Feltham and Dryden (1993, p. 36) define ‘congruence’ as ‘genuineness, honesty exhibited by the counsellor as an essential part of her person and her work; likewise, the genuineness of the client’.
Origin of Congruence as a Counselling Concept
The concept of congruence was first mentioned in relation to person-centred counselling. In the mid-1950s, psychiatrist, educator, and family therapist Carl Whitaker and colleagues – working in Atlanta, USA – developed the concept of a therapeutic attitude of genuineness or wholeness (Tudor and Merry, 2006, p. 29).
This was later taken up by Carl Rogers, who – in a 1957 article for the Journal of Consulting Psychology – published his ideas on what constituted the six necessary and sufficient conditions for therapeutic personality change. Conditions 2 and 3 relate to congruence, one in the client and the other in the counsellor:
- The first, whom we shall term the client, is in a state of incongruence, being vulnerable or anxious.
- The second person, whom we shall term the therapist, is congruent or integrated in the relationship.
This represented a sea change from the psychoanalytical approach, which had prevailed during the 1940s and in which the therapist specifically aimed to serve as a ‘blank canvas’.
Incongruence in the Client
‘Incongruence’ refers to ‘the discrepancy between the actual experience and the self-picture of the individual insofar as it represents that experience’ (Tudor and Merry, 2006, p. 72). They continue: ‘Incongruence develops and is maintained by the person through their selective perception of experience on the basis of conditions of worth.’
There are three process elements of incongruence (Tudor and Merry, 2006, p. 72):
- a general and generalised vulnerability
- a dimly perceived tension or anxiety
- a sharp awareness of incongruence.
Congruence in the Counsellor
Feltham and Dryden (1993, p. 36) write: ‘Congruence has long been regarded as an essential quality in the counsellor, since clients are sensitive to insincere or role-bound behaviour and are unlikely to be helped by counsellors who model a false self or defensive style.’
Rogers recognised that if you are real and genuine with a client, they are more likely to tell you what is on their worried mind, because they perceive you as trustworthy. In this way, the therapeutic relationship is established and deepened.
When a counsellor is congruent, they also model this genuineness to the client. Thus, the counsellor’s congruence can act as to support the client to become congruent themselves.
Practical Tips on Being Congruent
- Be yourself. Don’t hide behind a professional façade or academic language. Counselling is a person-to-person relationship. If a client can experience you as a real person, they are more likely to trust you.
- Don’t hide behind the professional façade. Hiding behind theory or becoming defensive if a client asks you a question is sometimes referred to as ‘defensive psychotherapy’. When this happens, the client may become anxious or not invest themselves in the relationship.
- If you are wrong, own it. As a human being, you will make mistakes. These are learning opportunities you can reflect on and link to your personal and professional development.
The first step to this is that if you have made a mistake, own it, admit it and – if necessary – apologise. Covering up or not telling the truth because you are hoping the mistake will go away may very well lead you into more difficulty.
If justified, offering an apology to a client at an early stage may strengthen the therapeutic relationship, and you may avoid a complaint!
This is in keeping with the BACP’s Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions (2018, p. 20), which states:
We will ensure candour by being open and honest about anything going wrong and promptly inform our clients of anything in our work that places clients at risk of harm, or has caused them harm, whether or not the client(s) affected are aware of what has occurred by … offering an apology when this is appropriate.
- If you don’t know, admit it. Sometimes a client will ask you questions that you cannot answer. In cases like this, saying ‘I don’t know’ is preferable to pretending you know or even making something up. As the philosopher Socrates once remarked, the wisest person is the one who says ‘I don’t know.’
- Let the client see the real you. Believe that you are good enough!
Free Handout Download
BACP (2018). Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions [online]. BACP. [Viewed 11/6/21]. Available from: https://www.bacp.co.uk/media/3103/bacp-ethical-framework-for-the-counselling-professions-2018.pdf
Feltham, C. and Dryden, W. (1997). Dictionary of Counselling. London: Whurr.
Rogers, C. (1957). The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change. Journal of Consulting Psychology. 21, 95–103.
Tudor, K. and Merry, T. (2006). Dictionary of Person-Centred Psychology. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.
Resource created: 25 October 2021