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Significant Aspects of Client-Centered Therapy [1]

Carl R. Rogers (1946)

Classics in the History of Psychology

An internet resource developed by

Christopher D. Green

York University, Toronto, Ontario

ISSN 1492-3173

(Return to Classics



Significant Aspects of Client-Centered Therapy [1]

Carl R. Rogers (1946)

University of Chicago

First published in American Psychologist, 1, 415-422

Posted March 2000

In planning to address this group, I have considered and discarded several possible topics. I

was tempted to describe the process of non-directive therapy and the counselor techniques and

procedures which seem most useful in bringing about this process. But much of this material is

now in writing. My own book on counseling and psychotherapy contains much of the basic

material, and my recent more popular book on counseling with returning servicemen tends to

supplement it. The philosophy of the client-centered approach and its application to work with

children is persuasively presented by Allen. The application to counseling of industrial employees is discussed in the volume by Cantor. Curran has now published in book form one

of the several research studies which are throwing new light on both process and procedure.

Axline is publishing a book on play and group therapy. Snyder is bringing out a book of cases.

So it seems unnecessary to come a long distance to summarize material which is, or soon ·n-ill

be. obtainable in written form.

Another tempting possibility, particularly in this setting, was to discuss some of the roots from

which the client-centered approach has sprung. It would have been interesting to show how in

its concepts of repression and release, in its stress upon catharsis and insight, it has many

roots in Freudian thinking, and to acknowledge that indebtedness. Such an analysis could also

have shown that in its concept of the individual's ability to organize his own experience there is

an even deeper indebtedness to the work of Rank, Taft, and Allen. In its stress upon objective

research, the subjecting of fluid attitudes to scientific investigation, the willingness to submit all

hypotheses to a verification or disproof by research methods, the debt is obviously to the whole

field of American psychology, with its genius for scientific methodology. It could also have been

pointed out that although everyone in the clinical field has been heavily exposed to the eclectic

"team" approach to therapy of the child guidance movement, and the somewhat similar eclecticism of the Adolf Meyers -- Hopkins school of thought, these eclectic viewpoint have

perhaps not been so fruitful in therapy and that little from these sources has been retained in

the non-directive approach. It might also have been pointed out that in its basic trend away from

guiding and directing the client. the non-directive approach is deeply rooted in practical clinical

experience, and is in accord with the experience of most clinical workers, so much so that one

of the commonest reactions of experienced therapists is that "You have crystallized and put into

words something that I have been groping toward in my own experience for a long time."

Such an analysis, such a tracing or root ideas, needs to be made, but I doubt my own ability to

make it. I am also doubtful that anyone who is deeply concerned with a new development

knows with any degree of accuracy where his ideas came from.

Consequently I am, in this presentation. Adopting a third pathway. While I shall bring in a brief

description of process and procedure. and while I shall acknowledge in a general way our

indebtedness to many root sources, and shall recognize the many common elements shared by

client-centered therapy and other approaches, I believe it will be to our mutual advantage if I

stress primarily those aspects in which nondirective[*] therapy differs most sharply and deeply

from other therapeutic procedures. I hope to point out some of the basically significant ways in

which the client-centered viewpoint differs from others, not only in its present principles, but in

the wider divergencies which are implied by the projection of its central principles. [p.



The first of the three distinctive elements of client-centered therapy to which I wish to call your

attention is the predictability of the therapeutic process in this approach. We find, both clinically

and statistically, that a predictable pattern of therapeutic development takes place. The assurance which we feel about this was brought home to me recently when I played a recorded

first interview for the graduate students in our practicum immediately after it was recorded,

pointing out the characteristic aspects, and agreeing to play later interviews for them to let them

see the later phases of the counseling process. The fact that I knew with assurance what the

later pattern would be before it had occurred only struck me as I thought about the incident. We

have become clinically so accustomed to this predictable quality that we take it for granted.

Perhaps a brief summarized description of this therapeutic process will indicate those elements

of which we feel sure.

It may be said that we now know how to initiate a complex and predictable chain of events in

dealing with the maladjusted individual, a chain of events which is therapeutic, and which

operates effectively in problem situations of the most diverse type. This predictable chain of

events may come about through the use of language as in counseling, through symbolic language, as in play therapy, through disguised language as in drama or puppet therapy.

It is

effective in dealing with individual situations, and also in small group situations.

It is possible to state with some exactness the conditions which must be met in order to initiate

and carry through this releasing therapeutic experience. Below are listed in brief form the conditions which seem to be necessary, and the therapeutic results which occur.

This experience which releases the growth forces within the individual will come about in most

cases if the following elements are present.

