Being asked to respond
Peter F. Schmid (Viena, Austria)

The ethical position and challenge of Person-Centered Therapy and the ‘necessary and sufficient conditions of being person-centered’ – towards a paradigm change within the approach


What does it really mean to be person-centered? Is it a (‘postmodern’) question of what you like and what you believe? Where are the limits? Is it possible to indicate a core? And if so, what is it? Is it possible to combine orientations, to integrate methods and add techniques? Is there actually a ‘Beyond Carl Rogers’? What are the prospects of the development and influence of what once was regarded a radical paradigm? Where is it going to and what will be its future? What is its place and challenge in the realm of psychotherapy and counseling?

A clear stance is argued that it is indeed possible to name the necessary and sufficient conditions of being person-centered. The subject is discussed from an anthropological, epistemological, technical and political perspective. Furthermore, naming the ‘core conditions’ of a person-centered point of view has tremendous practical consequences. The question of being person-centered ultimately turns out to be an ethical one.1

A variety of persons, institutes and associations and methods or even techniques call and consider themselves to be person–centered. Thus the question arises: Is it possible to define what person–centered really means? Or is it a question of personal belief and of what you like? Are there any limits? Is it possible to name central and crucial points? And if so, what are they?

Is everybody person–centered who claims to be? Or is the title appropriate only to those who repeat what Carl Rogers already voiced. Are the various directions which evolved, e.g. focusing or experiential psychotherapy, a development of the approach or a deviation? Are they sub-orientations of a general paradigm or are they betraying the original intention and radical paradigm shift? Can one combine orientations, integrate methods and add techniques? Is there something like a ‘Beyond Carl Rogers?’ Or is an exegesis of his ‘holy scriptures’ what it is all about?

Is it inadmissible orthodoxy or even fundamentalism to look for the ‘core conditions of the approach’? Or even worse: Is raising the question evidence enough to prove one’s rigidity? Does one have to reckon with being accused of offending the principles of openness, individuality, democracy, development etc. if such questions are raised? And on the other hand: Is it pure eclecticism and a lack of a clear point of view violating the integrity of the therapeutic relationship offered and incompatible with the image of the human being to integrate ideas and methods from other schools? Isn’t it even necessary e. g. to supplement systemic ideas in order to keep the approach up to date?

These and many more questions are often raised and heavily discussed. Some of the so called ‘Carl sayers’ (people who were on familiar terms with Rogers) are accused of playing the role of moral guards, others are blamed for destroying the original power of the approach in order to increase their reputation or income or recognition by health insurance companies or even worse: the zeitgeist.

I will try, from my personal point of view, to name some ideas relating to these questions. I will do so not from a pragmatic or a superficial point of view, but from a fundamental point of view. I will show that the foundation of person–centered therapy and of the person–centered approach in general is rooted in ethics [1] and will discuss the consequences of this.

I. The foundations: psychotherapy as an ethical discipline and profession

Obviously Carl Rogers was fully aware of what he was claiming in stating the hypotheses of the ‘necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change’ in 1957. This is the impression the reader gets, when he or she takes a look at the carefully written article in which each word is weighed precisely.

Today almost nobody doubts that these conditions, especially the so called core conditions, are necessary. But the whole point — and after half a century the still revolutionary crux of the matter — is the statement that they are sufficient. Rogers emphasized this from the very beginning and kept the conviction, which he himself called ‘rigorous’ (1959) for his whole lifetime (Rogers C., Heppner, Rogers M., Lee, 1984).

The ‘formula’, although emphasizing that its assertions are a meta–theory applying to psychotherapy in general and not to client–centered therapy only, is the fundament for everything which may justly call itself person–centered, historically as well as theoretically and systematically. In its nucleus this statement comprises everything which is essential for person–centered theory, at least implicitly.

The article also expresses the ideas which do not fit into the theory. In his provocative statement Carl Rogers (1957) specifies a number of ideas and practices which on the basis of the hypothesis formulated prove to be not necessary for psychotherapy. The ‘significant omissions’ he notes for example client typologies. Rogers did not think it necessary to offer different conditions to different groups of clients. Nor did he see psychological diagnosis as a precondition for therapy. He did not see psychotherapy as essentially different from personal relationships in everyday life or therapy training as something especially related to intellectual qualities instead of experience.

Many implications of this theory were only later elaborated by Rogers and others. And as a parallel to explicating more and more precisely the anthropological foundations (e. g. Schmid, 1991; 1994; 1996) the practice of the theory was also developed further (Farber, Brink, Raskin, 1996).

