How Client-Centered Therapy Works

Therapist talking and holding hands with a female client
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Client-centered therapy, also known as person-centered therapy, is a non-directive form of talk therapy that was developed by humanist psychologist Carl Rogers during the 1940s and 1950s. Learn more about how this process was developed as well as how client-centered therapy is utilized.


Carl Rogers is widely regarded as one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th-century. He was a humanist thinker and believed that people are fundamentally good.

Rogers also suggested that people have an actualizing tendency, or a desire to fulfill their potential and become the best people that they can be.

Rogers initially started out calling his technique non-directive therapy. While his goal was to be as non-directive as possible, he eventually realized that therapists guide clients even in subtle ways. He also found that clients often do look to their therapists for some type of guidance or direction.

Client-Centered Therapy

Eventually, the technique came to be known as client-centered therapy or person-centered therapy. Today, Rogers' approach to therapy is often referred to by either of these two names, but it is also frequently known simply as Rogerian therapy.

Rogers was deliberate in his use of the term client rather than patient. He believed that the term patient implied that the individual was sick and seeking a cure from a therapist.

By using the term client instead, Rogers emphasized the importance of the individual in seeking assistance, controlling their destiny, and overcoming their difficulties. This self-direction plays a vital part in client-centered therapy.

Much like psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, Rogers believed that the therapeutic relationship could lead to insights and lasting changes in clients. While Freud focused on offering interpretations of what he believed were the unconscious conflicts that led to a client's troubles, Rogers believed that the therapist should remain non-directive.

That is to say, the therapist should not direct the client, should not pass judgments on the client's feelings, and should not offer suggestions or solutions. Instead, the client should be an equal partner in the therapeutic process.

How It Works

Mental health professionals who utilize this approach strive to create a therapeutic environment that is conformable, non-judgmental, and empathetic. Two of the key elements of client-centered therapy are that it:

  • It's non-directive. Therapists allow clients to lead the discussion and do not try to steer the client in a particular direction.
  • It emphasizes unconditional positive regard. Therapists show complete acceptance and support for their clients without casting judgment.

Client-Centered Therapists

According to Carl Rogers, a client-centered therapist needs three key qualities:


The therapist needs to share his or her feelings honestly. By modeling this behavior, the therapist can help teach the client to also develop this important skill.

Unconditional Positive Regard

The therapist must accept the client for who they are and display support and care no matter what the client is facing or experiencing. Rogers believed that people often develop problems because they are accustomed to only receiving conditional support; acceptance that is only offered if the person conforms to certain expectations.

By creating a climate of unconditional positive regard, the client feels able to express his or her true emotions without fear of rejection.

Rogers explained: "Unconditional positive regard means that when the therapist is experiencing a positive, acceptant attitude toward whatever the client is at that moment, therapeutic movement or change is more likely. It involves the therapist's willingness for the client to be whatever feeling is going on at that moment - confusion, resentment, fear, anger, courage, love, or pride…The therapist prizes the client in a total rather than a conditional way."

Empathetic Understanding

The therapist needs to be reflective, acting as a mirror of the client's feelings and thoughts. The goal of this is to allow the client to gain a clearer understanding of their own inner thoughts, perceptions, and emotions.

By exhibiting these three characteristics, therapists can help clients grow psychologically, become more self-aware, and change their behavior via self-direction. In this type of environment, a client feels safe and free from judgment. Rogers believed that this type of atmosphere allows clients to develop a healthier view of the world and a less distorted view of themselves.


Self-concept also plays an important role in person-centered therapy.

Rogers defined self-concept as an organized set of beliefs and ideas about the self. The self-concept play an important role in determining not only how people see themselves, but also how they view and interact with the world around them.

Sometimes self-concept lines up well with reality, which Rogers referred to as congruence. In other cases, self-perceptions are sometimes unrealistic or not in tune with what exists in the real world. Rogers believed that all people distort reality to some degree, but when self-concept is in conflict with reality, incongruence can result.

For example, a young boy might perceive himself as a strong athlete, despite the fact that his actual performance on the field reveals that he is not particularly skilled and could use extra practice.

Through the process of person-centered therapy, Rogers believed that people could learn to adjust their self-concept in order to achieve congruence and a more realistic view of themselves and the world. For example, imagine a young woman who views herself as uninteresting and a poor conversationalist despite the fact that other people find her fascinating and quite engaging.

Because her self-perceptions are not congruent with reality, she may experience poor self-esteem as a result. The client-centered approach focuses on providing unconditional positive regard, empathy, and genuine support in order to help the client reach a more congruent view of herself.

Role in Popular Culture

Actor Bob Newhart portrayed a therapist who utilized client-centered therapy on "The Bob Newhart Show" which aired from 1972 to 1978.

How Effective Is It?

Several large-scale studies have shown that the three qualities that Rogers emphasized, genuineness, unconditional positive regard, and empathetic understanding, are all beneficial. However, some studies have suggested that these factors alone are not necessarily enough to promote lasting change in clients.

One evaluation that looked at the effectiveness of person-centered therapy suggested that this approach was effective for individuals experiencing common mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, and may even be helpful to those experiencing more moderate to severe symptoms.

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Article Sources
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  1. Rogers CR. Significant aspects of client-centered therapy. Am Psychol. 1946;1(10):415-22. doi:10.1037/h0060866

  2. Cooper M, Watson JC, Holldampf D. Person-Centered and Experiential Therapies Work, A Review of the Research on Counseling, Psychotherapy and Related Practices. P C C S Books; 2010.

  3. Hockenbury DH, Hockenbury SE. Psychology. 5th edition. New York: Worth Publishers; 2010.

  4. Sachse R, Elliott R. Process-outcome research on humanistic therapy variables. In: Cain DJ, editor. Humanistic psychotherapies: Handbook of research and practice. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 2002. doi:10.1037/10439-003

  5. Cooper M, Watson JC, Hoeldampf D. Person-centered and experiential therapies work: A review of the research on counseling, psychotherapy and related practices. British Journal of Guidance & Counseling. 2011;39(5):501-512. doi:10.1080/03069885.2011.611406

Additional Reading
  • Cooper M, Watson JC, Hoeldampf D. (2010). Person-centered and experiential therapies work: A review of the research on counseling, psychotherapy and related practices. Ross-on-Wye, UK: PCCS Books.

  • Gibbard I, Hanley T. (2008). A five-year evaluation of the effectiveness of person-centered counseling in routine clinical practice in primary care. Counseling and Psychotherapy Research, 8(4), 215-222.

  • Roger, C. (1977). Carl Rogers on Personal Power: Inner Strength and Its Revolutionary Impact. New York: Delacorte Press.

  • Rogers C. (1951). Client-Centered Psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

  • Rogers C. (1980). A Way of Being. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

  • Sachse R, Elliott R. (2002). Process-outcome research on humanistic therapy variables. In David J. Cain & Jules Seeman (Eds.). Humanistic Psychotherapies: Handbook of Research and Practice. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.