Empathy: Rogers & Goleman and satisfying interpersonal relationships
Carl Rogers (1902-1987) remains an influential psychotherapist. Rogers, the founder of the client-centered approach, with its foundations in humanistic psychology is mostly known for the concepts of unconditional positive regard and empathy.
Rogers was the first who was not afraid of doing research to find out what helps people change. He believed in research and stated that “the facts are friendly” (Rogers: On Becoming a Person: 1961, p. 25). Through research and experience he understood that “humans require acceptance, and given acceptance, they move toward self-actualization” (Kramer in Rogers. 1961, p. xii).
Acceptance and the notion of unconditional positive regard are essential for humans to develop traits of reciprocity and altruism, which are directly related to a sense of self-worth and the development of a healthy self-esteem. These traits are the opposites of ego-centrism, competition and jealousy.
Rogers did not believe in the concept of “original sin”, he believed that people are inherently resourceful and capable of self-direction and that the direction is in general positive. Based on his experience as a therapist, he found that when people feel understood and accepted, they drop the “false fronts” and tend to find a direction forward.
Rogers was not naïve and well aware of the cruelty and anti-social behaviour of people, and in no way did he condone these, but he was capable and unique in the sense that he saw the person underneath the mask and due to his non-directive, non-authoritarian and non-punitive approach, he gave the freedom to people to explore who they are when they experience acceptance. This process helps people to find a path forward to whom they want to become.
The finding that the most important component of a positive outcome in therapy is the quality of the therapeutic relationship is not new. Rogers already stated this long before research confirmed these findings (for research on outcomes in therapy see The Heart and Soul of Change: Delivering what works in therapy by Duncan, Scott, Wampold, & Hubble, 2010).
One cannot be reading Rogers and not see the connection to the concepts explored by Goleman decades later. In his bestseller “Emotional Intelligence” (1996), Goleman states that the roots of having a successful life are founded in the capacity to develop healthy relationships and these cannot develop in the absence of self-awareness, self-control, empathy, positivism and motivation.
Those essentials when missing can develop with guidance and support from a therapist who wants to understand and who allows clients to explore who they are when “conditions on love” (rules) are stripped away. Many who struggle unfortunately, have not received these conditions in childhood.
What scares people is reading about cruelty that is unimaginable to most. According to Goleman (1996), only those who totally lack empathy and fear are capable of these atrocities. “…Although genetic heritage to a large extent influences temperament, temperament is not destiny…” (Goleman, 1996, p. xiii). Those capable of feeling the pain of others, which are most of us, will, when motivated, regardless of what inheritance and upbringing has been given (or not given to them) be able to develop healthy satisfying interpersonal relationships.
Duncan, B., Miller, S.D., Wampold, B.E., & Hubble, M.A. (eds.). (2010). The heart and soul of change. Second edition. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional intelligence. Why it matters more than IQ. London: Bloomsburry Publishing Plc.
Rogers, C. (1961). On becoming a person. A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. New York; Houghton Mifflin Company
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