This is no coincidence. It is conspicuous that in Rogers’ basic statement almost nothing is said about the practical therapeutic procedure and the behavior of the therapist. Rogers did not formulate instructions of how to act. Of course, there is the principle of non–directivity in this claim, of course, there is an underlying image of the human being that includes some and excludes other ways of acting, but on the whole the statement is a set of principles formulated on quite an abstract level. Concrete actions which derive from it and the resulting theory of action are left open.

To give an example: The conditions do not say anything how communication between therapist and client should take place. Verbal communication is not preferred to other ways of interacting, e.g. with the body or by playing or by artistic means. Later Rogers (1975; 1970) stated that a variety of personal techniques are compatible with the basic attitudes. Thus there is a lot of room for genuine person–centered work. But this does not mean that whatever someone does is person–centered as long as he or she calls it ‘person–centered’ or as long as he or she is convinced of being person–centered.

Being asked to respond and response–ability: The foundations of person–centered acting establish an ethical position

Rogers elaborated his approach out of his experiences in relationships. His theory is drawn out of phenomenology and is formulated close to experience. Also in later refinements it stays near to experience. What Rogers observed in therapies and from whence he drew his hypotheses from were not indifferent data but ‘facts’ out of experience, out of being touched and moved personally. This means that they imply a distinct value judgment.

The same applies to psychotherapy at all. By doing psychotherapy and by reflecting this theoretically, a decision is made to respond to the misery, to the grief, to the life of another person, to share their joys and sorrows. It derives from being addressed by the other, from being touched, from being asked, being called, from being appealed to, from a demand. This means that the need of the other is there first and that psychotherapy is responding, is answering to a demand. [2] Thus all psychotherapy takes its origin at the Other. It sees him or her as a call and a provocation.

From an encounter philosophical point of view the other is an Other on principle. This means that he or she is somebody, who is strange to me, who surprises me and whom I have to meet with respect and an attitude of not-knowing. The fellow being is the one whom I am opposed, face to face, and whom I have to face — neither monopolizing nor rejecting him or her. Since the presence of the Other always ‘comes first’ and is seen as a call for a response I cannot escape because nobody can respond in my place. We are obliged and responsible to the Other and owe him or her an answer. This causes the Other to become a ‘priority’.

What happens in psychotherapy, if it is understood as an encounter relationship, is that the client is opening up and revealing him- or herself. The task of the therapist then is not to try to get knowledge about the client but to acknowledge the person who is showing him- or herself (see below). From this view of relationships in general, psychotherapy in particular also follows a new — non–individualistic — understanding of self–realization as realization in and out of the relations, in which the individual lives. Self–realization is never possible without the realization of the Other. In therapy this applies to both, client and therapist.

The point is: Especially starting from a phenomenological consideration, as Carl Rogers did — and not out of morals! — psychotherapy must be regarded as an ethical phenomenon.

Taking a closer look at the core of person–centered theory, as expressed in Rogers’ 1957 statement, one finds that the ethical foundation is already included here: Psychotherapy means responding to incongruence, to a vulnerable or anxious person. Even more: If these six conditions are necessary and sufficient for a constructive development of the person by means of psychotherapy, then it is an obligation for the therapist to take them into account (contact, client’s incongruence, communication of therapist’s attitudes) or to offer them respectively (congruence, unconditional positive regard, empathy).[3]

The therapist is seen as somebody responding to the needs of another person and therefore responsible in the communication. [4] In a word: Psychotherapy is ethically founded.

This should not be misunderstood in a moralistic way. Ethics denotes moral philosophy, not casuistry or moralizing. The philosophical basis for this understanding of psychotherapy can among others be found, very well developed, in the thinking of the Lithuanian encounter philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1905–1995), what I have pointed out and described in detail earlier (Schmid, 1994; 1998a; 1998b; 1998c). Even more radical than Buber, Levinas (1983; 1987; 1992) describes the interconnectedness of the person, because his thinking really begins with the Other. The starting point of his anthropology is the absolute being different, the otherness of the Other: According to Levinas the fundament of self consciousness is not the reflection (of the I through the Thou) but the experience of relationship, which — think of developmental psychology, e.g., of the child, ‘conceived’ and born into relations! — which always comes first and has its origin in the Other. This marks a shift from the ‘I–Thou’–relationship to a ‘Thou–I’–relationship (and thus managing to get closer to the verge of the ‘We’). The Other is here beforehand. Thus a fellow being is no longer degraded as an alter ego but truly respected as an other one, an absolute different person, an enigma: ‘Encountering a human being means being kept awake by an enigma’ states Levinas (1959, 120). For the Other he uses the metaphor of ‘visage’ which reminds us of the origin of the term person (coming from the Greek ‘prosopon’ and meaning ‘face’). This face addresses us, speaks to us, even demands and challenges us. Thus response–abilty is the basic category of being a person: Out of encounter arises the obligation to respond.

