What is the Person-Centred Approach?

The Person-Centred Approach was developed by Carl Rogers (1902-1987). At the heart of this approach is the basic trust in human beings and in the movement of every organism toward constructive fulfilment of its, his, or her possibilities [from Carl R. Rogers. A Way of Being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980, p.117].

Rogers stated that 'Individuals have within themselves vast resources for self-understanding and for altering their self-concepts, basic attitudes, and self-directed behaviour; these resources can be tapped if a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided.' [from Carl R. Rogers. A Way of Being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980, p.115-117].

He pointed to three core conditions as providing a growth-promoting climate. These core conditions are: congruence, unconditional positive regard and empathy (see below). Rogers believed that when these core conditions are provided, movement in a constructive direction will occur in the person receiving these conditions.

Rogers advanced an approach to psychotherapy and counselling that, at the time (1940s – 1960s), was considered extremely radical if not revolutionary.

Originally described as non-directive, this therapy moved away from the idea that the therapist was the expert and towards a theory that trusted the innate tendency (known as the actualising tendency) of human beings to find fulfilment of their personal potentials. An important part of this theory is that in a particular psychological environment, the fulfilment of personal potentials includes sociability, the need to be with other human beings and a desire to know and be known by other people. It also includes being open to experience, being trusting and trustworthy, being curious about the world, being creative and compassionate.

The psychological environment described by Rogers was one where a person felt free from threat, both physically and psychologically. This environment could be achieved when being in a relationship with a person who was deeply understanding (empathic), accepting (having unconditional positive regard) and genuine (congruent).

Although initially developed as an approach to psychotherapy (eventually becoming known as client/person-centred therapy/counselling), Rogers and his colleagues came to believe that their ideas could be transferred to other areas where people were in relationships. For example teaching, management, childcare, patient care, conflict resolution.

Today there are many people who, although not working as psychotherapists and counsellors, use the work of Rogers as guiding principles in their day-to-day work and relationships.

At one level, Rogers' theory and work is very simple to describe. As many people would attest, both those using the approach and those working as person-therapists/counsellors, it can be very difficult to put into practice because the approach does not use techniques but relies on the personal qualities of the therapist/person to build a non-judgemental and empathic relationship.

In his seminal 1957 paper, The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change, Rogers wrote that:

For constructive personality change to occur, it is necessary that these conditions exist and continue over a period of time:
1. Two persons are in psychological contact.
2. The first, whom we shall term the client, is in a state of incongruence, being vulnerable or anxious.
3. The second person, whom we shall term the therapist, is congruent or integrated in the relationship.
4. The therapist experiences unconditional positive regard for the client.
5. The therapist experiences an empathic understanding of the client's internal frame of reference and endeavors to communicate this experience to the client.
6. The communication to the client of the therapist's empathic understanding and unconditional positive regard is to a minimal degree achieved.

However, it is the three so-called 'core conditions' of congruence, unconditional positive regard and empathy for which the person-centred approach is best known.

"The first element could be called genuineness, realness, or congruence. The more the therapist is himself or herself in the relationship, putting up no professional front or personal facade, the greater is the likelihood that the client will change and grow in a constructive manner. This means that the therapist is openly being the feelings and attitudes that are flowing within at the moment. The term "transparent" catches the flavor of this condition: the therapist makes himself or herself transparent to the client; the client can see right through what the therapist is in the relationship; the client experiences no holding back on the part of the therapist. As for the therapist, what he or she is experiencing is available to awareness, can be lived in the relationship, and can be communicated, if appropriate. Thus, there is a close matching, or congruence, between what is being experienced at the gut level, what is present in awareness, and what is expressed to the client.

The second attitude of importance in creating a climate for change is acceptance, or caring, or prizing--what I have called 'unconditional positive regard.' When the therapist is experiencing a positive, acceptant attitude toward whatever the client is at that moment, therapeutic movement or change is more likely to occur. The therapist is willing for the client to be whatever immediate feeling is going on--confusion, resentment, fear, anger, courage, love, or pride. Such caring on the part of the therapist is nonpossessive. The therapist prizes the client in a total rather than a conditional way.

The third facilitative aspect of the relationship is empathic understanding. This means that the therapist senses accurately the feelings and personal meanings that the client is experiencing and communicates this understanding to the client. When functioning best, the therapist is so much inside the private world of the other that he or she can clarify not only the meanings of which the client is aware but even those just below the level of awareness. This kind of sensitive, active listening is exceedingly rare in our lives. We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know."

[from Carl R. Rogers. A Way of Being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980, p.115-116]

Useful Reading

On Becoming a Person. Carl Rogers (1961). Published by Constable & Company
A Way of Being. Carl Rogers (1980). Published by Routledge
An Invitation to Client-Centred Psychology. Tony Merry (1995). Published by Whurr