Client-Centered Therapy

What Is Client-Centered Theory and Therapy?

Client-centered theory was originated by Carl Rogers more than five decades ago, at a time when the humanistic approach to psychology was evolving and clearly differentiated from the more analytical styles of that period.

  • Client-centered theory is hypothesized on the belief that all beings have innate means to grow and change beyond their perceived limitations of “self” (e.g., attitude, behavior, and self-concept) toward greater positive personal development when facilitated through consistent and reliable relationships in therapy (Cepeda & Davenport, 2006; Rogers, 1957, 1961).
  • Client-centered therapy is a nondirective approach where the role of the therapist is not to offer direct advice for change or make any other type of suggestion that is usually found in the behavioral therapies but to use self-awareness in relationship to the client, focusing on the here and now of the presenting disparity, and provide a safe environment in which the client is capable of achieving self-actualization.

The client-centered therapist shows respect in recognizing that the client is the expert, inherently capable of resolving their challenges in order to live a more complete and satisfying life (Cepeda & Davenport, 2006; Green, 2006).

Client-centered theory and therapy are not based on stages of development or steps of actions to take sequentially with the client; rather, they rely solely on the stance of the therapist to genuinely possess three key humanistic characteristics:

  1. Empathy
  2. Congruency
  3. Unconditional positive regard

Furthermore, these three attitudes are manifested by the therapist and accessed during counseling sessions with the client, who is often experiencing a sense of incongruence, vulnerability, and anxiety.

It is essential to the theory of client-centered work that the client perceives and recognizes to some extent these therapeutic attitudes (Bozarth & Brodley, 1991). Table X-1 offers a more detailed explanation of each of the three elements that are central to the therapist’s behavior as client-centered.

Table X-1 | Characteristics of a Client-Centered Therapist
Core AttitudeRequired Skill or Behavior of Therapist
EmpathySharing the clients’ experience from their perspective and understanding it through their frame of reference.

This is accomplished through verbal and nonverbal actions. This also includes seeking clarity to the client’s experience, not through making an inference or assumption that is inaccurate but, rather, seeking to gain an understanding from the client when we are not certain. It requires truly being present to feeling what the client shares and also experiencing what we as therapists feel in response to the client.

Empathetic understanding is not be confused with simply mirroring or reflecting back to the client what was shared; it is more loosely aligned with recognizing what the client is attempting to communicate or struggling with at a deeper level. Communicating this awareness and seeking clarity (e.g., “let me see if I have this correct”) assists the client in exploring more deeply their internal process.
Unconditional positive regard (respect)Communicating emotional warmth to client’s needs/issues/statements/problems and notion of self or selves while not providing recommendations, opinions, advice, or solutions.

This is referred to as “prizing” the client/individual for who they are as a unique individual. It is necessary to point out that this does not mean the therapist/counselor has to agree or condone the actions/attitudes of the client; likewise, it is not for the therapist to voice personal disagreement with such experiences of the client.
Congruence (genuineness) Demonstrating through (congruent) verbal and nonverbal gestures (e.g., therapist’s affect and mood are the same) a deep level of understanding and ability to be honest, genuine, and “whole.”

This is about being real with the client, not superficial. This does not require diagnosing the client or using terms that are unknown to the client. Truly meet the client where the client is.

In 1957, Carl Rogers hypothesized six conditions as “necessary and sufficient” to promote what he called constructive personality change in the individual (p. 241).

It is also suggested that as long the therapist is able to interrelate the three salient qualities discussed earlier (congruence, empathy, and unconditional positive regard), then at a minimum the client will experience positive growth (Snodgrass, 2007; Snyder, 2002).

Table X-2 represents the key principles of client-centred theory.

Table X-2 | Key Principles to Client-Centered Theory
Rogers’s Conditions of Client-Centered TheoryUnderlying Assumption of IndividualRole of Therapist
Therapeutic relationship must exist between client and therapist/counselorWilling to participate to some extent, capable and competentEstablishes a safe environment for cultivating the relationship; develops the conditions necessary and sufficient for constructive personality change
Client is in a state of incongruenceAnxious, vulnerable, distorted sense of real self versus ideal selfRemains integrated in the relationship
Therapist/counselor is congruentWill be able to recognize this through therapist’s use of self and will develop trustGenuine, sincere, authentic; demonstrates a fully integrated presence of self in relationship to client
Therapist experiences unconditional positive regard toward the clientHas the capacity to guide, regulate, direct, and control self providing certain conditions existRespect, acceptance, warmth, and a non-judgmental attitude
Therapist is empatheticHas rarely experienced this level of understanding, later begins to experience and verbalize unexpressed feelings/emotionsFeels what the client feels, active listening, verbally and nonverbally communicates back to the client in a validating (not evaluating) manner
Communication that the therapist’s use of empathy and unconditional positive regard is understoodExperiences self-actualization and happiness; loved and valued by self and othersMaintains commitment to the advancement of love and peace as basic strivings; facilitates and recognizes the client’s full growth and potential

In addition to Rogers’ explanation of the client-centered approach in the helping profession, there have been many others who built on this original hypothesis by expanding its application.