Accordingly, psychotherapy means engaged and solidary service to the fellow person. The suffering person demands. This corresponds with the duty of response–ability. The commitment towards the Other means a responsibility that originates in the basic dependency of the human being on his fellow beings. Here I want to point to the commitment–concept of Ute and Johannes Binder (1981, 179–274), which deserves more attention and appreciation.

Levinas, professor at the Sorbonne in Paris who lost his whole family in the holocaust, a thinker of tremendous importance who has hardly been discovered for the person–centered approach yet, again and again points out that all of occidental philosophy (and this also applies to psychology as its ‘daughter’ and psychotherapy as its ‘grand–daughter’) including its so–called humanistic orientation in the 20th century has remained ‘egology’. And, indeed, this fixation on the I is clearly predominant in the terminology of the numerous self–terms in Humanistic Psychology and despite all positioning against an objectification and instrumentalization finally indicates a reduction of the Other, of what the Other means to me. In this connection even a well–known sentence by Martin Buber (1923, 18) like ‘I become through the Thou’ all of a sudden sounds quite differently: even here, as is to be suspected, everything is still focused on me. This, however, presents the ideals of the humanistic movement as such in a new light. And according to Levinas the following applies: ‘What once seemed to be a distinctive human quality, the absolute desire to determine and realize oneself, ‘self–determination’ and ‘self–realization’, has proved the reason of violence against the other human being. Not the enforcement of the ego’s objectives must become the basis of the ‘humanism of the other human being’, but the perception of the other. Thisisanethicalrelation.’ (Waldschütz, 1993)

In this perspective psychotherapy (and all psychosocial, pedagogic, political, pastoral etc. acting) receives a socio–ethical dimension leading from the categories ‘response’ and ‘responsibility’ to a new understanding of self–realization which can only become reality in what Levinas called ‘diakonia [diakony]’ — a term with the same meaning as ‘therapy’, i.e. ‘service’. In the interpersonal encounter, which we call therapy, addressed and asked to respond, we assume a deep responsibility, an obligation in which our fellow man expects us to render the service we owe to each other. By responding we only fulfil our duty. What we owe each other is nothing else but love. Thus, encounter in dialogue turns out to be a condition for self–consciousness, to be an in–finity, a common trans­cendence of the (totalitarian) status quo — ‘Totalité et infini’ is the title of his major work —, to be a start without return: Abraham, who starts his journey to an unknown country without return, and not Ulysses, who at the end returns to his starting point, is to be seen as the symbolic character.

While Buber starts to explore the question of what man is by understanding him as the dialogical nature of being–two and thus relatively contained, Levinas pushes on: from the Other to the Others. I and the Other, my fellow human, are not an isola­ted entity, there is also ‘the Third One’, who himself is a fellow–man; there are the Others. Therefo­re how to act is no longer obvious, and among others the question of justice and the necessity of judgement arise. A new under­standing of We emer­ges: not anymore the We of the two of us, but rather of the three of us — where two — lovingly — include a third one in their community (as Richard of St. Victor’s term ‘condilectio’ indicates). In such a way instead of duality, the pair, I and Thou, now the tri–unity turns out to be the foundation of interpersonality. Therefore duality does not exclude, but rather includes the Third One, because it is predisposed to transcend itself towards the group.

The person–centered approach implies a number of ethical implications which definitely prepare for getting beyond ‘egology’. In doing so ethics cannot be deduced from anthropology but we have to realize that person–centered anthropology has always been ethics first. Traditional ethics orients acting by principles which are deduced from philosophical ideas. However, a philosophy orienting itself by experience, as corresponds to the person–centered approach, realizes from the experience in the encounter, which is taken seriously down to the roots, ethics as the first philosophy. Especially out of the personal experience of encounter — being addressed and thus encouraged by the Other — a legitimate claim to an answer and to acting in the kairos (see below) is derived — and this is what person–centered ethics as dialogical ethics is about.

There is no doubt that the paradigm shift of Levinas and Rogers — an understanding of the human being quite fundamentally focusing on the other’s view — is to be seen as a parallel: the principal precedence of the Other corresponds with the client–centeredness of psychotherapy.

