Carl Rogers’ Theory

Carl Ransom Rogers and Person-Centred Theory

Carl Ransom Rogers

Carl Ransom Rogers (1902–1987) is best known for devising person-centred theory (also known as ‘client-centred theory), which is influenced by humanistic theory. He paved the way for client-led therapies, and is the source of many well-known quotes.

Carl Rogers' Theory - a black-and-white profile image of Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers

Early years

Carl Ransom Rogers was born on 8 January 1902 in Oak Park, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. His parents – Walter A. Rogers and Julia M. Cushing – were both devout Christians attending a Pentecostal church.

Rogers became the fourth of six children, who were brought up in a strict religious and ethical environment. He was taught to read at home before he attended kindergarten, where he was deemed so advanced that he immediately joined the second-year students.

In 1914, the Rogers family bought a farm in the neighbouring suburb of Glen Ellyn. There, the young Rogers gained his appreciation of the scientific method by observing moths and other living things.

Study years

In 1921, Rogers attended the University of Wisconsin to study agriculture but soon changed course to study history instead. A year later, he attended the World Student Christian conference in Beijing and spent six months in China.

In 1924, Rogers graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history. He initially enrolled at the Theological Seminary in New York to become a church minister.

However, in 1926, he married Helen Elliot and decided against a career in religion, instead signing up to study psychology and teaching at the University of Columbia.

Career years

On graduating, Rogers took a position at the Rochester Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, later serving as Director. In 1931, he was awarded his PhD for research on the Rorschach ink-blot test.

It was during his tenure at Rochester that Rogers became strongly influenced by a social-worker colleague who had studied under the psychotherapist Otto Rank.

Rogers also came across the work of Jessie Taft, one of the key female voices in the development of person-centred therapy. Taft was already an accomplished author and had also translated Rank’s work from German to English for an American audience. It was the ideas of Rank and Taft that laid the ground for what Rogers would call ‘non-directive therapy’.

Anecdote has it that there was one particular event at Rochester that altered the direction of Rogers’ thinking – and thus the world of psychotherapy – forever. According to this, when Rogers was working with a child who had behavioural issues, he tried to convince the mother that the reason the child was behaving badly was because of her early rejection of the child. The mother stormed out, only to return and ask whether Rogers took adults for counselling. When Rogers replied that he did, she proceeded to tell her own story. Rogers realised the power of letting the client speak about their world, without ‘expert’ intervention. This encounter formed that basis of what he later described as client-centred therapy’.

While Rogers’ ideas attracted criticism from the psychotherapeutic community, they also gained wide acceptance over time. Rogers was honoured with many awards and accolades, including being elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1961.

He was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in Northern Ireland and Russia, where he tried to bring differing factions together in the hope of finding common ground.

Sadly, the nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize arrived a few days after his death on 4 February 1987, caused by a fall at his home in La Jolla, California.

Key books published

Rogers was a prolific writer and published many other books and papers during his life. The following books are particularly key in setting out his theory and ideas:

  • Client-Centered Therapy: Its current practice, implications and theory (published in 1951) – Rogers wrote this book while working as a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago (where he helped establish a counselling centre and conducted effectiveness studies). The book describes his findings and theories.
  • On Becoming a Person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy (1961) – this book was written while Rogers was teaching psychology at the University of Wisconsin. In it, he describes his experiences helping people with personal development.
  • A Way of Being (1980) – written towards the end of Rogers’ career, this book is seen as more personal and philosophical than Rogers’ earlier works, and ends with a call for a more person-centred, humane future.
  • The Carl Rogers Reader (published posthumously in 1989) – the year before Rogers died, he had started work on this collection of his writing with the help of Howard Kirschenbaum, author of On Becoming Carl Rogers and Valerie Land Henderson, his associate of many years.

Humanistic Psychology

It is humanistic psychology that underlies the person-centred approach.

The humanistic approach is sometimes referred to as the ‘third force’ of psychology, a term coined by American psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1968 – the first force being psychoanalysis and the second behaviourism.

Carl Rogers adopted humanistic theory into his person-centred therapeutic model. Tudor and Merry (2006, p.68) note: ‘It was significant for the later development of his ideas that Rogers’ first graduate training was at the liberal Union Theological Seminary in New York and that he was attracted to and encouraged in unorthodox thinking.’

