Please direct correspondence regarding this article to the author, John M. Malouff, University of New England School of Psychology, Armidale NSW 2351. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Carl Rogers suggested specific ways of interacting with others for promoting their well-being. This study evaluated the effects of training individuals in how to use the methods to help a distressed person. The brief training occurred in a Facebook group created for the training and included Socratic teaching; providing written information; and role-playing, with self-evaluation, over Zoom. Evaluation included pre and post measures of self-efficacy for helping distressed individuals in various situations. Self-efficacy rose significantly from pre to post, indicating that the training had value. Because the training was done online, it can reach distant individuals. Because the brief training was of a group, the training has low cost per person trained.
Self-Efficacy Effects of Person-Centered Online Training in How to Help Distressed Individuals
Carl Rogers (1980, pp.115-116) wrote about the most helpful ways to interact with another person whether in counselling or in other interactions. He suggested attentive listening, showing warmth, and showing empathy. If we watch videos of Rogers in action, such as in the famed Gloria video (Rogers, 1965), we see additional useful behaviors such as trying to help the person, remaining calm, and summarising what the person said. That sort of interactional style can prove helpful with a person who is feeling distressed.
Applying the interactional methods effectively typically requires training. Some individuals in counselor-education programs spend years acquiring and honing the skills. Along the way they increase their self-efficacy about using the methods properly.
There is potential, however, for ordinary individuals to learn with brief training to apply the methods to a useful extent in helping a distressed individual, who could be a family member, co-worker, friend, or stranger. This article describes an evaluation of the effects of brief training in using methods to help distressed individuals.
The suggested methods were person-centered, including showing warmth and empathy. Experimental research and case report have shown that such methods can help reduce a person’s distress (Jones, 2004; Rogers, 1980). The training was brief and online, creating the possibility for individuals to benefit wherever they lived. The training was low cost in terms of trainer time and was convenient for trainees in that only one hour of training was at a fixed time. The evaluation focused on the self-efficacy of the participants for helping distressed individuals. Self-efficacy is important because it is associated with initiating the targeted behavior and in persisting with it (Bandura, 1997).
A university ethics committee approved the study. I recruited the participants through social and mass media. Twenty individuals completed the online pre-assessment questionnaire and entered the study. However, only six individuals completed the pre-assessment, the role-playing part of the study, and the final assessment. Those six individuals had a mean age of 32.5, SD = 10.4. Five the participants were women; one was a man.
I followed the suggestions of Bandura (2005) about how to create a measure of self-efficacy. I created four self-rating items and asked how confident the respondent was that he or she could help the visibly distressed person feel better. The four items were “(1) an adult family member, (2) a child family member, (3) a co-worker, neighbor, or fellow student, (4) an adult stranger. The rating options ranged from 0 = cannot do at all to 50 = moderately certain to 100 = highly certain. Average item scores could range from 0 to 100. I also asked the participants how the training could be improved.
The training took place on a Facebook group page created for the study. I placed an average of one post per day over 10 days. One of the first posts was a description of clues that another person feels distressed, e.g., facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, spoken content, and highly negative events.
Subsequent posts included a question about what methods of helping a distressed person the members had seen have positive effects. I also asked what methods they had seen fail. I then posted a list of suggested options for helping a distressed person. The options included methods suggested or demonstrated by Rogers: recognize that the person feels distressed, stay reasonably calm, aim to help the person, listen attentively, summarize occasionally what the person says, tentatively state the other’s apparent emotion, while avoiding understating the emotion or the problem, show caring, stay with the person.
I included in the list optional methods that arose in interactions with the trainees. These methods seemed to have potential, at least in some situations, and seemed consistent with the Rogerian method: if you ask a question; ask it open-ended, e.g., ask how can I help?; with a close relationship, hug or touch the person; go for a walk with the person in a natural setting; do not take expressed hostility personally; joke if you are confident humor will help; if you can do something reasonable to solve a problem, do it. Rogers (1980, pp. 78-79, 351) wrote positively about intimacy and being in nature and he asked open-ended questions in his writings (e.g., Rogers, 1980, p. 273). Also, Rogers suggested contributing to the dignity of learners by listening carefully to their ideas (Rogers, 1983; Zhu, 2016).
In the mode of Facebook groups, I included links to four online articles. They described how to help distressed children, when and how to use humor, how to ask open-ended questions, and the benefits to health of exposure to nature.
We had one live session on Zoom, in which I asked members to role-play in pairs helping a distressed person. I randomly assigned pairs of members to breakout rooms for the role-playing. I asked the pairs to take a turn in the helper role and in the distressed role. Each role play was to last about five minutes. I asked the helper to complete a self-evaluation after the role-play and then to listen to the evaluation by the distressed person. The focus was to be on what the helper did well and what the helper could do better in the future. I then reassigned members to new pairs and they repeated the process. We then reconvened as a group and discussed what they had learned from the experience.
The next day I posted a suggestion that members continue practicing the methods, whether with a distressed person or not. I recommended the methods as useful ways to interact with just about anyone. A few days later I asked the participants to complete the post-training assessment.
At pre-training, Cronbach’s alpha for the four rating items was .96. The mean level of self-efficacy for helping a distressed person rose significantly from 57.3 (SD = 18.8) at pre-training to 69.3 (SD = 14.1) at post, t(5) = -3.28, p = .011, Hedges’ g = -1.1, 95% CIs [-2.1. -0.5]. The final average item score of 69.3 was about one standard deviation higher than the average prior to training.
The participants mentioned various possible improvements in the training. The most potentially useful suggestion was to provide a model of someone helping a distressed person. That could be done live during a Zoom session or through a recorded video.
The study results suggest that the brief, online training had a large, positive effect on the participants’ self-efficacy regarding being able to help a distressed individual. The helping methods in the training were almost entirely methods suggested by or demonstrated by Rogers (1965, 1980). The study results suggest that the trainees found the methods credible and that they thought they could to an extent apply them effectively.
The training could potentially be provided to individuals who want to help distressed individuals, such as their children, other family members, and friends. Because the training is online, it could reach individuals at a distance. Because the training is brief, it is low cost to provide.
The main limitation of the study was that there was no control group. It is possible that individuals receiving no training would improve as much as the training group did in a span of about two weeks. Other limitations include the lack of behavioral evidence of skill improvement and the lack of a long-term follow-up.
This study is best viewed as a pilot effort showing that brief, online training in person-centered methods is feasible and may lead to improvements in the ability to help distressed individuals. Future research could examine the training in a randomized control trial, with a long-term follow-up.
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Jones, S. (2004). Putting the person into person-centered and immediate emotional support: Emotional change and perceived helper competence as outcomes of comforting in helping situations. Communication Research, 31(3), 338-360. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650204263436
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