Building Bridges: Between Rogers and Erickson
By Mike Moss, MBACP
I recently presented a workshop called “Building Bridges,” held at a conference organized by the UK Association for Solution Focused Practice. As a counselor and psychotherapist trained in solution-focused brief therapy and person-centered therapy, I felt compelled to offer a workshop that would explore an imagined bridge with Milton Erickson on one side and Carl Rogers on the other. Although there are differences between these two master therapists, I wanted to focus on their similarities, to try and understand how they inform my practice. In this article I hope to offer a taste of some of the concepts I explored.
Sidney Rosen’s book, My Voice Will Go With You: The Teaching Tales of Mil- ton H. Erickson, offers a good analogy. (Rosen, 1982) I imagine Erickson on one side of a bridge calling out to his patients, “My voice will go with you.” And on the other side of the bridge, Rogers calling out to his clients, “Your voice will go with you!”
Both men grew up on farms in the Midwestern United States and seem to have had a similar view of the natural order of things. (Gunnison, 2003) As a child, Rogers once observed potatoes stored in a shed, and with no apparent source of light, the potatoes were still able to grow spindly shoots. This impressed him, and he knew it was an example of the potential of life. He began to believe in an inherent growth-promoting force, which he later described as the “actualizing tendency.” (Rogers, 1961) Erickson also had rural experiences. When he was a boy he came across a horse that suddenly appeared outside his family farm. Erickson was able to easily lead the horse back to its owner because he trusted that it would know the way, which it did. He utilized the obvious, observing and embracing the situation in a creative and unique way. He trusted the instincts of the horse, which later helped him to understand and trust his patients. When a patient seemed lost, he trusted that he or she would also eventually find the way home.
Both Rogers and Erickson discovered something in life that they could trust and which made sense to them, and they brought these simple ideas to their work as psychotherapists. And even though their approaches were different — Rogers could be described as non-directive and Erickson as directive — both men were linked by a fundamental desire to help clients find their own resources to promote change.
“Both [Erickson and Rogers] emphasized and sensed the uniqueness of each living thing and prized above all those differences.” (Gunnison, 2003)
Rogers likened Erickson’s understanding of the unconscious to the “actualizing tendency,” and noticed that although there were differences in their work, both relied on a directional tendency of the patient toward change, and both believed that the patient would have the wisdom to make beneficial choices. (Gunnison, 2003)
Rogers believed there was a tendency that exists in every individual which can be buried under layers of psychological defenses that “awaits only the proper conditions to be released.” (Rogers, 1961) And Erickson’s view of the unconscious has also been described as “…the core or center of the person” where there is “…a repository of all past experiences and learning” where the source of growth lies mostly beneath the unconscious level. (Rosen, 1982)
I sometimes use visualization in my work, and more recently I also close my eyes with some clients. I ask permission to be alongside them in their imagined world and offer Rogers’ core conditions in a profound way. My experience in doing this can be described as entering an imagined world where I feel a powerful, deep empathic resonance. It’s as if there is a new realm where both the client and I are active agents in the territory of the imagination. The depth of this kind of therapeutic relationship can provide access to a bridge from the unconscious to aware- ness where we can both meet and there is potential for healing and growth. This connection during hypnotic trance feels like a person-centered approach in action.
Looking at Rogers and Erickson on the same bridge reveals that there could have been a kind of creative guidance, with both doing what they intuitively felt was right. They both experienced a directional flow of potential or actualization in their therapy to promote healing in others. And perhaps by just holding an aware- ness of the possibility that there is a directional flow or presence which helps us to connect with change and growth from our own potential to facilitate healing may reveal there is a greater wisdom guiding us.
In his book, A Way of Being, Rogers maintains that the human organism’s potential for change is connected to what he calls an “evolutionary flow,” which he recognized as “…part of a formative tendency in our universe.” (Rogers, 1980) And, that there may be an energetic current of potential in the universe flowing to- ward growth, which can somehow be accessed within the self. This could be sim- ilar to Erickson’s use of utilization, whereby he makes use of what is present in the therapeutic encounter, both in him and in the client and beyond, and within the power of the imagination, that can be accessed and used as a creative force for change. (Leva, 1987). And, this energy stored up in all of us is waiting to be re- leased.
The “actualizing tendency” from both Rogers’ and Erickson’s perspective may be described as the process of become whole. The client is continually in this process, guided by an innate wisdom and utilization, moving in a creative direction inspired by both therapist and client, which seems to fit and connect to the client’s unique way of becoming the person he or she desires. I believe this “greater wisdom” may be experienced as a presence for both therapist and client — of there being something more in the therapeutic relationship. I have written about this sense of there being something more and have called it “directional presence.”
By the very nature of our intention to help, I believe something may emerge, assisted by being in an in-depth relationship, where more than we know may be helping the process in which all is being attended.
The power of the imagination is well understood in both cognitive and humanistic therapies, however, I would suggest there is perhaps the potential of an untapped resource, whereby direct contact by client and therapist can be made in the realm of the imagination. And I wonder, like Rogers and Erickson meeting on a bridge, if there is an opportunity for therapists of both approaches to begin a dialogue where we can discover new elements in working closely with clients, utilizing the unconscious using the core conditions, and accessing the imagination through person-centered visualization. Perhaps we are all on the same bridge, with some of us in the middle or closer to one side, and that’s okay because we are all traveling from one side to another and we all know the way.
Rosen. S. (1982) My Voice Will Go With You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson. W.W. Norton & Co
Gunnison. H. (2003) Hypnocounseling: An Eclectic Bridge Between Milton Erickson and Carl Rogers. PCCS Books
Rogers. C.R. (1961) On Becoming a Person. London Constable. . Rogers. C.R. (1980) A Way of Being Houghton & Miflin Co. Psychotherapy: The Listening Voice. Rogers & Erickson
Moss. M (2017) “On Becoming More, in the Therapeutic Relationship: An exploration of directional presence” COSCA Counseling in Scotland, Journal (Spring Ed.)
Mike Moss is a full-time counselor for Children and Young People, West Lothian Council. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland and has a small private practice offering supervision and training. Moss can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ed. Note: At the 1985 Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference, Carl Rogers compared himself with Erickson and Kohut. The audio is available for streaming at: catalog.erickson-foundation.org/speaker/carl-rogers