Rogers first explained his developing theory in a Minnesota lecture entitled ‘Newer concepts in psychotherapy’. Thorne and Sanders (2012, p. 12) report that ‘he subsequently came to consider the date of this event as the birthday of client-centred therapy’. There – to an outraged audience – Rogers criticised the traditional approach to therapy, particularly the practice of directive advice-giving (which was part of both Freudian psychoanalytic and Skinnerian behaviourist approaches), and advocated ‘helping individuals to grow and develop’ (believing that everyone has the ability to trust in themselves enough to make their own decisions), an ‘emphasis on feelings and emotions rather than on cognitive aspects of a situation’, ‘a focus on the present rather than the past’ and ‘the crucial experience of the therapeutic relationship itself as a major element in the growth of the client’ (Thorne and Sanders, 2012, p. 13) – all key features of the humanistic approach.

Rogers’ Key Theories

Rogers produced many valuable theories, including the following three core ideas:

  • the six necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change
  • the seven stages of process
  • the 19 propositions (his theory of personality).

Rogers also developed a rich vocabulary for understanding how human beings perceive the world. The term ‘locus of evaluation’ is used to refer to the way we make sense of the world around us.

An internal locus of evaluation sees us trusting our organismic self. Conversely, if we receive conditions of worth (conditional love) from others when we are young, we develop introjected values. As a result, we live our lives from an external locus of evaluation – in other words, being able to be happy only when we have the approval of others.

The Six Necessary and Sufficient Conditions

Alfred Adler’s work on change was a particular inspiration for Rogers’ 1957 article, ‘The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change’, which describes the conditions needed for humans to grow/thrive.

In addition to Rogers’ belief that all humans are born intrinsically good, he held that they are self-determining (i.e. the best placed to make decisions for themselves and to sort out their difficulties), so long as they experience the right conditions from others.

The three core conditions for this are:

  • empathy (i.e. understanding),
  • congruence (genuineness) and
  • unconditional positive regard (UPR: non-judgement).

The term ‘core conditions’ was not in fact used by Rogers, but was coined later – in 1969 – by one of his students, Robert Carkhuff. He ‘used it in the context of identifying from divergent orientations to therapy “core, facilitative and action-oriented conditions” by which the helper facilitated change in the client (or “helpee”)’ (Tudor, 2000, p. 34).

Adding several additional ‘core conditions’ of his own, Carkhuff used the word ‘core’ to refer to their applicability to all helping professions, including – for example – social work, teaching and healthcare. Other terms used to refer to the core conditions are the ‘facilitative conditions’ or ‘therapist’s conditions’.

Describing how the term entered the world of counselling specifically, Tudor (2000, p. 34) continues: ‘The term “the core conditions” was taken up by people much closer to Rogers than Carkhuff … and applied to three of the necessary and sufficient conditions and, although Rogers himself did not use the term, it has become part of the person-centred therapy lexicon.’

Although the three core conditions are the best known, Rogers also proposed three further conditions required for effective therapy:

  • therapist–client psychological contact (i.e., a sound relationship between the two parties)
  • client incongruence (a mismatch between the client's experience and awareness, meaning that the client feels vulnerable or anxious), and
  • client perception of the therapist’s empathy and UPR.

These three further conditions are sometimes referred to as the ‘hidden conditions’, ‘client’s conditions’ or ‘lost conditions’.

Rogers (1957, pp. 95–96) asserted: ‘No other conditions are necessary. If these six conditions exist and continue over a period of time, this is sufficient. The process of constructive personality change will follow.’

The Seven Stages of Process

Rogers’ model of the seven stages of process within the client describes how a person experiences a developing sense of sense and how open they are to self-change.

Feltham and Dryden (1993, p. 181) refer to the seven stages of process as one model of stages of change: ‘the marked phases which clients (or people attempting self-change) pass through … Rogers’ (1961) 'stages of process' runs from 1 ('remoteness from experiencing') to 7 ('experiencing effective choices of new ways of being).’ The theory provides a valuable common language with which counsellors can track client progress and discuss this in both clinical supervision and case studies.

In his book On Becoming a Person, Rogers (1961, p. 131) writes:

Individuals move, I began to see, not from a fixity or homeostasis through change to a new fixity, though such a process is indeed possible. But much the more significant continuum is from fixity to changingness, from rigid structure to flow, from stasis to process.

