Have you ever been in an argument that could not be resolved due to high emotions? Have you ever had to write one?
Often in these moments there’s a breakdown in communication, but there is a way to find mutual ground. In 1951, psychologist Carl Rogers proposed in “Client-Centered Therapy" an alternative way to communicate with others when presented with emotional or moral barriers.
According to Paul Bator, Rogers believed that even “carefully reasoned logical arguments … may be totally ineffectual when employed in a rhetorical situation where the audience feels its beliefs or values are being threatened. No amount of reasoned argument will prompt an audience to consider the speaker’s point of view if the audience senses that its opinions are somehow being ‘explained away.’"
Rogers purposes a way of empathetic listening, understanding, and cooperation to reopen the paths of communication between two parties; in the case of composition, these two parties are the writer and the reader. Bator goes on to explain that this type of writing is considered a “communicative first step," which strives to “build bridges" between participants of a debate, rather than using language as a rhetorical weapon.
The goal of Rogerian rhetoric, as proposed by Doug Brent, can be summarized this way:
“By adopting the Rogerian frame of mind in his writing, a writer will be encouraged to explore honestly the
regions of validity in other texts, to treat them as complex works of another human mind and to try to express
as clearly as possible in his own writing the ideas to which he is replying."
The purpose of such writing is to cooperate with other people in the discussion of a particular issue and to find compromising solutions.
Maxine Hairston outlines the clearest way to achieve a Rogerian argument:
Remember, when introducing the issue or problem, to use non-judgmental and unbiased language in order for the audience to feel unthreatened.
In face-to-face communication, understanding the other side of the argument can be achieved by listening empathetically to the other person’s point of view, but it is hard to listen to an audience of readers who are not present when you write. It is crucial to research the issue to understand other author’s beliefs and values concerning the topic. You must be honest when giving other’s perspectives; Bator explains that “communication is blocked if the [writer] presents an outward façade of one attitude in an attempt to win over or ingratiate herself with the [reader]." Thus, the writer must use “a tone of restraint, candor, and courtesy," says Hairston.
You should still reserve your bias here. Sincerity and impartiality are needed in each step, and in this one, you must show restraint and humility. Hairston advises that writing this step “requires using descriptive rather than evaluative language and stating one’s points as hypotheses or opinions rather than assertions." In other words, do not use a tone that conveys that you think your points are more valid than those opposing. In other words, don’t be condescending.
Where do your and the audience’s values align? A writer of this type of rhetoric can find common ground by acknowledging when the interests or beliefs of both sides are valid, according to Bator. Moreover, if there are aspects of the debate that cannot be harmoniously resolved, acknowledge these differences, so you do not ignore either side.
This step requires compromising solutions in which both sides feel heard, understood, and considered. After acknowledging where beliefs and values align, you should find possible solutions to overcome the differences, so both parties will be satisfied.
Rogerian rhetoric allows for participants in a discussion to listen to each other with empathy; in the end, there should be mutually-beneficial, proposed solutions. The goal of this communication style is to remove prejudices and relieve tensions between the parties in the debate; the writer must respect not only herself but also her audience to achieve a peaceful resolution.
Bator, P. (1980). Aristotelian and Rogerian rhetoric. College Composition and Communication, 31(4), 427-32.
Brent, D. (1991). Young, becker and pike’s “Rogerian" rhetoric: a twenty year reassessment. College English, 53(4), 452-66.
Hairston, Maxine. (1976). Carl rogers’s alternative to traditional rhetoric. College Composition and Communication, 27(4), 373-377.