Carl Rogers Client-Centered Therapy - Prof. H.-W. Gessmann at PERIYAR University Salem, India

Lee Justin Rondina

“Helping people to help themselves …”

This is the founding concept of the talk therapy (sometimes referred to as “conversation” therapy) which American psychologist Carl Rogers has proposed and further developed into his most distinguishing theory.

Carl Rogers (1902 – 1987) was born and grew up being in a puritanically conservative family, where their actions and way of thinking were heavily determined by religious and ethical beliefs. It is said that the parents and children in the family treated each other in a “distant” manner where he only spoke when it is necessary and certainly not about personal feelings. This was described in detail in Roger’s article in 1983 “Development and Current State of my Views on Interpersonal Relationships”, where he expressed his feelings of loneliness and social isolation in the family as he grew up, but later on, became eventually capable of overcoming the loneliness and made important learning experiences that he may use in his personal or professional life.

Rogers made an intensive use of these important stages in his life and his experiences about himself and interpersonal relationships to develop his beliefs and principles in dealing with other people (e.g. in friendship, in marriage, etc.), in a meaningful way. He learned and realized that a deep exchange betweeen people is possible and that it is important to speak about troubling or unsatisfactory elements in a relationship that are kept secret. Thus, from previously studying agriculture and theology in his early life, he eventually began his mark in clinical psychology later on, where he was particularly interested in practical clinical work in educational counselling.

In his sessions, Roger tried to gain as much knowledge about his clients as possible but the way he acted was rather cruel and distant which may have been influenced from his parental relationship. During his studies of psychoanalysis, he was impressed by a warm and sympathetic behavior from a certain professor, in which he was intrigued more by the personality rather than the lectures themselves. Thus from his failures with some clients who did not work well with his diagnostics and advices, he learned to question his distant manner of dealing with clients and trusting his own whole way. Otto Rank, Freud’s student, later encouraged him to include the client’s ability in finding own solutions to the problem.

Roger’s experiences in this period were significantly decisive for his later works. He learned that dominant and authoritarian behaviors in dealing with clients have at most short-term and superficial effects and that the clients know best what’s bothering them, what conflicts he has, and in which direction he/she wants to go.

Roger then became a professor at Ohio’s State University where he developed his person-centered psychotherapy. It clearly stood out against direct therapy and psychoanalytic treatments in which he presented it to the public through his book “Counseling and Psychotherapy” in 1942. Thus, through this book, the first of three phases in the years of developing Roger’s conversation psychotherapy was formally introduced, the non-directive phase.

The non-directive phase was estimatedly said to have started from about 1940 to 1950. The primary goal of the therapy in this phase was to create a permissive and fear-free atmosphere in which the client comes to an understanding of himself in order to assess his situation and be capable of trying to solve his issues himself. The therapist empathetically accepts the expressed feelings of the client but deliberately refrains from giving advices and instructions.

Formulating a new attitude towards interpersonal relationships, Rogers tried to act accordingly with students and staff at the University of Chicago as he checked his hypotheses by intensifying therapy research which had already started at the time. Thus, in 1951 Rogers published yet another book “Client-Centered Therapy” in which he described his therapeutic approach, the philosophical basis, empirical studies, and a personality theory in detail. This, yet again opened up another phase for Roger’s conversation psychotherapy which lasted from about 1950 to 1967 but seemingly overlaps the third phase from around 1957.

The second phase or the client-centered phase put the focus on the client’s subjective world which needs to be perceived. Through empathy, understanding is gained and conveyed to the client. The “self-concept” is emphasized here in which the therapist’s role is to help the client review and change the self-concept, but the behavior in doing so follows three variables: (1) human, genuine, non-facade reaction from therapist, (2) warm-hearted and unconditional acceptance, and (3) compassionate understanding of the client’s world of experiences. In the meantime, the therapist’s attitude in a client-centered therapy have not only been recognized in clinical therapy, but also in other human coexistences as valid and beneficial.

The third and last phase of Roger’s conversation psychotherapy is referred to as the person-centered therapy which extends from 1957 until the present time. In this phase, the emphasis is clearly placed on the relationship and ongoing process between therapist and client. The therapist no longer only reflects the feelings expressed, but also “brings in himself”. The therapy becomes a comprehensive process of self-awareness between therapist and client.

These three aforementioned phases briefly describes the main long 40 years of developing Roger’s conversation therapy. And while the three consistently show similarities describing the therapeutic approach as a whole, it does present the clear changes in the roles of the therapist and the relationship between therapist and client.

Undeniably speaking, Roger’s conversational psychotherapy has made its mark on the world of psychology and has been continuously recognized and acknowledged until the very present time.