Steve Fenton

On Observing a Person

I don’t believe it is possible to study psychology without being changed by it. Understanding how your mind works is fascinating but the unending journey is not for the faint-hearted.

I have been interested by other people for a long time and used to take dark-enjoyment from “translating” what people said into what they really meant. It seemed easy to spot that subtle emphasis, inflection, body language, or choice of words that meant that the apparent “yes” was actually a veiled “no”. Those times when “are you coming tonight” received an “I should be” rather than a “Yes, I’ll be there”.

But this isn’t really what Psychology is about. These are just party-tricks, sleight-of-hand, and the disappearing act of the psychological world.

I unwittingly discovered much deeper meaning when I peeled open the pages of Carl Rogers’ “On Becoming A Person”. Much of the text was written more than fifty years ago, so it really shouldn’t have been surprising after all this time; but it was. Surely the information contained in papers published so long ago should have made it mainstream by now. It really should have. Every chapter challenged and changed me.

My initial feeling was one of sadness. Watching people walking up and down the high street as if they were wearing masks – façades that represented what they believe people expected from them rather than revealing how they really felt. I could hear people constantly using language that shifted responsibility for their actions and emotions on to other people. I could see people who wouldn’t accept the responsibility for their own actions, or who wouldn’t reveal how they really felt. Because of all this deception, people in turn were reacting to the façades and not to the real people underneath; so their reaction was irrelevant to the person hidden behind the mask.

If we could be honest about how we feel. If we could accept how we feel without guilt and without finding external forces to blame. If we could accept how someone feels unconditionally. If we could give people our full attention while we were in a conversation with them. If we could do these things we would all find life more fulfilling.

Of course, this sadness was just a step in the ongoing journey. I realise that if I want these things to be true, I need to apply myself rigorously to these principles: I need to be aware of my current context and be sensitive to it. While I may happily accept the interruption of a message or social network while I’m drinking a coffee or watching television, perhaps I will be less happy to allow these things to invade a conversation, a dinner, or time I’m spending with my family. I might be reserved in the depth of my reaction depending on the people involved, but I won’t pretend I’m happy when I’m sad, or in agreement when I am in disagreement. I can accept someone telling me how they feel without feeling responsible for that emotion in them (and therefore without becoming defensive) and without feeling the need to always suggest solutions when people share their problems.

It is more helpful to a person if you understand how they feel and accept it unconditionally than it is to propose a solution to their problem.

This is a revelation to me. I have often been someone people share their problems with, even when I was a green seventeen-year-old in my second job. I think people chose me because what they shared with me never made it into general circulation. I was sensitive to the privacy they desired when confiding in me. What I didn’t realise at all was that while they were telling me their problems, they weren’t looking for answers – they just felt better having someone else understand what they were going through. Being a pragmatic person, I always suggested options – but I realise now that they were graciously acknowledged and quietly ignored, because they were not the valuable part of those conversations.

So I am being more honest in myself. I’m not going to try and convert people to my way of thinking (which is actually just the combination of a lot of other peoples way of thinking) and I’m not judging people who behave differently to me. I’m also highly aware that the habits of a lifetime are not discarded overnight. I am hopeful that I can be a better person and I am confident in my approach.

Written by Steve Fenton on