Reflections on Magic


I have a former graduate student (you know who you are) who always talks about using magic. If she wants something to work out a certain way, she simply “casts a spell” to make things right. Of course, like most of us, she expertly avoids paying attention to evidence refuting her magical abilities, while studiously attending to moments when it appears her spells have somehow affected reality.

This was all in good fun. We were driving many miles back and forth to an internship site at Trapper Creek and in some ways her spells were designed to counter my tendency to construct a firm deterministic viewpoint. Although I agree there are many mysteries in life and that there’s likely room for magic, I get quickly impatient with too many attributions about magic, miracles, past lives, and sinister ghosts in the halls of the female dorm at Trapper Creek Job Corps.

Despite my general avoidance of magical thinking, I find myself very intrigued with this old quotation of Freud’s that Steven de Shazer turned into a book title:

“Words were originally magic and to this day words have retained much of their ancient magical power. By words one person can make another blissfully happy or drive him [or her] to despair . . . . Words provoke affects and are in general the means of mutual influence among men [or women].”

I do think words have powerful influence . . . but it’s equally true that what we don’t say—the nonverbal, and listening in particular—can be just as magical. All this is a way of introducing the following excerpt soon be published in the 2nd edition of our Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice textbook as food for thought this Monday morning. Here it is:

The Magic of Person-Centered Listening

Person-centered listening isn’t in vogue in the United States. It might be that most of us are too busy tweeting and expressing ourselves to dedicate time and space to person-centered listening. The unpopularity of person-centered approaches also might be related to the prominent “quick fix” attitude toward mental health problems. And so, call us old-fashioned, but we think that if you haven’t learned to do person-centered listening, you’re missing something big.

Years ago, when John was deep into the “Carl Rogers” stage of his development, he decided to create a person-centered video recording to demonstrate the approach. He recruited a volunteer from an introductory psychology course, obtained informed consent, set up a time and a place, welcomed a young woman into the room, and started listening.

Lucky for John, the woman was a talker. It’s much harder to get the magic to happen with nonverbal introductory psychology students.

It wasn’t long into the session when John attempted a short summary of what the woman had said. He felt self-conscious and inarticulate, but was genuinely trying to do the person-centered listening thing: He was paraphrasing, reflecting feelings, summarizing, walking within, and doing all he could to be present in the room and make contact or connect with the “client.” After his rambling summary, there was an awkward silence. John remained silent, trusting that the client knew where to go next. And she did. She cut through the awkwardness with a disclosure of having been sexually molested as a child. John continued listening non-directively as the woman told her story, shed a few tears, and spoke powerfully about her journey toward building inner strength.

The demonstration recording was a huge success . . . except for the fact that the audio was terrible. To hear the powerful disclosure and share in the magic of person-centered process, John had to force his class of 15 graduate students to gather within three feet of the television in perfect silence . . . which was also rather awkward.

The lesson of person-centered listening is that sometimes when you put it all together the client can take you places you never knew existed. There are many things about our clients that we’ll never know unless and until we listen empathically, communicate genuinely, and experience respect for the other person with our heart and soul. As Rogers (1961) said, “. . . the client knows what hurts. . .” and so it’s up to us—as therapists—to provide an environment where clients can articulate their pain and re-activate their actualizing tendency.

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6 thoughts on “Reflections on Magic”

  1. I am hoping with more experience, I will be able to use a person-centered approach along with CBT. It seems that maybe building a foundation with the person-centered approach would make CBT more successful for the therapy session. While I know CBT is not the solution for all clients, its principles can be used for many. Great quote by Rogers, it really draws you to the heart of what it means to be a therapist.

    I would also agree with you IRT today’s “quick fix” ideas for mental health. Wouldn’t you agree though, that politics and insurance heavily contribute to those ideas?

    Will you have the kindle edition available for the 2nd edition of your Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories? I was checking Amazon yesterday for this book and noticed there was a kindle edition available for the older version. At any rate, good reading for a Monday night, thanks to you both.

    Una Starr

    1. Hi Una.

      It seems to me that the best CBT folks are able to integrate person-centered principles into their work. Even in a recent video I saw of Judith Beck, it was clear that as she was building a problem list with a patient she was using active listening skills and showing empathy.

      Unfortunately, politics and insurance often drive us in directions that aren’t necessarily in the best interests of our clients!

      I’m not certain about the Kindle edition for Theories 2nd edition. I think it will happen, but not sure if the timeline is the same as it is for the hardback copy — which is the end of February.

      I hope all is well in the islands.

      John SF

  2. Hmmm…Magic..This reminds me of a time I learned to ALWAYS send out information to parents about what the counseling department is up to in regards to curriculum and group activities. I found this really great elementary-junior high yoga-ed curriculum that included “bear breaths :)” to use in a small yup’ik village in AK. The village religious affiliation was Russian Orthodox, but it is also a village where the culture is very well preserved in many aspects. Although much of the “magic” that was once part of the culture had been thrown away when the “great death” came with christianity following closely, I still managed to offend and frighten certain individuals in the village with this yoga-ed. One day without warning the superintendant and a board member arrived and attended a group of mine. We were using the yoga-ed curriculum. I remember thinking it went very well except for one student who did not fully participate. The next day the principal tells me that they visited because I was in danger of having a spell cast to my doorstep. Village folks felt that something had to be done to stop me from using this evil tool in school. After the superintendant and board member attended my group they spoke with the village folks to explain what I was doing was not evil based. I learned some very valuable humbling lessons. In this village, magic was taken very seriously and I would not overlook sending out information again.

    1. Melissa this is a cool story that is very informative about working across cultures . . . especially when using magic when doing so. I’m always so incredibly impressed with your cross cultural stories. When will you be coming back to Montana to visit and regale the faculty and students with your excellent stories? It would be very nice if you did that.

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