The Gentle Art of Changing Minds

About thirty years ago, I ran a battered women’s shelter after receiving a degree in counseling. I was trained in a university that revered Carl Rogers; I went on to work in a place where my clients had a desperate need for Rogers’ core conditions for therapy: empathy, unconditional positive regard and congruence.

Family Violence

Victims of family abuse often are fragile. Their senses of self have been attacked to the point that they believe what the abuser says: “You’re no good,” “you can’t take care of yourself,” “you’re a bad parent,” “you’re stupid,” and so forth. They assume that they are at fault for the abuse: “If I hadn’t have burned the dinner, he wouldn’t have hurt me. I’m so dumb.” They hope that if they are good enough, they will be able to avoid getting hit. Unfortunately, since violence usually happens after a long tense phase, it is inevitable that something will happen to trigger the abuser’s wrath—victims cannot prevent this.


The process of healing for these women involved providing them information about family violence, but especially, demonstrating empathy. Empathy is way more than just parroting back some version of what someone else said. Instead, it is the mental and emotional experience of standing in someone else’s shoes and imagining life from their perspective. They needed unconditional positive regard, especially since they may have been forced to do illegal or otherwise undesirable things by the abuser. They felt a lot of shame. They also needed our confidence in their decision-making abilities. They needed to learn to trust us and that happened when we were genuine.


During all of this, our clients changed profoundly. One woman was so frightened the first few days she was in the shelter that she stayed close to staff members at all times. Over a few weeks she became less frightened. Across a couple of years she became so brave that she could handle shared custody with her now ex-husband. Another woman stayed in the shelter with her daughter and granddaughter—three generations! They were all being abused by one man. This woman could not read but by the time she left, she had learned to read her daughter’s name and some other words; she was so proud of herself. Yet another had a young son who had picked up some of the abuser’s behaviors, he once attacked his mother with a knife. By the time she left, this mom had learned from staff about how to non-violently assert her authority over her son. The stories could go on and on.

The Classroom

Fast forward a number of years and I am now a college teacher. In addition to my work preparing pre-service teachers, I founded and teach music in a program that provides free instrumental music classes to people of all ages who can’t afford them.


It is not surprising how much Carl Rogers’ psychological theory applies to the classroom. For one thing, he was influenced by John Dewey. For another, it suggest effective ways of working with alienated or struggling students.

Alienated students may have had experiences that disconnected them from school-based learning. The school to prison pipeline is one example of how this happens. If these young people are to become reconnected to academic learning, they need the conditions that Rogers lays out. Any sense of threat will send these students out the door, perhaps for good.

Additionally, there is the issue of paradigm shifts. Human beings tend to create schemas about the world. Some schemas can be readily changed with new information. Others, however, are held tightly and do not change easily, even in light of information which specifically challenges the schema. For example, some held to the notion of a geocentric universe when only the heliocentric one could accurately explain star movements. This is because moving earth out of the center of everything had implications—in their minds or about the Bible—which they perceived as threatening.

People don’t learn when they feel attacked. They will, in contrast, choose to take on learning challenges when they feel supported and accepted. But they need those basic conditions that Rogers identified in order to exercise their options.


It is amazing to me that many people in education (I’m thinking of the folks who think scripted curricula and standardized tests are a good idea) do not realize something fundamental about learning: Human beings have to choose to learn in order for their minds to change. Stickers and candy notwithstanding, real, long-lasting learning doesn’t happen through rewards or the use of force. Teachers cannot make students learn unless students want to. Educators who do not understand this are wasting a lot of time.

Over my years as a teacher, I have watched as many transformations among students as I did at the shelter. I have seen students take on and master huge challenges because that is what they wanted to do. I am frequently awed and humbled about what my music students choose to do. An older woman opted to get rid of her fancy and expensive fingernails so she could play violin. A youngster got taken with a difficult fiddle tune and learned it two weeks after she first held a violin. A group of students figured out a beautiful hymn with four part harmony after only three months of playing.

Growing Students

The classroom that reflects Carl Rogers’ conditions is like the plant food gardeners use. It creates a medium through which students are likely to choose to learn and where teachers can enjoy being astonished by their never-ending capabilities.

More information about Carl Rogers:


What do you think? Does your classroom experience have much to gain from this approach? Let us know in the comments below.


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, tzejen.

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