Above all it requires us to understand psychotherapy from an ethical point of view. Therapy is responding to a suffering human being’s cry for help, a response–ability rooted in fundamental ethics.

The human being as a person: from knowledge to acknowledgment in psychotherapy

Rogers’ article, published in 1957, implies two essential dimensions of an image of the human being: The first condition already deals with the interpersonal relation — Rogers himself said that he originally wanted to use the term ‘relation’ instead of ‘psychological contact’, but was afraid of academic recognition — and the five others define the characteristics of such a relation. All of them include the belief that the human being has the possibility and tendency to develop in a constructive way on the basis of his or her resources, if a certain form of relationship is provided. In other words, the six conditions presuppose that a human being develops constructively on his or her own, if he or she finds him– or herself in a facilitative relationship. Without hypothesizing an actualizing tendency, which rests on both, the individual resources and the ability of relating, the conditions two to six would make no sense.

With that exactly those two dialectic dimensions of being human are denoted, for which in the occidental history of theology and philosophy the term ‘person’ was coined: Autonomy and interconnectedness (or relationality), independence and interdependence, self–reliance and commitment, sovereignty and solidarity. Whatever other motives might have been important to introduce the term ‘person–centered’ — it is obvious and clear that this was done consciously and on purpose to denote an anthropology central for the ‘person’–centered approach. [5]

Thus the fundamental hypothesis of the actualizing tendency which Rogers consistently indicates to be the only axiom must be seen in the dialectical tension of these two dimensions (Schmid, 1999a; 2001b). Seen from a historical perspective the focal point was on the individual aspect — this can be understood as necessary for historical reasons, especially in rejecting the psychiatric, psychoanalytic and behavioristic model, and quite often led to the reproach of an individualistic approach, as being ‘typical US–American’. But the relational dimension was formulated from the very beginning (see the first condition in the 1957 statement about the principle of contact) and it was taken for granted in acting in a non–directive, client–centered way, even if its theoretical conceptualization as encounter and its practical differentiation in multiple forms of acting was elaborated only in later periods of the development of the paradigm.

In his precise description of person–centered psychotherapy in the textbook by Koch, Rogers (1980) explicitly puts these two dimensions at the beginning of his article.

In short: Person–centered psychotherapy is the practice of an image of the human being which understands the human being as a person and thus encounters him or her personally acknowledging him or her as the Other (in Rogers’ terms: with unconditional positive regard and empathy out of a congruent attitude or: in authentic presence out of a way of being with him or her) instead of objectifying him or her by trying to know him or her, to get knowledge over him or her.

The relation person to person as encounter: From diagnosis and abstinence to im–media–te presence

This also means that an essential trust in the experiential world of the client and its centrality for psychotherapy is unrenounceable for a truly person–centered approach.

Such an approach quite fundamentally rules out any conception of oneself on part of the therapist or helper or teacher or social worker or pastoral worker etc. as an expert on the problems or on the person of the partner in counseling, therapy, education, supervision or any other helpful relation whatsoever. Such an approach also rules out that the therapist considers himself as an expert in the correct usage of methods and means, and even excludes any preconceived use of methods and techniques, a use which is not rooted in the immediate experience of the relationship. The only ‘means’ or ‘instrument’ employed is the person of the therapist him– or herself. And only where ‘any means has fallen apart’ encounter takes place, as Martin Buber (1923, 19) stated unsurpassably and precisely also grasping the process of such a relationship. 

Therefore the person–centered approach differs radically from all other approaches which in the meantime have all more or less found their way to the core conditions. However, these approaches consider Rogers’ conditions, attitudes and definitions only as preparatory work meant to establish a certain climate or rapport, as obviously–human preconditions so to speak, upon which the actual therapeutic work still has to be constructed. From a person–centered stance the basic attitudes need no supplementation by specific methods reserved for the expert. ‘Expertism’, if it has to be described, lies exactly in the ability to resist the temptation of behaving like an expert (even against the client’s wishes) — that means, solving problems with the help of techniques rather than facing them as persons.

In Carl Rogers' words: To work as a person–centered therapist is not only ‘a way of being’, but ‘a way of being with’ — in German, according to Ludwig Binswanger (1942) e.g., the term ‘Miteinandersein’ (not only ‘Mitsein’) is accurate to describe this philosophy of life.

