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Person-Centered Therapy

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Person-centered therapy, also known as Rogerian therapy or client-based therapy, employs a non-authoritative approach that allows clients to take more of a lead in sessions such that, in the process, they discover their own solutions.

The approach originated in the work of American psychologist Carl Rogers, who believed that every person is unique and, therefore, everyone’s view of his or her own world, and their ability to manage it, should be trusted. Rogers was a proponent of self-actualization, or the idea that each of us has the power to find the best solutions for ourselves and the ability to make appropriate changes in our lives. He initially referred to this approach as non-directive therapy, since it required the therapist to follow the client’s lead and not direct discussion. It was a concept that turned upside-down established notions of therapeutic practice of the time, such as psychoanalysis and behaviorism.

During person-centered therapy, a therapist acts as a compassionate facilitator, listening without judgment and acknowledging the client’s experience without shifting the conversation in another direction. The therapist is there to encourage and support the client without interrupting or interfering with their process of self-discovery, as they uncover what hurts and what is needed to repair it.

When It's Used

Person-centered therapists work with individuals or groups, and both adults and adolescents; the therapy can be long-term or short-term. The approach can benefit people who seek to gain more self-confidence, a stronger sense of identity or authenticity, greater success in establishing interpersonal relationships, and more trust in their own decisions. The approach, alone or in combination with other types of therapy, can help those dealing with anxiety and depression as well as grief or other difficult circumstances, such as abuse, breakups, professional anxiety, or family stressors.

Since the client must do a lot of the work in person-centered therapy, those who are more motivated are likely to be more successful.

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What to Expect

Person-centered therapy is talk therapy in which the client does most of the talking. The therapist will not actively direct conversation in sessions, or judge or interpret what you say, but they may restate your words in an effort to fully understand your thoughts and feelings (and to help you do the same). When you hear your own words repeated back to you in this way, you may then wish to self-edit and clarify your meaning. This can actually happen several times until you decide that you have expressed exactly what you are thinking and how you feel.

There may be moments of silence in person-centered therapy, to allow your thoughts to sink in. This client-focused process is intended to facilitate self-discovery and self-acceptance and provide a means of healing and positive growth.

How It Works

Person-centered therapy, as envisioned by Rogers, was a movement away from the therapist’s traditional role as an expert and leader, and toward a process that allowed clients to use their own understanding of their experiences as a platform for healing.

The success of person-centered therapy generally relies on three conditions:

  1. Unconditional positive regard, which means therapists must be empathetic and non-judgmental as they accept the client’s words and convey feelings of understanding, trust, and confidence that encourage clients to feel valued and to make their own (better) decisions and choices.
  2. Empathetic understanding, which means therapists completely understand and accept their clients’ thoughts and feelings, in a way that can help reshape an individual’s sense of their experiences.
  3. Congruence, or genuineness, which means therapists carry no air of authority or superiority but instead present a true and accessible self that clients can see is honest and transparent.

When therapy is working well, clients experience themselves as better understood in their sessions, which often leads them to feel better understood in other areas of their lives as well. Research supports this idea: Studies have found that when clients perceive these three qualities to be present in their therapists—and particularly when they recognize the professional’s unconditional positive regard for them—they are more likely to report achieving positive outcomes; in other words, the relationship established between client and therapist is itself therapeutic

A person-focused professional should have the ability to remain calm in sessions, even if a client expresses negative thoughts about the therapist. A trained therapist should allow a client to verbalize that they are frustrated or disappointed by them and help the individual discover what insights can be gained by exploring those feelings.

Is the therapist a passive participant in person-focused therapy?

Client-focused therapy, Rogers wrote, “aims directly toward the greater independence…of the individual rather than hoping that such results will accrue if the counselor assists in solving the problem.” In other words, the goal is to help clients become their own therapists.

Therapists still play an important role. They must be actively and engaged and responsive, and create an environment in which a client can progress toward solutions, by establishing trust, helping the individual find clarity in their statements through repetition, listening closely for new layers of understanding, and expressing nonjudgmental empathy.

In some cases, a therapist may bring others into a client’s sessions, such as parents or partners, for semi-guided discussions in which they may model for loved one ways to listen to, and better empathize with and understand, what the client is feeling or experiencing.

What are the potential limitations of person-focused therapy?

Some people may struggle with the lack of structure in typical person-focused therapy; individuals experiencing higher levels of stress or anxiety may need more direction from a therapist and may make more progress with a different therapeutic approach. Similarly, since a person-focused therapist may not focus on diagnosing a client, and may not strictly direct sessions, those with symptoms of certain personality disorders may not achieve change with this approach.

When a therapist becomes convinced that a client cannot make further progress with this person-focused therapy, they may recommend that the individual accept a referral to a different professional who may have different training or expertise.

What to Look for in a Person-Centered Therapist

There is no formal certification required to be able to practice person-centered therapy; licensed mental health professionals from a range of disciplines who have training and experience in the approach can use it in therapy. In addition to finding someone with relevant background and relevant experience, look for a therapist or counselor who is especially empathetic and with whom you feel comfortable discussing personal issues.

References
Counseling Directory
Hazler, Richard J., Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories and Interventions. Chapter 7: Person-Centered Theory. 6th Ed. 2016. American Counseling Association.
Bower P., Byford S., Sibbald B. et al., Randomised controlled trial of non-directive counselling, cognitive-behavior therapy, and usual general practitioner care for patients with depression. II Cost Effectiveness. British Medical Journal. Dec 2000;321:1389.