The idea of client-centered therapy might seem redundant – after all, when is therapy not centered on the client?
This term seems redundant now, but when it was first developed, it was a novel idea.
Before the humanistic therapies were introduced in the 1950s, the only real forms of therapy available were behavioral or psychodynamic (McLeod, 2015). These approaches focused on the subconscious or unconscious experience of clients rather than what is “on the surface.”
Many of today’s popular forms of therapy are more client-centered than the psychotherapy of the early 20th century, but there is still a specific form of therapy that is set apart from others due to its focus on the client and aversion to giving the client any type of direction.
“He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.”
So, how does this Lao Tzu quote apply to client-centered therapy? Read on to learn about how knowing one’s self and others is key to the person-centered approach.
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What is Client-Centered Therapy? A Definition
Client-Centered Therapy, also known as Client-Centered Counseling or Person-Centered Therapy, was developed in the 1940s and 50s as a response to the less personal, more “clinical” therapy that dominated the field.
It is a non-directive form of talk therapy, meaning that it allows the client to lead the conversation and does not attempt to steer the client in any way. This approach rests on one vital quality: unconditional positive regard. This means that the therapist refrains from judging the client for any reason, providing a source of complete acceptance and support (Cherry, 2017).
There are three key qualities that make for a good client-centered therapist:
- Unconditional Positive Regard: as mentioned above, unconditional positive regard is an important practice for the client-centered therapist. The therapist needs to accept the client for who they are and provide support and care no matter what they are going through.
- Genuineness: a client-centered therapist needs to feel comfortable sharing his or her feelings with the client. Not only will this contribute to a healthy and open relationship between the therapist and client, but it also provides the client with a model of good communication and shows the client that it’s okay to be vulnerable.
- Empathetic Understanding: the client-centered therapist must extend empathy to the client, both to form a positive therapeutic relationship and to act as a sort of mirror, reflecting the client’s thoughts and feelings back to them; this will allow the client to better understand themselves.
Another notable characteristic of person- or client-centered therapy is the use of the term “client” rather than “patient.” Therapists who practice this type of approach see the client and therapist as a team of equal partners rather than an expert and a patient (McLeod, 2015).
Carl Rogers: The Founder of Client-Centered Therapy
Carl Rogers is considered the founder of client-centered therapy, and the godfather of what are now known as “humanistic” therapies, While many psychologists contributed to the movement, Carl Rogers spearheaded the evolution of therapy with his unique approach.
If his approach were to be summed up in a quote, this quote would be a good choice:
“Experience is, for me, the highest authority. The touchstone of validity is my own experience. No other person’s ideas, and none of my own ideas, are as authoritative as my experience. It is to experience that I must return again and again, to discover a closer approximation to truth as it is in the process of becoming in me.”
The individual experience of the client is paramount in client-centered therapy.
The Rogerian Approach to Psychotherapy
Rogers’ approach to therapy was a simpler one than the earlier approaches in some ways. Instead of requiring a therapist to dig deep into their patients’ unconscious mind, an inherently subjective process littered with room for error, he based his approach on the idea that perhaps the client’s conscious mind was a better focus.
In Rogers’ own words:
“It is the client who knows what hurts, what directions to go, what problems are crucial, what experiences have been deeply buried. It began to occur to me that unless I had a need to demonstrate my own cleverness and learning, I would do better to rely upon the client for the direction of movement in the process.”
This approach marked a significant shift from the distant, hierarchical relationship between psychiatrist and patient of psychoanalysis and other early forms of therapy. No longer was the standard model of therapy one expert and one layman – now, the model included one expert in the theories and techniques of therapy, and one expert in the experience of the client (the client themselves!).
Rogers believed that every individual was unique and that a one-size-fits-all process would not, in fact, fit all (Kensit, 2000). Instead of considering the client’s own thoughts, wishes, and beliefs as secondary to the therapeutic process, Rogers saw the client’s own experience as the most vital factor in the process.
Most of our current forms of therapy are based on this idea that we take for granted today: the client is a partner in the therapeutic relationship rather than a helpless patient, and their experiences hold the key to personal growth and development as a unique individual.
In addition to this client-focused approach, Rogerian psychotherapy is also distinct from some other therapies in its assumption that every person can benefit from client-centered therapy and transform from a “potentially competent individual” to a fully competent one (McLeod, 2015).
Rogers’ approach views people as fully autonomous individuals who are capable of putting in the effort required to realize their full potential and bring about positive changes in their lives.
Goals of Client-Centered Therapy
“In my early professional years I was asking the question: How can I treat, or cure, or change this person? Now I would phrase the question in this way: How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth?”
Like many current forms of therapy (like narrative therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy, for example), the goals of client-centered therapy depend on the client. Depending on who you ask, who the therapist is, and who the client is, you will likely get a range of different answers – and none of them are wrong!