(1) If the counselor operates on the principle that the individual is basically responsible for

himself, and is willing for the individual to keep that responsibility.

(2) If the counselor operates on the principle that the client has a strong drive to become mature, socially adjusted. independent, productive, and relies on this force, not on his own

powers, for therapeutic change.

(3) If the counselor creates a warm and permissive atmosphere in which the individual is free to

bring out any attitudes and feelings which he may have, no matter how unconventional, absurd,

or contradictory these attitudes may be. The client is as free to withhold expression as he is to

give expression to his feelings.

(4) If the limits which are set are simple limits set on behavior, and not limits set on attitudes.

(This applies mostly to children. The child may not be permitted to break a window or leave the

room. but he is free to feel like breaking a window, and the feeling is fully accepted. The adult

client may not be permitted more than an hour for an interview, but there is full acceptance of

his desire to claim more time.)

(5) If the therapist uses only those procedures and techniques in the interview which convey his

deep understanding of the emotionalized attitudes expressed and his acceptance of them. This

under standing is perhaps best conveyed by a sensitive reflection and clarification of the client's

attitudes. The counselor's acceptance involves neither approval nor disapproval.

(6) If the counselor refrains from any expression or action which is contrary to the preceding

principles. This means reframing from questioning, probing, blame, interpretation, advice,

suggestion, persuasion, reassurance.

If these conditions are met. then it may be said with assurance that in the great majority of

cases the following results will take place.

(1) The client will express deep and motivating attitudes.

(2) The client will explore his own attitudes and reactions more fully than he has previously

done and will come to be aware of aspects of his attitudes which he has previously denied.

(3) He will arrive at a clearer conscious realization of his motivating attitudes and will accept

himself more completely. This realization and this acceptance will include attitudes previously

denied. He may or may not verbalize this clearer conscious understanding of himself and his


(4) In the light of his clearer perception of himself he will choose, on his own initiative and on his

own [p. 417] responsibility, new goal which are more satisfying than his maladjusted goals.

(5) He will choose to behave in a different fashion in order to reach these goals, and this new

behavior will be in the direction of greater psychological growth and maturity. It will also be

more spontaneous and less tense, more in harmony with social needs of others, will represent

a more realistic and more comfortable adjustment to life. It will be more integrated than his

former behavior. It will be a step forward in the life of the individual.

The best scientific description of this process is that supplied by Snyder. Analyzing a number of

cases with strictly objective research techniques, Snyder has discovered that the development

in these cases is roughly parallel, that the initial phase of catharsis is replaced by a phase in

which insight becomes the most significant element, and this in turn by a phase marked by the

increase in positive choice and action

Clinically, we know that sometimes this process is relatively shallow, involving primarily a fresh

reorientation to an immediate problem, and in other instances so deep as to involve a complete

reorientation of personality. It is recognizably the same process whether it involves a girl who is

unhappy in a dormitory and is able in three interviews to see something of her childishness and

dependence, and to take steps in a mature direction, or whether it involves a young man who is

on the edge of a schizophrenic break, and who in thirty interviews works out deep insights in

relation to his desire for his father's death, and his possessive and incestuous impulses toward

is mother, and who not only takes new steps but rebuilds his whole personality in the process.

Whether shallow or deep, it is basically the same.

We are coming to recognize with assurance characteristic aspects of each phase of the process. We know that the catharsis involves a gradual and more complete expression of

emotionalized attitudes. We know that characteristically the conversation goes from superficial

problems and attitudes to deeper problems and attitudes. We know that this process of exploration gradually unearths relevant attitudes which have been denied to consciousness.

We recognize too that the process of achieving insight is likely to involve more adequate facing

of reality as it exists within the self, as well as external reality; that it involves the relating of

problems to each other, the perception of patterns of behavior; that it involves the acceptance

of hitherto denied elements of the self, and a reformulating of the self-concept; and that it involves the making of new plans.

In the final phase we know that the choice of new ways of behaving will be in conformity with

the newly organized concept of the self; that first steps in putting these plans into action will be

small but symbolic; that the individual will feel only a minimum degree of confidence that he can

put his plans into effect, that later steps implement more and more completely the new concept

of self, and that this process continues beyond the conclusion of the therapeutic interviews.

If these statements seem to contain too much assurance, to sound "too good to be true,"

I can

only say that for many of them we now have research backing, and that as rapidly as possible

we are developing our research to bring all phases of the process under objective scrutiny.

Those of us working clinically with client-centered therapy regard this predictability as a settled

characteristic, even though we recognize that additional research will be necessary to fill out

the picture more completely.

