Dr Carl Rogers was an American psychologist and one of the Founders of Humanistic Psychology. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential psychologists of all time, and best known for his influential method of psychotherapy known as person-centred therapy.
Humanistic psychology developed as a rebellion against the limitations of behaviourist and psychodynamic psychology, which primarily saw human beings as determined by their past and unconscious irrational forces.
In this post, we’ll explore some of the key ideas of the person-centred approach, and how you can apply them to improve your own quality of life and relationships.
The Actualising Tendency
“The central hypothesis of this approach can be briefly stated. Individuals have within themselves vast resources for self-understanding and for altering their self concepts, basic attitudes and self-directed behaviour; these resources can be tapped if a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided.” – Carl Rogers
One of the foundational ideas of Rogers’ approach is that all human beings have an innate and organic capacity for growth.
He called this the ‘actualising tendency’.
In the same way that it is in the nature of plants to grow towards sunlight or for an acorn to become an oak tree, it is in the nature of human beings to grow towards our highest potential.
However, just as plants need certain physical conditions (sunlight, water, soil, etc) to grow, Rogers argued that human beings need certain psychological conditions to develop fully.
Relationships can facilitate personal growth
“In my early professional years I was asking the question, how can I treat, or cure, or change this person? Now I would phrase the question in this way: How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth?” – Carl Rogers
Person-centred psychotherapy is built on the belief that providing the right relationship is critical to helping people make changes in their lives. In other words, it is not the therapist that changes the person, nor the person that changes themselves, it is the relationship between the two individuals that allows change to occur.
So, when working with clients, Rogers wasn’t aiming to cure or change them.
He was aiming to create a relationship that would act as a catalyst for the person’s growth.
Interestingly, Rogers believed strongly that the principles that proved effective in therapy could be applied in any relationship. For example, in a relationship between a husband and wife, father and son, teacher and student, boss and employee, etc.
So, what are these principles? And how can you use them to improve your relationships?
The Core Conditions of a Growth Promoting Relationship
“Man’s inability to communicate is a result of his failure to listen effectively”. – Carl Rogers
Very rarely do we listen to what another person is saying.
Instead, when someone is speaking, we are usually thinking about what we are going to say next, and hoping that our counterpart will hurry up and finish, so we can get our point across.
A core condition of the Rogerian approach is having a sincere desire to understand the world from the other person’s point of view.
He referred to this as ‘empathic understanding’.
This is to attempt to see the world as they see it, to sense the feelings and meanings underneath their words, and then attempting to communicate that back to them.
In theory, this sounds simple, but its surprisingly difficult in practice.
You can try this out for yourself. The next time you’re in a conversation, aim to articulate the other person’s point of view better than they can make it themselves.
Attempt to summarise what they’ve told you, but put it in your own words.
By doing so, the person you are communicating with will feel valued and understood, and the relationship will improve in the process.
In a world where everyone is busy trying to get their own opinion across, it’s an increasingly rare experience to really feel listened to – so you can really stand out and make a difference in peoples’ lives by doing this one simple thing.
“The term ‘congruent’ is one I have used to describe the way I would like to be. By this I mean that whatever feeling or attitude I am experiencing would be matched by my awareness of that attitude. When this is true, then I am a unified or integrated person in that moment, and hence I can be whatever I deeply am.” – Carl Rogers
Congruence is a state where our thoughts, feelings and actions are in alignment.
When what we say and do, are matched by our feelings at a gut level.
The opposite of congruence is when we think and feel one thing, but say something else.
Rogers argued that if we want to help another person through a relationship, we need to be congruent ourselves.
Another word for congruence is genuineness.
Simply put, it is being genuine about what we are experiencing and then communicating that to the other person.
It means telling the truth.
How do you know if you’re being congruent or not?
Clinical psychologist Dr Jordan Peterson recommends the following exercise. When you’re speaking, listen to yourself as if a stranger were talking, and observe how your body feels when you speak.
Notice if what you are saying makes you feel strong or weak.
If you say something that makes you feel weak, it is a tell-tale sign of an in-congruence, and you should probably stop talking.
Over time, the aim of the practice is to only say things that make you feel strong, because by doing so, you’re creating increasing levels of alignment between all of the different levels of your being; your feelings, your thoughts, your speech, and your actions.
Unconditional positive regard
‘If you are experiencing a positive, acceptant attitude towards whatever the client is at that moment, change is more likely to occur.’ – Carl Rogers
The third core condition of the Rogerian approach is unconditional positive regard (UPR).
At a basic level, UPR is the commitment to accept the other person fully as an individual, regardless of their thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
We’re often ashamed about the things that most weigh us down, and fear we’ll be judged by others if we share them, so we bottle them up, keep them to ourselves and never express them fully.
Yet the things we’re ashamed about are usually what we most need to process psychologically.
Research has shown that secrecy is linked with anxiety, depression, lower wellbeing, less satisfying relationships, and even the more rapid progression of disease.
Therefore, if you have a trusting relationship where you feel you can express yourself fully, without the fear of being judged, and that the other person will accept you unconditionally, it frees you to open up and share your problems.
Once shared, the two of you can begin to process it and work through it together, and over time healing and recovery can take place.
To be clear – unconditional positive regard isn’t positive thinking.
It doesn’t mean that you see everything somebody does in a positive light.
It means that you see the individual at a deeper level than their thoughts and actions.
You’re able to do this because you know that the other person has a core essence that is deeper than the actions or thoughts themselves (no matter how seemingly unforgiveable), and is therefore capable of change.
When you apply UPR, it allows you to relate to individuals on this deeper level and improve your relationships in the process.
What Rogers Got Wrong
Rogers’ theories are predicated on the belief that the relationship is the most important factor for helping people make changes in their lives.
The stronger the relationship, the more likely change is to occur.
However, subsequent evidence has emerged indicating this may not be true.
Research from Michael Lambert has found that although the relationship plays a vital role, it isn’t the most important factor.
Instead, studies have found that approximately 70% of the outcomes of therapy depend on client factors.
For example, how motivated the person is, how involved, and their willingness to engage fully in the therapeutic process.
Clients who actively choose to participate in therapy are much more likely to make progress than those who have been forced to be there.
In this presentation, Professor Mick Cooper argues that, instead of looking at therapists as ‘healers’ that are going to fix our problems, we should view them as catalysts for speeding up the changes we are already committed to making in our lives.
Further Resources and Recommended Reading
- Person Centred Counselling in Action – Dave Mearns
- Ordinary Ecstasy: The Dialectics of Humanistic Psychology – John Rowan
- The Person-Centred Counselling Primer – Pete Sanders
- The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology – Kirk J. Schneider
- On Becoming a Person – Carl Rogers
- Essential Research Findings in Counselling and Psychotherapy – Mick Cooper
- A Way of Being – Carl Rogers
- The Facts are Friendly – Professor Mick Cooper
- What makes therapy work – Luke Barbour Counselling