Counselling-Frame of Reference

How to Develop Empathic Understanding

Counselling - Frame of Reference

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)

Carl Rogers on counselling-frame of reference - "Being empathic is to perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy."

Rogers 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 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 careful 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.

Nelson-Jones (2013) helpfully outlines the difference between responding from your world view (external frame of reference) and trying to see the world from someone else’s perspective (internal frame of reference).

Notice in the passage below how two distinct qualities are asked for when trying to understand someone. The first is a desire to understand; the second is having the skills to be able to respond appropriately.

He observes:

“The skill of listening to and understanding clients is based on choosing to acknowledge the separateness between 'me' and 'you' by getting inside clients' internal frame of reference rather than remaining in your own external frame of reference. If counselling skills students respond to what clients say in ways that show accurate understanding of their perspectives, you respond as if inside the client's internal frame of reference. However, if you choose not to show understanding of your clients' perspectives or lack the skills to understand them, you respond from the external frame of reference.”

Examples of Internal/External frames of reference

External frame of reference responses (Responding from your world view)

  • 'I wouldn't have done that.'
  • 'You should have asked her to leave and never come back.'
  • 'I think you should leave him.’
  • 'I go to the gym when I feel depressed.'
  • 'Don't be afraid to cry.'
The counsellor acts as a 'companion' to the client by entering their frame of reference and seeing the world as they do.

The counsellor acts as a 'companion' to the client by entering their frame of reference and seeing the world as they do.

Internal frame of reference responses (Reflecting the client's world view)

  • 'You feel happy that you've passed your assignment.'
  • 'You feel sad that your father has died.'
  • 'You're uncertain about whether you should have told what you thought.'
  • 'You're really in two minds as to whether you should go on a date with him.’
  • 'You feel glad that you've resigned from your job.'

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 help the client hear that you are understanding them.

Psychological disturbance is caused by conditions of worth and introjected values ... The counsellor acts as a 'companion' to the client by entering their frame of reference and seeing the world as they do.

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 to hear but to feel the client's 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.

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Frame of Reference

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

Nelson-Jones, R. (2013). Introduction to counselling skills. Los Angeles: SAGE, p.23.


Page updated April 2019

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3 thoughts on “Counselling-Frame of Reference”

  1. 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

    1. 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.

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