Dealing With Breakdowns in Communication -
excerpted from "On Becoming a Person" by Carl Rogers
It may seem curious that a person whose whole professional effort is devoted to psychotherapy should be interested in problems of communication. What relationship is there between providing therapeutic help to individuals with emotional maladjustments and the concern of this conference with obstacles to communication?
Actually the relationship is very close indeed. The whole task of psychotherapy is the task of dealing with a failure in communication. The emotionally maladjusted person, the "neurotic," is in difficulty first, because communication within himself has broken down, and second because, as a result of this, his communication with others has been damaged. If this sounds somewhat strange to you, then let me put it in other terms. In the "neurotic" individual, parts of himself which have been termed unconscious, or repressed, or denied to awareness, become blocked off so that they no longer communicate themselves to the conscious or managing part of himself. As long as this is true, there are distortions in the way he communicates himself to others, and so he suffers both within himself, and in his interpersonal relations. The task of psychotherapy is to help the person achieve, through a special relationship with a therapist, good communication within himself. Once this is achieved he can communicate more freely and more effectively with others. We may say then that psychotherapy is good communication, within and between men. We may also turn that statement around and it will still be true. Good communication, free communication, within or between men, is always therapeutic.
It is, then, from a background of experience with communication in counseling
and psychotherapy, that I want to present to you tonight two ideas. I wish
to state what I believe is one of the major factors in blocking or impeding
communication, and then I wish to present what in our experience has proven
to be a very important way of improving or facilitating communication.
I would like to propose, as an hypothesis for consideration, that the major barrier to mutual interpersonal communication is our very natural tendency to judge, to evaluate, to approve or disapprove, the statement of the other person, or the other group.
Let me illustrate my meaning with some very simple
examples. As you leave the meeting tonight, one of the statements you are
likely to hear is, "I didn't like that man's talk." Now how do you respond
to that? Almost invariably your reply will be either approval or disapproval
of the attitude expressed. Either you respond, "I didn't either. I thought
it was terrible;" or else you tend to reply, "Oh, I thought it was really
good." In other words, regardless of which side you took, your primary
reaction is to evaluate what has just been said to you, to evaluate it
from your point of view, your own frame of reference.
Or take another example. Suppose I say with some feeling, "I think the Republicans are behaving in ways that show a lot of good sound sense these days," what is the response that arises in your mind as you listen? The overwhelming likelihood is that it will be evaluative. You will find yourself agreeing, or disagreeing, or making some judgment about me such as "He must be a conservative," or "He seems solid in his thinking."
Or let us take an illustration from the international scene. Russia says vehemently, "The treaty with Japan is a war plot on the part of the United States." As a reaction, we rise as one person to say "That's a lie!"
This last illustration brings in another element connected with my hypothesis. Although the tendency to make evaluations is common in almost all interchange of language, it is very much heightened in those situations where feelings and emotions are deeply involved. So the stronger our feelings, the more likely it is that there will be no mutual element in the communication. There will be just two ideas, two feelings, two judgments, missing each other in psychological space.
I'm sure you recognize this from your own experience. When you have
not been emotionally involved yourself, and have listened to a heated discussion,
you often go away thinking, "Well, they actually weren't talking about
the same thing." And they were not. Each was making a judgment, an evaluation,
from his own frame of reference. There was really nothing which could be
called communication in any genuine sense.
This tendency to react to any emotionally meaningful statement by forming an evaluation of it from our own point of view, is, I repeat, the major barrier to interpersonal communication.
But is there any way of solving this problem, of avoiding this barrier? I feel that we are making exciting progress toward this goal and I wouId like to present it as simply as I can. Real communication occurs, and this evaluative tendency is avoided, when we listen with understanding.
What does this mean? It means to see the expressed idea and attitude from the other person's point of view, to sense how it feels to him, to achieve his frame of reference in regard to the thing he is talking about.
Stated so briefly, this may sound absurdly simple,
but it is not. It is an approach which we have found extremely potent in
the field of psychotherapy. It is the most effective agent we know for
altering the basic personality structure of an individual, and improving
his relationships and his communications with others. If I can listen to
what he can tell me, if I can understand how it seems to him; if I can
see its personal meaning for him, if I can sense the emotional flavor which
it has for him, then I will be releasing potent forces of change in him.
If I can really understand how he hates his father, or hates the university,
or hates communists - if I can catch the flavor of his fear of insanity,
or his fear of atom bombs, or of Russia, it will be of the greatest help
to him in altering those very hatreds and fears, and in establishing realistic
and harmonious relationships with the very people and situations toward
which he has felt hatred and fear. We know from our research that such
empathic understanding - understanding with a person, not about him - is
such an effective approach that it can bring about major changes in personality.
Some of you may be feeling that you listen well to people, and that
you have never seen such results. The chances are very great indeed that
your listening has not been of the type I have described. Fortunately I
can suggest a little laboratory experiment which you can try to test the
quality of your understanding. The next time you get into an argument with
your wife, or your friend, or with a small group of friends, just stop
the discussion for a moment and for an experiment, institute this rule.
"Each person can speak up for himself only after he has first restated
the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately, and to that
You see what this would mean. It would simply mean that before presenting your own point of view, it would be necessary for you to really achieve the other speaker's frame of reference - to understand his thoughts and feelings so well that you could summarize them for him. Sounds simple, doesn't it? But if you try it you will discover it is one of the most difficult things you have ever tried to do.
