The National Council of Psychotherapists
Person-Centred Psychotherapy Essentials and distinctions
Peter F. Schmid
Essentials and distinctive characteristics of Person-Centred Psychotherapy are listed: Ethics, anthropology, epistemology, theory of personality and developmental psychology, theory and practice of therapy, research and development of theory, politics and social relevance.
Person-Centred (also: Client-Centred) Psychotherapy is the best-known and most widespread form of Humanistic Psychotherapy in the world. It was founded by Carl Rogers (1902-1987) and his colleagues in 1940 in the United States of America. Today, Europe is the main focus of the development of theory and practice of Person-Centred Therapy.
Its distinguishing characteristics are that it places the experience of client(s) and therapist(s) and the immediate present relationship between them at the centre of attention. Moreover, person-centred therapy tries to locate its ‘work’ as closely as possible to the experience of the client in the present relationship. Thus it is the practice of an image of the human being that understands the human as a person. The experience of the individual is taken seriously without any preconditions as he or she is in the immediate moment. This includes how the person came to be who they are through relationships, what he or she is at the present time, and how the person is able to develop further in the future. The client is trusted to be capable of living his or her life and dealing with their problems using their own personal resources, if they experience a relationship with certain facilitative conditions. On principle this involves a break with the traditional image and function of the therapist as an expert on the client’s problems. On the contrary, the therapist understands him- or herself as a collaborator and equal partner — developing together with the client in a process of encounter person-to-person. A further essential characteristic of person-centred psychotherapy is that person-centred theory and language stay close to colloquial experience. Finally, it has been part of the person-centred tradition of over 60 years to openly encourage continuous research and further development of theory and practice.
Beyond psychotherapy, the Person-Centred Approach is a way of being and working with persons in a wide range of fields of human endeavour where interpersonal relationships are central.
Person-Centred Psychotherapy is a way of relating with persons, one to one or in groups, which fosters personality development through personal encounter. It assumes that every person has the capability and tendency to make use of his or her resources in a constructive way. Living in a satisfying way, both personally and in relationships is achieved through increasing self-understanding and less defensive openness to the continuous flow of experiencing. This tendency to actualise one’s own possibilities is stimulated and supported by person-to-person encounter. This encounter of another person is a form of relationship characterised by the fundamental and unequivocal respect held by the therapist. The therapist’s quality of presence in this encounter is authentic, congruent, unconditionally acknowledging the individual otherness of the client, deeply empathic and non-judgemental. Both therapist and client, develop together in this relationship.
These principles generate some characteristics essential to person-centred psychotherapy, whether practised with groups or as one-to-one therapy.
Ethics is grounded in the experience of encounter. This means being called to respond by other persons in need and when responding, to do so out of response-ability and solidarity. So person-centred psychotherapy is always simultaneously an individual, social and political way of acting.
The image of the human being underlying this understanding of psychotherapy, based as it is on the view of men and women as persons, suggests the dialectics of autonomy and interconnectedness. Central to this notion is trust in the actualising tendency as the motivational force constructively working on behalf of the client in facilitative relationships.
It implies that, crucial for this endeavour, are the necessary and sufficient conditions for therapeutic change in psychotherapy described by Carl Rogers. These conditions are: psychological contact between client and therapist; the client being incongruent in the relationship; the therapist being congruent in the relationship; the therapist experiencing unconditional positive regard towards the client; the therapist’s empathic understanding of the inner world of the client and his or her communication of it; and client’s experience of the positive regard and the empathy at least to a minimal degree.
Furthermore, these conditions must not be seen as techniques or methods, but rather as a way of being with the client by the person of the therapist. Consequently, when the therapist is present to the client, there is no hidden therapeutic agenda. They accept the client in his or her moment-by-moment process — including what brought them to this moment and the possibilities of further development in the future. This excludes diagnosing and pathologising the client and precludes the therapist having any pre-determined method. Such lack of categorisation invites the therapist to experience the client as a unique individual, embracing their entire personhood without favour or discrimination. This encourages conceptualisation of aspects of humanness as equally valid ‘perspectives’ (hence a ‘female perspective’) and to celebrate all difference including, gender, sexuality, differing abilities, religion, culture and race etc. It also means that the therapist does not solely concentrate on feelings or on verbal interaction but also gives room and pays attention to the body and the spirit, to cognitions, ideas and emotions, etc.
Epistemology is based on empowerment. The person-centred approach is founded on a phenomenological epistemology. It allows a variety of possibilities for understanding (thus it is constructivistic) and a variety of possibilities to realise in practice (thus it is pluralistic). It is personal and holistic in its embrace of the organism as an integrated whole and is therefore concerned with dialogical and empathic and hermeneutic communication: hermeneutic in the broader sense of understanding the meaning of personal communications, not in the meaning of interpreting them by an expert, pretending to know better what the author of a statement meant than the author himself.