It is the implication of this predictability which is startling. Whenever, in science, a predictable

process has been discovered, it has been found possible to use it as a starting point for a

whole chain of discoveries. We regard this as not only entirely possible, but inevitable, with

regard to this predictable process in therapy. Hence, we regard this orderly and predictable

nature of nondirective therapy as one of its most distinctive and significant points of difference

from other approaches. Its importance lies not only in the fact that it is a present difference. but

in the fact that it points toward a sharply different future, in which scientific exploration of this

known chain of events should lead to many new discoveries, developments. and applications.


Naturally the question is raised, what is the reason for this predictability in a type of therapeutic

procedure in which the therapist serves only a catalytic function? Basically the reason for the

predictability [p. 418] of the therapeutic process lies in the discovery -- and I use that word

intentionally -- that within the client reside constructive forces whose strength and uniformity

have been either entirely unrecognized or grossly underestimated. It is the clearcut and disciplined reliance by the therapist upon those forces within the client, which seems to account

for the orderliness of the therapeutic process, and its consistency from one client to the next.

I mentioned that I regarded this as a discovery. I would like to amplify that statement. We have

known for centuries that catharsis and emotional release were helpful. Many new methods

have been and are being developed to bring about release, but the principle is not new.

Likewise, we have known since Freud's time that insight, if it is accepted and assimilated by the

client, is therapeutic. The principle is not new. Likewise we have realized that revised action

patterns, new ways of behaving, may come about as a result of insight. The principle is not


But we have not known or recognized that in most if not all individuals there exist growth forces,

tendencies toward self-actualization, which may act as the sole motivation for therapy.

We have

not realized that under suitable psychological conditions these forces bring about emotional

release in those areas and at those rates which are most beneficial to the individual.


forces drive the individual to explore his own attitudes and his relationship to reality. and to

explore these areas effectively. We have not realized that the individual is capable of exploring

his attitudes and feelings, including those which have been denied to consciousness, at a rate

which does not cause panic, and to the depth required for comfortable adjustment. The individual is capable of discovering and perceiving, truly and spontaneously, the interrelationships between his own attitudes, and the relationship of himself to reality.


individual has the capacity and the strength to devise, quite unguided, the steps which will lead

him to a more mature and more comfortable relationship to his reality. It is the gradual and

increasing recognition of these capacities within the individual by the client-centered therapist

that rates, I believe, the term discovery. All of these capacities I have described are released in

the individual if a suitable psychological atmosphere is provided.

There has, of course, been lip service paid to the strength of the client, and the need of utilizing

the urge toward independence which exists in the client. Psychiatrists, analysts, and especially

social case workers have stressed this point. Yet it is clear from what is said, and even more

clear from the case material cited. that this confidence is a very limited confidence. It is a confidence that the client can take over, if guided by the expert, a confidence that the client can

assimilate insight if it is first, given to him by the expert, can make choices providing guidance is

given at crucial points. It is, in short, the same sort of attitude which the mother has toward the

adolescent. that she believes in his capacity to make his own decisions and guide his own life,

providing he takes the directions of which she approves.

This is very evident in the latest book on psychoanalysis by Alexander and French.


many of the former views and practices of psychoanalysis are discarded, and the procedures

are far more nearly in line with those of nondirective therapy, it is still the therapist who is definitely in control. He gives the insights. he is ready to guide at crucial points. Thus while the

authors state that the aim of the therapist is to free the patient to develop his capacities, and to

increase his ability to satisfy his needs in ways acceptable to himself and society; and while

they speak of the basic conflict between competition and cooperation as one which the individual must settle for himself; and speak of the integration of new insight as a normal function of the ego, it is clear when they speak of procedures that they have no confidence that

the client has the capacity to do any of these things. For in practice, "As soon as the therapist

takes the more active role we advocate, systematic planning becomes imperative. In addition to

the original decision as to the particular sort of strategy to be employed in the treatment of any

case, we recommend the conscious use of various techniques in a flexible manner, shifting

tactics to fit the particular needs of the moment. Among these modifications of the standard

technique are; using not only the method of free association but interviews of a more direct

character, manipulating the frequency of the interviews, giving [p. 419] directives to the patient

concerning his daily life, employing interruptions of long or short duration in preparation for

ending the treatment, regulating the transference relation-hip to meet the specific needs of the

case, and making use of real-life experiences as an integral part of therapy" (1) . At least this

leaves no doubt as to whether it is the client's or the therapist's hour; it is clearly the latter. The

capacities which the client is to develop are clearly not to be developed in the therapeutic


