Friday, September 3, 2010

Revisiting Mr. Rogers and Mr. Rogers

September 3rd, 2010

Whether it was with King Friday, Lady Elaine Fairchilde or Mr. McFeely, no Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was ever complete without the psychodrama of some of the make believe puppets and characters. Lady Elaine, the low self-esteemed gal who was somewhat of a trickster, kept the king in line whenever he became too stubborn or self-righteous. Mr McFeely, the ever present dependent delivery man, consistently announced himself with the words: “Special Delivery.” It wasn’t JUST the deliveries that were special; it was every viewer who ever watched Fred Rogers on PBS.

In my three different Psychology classes at Ringling College of Art and Design, no semester would be complete without the other Mr. Rogers. Carl Rogers is the same kind of guy: a humanistic psychologist who is known for his “person-centered” or “client-centered” approach to therapy. Rogers’ belief was that empathy was the cornerstone of our human growth and development: acceptance of others, high regard, and empathy, all are necessary for our human existence. ‘Sounds like Fred and Carl Rogers shared more than a common surname.

Imagine in our interpersonal relationships - our families, our work life, and our already client-centered focus with our art therapy clients - if we consistently adopted either of Mr. Rogers’ empathic attributes!

Dan Pink, in his book, A Whole New Mind, maintains that, like the two Mr. Rogers, empathy is the key element in our successful relationships. Pink says: “Empathy…it’s an ethic for living. It’s a means of understanding other human beings. Empathy makes us human. Empathy brings joy. Empathy is an essential part of living a life of meaning.”

While empathy is indeed important, Pink notes that the logical, linear structured part of our brain is also part of the picture. He offers that we need to be both attached (empathic), and detached (systematized.) If you are reading this newsletter and are interactive on the computer, you are already engaging your left hemisphere. How does this play out when we are with our clients? Fortunately, if we are in the creative field – and we are ALL creative beings – we have shrewd observational skills. This means that we already know that body language, intonation, and micro-expressions make up for the evidenced-based and non-verbalized 93% of what we are communicating. How can we use our observational skills to enhance our empathic ones?

With the external stimuli all around, it is sometimes difficult to keep our observational antennae tuned in all the time. By understanding the importance of looking at the person, our client or group - making it our business to know what we can about them - we become mindfully Rogerian –other-focused. When we first observe and empathize, we will enhance and deepen our interpersonal relationships .

If we stepped into either of Mr. Rogers’ shoes, (and flipped it up in the air from one hand to the next, as Mr. Rogers did at the end of his neighborhood show), we would be scanning everything about the person to find out how we could become his neighbor, how we could discern the uniqueness about him/her. How is the client’s posture when sitting with you? How does she hold the brush, the pencil, the paper?

In my 5 year work with Alzheimer’s and dementia clients, I can discern quite a bit about a client. When I asked a caregiver if my client had been an accountant, the response I received was utter surprise: “How could you have known that?” My 86-year-old client used watercolor to paint with her dominant hand; she used only her index finger on her other hand to mark and measure her place on the page. The seemingly rote movement (perhaps stored deep in her memory on a cellular level) was a possible indication that she was someone who had traditionally worked with columns and numbers in a ledger book of some sort. By putting myself back in a non-digital era – the era in which my client had lived life fully – I could be sensitive to her world - past and present.

Empathy, Dan Pink style, brings us a life of rich meaning. Empathy, Mr. Rogers-style, is completely client focused and other-focused. While we do not need to wear a red cardigan and tell our clients that they are special, we do need to consider showing them.

Empathically Yours,


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