One such contributor to this approach is Robert Carkhuff, who elaborated on the three core conditions by adding confrontation, immediacy, and concreteness, also noted as “facilitative conditions deemed essential for effective counseling” (Horan, 1977).

In this realm, these qualities or conditions parallel Rogers’s core conditions in the following way:

  • Concreteness in empathetic understanding is about “being specific”
  • Immediacy with congruence refers to “what goes on between us right now”
  • Confrontation is seen as useful in “all three of Rogers’ conditions” (Brazier, 1996) as “telling it like it is” (Carkhuff, 1971, as cited in Horan, 1977).

Carhuff’s emergences in the client-centered approach are often seen as more active and direct than the original precepts and are recognized as qualities that further aid the helping process of the client.

The effectiveness of client-centered therapy is primarily dependent on the relationship between the client and therapist, whereby the therapist is completely aware of him- or herself in relationship to the client and the client is able to communicate unexpressed feelings and emotions that have caused confusion with his or her notion of self.

Ultimately, clients are able to experience on their own accord that they are loved and valued, which allows them to realize their fullest potential through self-actualization.

The Client-Centered Perspective Applied to Social Work

The conditions of client-centered theory match the fundamental values and skills of social work. The two have a historically organic relationship based on the shared belief and respect for the individual’s worth and dignity, autonomy, self-determination, and ability to improve whatever conditions exist through empowerment of the individual, group, or community.

The core skills used by social workers in purposeful relationships include empathy, respect (unconditional positive regard), and authenticity (congruence), which are also noted as the key elements/attitudes to the client centered approach (da Silva, 2005; Rooney, & Larsen, 2001).

The following case is presented to illustrate the use of the client-centered approach in social work.

Case Example
Liz, a single female, age 33, sought counseling because of conflicts between her personal needs and those of her family. Liz grew up in a lower to middle-class neighborhood outside of New York City as the older of two daughters to immigrant parents from Europe. Her father, Edward, died suddenly from a heart attack at age 50 when Liz was 15 years old. Her remaining family includes her mother, Rose, age 65; and one younger sister, Angela, age 30. Both reside in New York. Liz lives and works in San Diego, California, where she is an executive marketing manager for a firm that she has been with for over ten years, since graduating from college. She provides financial support to her mother, who is unable to work due to poor health, and occasionally to her sister, who is unable to keep a job due to her substance use (among other problems) to be continued....
Case Example continues
Liz describes her relationship with her sister as strained. The last time they spoke it ended in a shouting “shouting match as usual over Angela taking advantage of their mother, and her continued lack of responsibility with self-care.” Liz states that she and her mother have a warm but contentious relationship. She claims that she talks with her mom every day and sends her money monthly for medical and living expenses but is often criticized for being selfish for not doing more to help her sister. Liz says she understands her mother’s concerns about Angela and sometimes feels guilty for being resentful of her mother’s attitude; however, she doesn’t see that it is her problem to take care of her sister any longer. She is also at a point in her life where she wants to meet someone, settle down, and hopefully start a family, but she dismisses the idea as being a “fantasy not reality.” Liz describes herself as an overachiever and the only “responsible one” in her family. She has a few close friends with whom she socializes occasionally, but she is adamantly private about her family dynamics and personal situation. Liz arrives at the social workers office feeling depressed, withdrawn, and hopeless about her current and future situation. The following are excerpts from Liz and social worker exploring her feelings about the people she identified as family members in her life.
Liz: [with certainty] I love my mother very much. I take care of her financially . . . and I don’t mind. I actually feel I like it’s my responsibility since she’s all alone . . . well, not really alone I suppose. My sister I guess lives with her, but that’s a whole other story . . . she’s such a loser. [At this point the client has become restless and is looking away and pulling nervously on her sweater.]
Social Worker: I can see you really care about your mom and her well-being. I’m also sensing that maybe you wish your sister were more responsible and involved?
Liz: Yeah . . . that’s if she could stop using the drugs and alcohol. I get so angry when she is so neglectful of herself. It hurts my mother so much, but she just doesn’t care.
Social Worker: Her lack of care upsets you the most?
Liz: Yes, care for herself and care for others. I almost don’t know if I even care anymore about what she does to herself; it’s just my mom that I care about. Well that’s not totally true . . . I feel guilty saying that. [pauses and starts to become tearful]
Social Worker: [leans forward and offers the client tissues and gently responds] This seems like a really sensitive place for you to be right now.

Here the social worker’s use of empathetic skills encourages the client to explore more deeply her feelings of discord around family relations.

