The major barrier to mutual interpersonal communication is our very natural tendency to judge, to evaluate, to approve or disapprove, the statement of the other person or the other group.”
– Carl Rogers, “Communication: Its Blocking and Its Facilitation,” 1951
One of the greatest challenges for a writer of arguments is to keep the audience from becoming so defensive and annoyed that it will not listen to anything the writer has to say. Sometimes audiences can feel threatened by viewpoints different from their own, and in such cases persuasion can rarely take place. The psychologist Carl Rogers developed a negotiating strategy to help people avoid such situations; he called it “empathic listening”. In an empathic position, the writer refrains from passing judgment on the audience’s ideas until he or she has listened attentively to the audience’s position, tried to follow the audience’s reasoning, and acknowledged the validity of the audience’s viewpoint (if only from a limited perspective). By trying to understand where the audience is coming from and avoiding loaded or attacking language that might put the audience on the defensive, the writer shows empathy for the audience’s viewpoint and opens the door for mutual understanding and respect. This psychological approach encourages people to listen to each other rather than to try to shout each other down.
Because it focuses on building bridges between writer and audience, and places considerable weight on the values, beliefs, and opinions the two share, a Rogerian argument doesn’t emphasize an “I win–you lose” outcome as much as classical arguments do. Rather it emphasizes a “You win and I win too” solution, one where negotiation and mutual respect are valued. Thus, Rogerian argument is about exploring an issue from different sides, rather than simply persuading a reader to accept one side over another. A Rogerian argument is objective in tone, and concludes by offering a compromise or common ground stance.
A Rogerian argument has a different structure than a classical argument:
Intro: This section is the same in that it serves to introduce the topic, provide background information, and explain the significance behind the topic. However, a Rogerian argument does not provide a classical thesis statement that argues a position; instead, the thesis is posed as a question (example: Is gun control needed in the U.S., and if so, what is the best strategy?) In exploring this common ground, the writer tries to state the opposing sides of the issue fairly and objectively, so that the audience realizes the writer is treating it with respect.
Body: In the body of a Rogerian argument, the writer presents a fair and balanced account of the differing perspectives. The goal of the body is to remain objective, using language as neutral as possible, while examining the validity of each side’s claims. The writer explains the contexts in which each position is valid and explores how they differ from each other. For instance, the gun registration writer might note that gun collections are frequent targets for thieves, and point out that registration might help the owners retrieve such stolen property before it is used to commit a crime.
Conclusion: Here is where the writer offers a compromise, usually phrased in such a way that shows the audience that the writer has made some concessions toward each side’s positions. For instance, the gun registration writer might concede that this law should only apply to new sales of handguns, not to guns a person already owns. By giving some ground, the writer invites the audience to concede as well, and hopefully to reach an agreement about the issue. If the conclusion can show the audience how it will benefit from adopting (at least to some degree) the writer’s position, an even better chance for persuasion takes place.
Suggested Organization for a Rogerian Argument
- Write a brief objective statement to define the issue.
- Analyze and state the other’s position in a neutral, objective way. Demonstrate that you understand the other’s position and their reasons for holding it. Avoid moralizing or judging the other’s position or reasons.
- Analyze and state your own position (or the opposing position) in a neutral, objective way. Avoid moralizing about your own position or reasons.
- Analyze what the two positions have in common; find commonly shared goals and values.
- Propose a resolution to the issue that recognizes and incorporates the interests of both positions.
Example of a Rogerian Argument
My name is Mrs. Maples and I am the lead Special Education teacher at Bright Hub Elementary. I attended your last round-table discussion and have been thinking about the difficulties you are having with securing volunteers for the upcoming book sale. I may have a solution that will help us both.
From the explanation Mrs. Reed gave at the meeting, the primary problem is finding a consistent group of volunteers — you train five or six new helpers every month and lose 10, which could mean cutting future events. I know our students love the book sale and winter carnival. The staff does, too. We would all hate to lose these annual joys.
I may have a source of steady volunteers that can help with this problem.
My fifth grade Special Education teacher, Ms. Evans, has informed me that her class is available to serve as student helpers at the next book sale. These children are passionate learners and eager assistants. They are currently volunteering in the library and cafeteria — so they are no stranger to a bit of hard work!
I understand that working with special needs students may seem like a challenge, and it is, but the rewards for both you and the students would be great. With nearly 25 students, the class would more than satisfy your volunteer quotas and Ms. Evans and myself will also attend to delegate duties and assist with supervision. But most importantly, the students would be learning a valuable lesson about the operation of this enormous event. They would all have a deeper appreciation for the books sale, understanding all of the work that goes into making these little miracles happen at Bright Hub. I will be available from 9 am-6 pm, Monday through Thursday, if you would like to discuss the potential for a partnership between the fifth graders and the PTA. I hope that we can establish a bond that will last for many years to come.
In the introduction, we gain an understanding of the problem at hand. The identities of the speaker and audience are revealed. A teacher at an elementary school is discussing a volunteer shortage with the PTA. The teacher compliments the PTA and acknowledges an existing relationship, an example of building a bridge.
After the second paragraph, we get into the meat of the argument. The teacher wants the PTA to accept a responsibility and form a partnership with a student group.
In the conclusion of this Rogerian argument example, we see the teacher acknowledge the potential difficulties of working with special needs students while also highlighting this class’ experience. The teacher asks the PTA to look past the challenges to see the possible benefits for this event and the kids. Concessions made include the offer of adult assistance and flexible contact hours. The teacher ends on a positive note, leaving the conversation in a non-confrontational manner.
Read the following sample essay and answer the questions:
- How does the author introduce the topic and explain the significance?
- What two viewpoints does the author explore? What do these two sides have in common?
- How does the author establish and maintain an objective tone? How does he connect with his audience?
- What consensus or compromise does the author establish?