However, once you have been able to see the other's point of view, your own comments will have to be drastically revised. You will also find the emotion going out of the discussion, the differences being reduced, and those differences which remain being of a rational and understandable sort.
Can you imagine what this kind of an approach would mean if it were projected into larger areas? What would happen to a labor-management dispute if it was conducted in such a way that labor, without necessarily agreeing, could accurately state management's point of view in a way that management could accept; and management, without approving labor's stand, could state labor's case in a way that labor agreed was accurate? It would mean that real communication was established, and one could practically guarantee that some reasonable solution would be reached.
If then this way of approach is an effective avenue to good communication and good relationships, as I am quite sure you will agree if you try the experiment I have mentioned, why is it not more widely tried and used?
I will try to list the diffculties which keep it from being utilized.
In the first place it takes courage, a quality which is not too wide-spread. I am indebted to Dr. S. I. Hayakawa, the semanticist, for pointing out that to listen in this fashion is to take a very real risk, and that courage is required. If you really understand another person in this way, if you are willing to enter his private world and see the way life appears to him, without any attempt to make evaluative judgments, you run the risk of being changed yourself. You might see it his way, you might find yourself influenced in your attitudes or your personality.
This risk of being changed is one of the most frightening prospects
most of us can face. If I enter, as fully as I am able, into the private
world of a neurotic or psychotic individual, isn't there a risk that I
might become lost in that world? Most of us are afraid to take that risk.
Or if we had a Russian communist speaker here tonight, or Senator Joseph
McCarthy, how many of us would dare to try to see the world from each of
these points of view? The great majority of us could not listen; we would
find ourselves compelled to evaluate, because listening would seem too
dangerous. So the first requirement is courage, and we do not always have
But there is a second obstacle. It is just when emotions are strongest that it is most difficult to achieve the frame of reference of the other person or group. Yet this is the time the attitude is most needed, if communication is to be established. A third party, who is able to lay aside his own feelings and evaluations, can assist greatly by listening with understanding to each person or group and clarifying the views and attitudes each holds. We have found this very effective in small groups in which contradictory or antagonistic attitudes exist.
When the parties to a dispute realize that they are being understood, that someone sees how the situation seems to them, the statements grow less exaggerared and Iess defensive, and it is no longer necessary to maintain the attitude, "I am 100 per cent right and you are 100 per cent wrong." The influence of such an understanding catalyst in the group permits the members to come closer and closer to the objective truth involved in the relationship. In this way mutual communication is established and some type of agreement becomes much more possible. So we may say that though heightened emotions make it much more difficult to understand with an opponent, our experience makes it clear that a neutral, understanding, catalyst type of leader or therapist can overcome this obstacle in a small group.
This last phrase, however, suggests another obstacle to utilizing the approach I have described. Thus far all our experience has been with small face-to-face groups - groups exhibiting industrial tensions, religious tensions, racial tensions, and therapy groups in which many personal tensions are present. In these small groups our experience, confirmed by a limited amount of research, shows that a listening, empathic approach leads to improved communication, to greater acceptance of others and by others, and to attitudes which are more positive and more problem-solving in nature. There is a decrease in defensiveness, in exaggerated statements, in evaluative and critical behavior. But these findings are from small groups. What about trying to achieve understanding between larger groups that are geographically remote? Or between face-to-face groups who are not speaking for themselves, but simply as representatives of others, like the delegates at the United Nations? Frankly we do not know the answers to these questions.
In closing, I would like to summarize this small-scale solution to the problem of barriers in communication, and to point out certain of it's characteristics.
I have said that our research and experience to date would make it appear that breakdowns in communication, and the evaluative tendency which is the major barrier to communication, can be avoided. The solution is provided by creating a situation in which each of the different parties comes to understand the other from the other's point of view. This has been achieved, in practice, even when feelings run high, by the influence of a person who is willing to understand each point of view empathically, and who thus acts as a catalyst to precipitate further understanding.
This procedure has important characteristics. It can be initiated by
one party, without waiting for the other to be ready. It can even be initiated
by a neutral third person, providing he can gain a minimum of cooperation
from one of the parties.
This procedure can deal with the insincerities, the defensive exaggerations, the lies, the "false fronts" which characterize almost every failure in communication. These defensive distortions drop away with astonishing speed as people find that the only intent is to understand, not judge.
This approach leads steadily and rapidly toward the discovery of the
truth, toward a realistic appraisal of the objective barriers to communication.
The dropping of some defensiveness by one party leads to further dropping
of defensiveness by the other party, and truth is thus approached.
This procedure gradually achieves mutual communication. Mutual communication tends to be pointed toward solving a problem rather than toward attacking a person or group. It leads to a situation in which I see how the problem appears to you, as well as to me, and you see how it appears to me, as well as to you. Thus accurately and realistically defined, the problem is almost certain to yield to intelligent attack, or if it is in part insoluble, it will be comfortably accepted as such.
This then appears to be a test-tube solution to the breakdown of communication
as it occurs in small groups. Can we take this small scale answer, investigate
it further, refine it, develop it and apply it to the tragic and well-nigh
fatal failures of communication which threaten the very existence of our
modern world? It seems to me that this is a possibility and a challenge
which we should explore.