Jerold D. Bozarth
University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia
Barbara Temaner Brodley
Illinois School of Professional Psychology, Chicago
This paper was presented at the First Annual Meeting of the Association for the Development of the Person-Centered Approach (ADPCA), at the University of Chicago, International House, in September, 1986.
The Person-Centered Approach
Applications of the person-centered approach – in psychotherapy, group work, organizations, communities, businesses, educational settings, clinics, the fields of medicine and nursing, couple work, families, pastoral counseling, etc. – share a common core of values and theory.
The Core Values and Theory
Rogers (1986, p. 115) has recently stated the most basic and common elements in the person-centered approach as follows:
The central hypothesis of this approach can be briefly stated. It is that the individual has within him or her self vast resources for self-understanding, for altering her or his self-concept, attitudes, and self-directed behavior–and that these resources can be tapped if only a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided.
There are three conditions which constitute this growth-promoting climate, whether we are speaking of the relationship between therapist and client, parent and child, leader and group, teacher and student, or administrator and staff. The conditions apply, in fact, in any situation in which the development of the person is a goal. I have described these conditions at length in previous writings (Rogers, 1959, 1961), I present here a brief summary from the point of view of psychotherapy, but the description applies to all of the foregoing relationships.
The first element has to do with genuineness, realness, or congruence. The more the therapist is him 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 ….
The second attitude of importance in creating a climate for change is acceptance or caring or prizing–unconditional positive regard. It means that when the therapist is experiencing a positive, non-judgmental, accepting attitude toward whatever the client is at that moment, therapeutic movement or change is more likely ….
The third facilitative aspect of the relationship is empathic understanding. This means that the therapist senses accurately the feelings and personal meanings that are being experienced by the client and communicates this acceptant understanding to the client.
We might stop with this clear statement of the essence of the person-centered approach. We believe, however, that there are some additional assertions that surround, support or follow from Rogers’ central statement of the hypothesis of the inherent growth principle and the theory of the facilitative conditions for constructive change.
The Supporting Assertions
Human nature is basically constructive. It is not destructive
The basic nature of the person is constructive, growthful, developing and self-preserving, not basically destructive. Destructive behavior and feelings are manifestations of the growthful and self-preserving person under unfavorable circumstances. (Like the crooked twists and turns a plant may take endeavoring to face the sun.) The aggressive and destructive capabilities are interpreted as resources which the person brings into action in striving to realize and/or preserve himself under difficult, even terrible, circumstances.
Human nature is basically social
The human person is basically social – protective, caring and empathic toward other persons. The dependence of human infants upon prolonged physical and emotional care for their survival, the dependence of adult persons upon others for their food, shelter, companionship and culture, and the innate capacity of humans to infer the experience of others like themselves to be similar to their own experience – empathy – all of these things are involved in the innate social nature of man.
Self-regard is a basic human need and self-regard, autonomy and individual sensitivity are to be protected in helping relationships
The hypothesis of a powerful, inborn growth principle in human beings leads to an extreme position of respect for and confidence in persons. Persons are autonomous, resourceful, sensitive and have an important sense of self-regard. Along with the feelings of respect for and trust in these qualities of the person, the person-centered approach entails a consciousness and mindfulness, in relationships, to not violate these qualities of the person and to protect and support them. In interactions and in situations that affect others, one is attuned to the values of the other person and to the things the person identifies with his self-regard and self-respect. Self-regard is a basic human need.
Persons are basically motivated to perceive realistically and to pursue the truth of situations
Human beings have a basic motivation to perceive reality, to be aware, and to grasp the truth of situations they are in. Humankind has, in effect, a scientific nature. Perceptions occur, hypotheses are formed to account for the perceptions. And subsequent perceptions confirm, modify or contradict these hypotheses. This is the way persons proceed in their interaction with the world outside themselves and the world of their own feelings, sensations and experiences.
Perceptions are a major determinant of personal experience and behavior, and, thus, to understand a person one must attempt to understand them empathically
We are always viewing realities through a lens composed of our unique mental capabilities, our past experiences, and our immediate conditions and motivations. To understand another person requires entering into that person’s world of perceptions, interpretations and perspectives.
Individuals, not groups, are participants in a relationship
When promoting growth in the context of more than one person (e.g., couples, families, group therapies, organizations, etc.) , the person-centered approach remains primarily committed to promoting the growth of individuals. This assertion relates to two multiperson-connected issues – one, the interpretation of group realities and two, the relation of the individual in a group endeavor.
One – experiences may occur which can be characterized in terms of a group reality or in terms of patterns of interaction among participants. It is person-centered in these contexts to be mindful to relate to each individual, not to the group as an entity.
Group realities are analogous to unconscious forces in that identifying them involves a great deal of guesswork and it is difficult to achieve validation for the guesses. They are also similar to unconscious forces in that their interpretation may be felt as an uninvited intrusion into the motives or feelings of the individuals involved. Impressions of group realities are most person-centered when they are offered and owned as individual perceptions and then the others are invited to share their perceptions, if any, of the perceived reality.
Two – when the stated purpose of an endeavor is the fostering of improvement in the well-being of a family, group, organization – any supra-individual entity – the person-centered approach maintains the primary goal of relating to and helping individuals. Planning or setting-up of situations for groups of people in a person-centered manner involves awareness of and information from the individuals to be involved, not reference to the organization or to a generalized conception of the individual – some average or typical specimen. When help is being given in relation to groups it is also person-centered to provide some forum for and the encouragement to self- representation. The person-centered approach fosters the development of individuals, regardless of the other aims or circumstances – and pains are taken to assure that individuals are not sacrificed or injured for group goals.
