The History Of The Person-Centered Approach
by Howard Kirschenbaum
Portions of this article are adapted from Kirschenbaum (2003, 2004)
The “person-centered approach” began in the United States in the 1940s with the work of a former ministry-student-turned-psychologist named Carl R. Rogers (1902-1987). He was trained in clinical psychology at Columbia University in the 1920s when the field was in its infancy. Psychiatry at that time was enamored with Freudian psychoanalysis, and the child guidance movement employed many directive techniques for working with children and school students. Psychologists and clinical social workers were hungry for practical methods for helping children and adults with psychological, emotional and “social adjustment” problems (Kirschenbaum, 2009).
Rogers’ training was eclectic, with exposure to psychoanalysis, testing and measurement, and the techniques of child guidance. At Columbia, he was particularly influenced by the progressive education movement with its emphasis on helping students to become self-directed learners and work cooperatively in groups.
From 1928-40, Rogers worked as director of the Child Study Department of the Rochester Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and then director of the new Rochester Guidance Center. These years in Rochester provided a laboratory in which he worked with thousands of troubled children and adults and gradually developed his own ideas about counseling and psychotherapy. At the same time, others were developing their own methods for working in clinical settings with children and adults. Rogers was particularly influenced by students of Otto Rank, especially Jessie Taft (1933) whose “relationship therapy” shifted emphasis from past content to a focus on the patient’s self-insight and self-acceptance within the therapeutic relationship.
The Non-Directive Method
When Rogers became a professor of psychology at the University of Ohio in 1940, his students challenged him to articulate his own views on effective psychotherapy. He did this in 1942 in his groundbreaking book Counseling and Psychotherapy. Here Rogers popularized the term “client” for the recipient of counseling and psychotherapy, a first step in moving away from a medical model of mental illness. In this book, Rogers also introduced his “non-directive” method. He credited others with working in a similar “newer direction” (Watson, 1940), but his own description of effective counseling and psychotherapy was more clearly articulated and more extreme than other models, and the so-called newer direction in therapy became identified with Rogers. His method was based on a core hypothesis about human growth and personality change, which he summarized a few years later (Rogers, 1950):
This hypothesis is that the client has within himself the capacity, latent if not evident, to understand those aspects of his life and of himself which are causing him pain, and the capacity and the tendency to reorganize himself and his relationship to life in the direction of self-actualization and maturity in such a way as to bring a greater degree of internal comfort. The function of the therapist is to create such a psychological atmosphere as will permit this capacity and this strength to become effective rather than latent or potential” (p. 443).
While other therapies might profess a similar belief, Rogers’ method of creating the therapeutic psychological atmosphere was radically different from other approaches commonly employed. Rogers’ initial non-directive method totally avoided questions, interpretation, suggestions, advice, or other directive techniques. Rather it relied exclusively on a process of carefully listening to the client, accepting the client for who he or she is—no matter how confused or anti-social that might be at the moment—and skillfully reflecting back the client’s feelings. Accepting the client would not extend to violating boundaries or destructive behavior in the counseling session.) Reflecting back the client’s feelings with full acceptance would create a level of safety for deeper exploration and a mirror in which the client could further understand and reflect upon his or her own experience, which would lead the client to further insight and positive action.
At Ohio State, Rogers and his graduate student Bernard Covner began recording counseling interviews, and Counseling and Psychotherapy included the first published, verbatim transcript of a full psychotherapy case. In subsequent years at Ohio State and then at the University of Chicago from 1945-57, where Rogers established a world-renowned counseling center, he and his students recorded and transcribed thousands of hours of therapy sessions. This enabled them to study the process of counseling and psychotherapy in meticulous detail.
Gradually Rogers came to understand that the counselor’s attitudes were as important as his particular techniques. The techniques or methods were the way to implement the facilitative attitudes of accepting and understanding. Moreover, if these attitudes of the counselor were not genuine, all the reflecting of feelings in the world would not be of much help to the client. But when the counselor was able to genuinely accept the client in the moment, and to enter into the client’s frame of reference and convey an empathic understanding to the client in an accepting manner, therapy became increasingly powerful and effective. Because of this intense focus on the client’s inner experience, Rogers began to use the term “client-centered” to describe his approach to counseling and psychotherapy. His and his colleagues’ book Client-Centered Therapy (1951) exerted a major influence on the helping professions.