Rogers identified that the journey between stages is not linear, and that people move both ways. Tolan (2003, p. 112) describes this as follows: ‘It is rare to find someone who shows signs of being in only one “stage” at a time. At some points, a client might even seem to the counsellor to have “gone backwards”.’ By stage 6, however, progress tends to be more secure, and self-growth is then able to continue without the counsellor.

The seven stages of process describe an organic process and are not intended to be used as a framework to ‘push’ clients. Merry (2014, p. 59) notes: ‘There are no direct interventions that can be made or should be made in an attempt to move the client from one stage to the next to speed up the process.’

The 19 Propositions

It was in 1951 that Rogers wrote Client-Centered Therapy, the first full version of his theory, which includes a chapter devoted to his theory of personality and behaviour (in the form of 19 propositions).

In developing this part of his theory, Rogers (1951, p. 482) drew on the work of other psychologists and on his own experience of counselling clients: ‘Taken as a whole, the series of propositions presents a theory of behavior which attempts to account for the phenomena previously known, and also for the facts regarding personality and behavior which have more recently been observed in therapy.’

Carl Rogers and Person-Centred Theory - An image of a woman in profile with a thriving tree superimposed on the image

The 19 propositions represent the following key ideas:

  • Consciousness is experienced from the first-person point of view.
  • Behaviour is a product of self-belief.
  • A safe emotional environment is necessary for psychological change to take place.

The 19 propositions thus emphasise the key role in the person-centred approach of the phenomenological field – i.e. all that the organism experiences, consciously and otherwise; this is inevitably subjective and therefore not a precise reflection of any objective reality. Rogers writes (1951, p. 532):

This theory is basically phenomenological in character, and relies heavily upon the concept of the self as an explanatory construct. It pictures the end-point of personality development as being a basic congruence between the phenomenal field of experience and the conceptual structure of the self.

Merry (2014, p. 34) writes: ‘The nineteen propositions repay careful reading because together they provide us with an elegant theory of how and under what circumstances people change, and why certain qualities of relationship promote that change.’

Thus, the 19 propositions are of value to counsellors both in working with clients and in developing ourselves, since – in Kelly’s words (2017, p. 51) – ‘part of the counselling journey, specifically in PD [personal development] groups, is about encouraging those elements of our personality that are invisible to us – perhaps not-for-growth elements of ourselves – to come into our awareness, challenging us to look at them.’

Modern Developments and Research

Present-day key influencers of person-centred theory include Dave Mearns and Brian Thorne, who have developed Rogers’ unitary view of the self into the idea that people have many selves (known as ‘configurations of self’). This new concept drew on the work of Mick Cooper, and all three men are also known for their work on relational depth, which they assert can occur only when the core conditions are present to a high degree, and is described by Mearns and Thorne (2000, p. 87) as ‘something really special … a relationship of incredible safety and vitality in which even the most feared dimensions of existence can be faced’.

Colin Lago has worked extensively on diversity and transcultural concerns in counselling, a topic to which Cecil Patterson also contributed, despite his stance as ‘a follower of Carl Rogers with no need to usurp his position’, who ‘continued to follow by interpreting and elaborating on it [Rogers’ theory] without trying to extend it’ (Goodyear and Watkins, 1983, p. 593).

Last but not least, Tony Merry founded the British Association for the Person-Centred Approach in 1989; and Keith Tudor and Mike Worrall (2003) published the first book that focuses exclusively on a model of supervision consistent with person-centred principles.

Cooper (2021, paras. 1–2) observes that while Rogers and his team ‘were amongst the first counselling and psychotherapy clinicians to use research data as a way of informing their practice’, ‘since then, many elements of the person-centred field have stalled’. He continues: ‘We don’t know the latest research findings, we don’t evaluate our approach, we don’t consider research as a useful source of information in developing our practice.’

Some recent studies of person-centred theory include:

  • the large-scale ETHOS trial of school-based person-centred counselling (Cooper et al., 2020)
  • the PRaCTICED trial, comparing person-centred counselling for depression with CBT in the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service (Saxon et al., 2017).

Cooper (2021, para. 5) notes that ‘there’s so much more research out there that has been done, and can be done, to really help us nuance, refine, and update our person-centred ways of working to maximise the benefits that we can give to clients’.

Elliott (2016) summarises over 60 years of studies in person-centred and experiential psychotherapy and counselling, starting with Carl Rogers’ own work. He looks at three main areas of research:

  • the quantitative effects of person-centred and experiential therapies
  • client in-session processes
  • the contribution of therapists and therapy methods to client change.