The client-centered therapist stands at an opposite pole, both theoretically and practically. He

has learned that the constructive forces in the individual can be trusted. and that the more

deeply they are relied upon, the more deeply they are released. He has come to build his

procedures upon these hypotheses, which are rapidly becoming established as facts; that the

client knows the areas of concern which he is ready to explore; that the client is the best judge

as to the most desirable frequency of interviews; that the client can lead the way more efficiently than the therapist into deeper concerns; that the client will protect himself from panic

by ceasing to explore an area which is becoming too painful; that the client can and will uncover

all the repressed elements which it is necessary to uncover in order to build a comfortable

adjustment; that the client can achieve for himself far truer and more sensitive and accurate

insights than can possibly be given to him; that the client is capable of translating these insights

into constructive behavior which weigh his own needs and desires realistically against the

demands of society; that the client knows when therapy is completed and he is ready to cope

with life independently. Only one condition is necessary for all these forces to be released, and

that is the proper psychological atmosphere between client and therapist.

Our case records and increasingly our research bear out these statements. One might suppose

that there would be a generally favorable reaction to this discovery, since it amounts in effect to

tapping great reservoirs of hitherto little-used energy. Quite the contrary is true, however, in

professional groups. There is no other aspect of client-centered therapy which comes under

such vigorous attack. It seems to be genuinely disturbing to many professional people to entertain the thought that this client upon whom they have been exercising their professional

skill actually knows more about his inner psychological self than they can possibly know, and

that he possesses constructive strengths which make the constructive push by the therapist

seem puny indeed by comparison. The willingness fully to accept this strength of the client, with

all the re-orientation of therapeutic procedure which it implies, is one of the ways in which

client-centered therapy differs most sharply from other therapeutic approaches.


The third distinctive feature of this type of therapy is the character of the relationship between

therapist and client. Unlike other therapies in which the skills of the therapist are to be exercised upon the client. in this approach the skills of the therapist are focussed upon creating

a psychological atmosphere in which the client can work. If the counselor can create a relationship permeated by warmth, understanding, safety from any type of attack, no matter

how trivial, and basic acceptance of the person as he is, then the client will drop his natural

defensiveness and use the situation. As we have puzzled over the characteristics of a successful therapeutic relationship, we have come to feel that the sense of communication is

very important. If the client feels that he is actually communicating his present attitudes, superficial, confused, or conflicted as they may be, and that his communication is understood

rather than evaluated in any way, then he is freed to communicate more deeply. A relationship

in which the client thus feels that he is communicating is almost certain to be fruitful.

All of this means a drastic reorganization in the counselor's thinking, particularly if he has previously utilized other approaches. He gradually learns that the statement that the time is to

be "the client's hour" means just that, and that his biggest task is to make it more and more

deeply true.

Perhaps something of the characteristics of the relationship may be suggested by excerpts

from a paper written by a young minister who has spent several months learning client-centered counseling procedures. [p. 420]

"Because the client-centered, nondirective counseling approach has been rather carefully

defined and clearly illustrated, it gives the " Illusion of Simplicity. '' The technique seems deceptively easy to master. Then you begin to practice. A word is wrong here and there.


don't quite reflect feeling, but reflect content instead. It is difficult to handle questions; you are

tempted to interpret. Nothing seems so serious that further practice won't correct it.


you are having trouble playing two roles -- that of minister and that of counselor. Bring up the

question in class and the matter is solved again with a deceptive ease. But these apparently

minor errors and a certain woodenness of response seem exceedingly persistent.

"Only gradually does it dawn that if the technique is true it demands a feeling of warmth.


begin to feel that the attitude is the thing. Every little word is not so important if you have the

correct accepting and permissive attitude toward the client. So you bear down on the permissiveness and acceptance. You will permiss[ sic] and accept and reflect the client, if it kills


[§]'But you still have those troublesome questions from the client. He simply doesn't know the

next step. He asks you to give him a hint, some possibilities, after all you are expected to know

something, else why is he here! As a minister, you ought to have some convictions about what

people should believe, how they should act. As a counselor, you should know something about

removing this obstacle -- you ought to have the equivalent of the surgeon's knife and use it.

Then you begin to wonder. The technique is good, but ... does it go far enough! does it really

work on clients? is it right to leave a person helpless, when you might show him the way out?

"Here it secms to me is the crucial point. "Narrow is the gate" and hard the path from here on.

So one else can give satisfying answers and even the instructors seem frustrating because

they appear not to be helpful in your specific case. For here is demanded of you what no other

person can do or point out -- and that is to rigorously scrutinize yourself and your attitudes

towards others. Do you believe that all people truly have a creative potential in them?


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