Skills for Person-Centred Counselling

Carl Rogers (1902-1987) developed the Person-Centered Therapy that emphasises the concept of “self-actualization”. It implies that people have an internal force to develop their capacities and talents to the fullest.

Rogers believed that growth occurs when individuals confront problems, struggle to master then, and through that struggle develop new aspects of their skills, capacities and views about life. Life, therefore, is an endless process of creatively moving forward, even if only in small ways.

Self-actualization is thwarted by “conditional positive regard”, that is when acceptance is dependent on the positive or negative evaluation of a person’s actions. These “conditions of worth” lead to alienation from true feelings and, thus, to anxiety and threat.

The successful therapeutic relationship

Rather than lying on the couch, Roger’s non-directive psychotherapy had the client sitting face-to-face with him: The client is a collaborator and the therapist is the facilitator of the client’s self-directed growth.

In person-centred counselling the healing potential of therapy develops in a positive and constructive manner only if the climate of acceptance, respect and trust is established.

1. Acceptance

Acceptance is defined as unconditional positive regard when the counsellor develops a warm caring for the client. It involves acceptance of the client’s negative, despondent and painful emotions as well as their positive, good, mature and sociable feelings.

A counsellor shows acceptance when he or she adopts a non-judgemental stance in a way that conveys respect, warmth and genuineness. This communicates to the client a feeling of self-worth and value and facilitates a process of self-acceptance and growth.

The client is free to explore all thoughts and feelings, positive or negative, without danger of rejection or condemnation and can thus express himself. He is free of meeting a standard of behaviour to ‘earn’ positive regard.

Low self-esteem is at the root of many problems because it erodes our confidence in our ability to manage our lives. When clients experience acceptance from a counsellor, they begin to accept themselves, which increases their self-esteem.

2. Congruence

Congruence in a relationship implies a measure of equivalence. It is the degree to which we are able to relate to people in an honest and sincere manner.

In the counselling situation the counsellor is authentic and genuine without an air of authority or hidden knowledge. The counsellor does not present an aloof professional facade, but is present and transparent to the client.

To be able to demonstrate congruence, an awareness of self and an acknowledgement of our own beliefs, prejudices and values are important. Effective therapy depends wholly on the degree to which the counsellor is integrated, open, genuine and self-aware of potential blind spots.

Since counsellors are asking people to take an honest look at themselves and to make choices concerning how they want to change, it is critical that counsellors themselves be open to the same kind of personal scrutiny.

Genuineness encourages a client’s self-disclosure, but the counsellor should continually strive to keep the client’s agenda in focus, rather than disclose their own personal values or feelings.

3. Empathy

Empathy is the capacity to enter into the feelings, thoughts and experiences of another; to understand what the other person is experiencing. A high degree of empathy is essential for a successful counselling relationship – the ability to recognise, perceive and feel the emotion of another. There is emotional content and an intellectual element.

Empathic understanding enables me as a person to accept and enter the world of the client irrespective of his or her own personal and cultural baggage. It requires the ability to feel with someone else, while observing the boundaries of what your own feelings are.

It is hugely important to us to be truly understood by another human being. This opens the way to the client for self-understanding and self-discovery.

Learning to be empathic requires knowledge as well as being able to evaluate oneself thoroughly. It involves the examination of stereotypes which we may be carrying around about others, and the acquisition of cultural and structural understandings about society.

Therapeutic Change

In some instances, the relationship between client and counsellor is itself the vehicle for therapeutic change. Genuine empathy, essential congruence and real acceptance will quite often provide the wherewithal for clients to overcome encrusted habits, pain, divisive disordered thoughts and dysfunctional behaviours.

Together, these three core conditions enable clients to develop and grow, to strengthen and expand their own identity and become the person they ‘really’ are.

This is central to the reciprocal relationship that lies at the heart of effective and reflective practice. Counsellors have the task of paying attention to the client’s expressed needs.

Accepting responsibility

One of the principles underlying counselling is the desire to empower clients to take responsibility for themselves and to identify, develop and use resources that will generally make them more effective agents of change.

When clients accept responsibility for their behaviour and emotions, they recognise that even in the most difficult of circumstances, they have the ability to choose how they respond.

As human beings, we gain great relief when we are being attentively listened to, especially when a person is prepared to help bear some of the weight we are carrying. Telling ourselves the truth can be a painful experience but one that is deeply healing and reparative.

Therapy as a journey

Rogers saw therapy as a journey shared by two fallible people. The personal characteristics of the therapist and the quality of the therapeutic relationship determine the success of the therapy.

It is only as the counsellor understands the feelings and thoughts which seem so horrible to the client, and sees them as the client sees them, and accepts them and the client, that the client feels really free to explore all the hidden nooks and frightening crannies of his inner and often buried experience.

By offering unconditional acceptance the client experiences a relationship of warmth and safety. The safety of being liked and prized as a person is a highly important element in a helping relationship.

The therapist as companion

In On Becoming a Person, Rogers writes:  “Thus the relationship which I have found helpful is characterized by a sort of transparency on my part, in which my real feelings are evident; by an acceptance of this other person as a separate person with value in his own right; and by a deep empathic understanding which enables me to see his private world through his eyes.  When these conditions are achieved, I become a companion to my client, accompanying him in the frightening search for himself, which he now feels free to undertake.”

Rogers then lists 10 questions to ask one’s self as a therapist to assure that one is creating a helping relationship:

1) Can I BE in some way which will be perceived by the other person as trustworthy, as dependable or consistent in some deep sense?

2) Can I be expressive enough as a person that what I am will be communicated unambiguously?

3) Can I let myself experience positive attitudes toward this other person--attitudes of warmth, caring, liking, respect, interest?

4) Can I be strong enough as a person to be separate from the other?  Can I be a sturdy respecter of my own feelings, my own needs, as well as his?

5) Am I secure enough with myself to permit him his separateness?

6) Can I let myself enter fully into the world of his feelings and personal meanings and see these as he does, without evaluating or judging it?

7) Can I be acceptant of each facet of this other person which he presents to me?  Can I receive him as he is?

8) Can I act with sufficient sensitivity in the relationship that my behaviour will not be perceived as a threat?

9) Can I free him from the threat of external evaluation?

10) Can I meet this other individual as a person who is in process of becoming, or will I be bound by his past and by my past?

For effective counselling the counsellor needs to establish an enabling and responsive relationship with the client.

When you attend fully to someone else, you are choosing to value that person and what she or he says to you. Full attention is crucial in your work with clients, at all levels of communication.

A well adjusted and competent counsellor can interact with a client through many interviews without interfering with the freedom of the client to develop a personality quite separate from that of the therapist.


Becoming a Therapist: A Manual for Personal and Professional Development (Malcolm Cross and Linda Papadopoulos)

Integrative Counselling Skills in Action (Sue Culley and Tim Bond)

Transcultural Counselling in Action (Patricia D’Ardenne and Aruna Mahtani)

Person-Centred Communication (Hanka Grobler, Dries Du Toit, and Rinie Schenck)

Mastering Counselling Skills (Lance Lindon & Jennie Lindon)

Further reading

Underlying Theory of Person-Centred Counselling:

Positive Personal Growth:


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Courage is the power to let go of the familiar. - Raymond Lindquist