Criticisms of Person-Centred Theory

Arguments against Carl Rogers’ theory are:

  • that person-centred therapy is culture-specific
  • that Rogers may be wrong in his belief that all humans are essentially good, especially if you look at the various atrocities carried out around the world
  • that the notion of the core conditions as not only necessary but also sufficient may not be true for some clients (who may need a more structured approach), e.g. those who have suffered abuse and abandonment, substance misuse or psychopathy
  • that therapists may simply be putting on a professional act rather than truly embodying the core conditions.

The last argument listed above is known as the ‘Masson critique’. Indeed, Masson (1989) notes several weaknesses of person-centred theory, including that therapists ‘appear to be genuine only because the circumstances of the therapy are artificial’. He asserts that if therapists were present more widely in their clients’ lives, they would not be able to offer empathy and UPR.

There is also a critique – a theological perspective – that claims person-centred therapy puts the self at the centre of a person’s existence, and so goes against the Christian view of the centrality of God and Jesus. Rose writes:

The humanistic concept of the self, embraced by Carl Rogers and others, declares that man has the capacity to solve his own problems, and if he is in possession of all the psychological facts, he is capable of solving all the problems that face him … This is contrary to biblical teachings; for if man could solve all his problems by himself, there would be no need for God.

Rose (1996, p. 1) goes on to advise: ‘While humanistic theories focus on human experiences, problems, potentials and ideals, and encourage insecure and disturbed people to find solutions within themselves, the Christian psychologists and educators should point these people to the great Problem Solver – Christ.’

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Carl Ransom Rogers and Person-Centred Theory

Differences between Person-Centred and Other Theories

In 1936, psychologist Saul Rosenzweig introduced the concept of the ‘dodo bird verdict’, referring to his claim that all modalities produce similarly effective outcomes. This led to an interest among researchers in identifying the common factors among different forms of therapy, in an attempt to explain this effect.

The first two forces to emerge in psychology – psychodynamic and cognitive approaches respectively – had not initially placed particular value on the quality of the relationship between client (or ‘analysand’/‘patient’, as they termed the person receiving therapy) and therapist. It was only with the emergence of the third wave in psychology – the humanistic approach – that relationship factors began to be seen as a possible explanation for the dodo bird effect.

Rogers’ theory followed his reading of the book I and Thou by Austrian philosopher Martin Buber (translated by Ronald Gregor Smith in 1937, from the original German version written in 1923), which focuses on the importance of human relationships in which the parties see each other as fully human and equal (‘I–Thou’ as opposed to ‘I-It’ relationships).

Today, it is widely agreed that the three relationship factors of empathy, congruence and UPR (i.e. the core conditions) are necessary in all modalities, though they are sometimes referred to using different terms (for example, empathy being known as ‘empathic attunement’ in TA). This general realisation of the importance of relationship can be called ‘the relational turn’.

However, in contrast with person-centred therapy, which sees the core conditions – with the addition of the remaining three ‘hidden’ conditions – as not only necessary but also sufficient to bring about therapeutic personality change, other approaches stress the importance of adding additional elements, e.g. goal-setting and psycho-education (teaching clients models to apply in their lives). Thus, such models – for example, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – take a directive (rather than non-directive) approach.

Gestalt (German for ‘whole’) therapy – originated by Fritz and Laura Perls in the 1940/50s – is another humanistic therapy that uses the awareness cycle (also known as the ‘cycle of experience’) to help clients to become more aware: ‘The active methods and active personal engagement of gestalt therapy are used to increase the awareness, freedom, and self-direction of the patient’ (Yontef and Jacobs, 2005, p. 300).

Both CBT and gestalt therapy have features in common with – and differences from – person-centred therapy. For example, both person-centred therapy and gestalt emphasise the phenomenological field. All three focus on the present/here and now (as opposed to the past, as in psychodynamic approaches). While therapists may self-disclose (if helpful to the client) in gestalt or person-centred therapy, CBT therapists would not. CBT is more directive than gestalt, which is in turn (a little) more directive than person-centred therapy (e.g. when using the empty-chair technique).

Indeed, Yontef and Jacobs (2005, p. 300) write: ‘The gestalt therapist uses active methods that not only develop patients’ awareness, but also develop patient’s repertoires of awareness and behavioral tools.’ In CBT, the therapist is the expert, while both the person-centred approach and gestalt therapy allow the client to be more autonomous.


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Page updated: Jan 2023

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