However, there are a few overarching goals that the humanistic therapies focus on, in general.
These general goals are to (Buhler, 1971):
- Facilitate personal growth and development
- Eliminate or mitigate feelings of distress
- Increase self-esteem and openness to experience
- Enhance the client’s understanding of him- or herself
As it is, these goals span an extremely broad range of sub-goals or objectives, but it is also common for the client to come up with his or her own goals for therapy. Client-centered therapy posits that the therapist cannot set effective goals for the client, due to his or her lack of knowledge of the client. Only the client has enough knowledge of themselves to set effective and desirable goals for therapy.
Other commonly gained benefits include:
- Greater agreement between the client’s idea and actual selves
- Better understanding and awareness
- Decreased defensiveness, insecurity, and guilt
- Greater trust in oneself
- Healthier relationships
- Improvement in self-expression
- Improved mental health overall (Noel, 2018)
How Does It Work? The Person-Centered Perspective
“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.”
The quote from Carl Rogers above highlights an important point: the success of this form of therapy rests on the extremely important connection between the client and therapist. If this relationship is not marked by trust, authenticity, and mutual positive feelings, it is unlikely to produce any benefits for either party.
Rogers identified six conditions that are required for success in client-centered therapy:
- The client and counselor are in psychological contact (a relationship).
- The client is emotionally upset, in a state of incongruence.
- The counselor is genuine and aware of their own feelings.
- The counselor has unconditional positive regard for the client.
- The counselor has an empathic understanding of the client and their internal frame of reference and looks to communicate this experience with the client.
- The client recognizes that the counselor has unconditional positive regard for them and an understanding of the difficulties they are facing (Noel, 2018).
When these six conditions are met, there is great potential for positive change.
The way client-centered therapy works is a natural extension of these conditions: the therapist and client discuss the client’s current problems and issues, the therapist practices active listening and empathizes with the client, and the client decides for themselves what is wrong and what can be done to correct it (McLeod, 2015).
It is clear from Rogers’ works that he placed a great deal of value on the firsthand experience of the client, and much less in the “cleverness and learning” or technical expertise of therapists – including himself!
Client-Centered Therapy Method and Techniques
“We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet [active] listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.”
The only technique recognized as effective and applied in client-centered therapy is to listen nonjudgmentally. That’s it!
In fact, many client-centered therapists and psychologists view a therapist’s reliance on “techniques” as a barrier to effective therapy rather than a boon. The Rogerian standpoint is that the use of techniques can have a depersonalizing effect on the therapeutic relationship (McLeod, 2015).
In the words of Carl Rogers:
“When you are in psychological distress and someone really hears you without passing judgement on you, without trying to take responsibility for you, without trying to mold you, it feels damn good!”
While active listening is one of the only and most vital practices in client-centered therapy, there are many tips and suggestions for client-centered therapists to facilitate successful therapy sessions. In context, these tips and suggestions can be considered client-centered therapy’s “techniques.”
Saul McLeod (2015) outlines 10 of these “techniques” for Simply Psychology:
1) Set clear boundaries
Boundaries are vital for any relationship, but they are especially important for therapeutic relationships. Both the therapist and the client need healthy boundaries to avoid the relationship becoming inappropriate or ineffective, such as ruling out certain topics of discussion.
There are also more practical boundaries that must be set, for example, how long the session will last.
2) Remember – the client knows best
As mentioned earlier, this therapy is founded on the idea that clients know themselves, and are the best sources of knowledge and insight about their problems and potential solutions. Do not lead the client or tell them what is wrong, instead let them tell you what is wrong.
3) Act as a sounding board
Active listening is key, but it’s also useful to reflect what the client is saying back to them. Try to put what they are telling you into your own words. This can help the client clarify their own thoughts and understand their feelings better.
4) Don’t be judgmental
Another vital component of client-centered therapy is to refrain from judgment. Clients are often already struggling with feelings of guilt, low self-worth, and the belief that they are simply not good enough. Let them know you accept them for who they are and that you will not reject them.
5) Don’t make decisions for your clients
Giving advice can be useful, but it can also be risky. In client-centered therapy, it is not seen as helpful or appropriate to give advice to clients. Only the client should be able to make decisions for themselves, and they have full responsibility in that respect.
The therapist’s job is to help clients explore the outcomes of their decisions rather than guide them to any particular decisions.
6) Concentrate on what they are really saying
This is where active listening can be put to use. Sometimes a client will feel uncomfortable opening up at first, or they will have trouble seeing something just below the surface. In these situations, be sure to listen carefully and keep an open mind – the problem they come in with may not be the real problem.
