Client-Centered Therapy

Client-centered therapy, also known as person-centered therapy; or Rogerian Therapy, is a therapeutic approach of clinical psychology developed by psychologist Carl Rogers in the 1940s. At the time, Freudian psychoanalytic therapies were the dominant approaches that emphasized the model of the therapist as the expert doling out professional medical advice.

However, the person-centered approach created a new focus in therapy: an emphasis on the importance of the relationship between the client and therapist. This non-directive therapy and empathetic approach to encourage clients to navigate through problems and find solutions through self-direction with the counselor as a guide, was a vastly different therapeutic process. The recognition of the effect of the therapeutic relationship on a person’s growth in therapy was influential and it continues to shape the way many clinicians help people today.

As one of the most common types of humanistic psychology, this group of therapies is built on the idea that humans are inherently good and have the potential to grow in positive ways.

Client-centered therapy is not necessarily a structured protocol. It is an approach to treatment that many mental health professionals integrate into their sessions with congruence, unconditional positive regard, and empathy. It can be applied to children and adults in individual, couples, family or group settings, to help people heal, grow, find well-being, and fulfill their potential.

How effective is client-centered therapy?

The available research suggests that person-centered therapy appears to be as effective as other types of talk therapy, including cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and psychodynamic therapy. (1)

That said, more psychotherapy research is needed to help to establish firmer conclusions about the effectiveness of the psychotherapy approach.

What mental health conditions can be helped with client-centered therapy?

Although client-centered professionals tend not to think about people in terms of symptoms and diagnosis, this therapeutic process can be applied to help with an array of issues, including:

How does client-centered therapy work?

Dr. Rogers' theory posits that all people have the natural ability to choose their own direction and find their own solutions, called ‘self-actualization’. This individual autonomy and self-concept are respected and valued in the subscription to this type of psychotherapy.

Because clinicians believe in each client’s natural tendency towards personal growth and healing, the counselor tends to be less directive. They tend not to offer regular ‘interpretations’ of your experience or provide lots of advice. They tend not to ask lots of questions, express their opinions, provide assurances, or blame (2). It is not a treatment that tends to teach you strategies and particular techniques for changing your thoughts and feelings, as other therapies might.

Instead, the aim is to empower you to grow, find solutions and develop your own self-concept.

As such, the role of the psychotherapist is to create an open environment in which you feel a sense of understanding and able to express your feelings without judgment. The psychotherapist focuses on the quality of the relationship between you both, moment-to-moment, adjusting it to ensure that you have a supportive relationship that helps you to grow. This is key to progress.

What is the frequency and length of counseling sessions?

As an approach, and less a structured protocol for therapy, the frequency and length of treatment can vary widely. By the numbers, this form of therapy can be tailored to the client's needs, whether short-term or long-term. Counseling is conducted once a week and typically lasts for an hour, and the costs are usually comparable to other forms of therapy.

Does client-centered therapy follow any structure?

Progress can be summarized in three stages: (3)

  1. Catharsis: The professional helps you to clarify your point of view and develop an increased awareness of your problems and attitudes on a deeper level.
  2. Insight: Reality is faced more adequately through self-discovery. Your clinician helps you to develop a better understanding of your patterns of behavior and interpersonal relationships, become aware of how your problems relate to each other, become more accepting of yourself, and reformulate your sense of who you are.
  3. Positive choice and action: In response to a greater understanding of yourself, new goals are developed, and you start to behave differently, in ways that align with your reshaped sense of self which implications may boost self-esteem, decrease anxiety, or generally improve your life circumstances..

What happens in a typical client-centered therapy session?

The psychologist who developed this theory, Carl Rogers said that there is a great deal of room for interpretation when it comes to client-centered therapy (2). This means that sessions can vary widely, depending on the particular psychotherapist’s approach.

That said, there are some aims that are common to all person-centered counseling sessions. In any session, the counselor aims to create a warm, supportive environment and build a strong therapeutic relationship. This core aspect of the expert's unconditional positive regard (UPR) will enable the client to:

  • Freely explore a client's attitudes and feelings, including negative emotions and mindset
  • Access and amplify the client’s thoughts about their strengths and resources
  • Develop self-acceptance
  • Develop new goals and behaviors

To help discover greater self-awareness, the psychologist might (4):

  • Practice active listening and reflect a client’s own words or feelings back to them
  • Use open-ended questions like, “how did you feel when that happened?
  • Focus on the client’s experience, rather than learning or practicing strategies or tools to help manage a client's symptoms
  • Say things to show that they have empathetic understanding of how the patient is thinking or feeling
  • Create a non-judgmental and caring atmosphere, where clients can feel comfortable saying anything

What to look for in a client-centered therapist

The best-fitting professional for you will depend on individual factors, symptoms, your location and finances. Finding the right person to work with is crucial in setting the necessary and sufficient conditions for a successful outcome. Rogers believed therapist congruence between therapist and client was the most important aspect of his treatment. In addition to building the therapist-client relationship, there are several other key factors to consider in your search for a client-centered therapist:

Current license

Look for a mental health professional with a current license; this ensures that your therapist has completed the appropriate level of education to practice. When browsing through therapists on Zencare, you can rest assured that our therapists have already been vetted.

Specialized training

Check that your prospective therapist has completed specialized training in humanistic psychology, and specifically in client-centered therapy. It can be helpful to take a look at therapists’ biographies. This is often where they note their experience and specializations.

The American Psychological Association has a division for psychologists interested in humanistic therapy. If you want to work with a psychologist, look for a member of the Society for Humanistic Psychology.

Personal fit

Prioritize the potential for developing a strong working relationship between you and your therapist. This trusting relationship, called the “therapeutic alliance” will have a significant impact on the effect of Rogerian psychotherapy.

Specific therapist characteristics for person-centered therapy

The therapeutic alliance is a particularly important aspect of Dr. Rogers' client-centered therapy, so you’ll want to keep an eye out for the key characteristics in your prospective therapists:

  • Empathy: the therapist understands how you feel and think and is able to show you this by accurately summarizing your thoughts back to you without judgment.
  • Unconditional positive regard: the therapist shows you warmth and helps you to feel worthwhile and valued.
  • Congruence: the therapist is genuine and honest about what they are thinking and feeling. (2)

Talk in advance

The best way to gauge how you might feel about your prospective therapist is to ask for a preliminary phone call. Most therapists will be happy to do so. This gives you the opportunity to ask questions about their:

  • Education and qualifications
  • Training in the person-centered approach
  • Experience treating people with similar concerns to your own
  • What form of therapy they use and what sessions with them will be like
  • Their participation in insurance plans and cost of therapy

It’s a good idea to speak to a few different therapists before making your mind up.

Sources and references

  1. Effectiveness of cognitive-behavioural, person-centred and psychodynamic therapies as practised in UK National Health Service settings
  2. Harvard Health Publishing, “Client-centered therapy"
  3. Significant Aspects of Client-Centered Therapy
  4. Person-Centered Therapy (PDF)
  5. The Association for the Development of the Person Centered Approach