The existential and im–media–te presence as understood by encounter philosophy, the personal being–with which leads to a togetherness means that, in his or her psychophysical presence, the person who offers a person–centered relation opens up to his partner(s) the possibility to concentrate on the fertile instant and thus on oneself and his or her relations. The very instant is called ‘kairos’ according to the Greek god of ‘the favorable opportunity’, who had to be seized by his mop of hair in front, when hurrying past because in the back he was close–cropped. In the kairos it is important to take advantage of fallow potential and to seize the opportunity. A person–centered ‘way of being with’ is applied kairology.

In spite of all inflation the term ‘encounter’ in general and in the person–centered approach in particular has undergone, it has to be stated that the essential element of encounter consists in the fact that the human being meets a reality which moves him or her deeply, which is counter to him or her. En–counter is not simply an experience, it is an ‘experience counter’ which opposes the affected one. Encounter is an essentially different experience from what an idealistic and subjectivistic understanding of (solely intrinsic) development presupposes. In contrast to an understanding that development or fulfillment is coming completely from itself, encounter means that it is an alien, an Other, another reality, another person, which or who en–counters my reality, which or who encounters me. This makes up the existential dimension and unavoidability of an encounter.

Thus the person–centered relationship is to be regarded as a process providing room, valuing spontaneity and creativity, a process in which both client(s) and therapist(s) develop towards a personal encounter. Where the person of the therapist or/and of the client expose himself or herself to the given Other, he or she can enter in a dialogue — even more so, he or she is called to do so.

To sum it up: Ethics out of phenomenology and the anthropology and epistemology which evolve from it form a unity — a way of encountering the Other.

II. The core: the necessary and sufficient conditions of being person–centered

On this basis now it is possible to formulate what I consider to be the essential points for being person–centered in psychotherapy (in individual as well as group psychotherapy). One can easily translate this for other professional work. (Cf. Schmid 2002b; 2003)


It is unrenounceable that ethics is grounded in the experience of encounter. This means being asked to respond to another person in need, i.e. responding out of response–ability and solidarity — as stated above. This characterizes person–centered acting, psychotherapy included, as a political action, not only a private or individual way of acting.


It is indisputable that the image of the human being underlying the understanding of him or her in psychotherapy is based on the view of men and women as persons, denoting the dialectics of autonomy and interconnectedness — as also stated above. This implies the centrality of the trust in the actualizing tendency as the motivational force which constructively can ‘work’ in facilitative relationships. And it implies that the necessary and sufficient conditions for such relationships in psychotherapy described by Carl Rogers are crucial for this endeavor and that they are in no way to be understood as techniques or methods but as a way of being with the client by the person of the therapist — a way of being which can truly be called an encounter person to person. (Unless one takes the original Greek notion of the term ‘method’ [‘meta hodos’], which incidentally means: ‘to be on the way with somebody, to follow somebody’, or the original meaning of ‘technique’ [‘techne’ which means ‘art’]. In his or her presence the therapist takes the person as a whole as he or she is in his or her moment–by–moment process (including the becoming in the past and the possibilities of further developing in the future) without a specific intention for the other. (By the way this implies also to conceptualize that persons are men and women and are not neutral and therefore are different — an important fact for overcoming a one–sided male perspective, not only on specific gender issues but in general in philosophy and psychotherapy.) To take the person as a whole also means not to concentrate solely on feelings or on verbal interaction but also to allow and pay attention to the body and the spirit, to cognitions and ideas.


It is indisputable that epistemology is based on empowerment — as stated above. The person–centered approach is committed to an epistemology based on phenomenology, is constructivistic (there is a variety of possibilities to understand), pluralistic (there is a variety of possibilities to approach) and personal (the person is seen as a whole), and therefore is oriented to dialogical, empathic and hermeneutic communication (‘hermeneutic’ in the broader sense of understanding the meaning of personal communications not in the meaning of interpreting them by an expert, pretending to know better what the author of a statement meant than the author himself — as the term ‘hermeneutic empathy’ is used by some authors (e.g. Keil, 1996).

Theory of personality and developmental psychology

Psychotherapy is considered to be a special form of personality development and interpersonal relationship. Thus consequences can be drawn for other forms of relationship and fields of life. This corresponds to an approach which is oriented more on the process of the development of a so called ‘healthy’ person and not on a personality theory arising from a theory of disease. The basic principles apply to all persons independently of categories like ‘neurotics’, ‘psychotics’, ‘borderlines’ or ‘normals’. Instead of a theory of diseases or illness in the sense that this is commonly used in psychotherapy only a theory of the suffering persons is consistent with the essentials, since the approach is person– and not problem– or goal– or solution–oriented.

