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Counselling-Frame of Reference

How to develop empathic understanding

Counselling-frame of reference

Counselling-frame of reference was first used by Carl Rogers, the founder of person-centred therapy, in 1959. He believed:

"The state of empathy, or being empathic, is to perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person" (Carl Rogers 1980 P140).

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He felt that being understood is key for a person to feel secure enough to speak about their difficulties.

How do you enter a client's frame of reference?

By listening carefully to what the client is saying and trying to see their perceptual world, as they see it. This can be achieved by doing the following things:

  • Be aware that everybody has a unique view of their world and how it impacts on them.
  • Don't impose your views or Judgments (this may shut the client down)
  • Use questions only to clarify your understanding.
  • Be patient, clients may need to build up trust before sharing intimate details of their life.
  • Be genuine and real in the relationship. Don't hide behind a professional facade.
  • Be warm and accepting toward your client.

The danger of the counsellor's frame of reference

A skilled counsellor will be carful to make sure that his or her own frame of reference is not introjected into the counselling relationship.
This requires a high level of self awareness on the part of the counsellor so as to be able to put their own opinions and feelings aside and be fully integrated in what the client is bringing.

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What skills does the counsellor use?

Entering to a counselling-frame of reference requires you to use a mixture of skills at an appropriate time, for example:

  • The skill of attending is used at the beginning of the session, to enable clients to feel accepted.
  • Silence is also important as it allows the client to share their story.
  • Reflecting emotions and paraphrasing. Helps the client hear that you are understanding them.

What about the Core Conditions?

To enter a client's frame of reference, a counsellor needs to possess and demonstrate the following personal qualities, sometimes referred to as the Core Conditions.

  • Empathy, the ability not only hear but feel the clients emotions.
  • Congruence, the client needs to see that you are a real person genuinely interested in them.
  • Unconditional Positive Regard, the ability of the therapist to listen without judgement.

How is therapeutic change achieved?

Person-Centred Theory, believes that psychological disturbance is caused by conditions of worth and introjected values. For example, a client who has been told throughout their lives that they are stupid and worthless.

The counsellor acts as a 'companion' to the client. By entering their frame of reference and seeing the world as they do. The theory states that slowly the client starts to build self-acceptance and internal trusting, this is sometimes referred to as organismic valuing. 

The client's self-defeating cycle is broken. Now free of others judgments they can trust their own instincts and live life on their own terms.


Rogers, C. A Way of Being, 1980 edn., New York: Houghton Mifflin .P140

  1. David Traynor on January 12, 2017 at 4:04 pm

    Hi, is it possible for a counsellor to show 100% genuine empathy and congruence when a client brings material that goes against the counsellors beliefs? (e.g. faith beliefs, sexual preferences etc)

    Many thanks David

    • Rory on January 12, 2017 at 8:46 pm

      Hi David, your question has been debated many times and was one of the main criticisms in Jeffery Masson’s book, Against therapy.I guess the answer lies in how the client perceives the counsellor’s responses to their material. We are not always obliged to comment on what clients bring. We just work with the feelings and the narratives.

    • Ken Kelly on January 13, 2017 at 8:07 am

      Good question David. We have covered this topic in a podcast on Unconditional Positive Regard, you can listen to it here at timecode 36:49 https://counsellingtutor.com/003-transference-countertransference-paraphrasing-and-upr/

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