A Brief Guide to Person-Centred Counselling
If you look in a counselling directory you’ll find therapists who work in a wide variety of different counselling styles. It can be a bit confusing if you don’t know what they mean, or what type might suit you best. If you’d like to learn more about the many different types, here’s one A-Z guide that’s a good starting point.
The style of counselling that I use is person-centred. It was first developed by the influential American psychologist Carl Rogers in the 1940’s. Rogers was one of the very first people to make audio recordings of therapy sessions and he used the results to research what therapist behaviours, attitudes, or techniques were most helpful in enabling his clients to change.
What he discovered is that clients seemed to be helped best when the therapist focused less on techniques, or a particular end goal, and instead strived to offer high levels of empathy, unconditional positive regard (acceptance), and congruence (genuineness) to the client. These have become known as the three core conditions of person-centred therapy.
The counsellor strives to understand on a moment-by-moment basis how their client is feeling, as if they are standing in the client’s shoes. This means working to sense, feel, or understand what the client is experiencing in the moment. This is then in some way communicated to the client, so that the client feels understood.
This is very different to sympathy, which is more like feeling pity, or compassion for another person – not necessarily a bad thing - but not nearly as helpful as empathy.
Unconditional positive regard
The therapist strives to accept their client as they are, not judging them, or expecting them to think, feel, or behave a certain way. The therapist trusts that the client will find the way forward that best fits them, and does not try to guide the client in a particular direction.
The unconditional positive regard of a person-centred therapist allows clients to explore previously unacceptable or hidden parts of themselves within the safe environment of the counselling relationship.
The therapist aims to be congruent, or genuine within the relationship. This means not hiding behind a professional façade, but responding to the client as a fellow, real, individual human being – bringing their whole self – their unique creativity, and responses.
This congruence helps the counsellor to respond in the client in a fluid, intuitive manner, and helps to create trust within the relationship.
A little bit of theory
A person-centred therapist puts their faith in what Rogers termed the actualising tendency. He stated that every living thing has a basic desire to move in the direction of growth, to make the best of whatever opportunities the environment allows, to expand skills, knowledge, social connections etc. He realised that if we’re able to trust our own inner sense of what’s right, listening to and trusting our own personal compass, then we’re able to fluidly move in the direction that’s most helpful and growthful for us, responding flexibly to new challenges as they arise in the moment.
He also recognised that we have a powerful need to be loved and accepted by those around us and so we learn to act in ways that maximise that acceptance. In the past, whether we fitted in with our small tribe or not could have meant the difference between life or death, and in we’re still largely tribal, social beings today, dependent on others for security and community.
In order to fit in with the desires and expectations of our social group, whether that’s our family, friends, or wider society, our internal compass (what Roger's termed the organismic valuing process) can become distorted or denied, and we can act in ways that might not in our own personal best interests. Our innate positive, growthful tendency can become thwarted, or we grow in ways that can later become problematic.
As a simple example; a child who gets rejected by their parents whenever they express anger may learn to suppress those feelings in order to feel loved. They internalise the idea that loveable people don’t get angry and so suppress or deny that anger as it arises. This might work okay within the confines of their family, but as they get older or move out into the world they’ll encounter situations where anger is a healthy, helpful response to a situation. On some denied level they’ll be feeling that anger, and yet be unable to express it for fear of rejection. This can cause a lot of tension and anxiety, particularly if they reach a point where the anger cannot be denied any longer, and explodes uncontrollably!
Providing good soil
If this person came to counselling, the aim of the person-centred counsellor wouldn’t be to say that expressing anger is good, or bad, or to have any fixed end goal in mind.
Rather than leading the client, the counsellor would walk alongside the client as they explore their own world, whilst striving to create a relationship - using the core conditions above - where the client feels able to explore all of their conflicting thoughts and feelings. Acknowledging their anger, but also their fear of rejection, their tension and anxiety, and maybe the shame of exploding into anger.
Over time, the acceptance and empathy of the counsellor can allow the client to bring more of their difficult feelings into awareness. This might lead them to feel self-acceptance towards their anger, and their need to be loved, helping them find a new, more flexible and responsive balance between the two.
The counsellor’s focus is on the quality of the relationship between themselves and their client, and they trust that this is what will best help the client grow in new directions. This is much like how gardeners, faced with a plant that’s struggling, will focus their attention on the soil, making sure it contains the right nutrients and moisture, and then trusting that the plant will use the good soil to grow in it’s own unique way.
In a world where empathy for others, and acceptance of difference can seem hard to find at times, person-centred counselling is a powerful form of therapy that is just as relevant now (if not more so), as when it was first developed.