Personality development brings about an increasing capability to fully live in the moment and to more and more be able to perceive both, phenomena and changes, less distortedly or selectively and to live relationships more realistically. (Person–centered theory is much more interested in processes than in structures.) This coincides with more self–determination and self–responsibility.

The same applies to psychotherapy training. Learning how to do person-centered therapy is a matter of personality development, not of acquisition of techniques. A genuine ‘training’, or better: education of psychotherapists [6], consistent with the approach, is oriented on the development of the personality of the trainee and not on the training and practicing of skills.

Theory and practice of therapy

The therapist focuses on the inner world of the person of the client as it appears to the client and as it is experienced, understood and evaluated by him or her and follows him or her in this inner world wherever the client moves. In this sense it is an experiential and phenomenological approach. The therapist is available for the client as a living person and not only in his or her function as a therapist. It is crucial for the development of both, client and therapist, that both direct their attention as free of judgments and interpretations as possible to the immediate present experiencing in the relationship. The attitudes of authenticity, unconditional acceptance and sensitive empathic understanding play a decisive role in this process. This implies a radical counterposition to expert–oriented approaches (in terms of the contents as well as the process) emphasizing that the person as such and not techniques, methods or skills are the changing factor. The therapist offers a way of being with the client making possible a process of communication and encounter which moves towards mutuality and dialogue. (Cf. Schmid 2004)

Naming the ‘core conditions’ of a person–centered point of view has tremendous practical consequences: On the basis of the stated convictions the concrete design, arrangement and setting of the therapy orientates and adjusts to the needs and possibilities of the client and the possibilities of the therapist. The therapeutic relationship can express itself in multiple ways, verbally, bodily, with the help of creative or artistic means and the like.

Research and development of theory

Philosophical reflections arising from therapeutic work are an important part of the development of psychotherapy, in the single case as well as in terms of psychotherapy as a whole. Continued research, including empirical studies, are necessary in order to improve the quality of and to further develop psychotherapy. Concerning the theory of science an adequate and thus independent understanding of science and research (replacing the traditional paradigms of medicine, natural science and research) including the persons engaged into the process is needed and still has to be developed. Theory has continuously to be revised according to experience and research (and not the other way round).

Practitioners, theoreticians and researchers are invited, even urged to find their own and independent ways on the basis of these convictions and attitudes which represent a philosophy of life, to experiment in a responsible way and to support each other. This points to a world–wide psychological, social, cultural, political and – first of all – ethical challenge which gives neither room to orthodoxy or fundamentalism, nor to an unreflected eclecticism or an attitude of ‘do what you like as long as you do it congruently’. The person–centered approach, beyond psychotherapy, is an attitude, a way of being in many fields of life and interpersonal work, which stands counter to many streams of the zeitgeist, e.g. those of efficiency which only think in categories of how to eliminate problems as quickly, inexpensively and painlessly as possible. [7]

III. The consequences: differentiation and cooperation

On consistency, compatibility and congruence

It is obvious: There is not one way of acting in a person–centered manner. Rogers himself acted differently in the span of his lifetime and he encouraged others explicitly to find their own ways in therapy and practice (e.g. Rogers, 1959, 16). There is a wide range from Virginia Axline’s play therapy to the therapeutic implications in the work of Carl Rogers and his colleagues with large groups and to their intercultural activities towards the end of his life, from the early case studies to the late demonstration interviews, from counseling students to the clinical work with hospitalized, so called psychotic clients. And there is a wide range from Rogers’ work to the various theories and ways of doing practice today.

On the other hand not everything can be called person–centered, if the term should mean anything. Not only because somebody calls himself or herself a person–centered therapist regardless of the consistency to the image of the human being with which he or she practices the person–centered approach and their compatibility with person–centered principles. If the convictions or actions of somebody do not stand comparison with these principles, it is only fair to name them differently. This does not say anything about being better or worse. It just calls different things by another name.

The image of the human being underlying person–centered acting can be clearly conceptualized. Thus a person–centered way of relating cannot be combined with other orientations in any way where ever. It has distinct anthropological, epistemological, developmental psychological positions including a theory of motivation of personality and relationship and a theory of the suffering person and his or her therapy. It coincides with certain views of theories of science and methodologies of research and does not coincide with others. But foremost, as I tried to show, it is an ethical position (Schmid, 1998d; 1999a).