Theory of personality and developmental psychology
Psychotherapy is considered to be a special form of personality development and interpersonal relationship. Thus the principles of the approach can be adapted for other forms of relationship and fields of life. Person-centred theory focuses more on the process of the development of a so-called “healthy” person — its principles do not arise from a theory of disease. These basic principles apply to all persons independently of categories like “neurotics”, “psychotics”, “borderliners” or “normals”. In the place of a conventional theory of diseases or illness we find a theory of the suffering person based on human potential, and in the place of problem-, goal- or solution-oriented therapy, we find person-centred therapy.
Personality development and integration bring about an increasing capability to fully live in the moment; to have a less distorted, less defensive and more comprehensive self-image (adequately perceiving both the phenomena of experience and changes in experience), and to live in relationships more realistically. (Person-centred theory is much more interested in processes than in structures.) This naturally coincides with more self-determination and self-responsibility.
Also to be consistent with the basic principles, training, or education of psychotherapists in the person-centred approach, is rooted in the development of the personality of the therapist-in-training, rather than in the training and practising of skills — the German word „Aus-bildung” denotes this process of becoming.
Theory and practice of therapy
The therapist focuses on the client’s experience, understanding and evaluation of their inner world. The therapist follows him or her in this inner world wherever and however the client moves and at the client’s pace. In this sense it is an experiential and phenomenological approach. The therapist is available for the client as a living person and not only in his or her function as a therapist. It is crucial for the development of both, client and therapist, that their attention to the immediate present experiencing in the relationship is as free of judgements and interpretations as possible. The attitudes of authenticity, unconditional acceptance and sensitive empathic understanding in this process imply a radical counter position to expert-oriented approaches (in terms of the contents as well as the process) emphasising that it is the person as such, and not techniques, methods or skills, that is the active agent of change. The therapist offers a way of being with the client making possible a process of communication and encounter that moves towards mutuality and dialogue.
The practical consequences of the clear exposition of fundamental therapeutic principles in the form of ‘therapeutic conditions’ include the fact that they can be used as reference points to ensure that all aspects of practice (even including such concrete aspects as the arrangement of the setting of therapy) are geared to the needs and possibilities of the client and the possibilities of the therapist. Another consequence is that the therapeutic relationship is allowed to express itself in multiple ways, verbally, bodily, with the help of expressive, creative or artistic means if the client wishes.
Research and development of theory
Philosophical reflections arising from therapeutic work are an important part of the development of psychotherapy. This happens both at the level of the individual practitioner and case, and also in terms of psychotherapy as a whole. Continued research, including empirical studies, are necessary in order to improve the quality of and to further develop the practice of psychotherapy. Person-centred psychotherapy has a tradition of innovation in research, whether developing a better understanding of science and research, or challenging the traditional paradigms of medicine, natural science and research. In terms of a theory of science, an adequate understanding of psychotherapy has to include the persons engaged in the process and has to be developed beyond traditional concepts. Theory is continuously tested, developed and possibly revised in the light of experience and research.
Politics and social relevance
Practitioners, theoreticians and researchers are invited, even urged, to find their own and independent ways to interpret their practice on the basis of these convictions and attitudes. These principles represent more than a theory of therapy, they represent a philosophy of life, within which to experiment in a responsible way and to support each other. This points to a world-wide psychological, social, cultural, political and — first of all — ethical challenge which gives neither room to orthodoxy or fundamentalism, nor to an unreflected eclecticism nor an attitude of „do what you like as long as you do it congruently”. The person-centred approach, beyond psychotherapy, is an attitude, a way of being in many fields of life and interpersonal work, which stands counter to many streams of the zeitgeist, e.g. those of efficiency and cost-effectiveness which think only in terms of how to eliminate problems as quickly, inexpensively and painlessly as possible.
Recommended reading matter
Rogers, Carl R. (1961) On becoming a person: A therapist's view of psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Rogers, Carl R. (1980) Client–centred psychotherapy. Kaplan, H. I., Freedman, A. M. & Sadock, B. J. (eds.), Comprehensive textbook of psychiatry, III, Vol. 2, Baltimore, MD: Williams and Wilkins, 3rd ed. 1980, pp. 2153–2168.
Schmid, Peter F. (1999) Personzentrierte Psychotherapie. Sonneck, Gernot / Slunecko, Thomas (eds.), Einführung in die Psychotherapie. Stuttgart: UTB für Wissenschaft – Facultas, pp. 168–211; also: http://www.pfs-online.at.
Schmid, Peter F. (2001) ‘The necessary and sufficient conditions of being person–centered’: On identity, integrity, integration and differentiation of the paradigm. In Watson, J. (Ed.), Client-centered and experiential psychotherapy in the 21st century: Advances in theory, research and practice. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books; also: http://www.pfs-online.at.
Thorne, Brian & Lambers, Elke (1998) Person–Centred Therapy: A European Perspective.
Peter F. Schmid, Univ. Doz. HSProf.
*With many thanks to Pete Sanders for amendments and corrections of the English.