Still later Rogers clarified that it was the therapeutic relationship, which the attitudes helped create, that was most growth-producing, and he continued to refine the three “core conditions” in the client-centered relationship that brought about positive change in clients. First is to accept the client as he or she is, as a person of inherent worth possessing both positive and negative feelings and impulses. Rogers adopted a term from his student Standal (1954) and called this acceptance and prizing of the person “unconditional positive regard.” Second is empathy —“the therapist’s willingness and sensitive ability to understand the client’s thoughts, feelings and struggles from the client’s point of view…to adopt his frame of reference” (Rogers, 1949, p. 84.). Third is congruence—to be genuine, real, authentic, or congruent in the relationship. Rogers (1956) wrote, “It is only as [the therapist] is, in that relationship, a unified person, with his experienced feeling, his awareness of his feelings, and his expression of those feelings all congruent or similar, that he is most able to facilitate therapy” (pp. 199-206).
In one of his most important essays (1957a), Rogers wrote that when a counselor communicates this congruence, unconditional positive regard, and empathic understanding so that the client perceives them at least to a minimal degree, then the “necessary and sufficient conditions for therapeutic personality change” are present. Rogers argued and demonstrated that the client has within himself the ability and tendency to understand his needs and problems, to gain insight, to reorganize his personality, and to take constructive action. What clients need, said Rogers, is not the judgment, interpretation, advice or direction of experts, but supportive counselors and therapists to help them rediscover and trust their own inner experience, achieve their own insights, and set their own direction.
Rogers and his colleagues asserted these principles of effective therapy not only in their writings and teaching and in Rogers’ many recorded and widely available, audio and video counseling sessions with clients, but through empirical research. Over two decades, from the early forties, Rogers and his colleagues at the University of Chicago and then at University of Wisconsin conducted more research on psychotherapy process and outcomes than had ever been undertaken before (e.g., Rogers & Dymond, 1954; Rogers, Gendlin, Kiesler & Truax, 1967). Rogers and his team devised and used numerous instruments for measuring the variables of client-centered therapy and its outcomes, including measuring the therapist’s acceptance, empathy and congruence; the client’s expression of feelings, insight, self-concept, self-acceptance, and self ideal; the clients’ positive actions, emotional maturity, social adjustment, and numerous other variables. In 1956 the American Psychological Association (1957) awarded Rogers its first “Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award”
for developing an original method to objectify the description and analysis of the psychotherapeutic process, for formulating a testable theory of psychotherapy and its effects on personality and behavior, and for extensive systematic research to exhibit the value of the method and explore and test the implications of the theory. His imagination, persistence, and flexible adaptation of scientific method … have moved this area of psychological interest within the boundaries of scientific psychology” (p. 128).
As the award citation suggests, Rogers was interested in psychological theory and in the effects of therapy on personality as well as behavior. Building upon the Gestalt and phenomenological movements in psychology, and work of his students Victor Raimy (1943, 1948) and Donald Snygg and Arthur Combs (1949), he developed a “self-theory” of personality that is still included in many psychology textbooks. The theory describes how an individual’s concept of self emerges, how the process of socialization causes individuals to distrust their feelings and sense of self, how experiences which are inconsistent with the concept of self become denied and distorted causing personal distress and psychological problems, and how the therapeutic relationship can help the individual restructure the sense of self, allowing previously denied and distorted experience into awareness, leading to reduction in stress and openness to new experience and change (Rogers, 1951, 1959).
Thus the client-centered approach distinguished itself by having both theoretical and research support for its description of effective counseling and psychotherapy. Later, Rogers and his colleagues continued to extend the theory, including: a theory of experiencing and the process of therapeutic change (Gendlin, 1958; Rogers, 1958; Rogers, et al, 1967); a description of the “fully functioning person”, including openness to experience, trust in one’s organism, an internal locus of evaluation, dropping of facades, genuineness in communication, creativity and openness to change (Rogers, 1961); and finally, speculatively, how the actualizing tendency in individuals mirrors a “formative tendency” in the universe (Rogers, 1980).