There is no proof that the theory and practice initiated by Rogers and others is right. There are other assumptions and they also have good arguments. The difference lies in the different ethical and philosophical basis and therefore leads to different consequences. It is of no use to have an argument about the image of the human being which always is a matter of belief, of ‘basic beliefs’. Thus it makes no sense to judge other approaches out of the person–centered theory set or to quarrel about who is right. But it is useful to enter into dialogue and to question one’s own convictions (cf. Schmid, 1998a, 115f; Slunecko, 1996).

This position is neither orthodox, rigid, dogmatic or exclusive but an attempt to clarify and achieve mutual understanding. To distinguish is simply a matter of reason and honesty. To adhere to a position does not judge the efficiency, the correctness or the quality of the work of others. Respectfully and critically dealing with differences helps each approach to develop its own theory and practice.

  • Approaches that are convinced that Rogers’ conditions are not sufficient, have to be complemented or modified, orientations which think there is evidence that the therapist should have a more or less guiding function, stimulating experience, influencing the process in a certain way or direction, making interventions in order to …, instruct the client, focus on certain aspects, levels, feelings, subjects or ways of proceeding, have intentions for the client,
  • training programs that aim at teaching skills, giving tools to the trainee, a set of preconceived techniques to make use of, instruments to diagnose the other (instead of a common diagnostic process out of the relationship),
  • differentiations of so called sub–orientations to be used with different clients or applied on groups of diseases, orientations which prefer one condition to the others, attitudes which stress either the substantial or the relational aspect of being and becoming a person more than the other, which prefer either the intra– or the interpersonal dimension of therapy — all these positions may have good arguments but they are different from the approach which Carl Rogers and others called ‘person–centered’. (From a person–centered point of view they often may appear to be a reduction to an aspect, what Garry Prouty (1999, 4) calls a ‘phenomenological reduction’, the reduction of the person to a part of it, the process, or the instrumentalization of the relationship, the intentional use of empathy or selective listening to certain aspects fostering them instead of the person as a whole. But, as stated above, it does not make sense, to judge another point of view with other foundations.)
Naming the differences AND working together

But they — or most of them at least — are closer to the ‘original’ or ‘genuine’ person–centered understanding than many others. On a broader level it makes sense to distinguish between psychodynamic, cognitive–behavioral, systemic orientations and our orientation which in this view can be summarized as ‘person–centered and experiential’ and may include some other humanistic approaches (Germain Lietaer, personal communication, June 19, 2000). Their roots are in the theory of Carl Rogers and they derive from him. Thus I am convinced that it is necessary both, to work together and to clearly be aware and name the differences. An ongoing dialogue makes more sense than splitting up, it enriches instead of fostering ideas of excommunication and fantasies of purity and — not the least — it makes us stronger at a time when the approaches deserve co–operation in order to be influential in therapy, philosophy and health politics.

Person–oriented or goal–oriented — the ethical decision of the therapist

The decision for a certain therapy or a certain therapeutic acting is — that’s what I’ve tried to show — an ethical one as it is the decision for psychotherapy as such. After all it will not come as a surprise if I state that therapy understood as personal encounter is the realization of an ethical stance which holds the conviction of the kairotical empowerment of the client instead of the egological power of the therapist.

Carl Rogers gave such a decisive impulse and left us such a rich legacy that a concrete realization of a number of consequences is yet to come. The fundamental positions of Rogers are not at all out–dated — on the contrary they are not yet sounded out by far, in their radicalism, their profound humanism, and their critical potential. (Schmid 2001a)

The approach, claiming to be an overall philosophy of culture, challenges us to an increasing understanding of the condition humana and to what it means to be a human.[8]

Obviously a paradigm shift within the approach announces itself in all that. The person–centered approach may well face a turning–point in its self–understanding. If ethics and the underlying image of the human being are taken seriously it becomes obvious that the approach needs further development. Such a development goes into the direction to become a truly dialogical and social approach, a creative, flexible and kairotical approach. (For psychotherapy this e.g. would mean that relational and social factors are given much more weight and that, on the long run, psychotherapy and sociotherapy interplay.)

In respect to an ethically founded anthropology — the step from the individual to the person, from relation to encounter will be made as a step from the view of the person–centered relationship as an I–Thou–relationship to a view as a We–relationship as well and therefore finally towards a social therapy as well. Then the I will not only be found as a response to a Thou, but the I will also be a response to a We.

Then the approach will consequently be seen as a social approach. Sociotherapy besides psychotherapy will be ranked highly in the frame of an overall therapeutic point of view implying the communities people live in. Thus the political significance becomes obvious.

