The laws of encounter
People struggle when they are isolated, or have feelings of alienation or mistrust.
We need to belong, to be in contact with other people:
A human enters into being
in an encounter with another human being,
and in no other way.
But specifically, under what conditions is it likely that it will be helpful to a person to have the attention of a listener?
In a famous paper, Carl Rogers tried to answer this question. The following four laws of encounter go on in the person-centred tradition which he and his colleagues began.
There are important nuances here, especially about what we can and can't genuinely commit ourselves to offering to another person.
The four laws are:
- the law of humanity
- the law of solidarity
- the law of assertiveness
- the law of understanding (invitational sensitivity).
The law of humanity
When I talk about "humanity", I mean something about being fully human, being a complete person, open to life and experience.
In the widest sense, if I embody the quality of humanity, it means this:
Inasmuch as I am myself human,
I hold nothing, which is human, as being alien to me.
—from the Latin playright, Terence
But in particular, the idea of humanity with which we are concerned is about being real, being sincere – being role-free, not pretending to be anything I am not, or hiding behind any kind of status or position.
There are two sides to this being real:
- I am always translucent – I fully intend that I will always be open to my own feelings and experience, always sincere with myself; and that unspoken openness is radiated to the other person without content – rather as light may be diffused, without clear images being seen.
- I am sometimes transparent – I judge for myself whether it fits here and now for me to say something about my feelings and experience – so that you do see the images as well as the radiance of light.
Above all, I am a human being, and that is enough. The greatest gift I can give to another person is my humanity, my willingness to be simply human, open and vulnerable.
The first law of encounter reads –
THE PERSON YOU ARE IS GOOD ENOUGH
The law of solidarity
Solidarity means equality. We are just two equal people, side by side.
Solidarity is not passive or receptive. It is an active, vigorous being-with, loyal and dependable. It has these two sides:
- There is the side that can be willed, intentionally. I am committed to your cause. I am neutral, willing to stay with you wherever the path of your life may lead. I am determined to treat you with respect. All of this, I am free to choose.
- There is the side which cannot be willed, but can only bloom spontaneously. I like you. I accept you. I feel tenderness for you. These warm feelings come when they come. I will not fake them, and if I could, a counterfeit would be a betrayal.
Solidarity is wonderful, both sides of it. It is wonderful, that I can make a solid commitment (even to a person I may not like), and know that my commitment is secure – invulnerable to the winds of feeling.
It is equally wonderful, that deep feelings of liking and even love so often do break through:
So that I have learned not to worry about love;
but to honour its coming with all my heart.
A final thought. Solidarity is rooted in taboo, in an understanding about what we will and will not do with one another. This understanding may not need to be articulated or spoken out loud. But it forms something like a cradle, a little world of perfect safety, in which solidarity can be tangible.
When solidarity is warm, safe and affectionate, it is resting on a shared ground of belonging.
The second law of encounter reads –
PUT YOURSELF ON THE SIDE OF THE OTHER PERSON.
The law of assertiveness
There is something in us, a deep inner necessity, which obliges us to assert ourselves, to be stubborn or thrawn, to proclaim our independence and the autonomy of our will and judgment.
I could say a lot about assertiveness in general. Here I am writing about the necessity for assertiveness in you as a listener – about the law of assertiveness as one of the four laws of encounter.
Without that assertive streak in us, what use would there be to anybody in our having a merely passive sense of humanity or solidarity?
If the listener is passive and defeated, this is certain to communicate itself to the other person. Instead of close listening giving the person heart, they will tend to become fearful, untrusting, confused, hesitant and anxious.
Don't get mixed up about the listener's assertiveness. You are not going to start interfering in the person's life, advising, fixing, making your own interpretations, or anything like that. Very often, your assertiveness is expressed precisely in your stubborn refusal to do those things, your determination not to take destructive short cuts.
(Nobody was more stubborn than Carl Rogers!)
But mostly, your assertiveness comes over as warmth and friendliness, interest and hopefulness, in a positive attitude to life, and in the way you take care of your own needs.
Assertiveness in the listener releases, uncovers and straightens out the channel for natural assertiveness in the other person. It inspires courage, and frees the person to act, to take on the world.
When we listen to a person, they may well experience the renewal of a natural urge to assertive and independent action, a lively sense of themselves as agents in the world.
The person discovers the "I" – not some part-self, but "I".
This is crucial – for without that "I", integrity is in ruins.
The third law of encounter reads –
AGENCY IN THE PERSON IS RELEASED BY ASSERTIVENESS IN THE LISTENER.
The law of understanding (invitational sensitivity)
The secret of human relationships is understanding and acceptance.
Everybody says, "I'm listening". Few are. When did anybody really listen to you ? When did you last feel deeply understood?
When you really listen, you come with beginner's mind. You start freshly, here and now, letting past and future fall aside, letting your own anger, fear and sadness wait for a little while, letting yourself be receptive, letting the listening mind be an empty space.
We are not afraid of what comes.
We know that there are no enemies in the inner world.
The spirit is one of inclusion, not exclusion.
The attitude is one of welcome.
—Ann Weiser Cornell
In the space of your emptiness, you are open to the fullness of the other person's life-world. You look directly into the person behind the eyes.
You are sensitive to words and feelings, to images and observations, hunches and intuitions, action-impulses and sensory evocations. You make yourself easy to talk to.
I call this "invitational sensitivity".
You are hoping to understand:
People often hate each other because they fear each other;
fear each other because they don't know each other;
don't know each other because they don't know how to listen; and
can't listen because they are already full of pre-conceptions.
—Martin Luther King (adapted)
This process of understanding is intensely active. You need to check with the other person over and over. Please don't assume you heard it yet. What you are hearing – is that what was meant?
Are you receiving the colour and texture and flavour of it all? You know you heard it, when the person says more, or sighs and says, "Yes. That's it. Exactly".
You are hoping to enter the other person's world:
...as if you were that person,
but without ever losing the as-if.
The challenge of radical acceptance is to be with whatever is really there.
Be deeply real. You are not pretending to feel anything you don't feel. You are open to what you do feel. But whilst you are trying to understand, you don't say any of your stuff, unless it may help the person to feel heard.
You are open to your own hunches and intuitions, your own sense of where the person is at. Sometimes you do say what comes to you. When you go wrong, as a listener often will, it is easy to back out of the person's way.
Your active understanding need not be invasive. It does not have to come over as cloying or touchy-feely. Nor need it always be serious in tone. Sometimes a listener is playful and subversive, and the encounter full of laughter.
You are simply meeting the other person where they are standing, from where you are standing. Everybody loves to be listened to in that way.
The fourth law of encounter reads simply –
LISTENING COMES FIRST
Next: Simplified listening