Several sessions later, Liz explores her own needs, including the desire for an intimate relationship.
Case Example continues
Liz: [hesitantly] I’ve met this great guy (John) at work and we seem to have a lot in common. I really think I’m beginning to like him and I think he likes me, too.
Social Worker: Tell me more.
Liz: [enthusiastically describes some of her initial conversations with John and her attraction for him, but as she continues to offer more around her feelings she becomes sullen] Well, the truth is it probably won’t work anyway. I just keep telling myself that a relationship with him is only a fantasy it will never be a reality for me.
Social Worker: Hmm. Let me see if I got this right. If you could, you would ideally have a relationship with John. It sounds like you have a special connection with him, and you think he feels it too, yet you believe that this isn’t a real possibility?
Liz: [tearfully] Right. I would like that, but I’m so involved with my family’s problems. Why would anyone want to sign up for that? It makes me so sad I’ll probably just end up alone.
Social Worker: [softly] That makes me sad, too. I wonder if you realize how others see you . . . how I see you. You have such a generous heart and really care deeply about relationships with people you love. These are wonderful qualities for a successful relationship. I wonder how it would feel for you to be that generous with yourself in meeting your own needs.

Again, we see the therapist is using empathetic skills, communicating her feelings of Liz’s experience while remaining congruent. The social worker is able to acknowledge Liz’s qualities of caring deeply for loved ones and helps her see how this does not have to mean she abandons herself or her own desires. This demonstration helps Liz with accepting that she is lovable, valuable, and capable of having a real relationship and not just the fantasy of one.

Liz returns for her final session after several weeks of continued therapy where she has explored further her desire and need for a real and intimate relationship along with her feelings of responsibility to care for her mother.
Case Example continues
Liz: [happily] John and I have been dating now for almost 8 months and it’s going really well. I think he could be the one! [smiling] I feel so loved. He’s a great guy. Also, I finally convinced my mom to move to California where she will be living with me until we find her a place of her own nearby. I’m so happy about this decision, especially since my sister just move away and I was worried about [Mom] being alone. This move is really going to allow me to care for my mom in a more involved, sort of hands-on way.
Social Worker: It is such a pleasure to witness how you have grown through your process. It really gives me a great sense of hope. I can see how you have come to appreciate and accept yourself not only as a loving daughter who only wants the best for her mom, but also as a woman who is capable of having a successful relationship and meeting your own needs.

In reviewing this case, we can see that the stance of the therapist was to establish a trusting relationship with the client using the three key characteristics of a client-centered approach. Throughout this relationship the social worker

  • shows unconditional positive regard for the client by being warm, and nonjudgmental of the client’s presenting conflict;
  • demonstrates empathy by being able to communicate an understanding through accurate reflection of the client’s feelings; and
  • remains congruent even with expressing her own experience of Liz as lovable.

Through verbalizing unexpressed emotions, Liz succeeded in reconciling her feelings of despair over the role of caregiver versus her need to be loved and was able to fully realize her potential for happiness and achieve a greater and more fully integrated sense of self.

The Larger Perspective

Social workers can use client-centered practice in a multitude of settings, including family and couples counseling, group therapy, and the larger context of community work. In each of these settings, the therapist uses the three key skills to address each individual or member and his or her unique needs and concerns, ultimately facilitating an ideal scene from the present scene.


If there were a code of conduct for client-centered therapy it might read something like this.

Client-centered therapy does not diagnose, judge, assess, solve, or otherwise profess to know what is “wrong” with the individual.

Client-centered therapy focuses on the uniqueness of the individual by respecting, nurturing, loving, and fostering the fragmented aspects of the client’s notion of self while the therapist demonstrates and maintains an integrated sense of wholeness.

Client-centered therapy can be viewed as a significant precursor to other effective therapies that are intentionally directive, problem-solving, or behavior-changing in their focus. At a minimum, the client-centered approach is seen as significant in assisting the client to feel understood, loved, and fully integrated through establishing a safe, trusting, and reliable rapport with the therapist.

See Also:
  1. Barrett-Lennard, G. T. (1998). Carl Rogers’ helping system: Journey and substance. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  2. Bohart, A. C., & Byrock, G. (2005). Experiencing Carl Rogers from the client’s point of view: A vicarious enthnographic investigation. I. extraction and perception of meaning. Humanistic Psychologist, 33 (3), 187-212.
  3. Bozarth, J.D., & Brodley, B. T. (1991). Actualisation: A functional concept in client-centered therapy. Handbook of Self-Actualisation, 6 (5), 45 – 60.
  4. Carkhuff, R. R. (1971). The development of human resources. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
  5. Cepeda, L. M., & Davenport, D. S. (2006). Person-centered therapy and solution-focused brief therapy: an integration of present and future awareness. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 43 (1), 1 – 12.
  6. da Silva, R. B. (2005). Person-centered therapy with impoverished, maltreated, and neglected children and adolescents in Brazil. Journal of Mental Health Counseling.