An Introduction to Rogerian Therapy

The therapeutic legacy of psychologist Carl Rogers

Woman at therapy session
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Rogerian therapy, created by Carl Rogers, is a therapeutic technique in which the client takes an active, autonomous role in therapy sessions. It is based on the idea that the client knows what is best, and that the therapist’s role is to facilitate an environment in which the client can bring about positive change.

Rogerian therapy is sometimes called nondirective therapy because of the autonomy given to the client.

The client, not the therapist, decides what is discussed. As Rogers explained, “It is the client who knows what hurts, what directions to go, what problems are crucial, what experiences have been deeply buried.”

Overview of Rogerian Therapy

Carl Rogers believed that all people have the capability to bring about positive change in their lives. He developed person-centered (or Rogerian) therapy as a technique for giving clients greater autonomy in therapy sessions. Rogers’ approach to psychotherapy is considered humanistic because it focuses on individuals' positive potential. 

In Rogerian therapy, the therapist typically refrains from offering advice or making a formal diagnosis. Instead, the primary role of the therapist is to listen and restate what the client says. Rogerian therapists try to refrain from offering their own interpretation of events or from making explicit suggestions about dealing with a situation.

For example, if a client reported feeling stressed about the fact that a coworker was receiving credit for a project the client worked on, the Rogerian therapist might say, “So, it sounds like you’re upset because your boss isn’t recognizing your contributions.” In this way, the Rogerian therapist attempts to give the client an environment to explore their own thoughts and feelings and decide for themselves how to bring about positive change.

Key Components of Rogerian Therapy

According to Rogers, successful psychotherapy always has three key components:

  • Empathy. Rogerian therapists attempt to develop an empathic understanding of their clients' thoughts and feelings. When the therapist has an accurate understanding of the client’s thoughts and restates what the client says, the client is able to figure out the meaning of his or her own experiences.
  • Congruence. Rogerian therapists strive for congruence; that is, being self-aware, genuine, and authentic in their interactions with clients.
  • Unconditional positive regard. Rogerian therapists show compassion and acceptance towards the client. The therapist should strive to be nonjudgmental and accept the client non-contingently (in other words, their acceptance of the client doesn’t depend on what the client says or does).

Rogers’ Later Work

In 1963, Rogers began working at the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in La Jolla, California. Later, he co-founded the Center for Studies of the Person, an organization that is still active today. In California, Rogers worked on applying his ideas outside of traditional therapy settings. For example, he wrote about education in Freedom to Learn: A View of What Education Might Become, published in 1969.

Rogers supported student-centered learning: an educational atmosphere in which students are able to pursue their interests, rather than passively absorbing a teacher's lecture.

Rogers also applied his ideas about empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard to political conflicts. He led “encounter groups” between groups in conflict, in the hope that his therapy techniques could improve political relationships. He led encounter groups in South Africa during apartheid, and between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. Rogers’ work earned him praise from Jimmy Carter and a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Influence of Rogerian Therapy Today

Carl Rogers died in 1987, but his work continues to have an enormous influence on psychotherapists. Many therapists incorporate elements of client-centered therapy in their practices today, particularly through the eclectic approach, in which they may combine several types of therapy into one session.

Importantly, the essential components of therapy that Rogers put forward (empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard) can be employed by any therapist, regardless of their specific approach to therapy. Today, therapists recognize that an effective relationship between client and therapist (called the therapeutic alliance or therapeutic rapport) is key for successful therapy.

Rogerian Therapy Key Takeaways

  • Carl Rogers developed a form of psychotherapy called client-centered therapy, or person-centered therapy.
  • In client-centered therapy, the client leads the therapy session, and the therapist serves as a facilitator, often restating back what the client has said.
  • The therapist strives to have an empathic understanding of the client, have congruence (or authenticity) in the therapy session, and communicate unconditional positive regard for the client.
  • Outside of psychology, Rogers applied his ideas to the areas of education and international conflict.

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