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The Mister Rogers Effect: 7 Secrets to Bringing Out the Best in Yourself and Others from America’s Beloved Neighbor


There are probably neighbors you have today – or you’ve had in the past – whom you don’t want to emulate.  They’re the people you didn’t click with and didn’t form relationships with.  However, most of those who grew up with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood would love to understand The Mister Rogers Effect: 7 Secrets to Bringing Out the Best in Yourself and Others from America’s Beloved Neighbor.  Fred Rogers seemed to have that effect on us – bringing out our best.  How he did it was a mystery, but the fact that it happened would bring us warmth.

The Principles

A simple question led to the identification of seven psychological principles that were embodied in Rogers’ work.  The author, Anita Knight Kuhnley, trains counselors.  She found that Rogers resonated with her students – even before she was able to articulate the principles:

  • Listen First
  • Validate Feelings
  • Pause and Think
  • Show Gratitude
  • Develop Empathy
  • Practice Acceptance
  • Establish Security

Listen First

“Can you hear me now?” is a famous quote from Verizon commercials.  It speaks to the telephone connection between two (or more) parties.  It speaks to the problems that we have in communicating with others – framed in the limitations of technology.  We take for granted that the person we’re speaking with – across the room or across the globe – can hear us.  We expect that the words we use will be converted to pressure waves that they can decode.  More than that, we assume that the words we use will mean the same thing to them that they mean to us.  We expect that the other person will hear and understand.

Unfortunately, we’re so overwhelmed by communications (see The Organized Mind) and notifications from our technology (see Alone Together) that the assumption of listening is shattered before we even enter the realm of the other person’s mind and the distractions that occur inside their head.  (See Motivational Interviewing.)

Though we assume listening exists and expect it, we know that it takes focus and skills.  Motivational Interviewing and The Ethnographic Interview both focus on the ability to listen to others as the foundation, but it’s hard.  It’s hard to shut off the torrent of thoughts and ideas to be present enough in the moment with the other person to listen carefully.  (If you speak with children, you may want to look at How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk as well.)

Listening isn’t really the goal.  It’s the first step, but the real goal is to understand the other person, to understand the way they view the world and process the things that happen to and around them.  Listening is just the tool we use to achieve that understanding.

Validate Feelings

“Don’t cry.”  It’s a sentence uttered by parents everywhere.  While intended to bring comfort, it belies a simple truth.  The parent isn’t comfortable with the child’s emotions.  In the land of learning, children are taught that emotions are scary to others, and they should be kept to oneself.  Rogers’ perspective is that feelings should be mentionable and manageable.  We shouldn’t hide our feelings under a rock.

Some parents believe that they should be there to protect their children.  If their child is feeling pain (even psychological pain), they should be able to solve it.  The fact that this is an unreasonable and unnecessary burden doesn’t make it any lighter.  We know that chicks need to break their shells and sea turtles need to fight their way to the water, because if they don’t, they won’t survive very long.  (See Posttraumatic Growth.)  Struggle is a part of the animal kingdom – all the way up to humans.

There are two key issues with the failure to validate feelings.  First, it will drive people away from secure attachment towards insecure attachment with the corresponding impacts.  (See Attached.)  Second, we have an innate need to be understood.  (See The Righteous Mind.)  When someone cannot or will not understand our feelings, it can lead to loneliness.  (See Loneliness.)  Even if you can’t reach the level of understanding, simply being willing to sit with someone to help them feel less alone can be immensely helpful.

Pause and Think

In a world of rapid swipes on our phone to send away new stories, videos, and people, we’ve almost engineered a world in which we don’t want people to pause and think.  We’ve encouraged people to fill every moment of their day.  Newspapers struggle, because people have every form and topic of news at their fingertips, so they need not spend an instant of boredom or encounter a moment where they might have to think.

Even at home, people often have a television on generating a constant stream of noise to block out the potential to stop and think.  Today, it seems like we’re more afraid of what thoughts that we might have if we paused to think than we are of being in an accident.  Why are our thoughts so scary to us?

In a conversation with Chuck Underwood (author of America’s Generations), I was struck by the different in the way we processed information.  To be the kind of scholar that Underwood is, you must pay attention to the news, making clippings and notes of the events that may shape a generation.  Conversely, I rarely look at the news.  I spend more time diving deep into the current books about a topic – and, quite frequently, going back to their sources to understand how the author’s perspectives were shaped.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in The Little Prince, says “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”  (Translated from French.)  Rogers had the original French version on the wall of his office.  The surface things that we see when we’re going so fast through our days aren’t really the full experience.  Finding our way to the heart of the matter takes time for us to pause and think.

Show Gratitude

There’s value to looking for the positive in things.  Rick Hansen in Hardwiring Happiness focuses on what we can do to generally think about things in a more positive way – including the addition of gratitude.  Dan Richo in How to Be an Adult in Relationships explains the value of appreciation – that is, gratitude for other people.

Develop Empathy

Empathy isn’t as complicated as people make it out to be.  Empathy is “I understand this about you.”  It can be cognitively, understanding background, hobbies, or aspirations.  It can be – and is most frequently used in conjunction with – understanding how another person feels.  Empathy is sometimes confused with sympathy, which is substantially different.  Sympathy doesn’t express understanding of the other person, but rather it understands their undesirable situation – “It sucks to be you.”  (See Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism for more.)

Sometimes, even empathy gets a bad reputation.  However, as Against Empathy explains, it’s not empathy itself that’s the problem, it’s what people do with that empathy.

Practice Acceptance

The Dalai Lama is known for compassion – which is appropriate.  (See The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness for more on the Dalai Lama.)  What most people don’t realize is that acceptance is an important raw material for compassion (see An Appeal to the World).  You can understand someone, but until you accept them, it’s hard to desire to resolve their problems.  That’s why it’s not just empathy that’s required, it’s acceptance as well.

In After the Ball, we learn that acceptance is a pathway towards eliminating fear and hatred.  If we can practice acceptance, we’ll be less likely to find reasons to divide.  Rogers is well known for showing himself and a black actor playing an officer putting their feet into the same kiddie pool as a sign that the race inequality wasn’t right.

Establish Security

We can’t exist fully as humans unless we can feel safe.  When people are driven with fear, they don’t operate at their best, as Amy Edmondson explains in The Fearless Organization.  If we want to experience the best that humanity has to offer, we need to create safety.  Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone speaks to the erosion of social capital that has decreased our overall sense of safety.  (He continues this line of thought in Our Kids.)

One of the greatest things that we can offer to others are the principles of Fred Rogers to extend to them The Mister Rogers Effect.