7) Be genuine
As mentioned earlier, the client-centered therapy must be genuine. If the client does not feel their therapist is authentic and genuine, the client will not trust you. In order for the client to share personal details about their own thoughts and feelings, they must feel safe and comfortable with you.
Present yourself as you really are, and share both facts and feelings with the client. Of course, you don’t have to share anything you don’t feel comfortable sharing, but appropriate sharing can help build a healthy therapeutic relationship.
8) Accept negative emotions
This is an important technique for any therapist. To help the client work through their issues and heal, it is vital to let them express their emotions – whether positive or negative. The client may even express anger, disappointment, or irritation with you at one point or another.
Learn to accept their negative emotions and practice not taking it personally. They may need to wrestle with some difficult emotions, and as long as they are not abusing you, it is beneficial to just help them through it.
9) How you speak can be more important than what you say
Your tone of voice can have a huge impact on what the client hears, understands, and applies. Make sure your tone is measured, and make sure it matches your non-judgmental and empathetic approach.
You can also use your voice to highlight opportunities for clients to think, reflect, and improve their understanding; for example, you can use your tone to slow down the conversation at key points, allowing the client to think about where the discussion has led and where s/he would like it to go next.
10) I may not be the best person to help
It is vital that you know yourself as a therapist and are able to recognize your own limits. No therapist is perfect, and no mental health professional can give every single client exactly what they need.
Remember, there is no shame in recognizing that the scope of a specific problem or the type of personality you are working with is out of your wheelhouse. In those cases, don’t beat yourself up about it – just be honest and provide any resources you can to help further the client’s healing and development.
This PDF from the Australian Institute of Professional Counselors also lists some useful techniques for client-centered therapy. Some of them overlap with previously mentioned techniques, but all are helpful!
These techniques include:
- Congruence: this technique involves therapists being genuine and authentic, and ensuring that their facial expressions and body language match their words.
- Unconditional Positive Regard: as described earlier in this piece, unconditional positive regard (UPR) is practice by accepting, respecting, and caring about one’s clients; the therapist should operate from the perspective that clients are doing the best they can in their circumstances and with the skills and knowledge available to them.
- Empathy: it is vital for the therapist to show clients that s/he understands their emotions rather than just feeling sympathy for them.
- Nondirectiveness: a cornerstone of client-centered therapy, non-directiveness refers to the method of allowing the client to drive the therapy session; therapists should refrain from giving advice or planning activities for their sessions.
- Reflection of Feelings: repeating what the client has shared about his or her feelings; this lets the client know the therapist is listening actively and understanding what the client is saying, as well as giving them an opportunity to further explore their feelings.
- Open Questions: this technique refers to the quintessential “therapist” question – “How does that make you feel?” Of course, that is not the only open question that can be used in client-centered therapy, but it is a good open question that can encourage clients to share and be vulnerable.
- Paraphrasing: therapists can let clients know that they understand what the clients have told them by repeating what they have said back to them in the therapist’s own words; this can also help the client to clarify their feelings or the nature of their problems.
- Encouragers: these words or phrases, like “uh-huh,” “go on,” and “what else?” are excellent at encouraging the client to continue; these can be especially useful for a client who is shy, introverted, or afraid of opening up and being vulnerable (J & S Garrett, 2013).
A Take-Home Message
We hope this information provides you with a better understanding of client-centered therapy, and that it will encourage you to think of yourself as the master and expert of your own experience. You are the only one who understands your problems, issues, needs, desires, and goals, and it is to you that you must turn to solve these problems and reach these goals.
It is an added responsibility when you understand that you are responsible for how your life unfolds, but it can also be extremely liberating.
We encourage all of you to work on building the trust in yourself and in your knowledge and skills that can take your life from “going through the motions” to living a life that is authentic.
As always please let us know your thoughts in the comments! Have you ever tried client-centered therapy, as either a client or a therapist? What did you think of it? We want to hear from you!
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
- Buhler, C. (1971). Basic theoretical concepts of humanistic psychology. American Psychologist, 26(4), 378-386.
- Cherry, K. (2017, June 20). What is client centered therapy? A closer look at Carl Rogers’ person-centered therapy. Verywell Mind. Retrieved from https://www.verywell.com/client centered-therapy-2795999
- J & S Garrett. (2013). Person-centered therapy: A guide to counselling therapies. Counselling Connection. Retrieved from http://www.counsellingconnection.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Person-Centred-Therapy.pdf
- Kensit, D. A. (2000). Rogerian theory: A critique of the effectiveness of pure client-centred therapy. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 13(4), 345-351.
- McLeod, S. (2015). Person centered therapy. Simply Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/client-centred-therapy.html Person-centered therapy
- Noel, S. (2018). Person-centered therapy (Rogerian Therapy). GoodTherapy. Retrieved from http://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/person-centered