After leaving academia in 1963, Rogers moved to California and joined the staff of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute and then co-created the Center for Studies of the Person. For the next quarter-century, Rogers and his colleagues continued to develop the applications of the client-centered approach to diverse fields—education, group work, business, leadership, creativity, personal relationships, cross-cultural communication, intergroup conflict resolution, even international peacekeeping. In each case Rogers demonstrated how the facilitative conditions of positive regard, empathy, and congruence could unleash growth, creativity, learning, and healing in children, students, group members, patients and others.
Applied to education, his work on “student-centered learning” illustrated how a teacher or, as he preferred, a “facilitator of learning” could provide the trust, understanding and realness to free her students to pursue significant learning. His work coincided with and contributed to the “open education” movement in the United States, Great Britain and elsewhere. His book Freedom to Learn (Rogers, 1969) went through two new editions over the next 25 years (including posthumously Rogers & Freiberg, 1994).
His book on marriage (Rogers, 1972) used case studies of couples to explore new forms of relationships that young people were implementing in the 70s and argued for the importance of openness, communication and role flexibility in couple relationships.
But most of all, during the late 60s and the 70s, Rogers and his colleagues explored the applications of client-centered thinking to groups and group leadership. In the 1940s and 50s he, Thomas Gordon (1951) and colleagues at the University of Chicago had experimented with “group-centered leadership,” whereby the leader’s acceptance, understanding, genuineness, and willingness to let the group set its own directions stimulated great energy, creativity and productivity among group members. In the late 1950s and 60s, Gordon, Richard Farson, Rogers and associates extended this approach to what Rogers (1970) called the “basic encounter group”, an unstructured group experience in which so-called “normal” group members came to greater self-understanding, spontaneity, improved communication, and genuineness in relationships. Rogers led scores of encounter groups in professional, business, religious, medical, academic, personal growth, and organizational settings. Later Rogers and his colleagues used the same approach to facilitating larger “communities”, including audiences and workshops comprised of hundreds of participants.
The Person Centered Approach
Recognizing the ever-widening applicability of the client-centered, student-centered, group-centered approach, Rogers and his colleagues at Center for Studies of the Person increasingly used a broader term—person-centered—to describe their work. Others felt that “person-centered” was a better term than “client-centered” to describe the therapeutic relationship, which, after all, is not just centered on the client but is a relationship between two persons. (In the counseling literature, “person-centered” and “client-centered” are often used interchangeably today.)
As Rogers explored the applications of the person-centered approach to all human relationships, he increasingly recognized its political implications—political not in the sense of partisan politics, but in how power and influence are distributed in all human relationships. In addition to exploring these implications in Carl Rogers on Personal Power (1977), in the 1970s and 80s Rogers utilized the person-centered approach to resolving intergroup and international conflict. Through workshops and filmed encounter groups with multi-cultural populations, such as Catholics and Protestants from Northern Ireland and blacks and whites in South Africa, Rogers demonstrated how positive regard, empathy, and congruence—the same growth-promoting conditions useful in all helping relationships—can enhance communication and understanding among antagonistic groups. He and his colleagues led person-centered workshops for groups of 100 to 800 participants around the world, including Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Hungary, Soviet Union (Rogers, 1987), and other newly emerging democracies (Kirschenbaum, 2009). They organized a gathering of international leaders in Rust, Austria, about resolving tensions in Central America—an experience that vividly demonstrated the potential of the person-centered approach for resolving international conflict (Rogers, 1986). In acknowledgement of his efforts to bring about international understanding and conflict resolution, although he was not ultimately selected, Carl Rogers was nominated posthumously in 1987 for the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Testimonials suggested that these efforts in professional development and citizen diplomacy helped foster peace and democratization in several countries. As a Japanese counselor, Minoru Hatase, had explained, in the 1960s Rogers helped “teach me . . . to be democratic and not authoritative” (Kirschenbaum, 2009, p. 500). His life’s work demonstrated how supportive, growth-producing conditions can unleash healing, responsible self-direction, and creativity in individuals and groups in all walks of life. As countries around the world strive to resolve intergroup tensions and practice self-government and self-determination, many have recognized in the person-centered approach not only useful methods for helping professionals, but also a positive, person-centered, empowering, democratic philosophy consistent with their national aspirations.
