked bottle of water that was the camp’s liquid acid for the week. I got transformed into a caterpillar. It was amazing! I had big wheels and I was all yellow and I crushed everything. I woke up the next day with fecal matter in my mouth and I was missing 2 toes. My awesome campmates nursed me back to health by pouring a guy named Jack into my mouth. Then I evaporated into the sunset in a state of ecstasy. Does anyone know where I am? I’m living in the sky and I land on trees.

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  • The Hustler says:

    Communication is a peculiar thing to study — I mean from the philosophical and psychological end of things.
    I believe a key component is finding common ground with your interlocutors, not insisting they use your system of coding but approach through their point of view as much as possible.
    In my travels (including a recent bicycle trip) and in Black Rock City, I put effort into finding common ground and listening to what people are trying to say. I have to admit it’s difficult to take all of the WiFi requests seriously (oh, especially if it’s an “emergency” but the requestor can’t leave Black Rock City).
    One of my favorite things about Black Rock City is the multitude of points of view through which burners experience their world.
    Never mind the art/not art argument, I’m more interested in the send-and-receive (sort of) dialog of — instead of a pontification style of one-way communication like a motivational speaker — of helping someone change their mind. Especially if I learn something in the process.
    Side note/tangent: Failure is a gift. Being wrong and willing to learn something new is the highest point of being.

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  • GroundScore says:

    I love you man, but you have swum into old white dude territory.

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