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.

A Black Friday Tribute to Mary Cover Jones and her Evidence-Based Cookies

In honor of Black Friday and the opening of this blog, I’d like to sell you on why the story of Mary Cover Jones and her evidence-based cookies is one of the coolest in the history of counseling and psychotherapy.

Mary Cover Jones probably wasn’t big on shopping. That’s because she was a woman scientist in the 1920s. She was too busy working in John Watson’s lab (yes, this is the same John Watson who, at least according to historical accounts, turned out to be a bit of a turkey.)

Mary Cover Jones was amazing. She’s best known for her work with a young boy named “Little Peter.” When everyone else was focusing on how to create fear in humans (or out shopping for Black Friday bargains), Mary was discovering how children’s fears could be extinguished or eliminated.

Little Peter suffered from a specific fear. As silly as it sounds, he was deeply afraid of white bunnies. This fear had generalized to white rats, white cotton balls, and just about anything white and fluffy. Using cookies, Mary Cover Jones counter-conditioned the fear right out of Little Peter. She started by having Peter enjoy his favorite cookies in one corner of the room and gradually brought a caged white rabbit over to him until, eventually, Peter was able to eat cookies with one hand and pet the bunny with the other.

But Mary Cover Jones didn’t stop with Little Peter. Over time, she worked with 70 different institutionalized children, all of whom had big fears. Not only was she successful, but her conclusions (from 1924) still constitute the basic foundation for contemporary (and evidence-based) behavioral approaches to treating human fears and phobias. This is what she wrote toward the end of her 1924 article:

“In our study of methods for removing fear responses, we found unqualified success with only two. By the method of direct conditioning we associated the fear-object with a craving-object, and replaced the fear by a positive response. By the method of social imitation we allowed the subjects to share, under controlled conditions, the social activity of a group of children especially chosen with a view to prestige effect. [Other] methods proved sometimes effective but were not to be relied upon unless used in combination with other methods.” (M.C. Jones, 1924, p. 390)

Mary’s findings remain deeply profound. They have implications not only for how we treat children’s fears, but also for how to work effectively with resistant or reluctant teens and adults. In later blogs I’ll often be serving a batch of Mary’s evidence-based cookies in one form or another.

After her work with John Watson, Mary Cover Jones continued working in a research lab. She moved across the U.S. and 50 years after her publications on children’s fears, she reflected on her life and her work. Here’s what she said:

“[M]y last 45 years have been spent in longitudinal research in which I have watched the psychobiological development of our study members as they grew from children to adults now in their fifties… My association with this study has broadened my conception of the human experience.  Now I would be less satisfied to treat the fears of a 3-year-old, or of anyone else, without a later follow-up and in isolation from an appreciation of him as a tantalizingly complex person with unique potentials for stability and change.” (Jones, 1974, p. 186).

Just minutes before she passed away, Mary said to her sister, “I am still learning about what is important in life” (as cited in Reiss, 1990).

We should all strive to never stop learning about what’s important in life and therefore be more like Mary Cover Jones. Although the famous psychologist, Joseph Wolpe, dubbed her “the mother of behavior therapy” she was obviously much more than a behavior therapist. You can learn more about her (she would probably have liked that) from a web-based article by Alexandra Rutherford of York University at: http://www.psych.yorku.ca/femhop/Cover%20Jones.htm. Rutherford’s article was originally published in The Feminist Psychologist, Newsletter of the Society for the Psychology of Women, Division 35 of theAmerican Psychological Association, Volume 27, Number 3, Summer, 2000.

And, believe it or not, Mary Cover Jones is on Facebook. You should become her friend . . . just like I did.

Mary  Cover Jones

The MEA Conference in Missoula

Today Rita and I got to provide a 3 hour workshop on Working Effectively with Parents to Montana school counselors and educators. It was great to see former students and to experience the dedication and talents of Montana school personnel. Our main message: Welcome even the most challenging parent comments, thank parents for their openness, reflect their core values back to them, and then once a collaborative relationship is established, use a radical acceptance frame to help them become the best parents they can become.

Theories Video-Shoot 1

Did the first of a series of video-shoots today for a counseling theory-based skills project. I had my Freud action-figure sitting on the table next to me, reminding me how to act. Nevertheless, Dr. Rita still says I was more like Carl Rogers than Sigmund . . . which, basically, I consider a good thing. Carl Rogers with a psychodynamic twist. Or an actively empathic Sigmund. That’s okay with me.

Author, Speaker, University of Montana Professor