Arguably the person-centered approach is unique among therapeutic approaches in having clear political implications—reversing traditional, hierarchal professional roles with more egalitarian relationships between helpers and clients, teachers and students, leaders and group members, and empowering counselors and therapists to work for conflict resolution and social change in their own communities and wider world. At Rogers’ memorial service (and earlier, 1975) Richard Farson described Carl Rogers as… “a quiet revolutionary.”
For many practitioners and scholars around the world, the person-centered approach as described by Carl Rogers remains the person-centered approach. In counseling and psychotherapy, this approach may be characterized by:
- A belief in the client’s “self-actualizing tendency,” that is, an innate motivation to grow and mature and realize its self-interest, especially when provided with a supportive environment.
- A reliance on the therapeutic relationship, characterized by the core conditions of congruence, empathy and unconditional positive regard, for therapeutic progress
- A continuing focus on the client’s inner experience, hence…
- An absence of directive techniques or perspectives introduced by the therapist, such as questions, interpretation, advice, coaching, and the like (except for relatively rare expressions of counselor congruence)
- An avoidance of diagnosis, treatment plans and other therapist-centered methods that reflect the medical model of mental illness
- A view of the client as a whole person in process of “becoming,” that is, becoming a more fully-functioning person; therefore, counseling focuses not simply on a presenting problem but on more holistic change, so the client can continue to grow and exercise self-direction beyond the therapeutic relationship.
One might say these characteristics describe “traditional”, “classical”, or “orthodox” client-centered or person-centered counseling and psychotherapy. For many other practitioners, researchers and scholars influenced by these ideas, the term person-centered has been expanded or even abandoned. Many believe it is possible to introduce certain techniques to further client self-exploration while still being largely described by the term person-centered. Thus, for example, Natalie Rogers (1993), Carl Rogers’ daughter, developed “person-centered expressive therapy” which engages clients and group members in the creative arts and employs empathic listening to help them explore the meaning of their creative expression and its implication for their lives. Eugene Gendlin (1978, 1993) developed “focusing” and “focusing-oriented, experiential psychotherapy” as a method for helping clients tune in to their “inner experiencing” in greater depth, while continuing empathic listening as a primary method for furthering that exploration. Leslie Greenberg, Robert Elliott and others developed “process-experiential”, then “emotion-focused therapy” (Greenberg, Rice & Elliott, 1993; Elliott & Greenberg, 2001), which combined Gestalt and other techniques to guide the therapeutic process while still valuing the primacy of the facilitative relationship. Other examples of person-centered offshoots would include child-centered play therapy (e.g., Landreth, 1991) and “pre-therapy” developed by Gary Prouty (1999). All these approaches have identified themselves as being closely related to the classic conceptions of the person-centered approach and have significant followings around the world.
Thus there is some controversy in the person-centered world today as to whether “person-centered” should be used exclusively to describe Rogers’ traditional or classic approach to counseling and psychotherapy, or whether there is room for “many tribes” in the person-centered nation (Warner, 2000).
After Rogers’ death in 1987, the person-centered movement continued to spread around the world. In some countries, particularly in Europe, the person-centered approach has become one of the leading approaches to counseling and psychotherapy—with universities and training institutes turning out person-centered practitioners, robust research programs, government recognition for licensure, and reimbursement by insurance companies. In some countries, such as the United Kingdom, classic person-centered counseling has been the predominant mode; in others, like Germany, sub-orientations of the person-centered movement have commanded greater allegiance. There are scores of person-centered, professional organizations around the world, numbering in the hundreds to the thousands. One study (Kirschenbaum and Jourdan, 2005) showed that in the 15 years after Rogers’ death, there were more publications on Rogers and the person-centered approach than in the 40 years before. This trend has continued.
In the United States, the person-centered approach is taught as a foundational tool for all counseling and therapy, but is sometimes viewed as passé or insufficient for the real work of therapy. The centennial of Rogers’ birth in 2002 and the growing number of books and DVD’s on the person-centered approach have served to reawaken interest in the approach in the U.S. and beyond. The Association for the Development of the Person-Centered Approach is working to revive interest in the person-centered approach among a new generation of scholars, students and practitioners.
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