A dialogical understanding of therapy and group work, really carrying out the paradigm shift from treatment, caretaking and counseling to encounter, transcends models which concentrate on the individualistic self as well as models which exclusively concentrate on a simply systemic–oriented approach. As soon as this step is truly taken schools are not the issue any more, but the issue is to really understand and practice therapy and group work as dialogue. Or expressed in a more provoking way: the person–centered approach must intend and aim at making itself superfluous just as a good therapist has to do.

In order to reach that goal a lot still has to be done.

If the approach is taken seriously as an ‘approach’ and not as a ready–made doctrine, ‘not as a ‘school’ or dogma but as a set of tentative principles’, to quote Carl Rogers and John Wood (1974), then it still is the emancipatory approach par excellence.

Almost half a century after Rogers’ revolutionary statement in 1957, at a time when goal– and method–oriented approaches of psychotherapy are booming, a genuine person–oriented conviction might be even more necessary. Even if in various orientations, e.g. in newer psychoanalytic or systemic schools, personal concepts and the real relationship in therapy gain a growing influence — undoubtedly an impact of person–centered therapy — the approach radically and solely centered on the person remains not caught up with.

To oppose the temptation of technification and one–sided orientation towards efficiency, a characteristic of our days, is an ethical challenge as well. One that might be more acute than ever.


[1] Ethics here is understood as the foundation and not as a consequence of anthropology or practice.

[2] In German: Psychotherapeutisches Handeln entsteht aus dem Angesprochen–Werden, und gründet daher in einem An–Spruch.

[3] A closer examination of Rogers’ ‘necessary and sufficient conditions’ from an encounter philosophical (dialogical) and ethical perspective can be found in the English language in the series on Rogers' therapeutic conditions. Evolution, theory and practice’: Schmid 2001c (authenticity/comgruence), 2001d (comprehension/empathy), 2001e (acknowledgment/unconditional positive regard), 2002a (presence/contact and perception).

[4] In German: Der Therapeut ist ein auf die Not Antwortender und daher Ver–Antwort–licher.

[5] Only recently I was given a manuscript by Rogers from 1955 (!), in which Rogers already gives a process definition to the question he asked himself ‘What is a person?’: A ‘fluid process, potentiality, a continually changing constellation, configuration, matrix, of feelings, thoughts, sensations, behaviors. The structure of the process seems configurational, not additive. [...] Another way of stating this is that a person is a human process of becoming’; Rogers, 1955, 1). He goes on — in the following sequence: ‘The person as process seems to me most deeply revealed in a relation­ship of the most ultimate and complete acceptance; a real I–Thou relationship’ (ibd. 2) and ‘In my experience, the deepest contacts I have with persons reveal them, without exception, to be directional in process, and my experience of that direction is contained in such terms as positive, constructive, creative, toward autonomy, toward maturity, toward socialization, in the direction of growth, toward greater richness or differentiation.’ (Ibd.) Already here relationality and individuality can be found as the two characteristics of the person. (More material can be found in Schmid, 1994, 107).

[6] The German word ‘Aus–bildung’ is more exact, because it denotes the process of becoming.

[7]In short, person–centered therapy can be described as follows: It is a way of relating to other persons, be it one on one, be it in groups, which fosters personality development through personal encounter. It assumes that each person is given the capability and tendency to make use of his or her immense resources in a constructive way. A human being is able to live his or her own life and live together with others in a satisfying way by trying to understand him– or herself more and more accurately and is able to open to the continuous flow of his or her experiencing with less and less defence. This tendency towards the actualisation of one’s own possibilities is encouraged and facilitated by an encounter person to person — a relationship whose quality is characterised by a respect for each client in his or her individuality. The therapist is present to him or her in an authentic, congruent way, experiencing unconditional positive regard in a deeply empathic and non–judgmental way and both, client and therapist, develop their personalities together in this relationship (cf. Schmid, 1999b)

The Person-Centered and Experiential World Association requires a commitment to the following principles:

  • the primary importance of the relationship between client and therapist in psychotherapy and counseling • to hold as central to the therapeutic endeavor the client's actualizing process and phenomenological world  
  • to embody in one’s work those conditions and attitudes conducive to therapeutic movement first postulated by Carl Rogers 
  • to have a commitment to an understanding of both clients and therapists as persons, who are at one and the same time individuals and in relationship with others and their diverse environments and cultures
  • to have an openness to the development  and elaboration of person-centered and experiential theory in light of current and future practice and research.

[8] Thus it needs to deal with ecological questions as well.


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