Belief in the concept of the whole person
Having the perspective of the whole person influences one’s interaction with other persons through the attitude it engenders. Having this concept involves having in mind that while a person is acting and being (at a given time and place) in a specific concrete reality, at the same time, the person has an experienced context of past experiences, of perceptions that are unique to him of the present situation, of expectations of a future, of capabilities and awarenesses that are not totally present, and a context of potentialities, experienced or not, that are not yet part of his life. This awareness of the concept of the whole person assumes the person has grown, is growing and changing, and will continue to grow and change in the future. As one relates to the person in the moments of the present and accepts and values the person in these present moments, we also have this sense of the whole person not being totally revealed to us and that the meanings of what is apparent may not be the total meanings.
There is always a presently unknown-known-to-be-there more of a person than what we see. The concept of the whole person stimulates a variety of feelings towards a person–humility, patience, tolerance, optimism, trust and acceptance and, often, wonder. And this concept stimulates a striving, or motivation, to understand and enter into the person’s world to discover the person in his development.
Persons are realizing their potentialities and protecting themselves as best they can at any given time and under the internal and external circumstances that exist at that time
The attitude of acceptance, unconditional positive regard -is partly predicated on the belief that persons are doing the best they can at any given moment under the external and internal circumstances of their existence at that time. Persons are not, characteristically, totally in control of themselves nor totally self-determining. From a person-centered perspective, it is appropriate neither to blame nor to give full credit to, people for what they do. There is, instead, a pervasive tendency to try to understand the factors at work in a person when their behavior is felt to be, from some vantage point, a problem, wrong or bad. We are responsible for what we do, even when we cannot help it. And we exercise responsibility, in part, by pursuing understandings of ourself as a means to change the circumstances, internal or external, that contribute to what we feel is wrong. The person-centered attitude is – ‘we do the best we can, if it is not so good there is a process that can bring change’. And in this way we take responsibility even though we do not have complete control.
Belief in abdication of the pursuit of control or authority over other persons and, instead, a commitment to share power and control
It is a major value in person-centered philosophy to abdicate seeking control over other persons. This includes a mindfulness about any imbalance in power in dyadic relationships and an attempt to equalize the power through awareness, dialogue and procedures that are corrective of the imbalance. In all group situations, as well, it is person-centered to share power or share control as equally as is possible with all others involved. This is a commitment to democratic and egalitarian solutions to group or societal problems. The person-centered approach tends, also, in this abdication of authoritarian means and avoidance, where possible, of hierarchical structures of power – to foster the least possible centralized organization to accomplish the goals of persons in groups or communities.
The core values of the person-centered approach – first, belief in the inherent growth principle and a “profound regard for the wisdom and constructive capacity inherent in the human organism” (Rogers, 1986Ap 3) , and second, the theory of attitudinal facilitative conditions that create “a safe climate where persons can gain insight, can change and grow and expand (and) empower themselves ” (Rogers, 1986,p ) – most essentially differentiate the person-centered approach from other approaches.
If a helping person deeply understands, absorbs and accepts these core values he will experience conflict if he has to or is drawn from within to apply other approaches. This conflict is illustrated vividly by Rogers (1977) .
Rogers describes asking a psychologist who was questioning him in a meeting what the questioner meant by politics of client- centered therapy. The psychologist replied:
I spent three years of graduate school learning to be an expert in clinical psychology. I learned to make accurate diagnostic judgments. I learned the various techniques of altering the subject’s attitudes and behavior. I learned subtle modes of manipulation under the labels of interpretation and guidance. Then I began to read your material, which upset everything I had learned. You were saying that the power rests not in my mind but in his organism. You completely reversed the relationship of power and control which had built up in me over three years. And then you say there is no politics in the client-centered approach (p 3).
We are concerned that this conflict and the issue of the location of power is not sufficiently experienced and so does not sufficiently influence people. We think there are people who want to and who are trying to operate on person-centered values, but who have not fully accepted this most basic person-centered value – that authority about the person rests in the person not in an outside expert. Or, if they do accept the value, they do not recognize the implication in it that they are not free to intervene and direct when they are acting as helpers.
It is when, no matter how subtly, the helping person begins to presume the authority of knowing better, than the person being helped –what hurts, what directions the person should go, or what problems are crucial to be solved–that the fundamental person-centered values are violated. It is, from our perspective, when the helping person usurps authority over the experience and autonomy of the helped person that the foundation of the approach is distorted and lost.
Rogers, Carl R. (1959) “A Theory of Therapy, Personality, and Interpersonal Relationships, as Developed in the Client-centered Framework”, S. Koch (ed.) , Psychology: A Study of a Science, Vol III, Formulations of the Person and the Social Context. New York: McGraw-Hill, pp 184-256.
Rogers, Carl R. (1961) On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. Boston. Houghton Mifflin.
Rogers, Carl R. (1977) Carl Rogers on Personal Power. Delacorte Press, New York.
Rogers, Carl R. (1986) “Client-Centered Approach to Therapy”, in I.L. kutash and A. Wolf (eds.) , Psychotherapist’s Casebook: Theory and Technique in Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Rogers, Carl R. (1986) “A Comment from Carl Rogers” Person-Centered Review, Vol. 1, No.1.