Carl Rogers - the founder of client - centred approach

21/09/2014 18:39

Carl Ransom Rogers – genius with humanistic approach

by Tereza Indrielle



Carl Ransom Rogers is “the most influential psychologist in American history” according to Kirchenbaum & Henderson (1989). According to study made in 2002 by Haggbloom et al. using multiple criteria, Carl Rogers is the sixth most eminent psychologist of the 20th century and second, among clinicians, after Sigmund Freud.

He is widely known as a founder of client – centred therapy. He was honoured for his pioneering research by the American Psychological Association in 1956 with the Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions and was nominated for Nobel Peace Prize shortly after the end of his life.

In his name current psychologists can be awarded with Carl Rogers’ Award by American Psychological Association for an outstanding contribution to the theory and practice of humanistic psychology.



Beginning of his story

He was born on January 8, 1902, in Oak Park, Illinois, one of Chicago suburb areas as the fourth of six children.  At the same time Philippine – American war was about to end and Theodor Roosevelt became the first American president who rode in an automobile.

Carl Rogers’ father was a civil engineer and his mother was a housewife. As she was a strict Christian all children had strict religious education. He skipped first year at school as he could already read before kindergarten. Probably due to his education he became rather isolated, self - disciplined and independent. When he was 12 years old his family moved to a farm 30 miles from Chicago where he spent his teenage years.

He decided to study agriculture, later on he switched to religious studies. During that time when he was 20years old he was chosen to attend “World Student Christian Federation Conference” in China where he started to doubt some of his religious views (Rogers, 1983). After graduation he got married against his parents’ wishes to Helen Elliot, moved to New York and after attending seminar ‘Why am I entering the Ministry?’ he decided to quit religious pathway and started clinical psychology program at Columbia University. Already before his Ph. D. in 1931 he had begun to work at Rochester Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and through this clinical work he learned about Otto Rank’s therapy techniques.

And it was Otto Rank who was along with Rogers’ clients counted among teachers of his (Rogers, 1983). Otto Rank was Sigmund Freud’s student who later developed different view and criticized psychoanalysis for many aspects. Sigmund Freud had a medical view on psychology. Client was a patient, his psychological problem was a disease that needed to be fixed and psychotherapists approach was clearly authoritarian ignoring actual interpersonal relationship, claiming that therapy and theory is one thing. Carl Rogers shared with Rank similar disagreement for this approach as for both of them “theory becomes after experience” (Gendlin, 1988).

In June 1936 Rogers invited Otto Rank to Rochester Society to conduct a seminar on post - Freudian practice of therapy (Evans, 1975). The influence and fame of Sigmund Freud passed away as new approaches emerged. At the same time in Europe Kurt Koffka published Principles of Gestalt Psychology, Hitler held 4th Nazi Winter Olympic Games in Germany and BBC started the first public television broadcast in London. On this background Carl Rogers started to develop his “client – centred” therapy.

He wrote his first book ‘Counselling and Psychotherapy’ in 1942 shortly after he was offered a professorship at Ohio State in 1940 at the age of 38. Setting up a counselling centre at the University of Chicago he gained more experience in clinical psychology and in 1951he published his major publication “Client – Centred Therapy”.



Client – centred Therapy

Rogers despite his education felt that help to clients can be reached easier by interpretative path. It was at Rochester Society where we worked with problematic children and their families where idea of “interpretative therapy” or “non – directive therapy” emerged. With experience he realized that although he tries not to be directive and let clients chose pathway themself, he was still influencing his clients by his non - directiveness so he changed the name to the widely used “client – centred” or “person – centred therapy”. Also these names were occasionally criticized as most of therapies are supposed to be client – centred. The newest term for his approach is Rogerian therapy. All these names describe one approach, “supportive, not restrictive therapy” as Rogers used to describe it himself (Rogers, 1951).

The first empirical evidence of client – centred therapy effectiveness was given already in 1941 by Elias Porter who used the recordings of therapeutic sessions between Carl Rogers and his clients concluding that decision were made by client (Porter, 1950).

The fully explored theory is based on years of experience which he has in common with Freud as well as clear structure and broad application. He developed an idea that clients are generally good and healthy people whose mental problems are just a reflection of the distortion of their natural tendency. In other words Rogers tried to help them get back to themselves. Rogers compared therapy to riding a bike (Rogers, 1983) – he could help clients to direct them, to show them a way or to hold them for a short while. But if he didn’t let the client go and do things on his own he would create only dependence on the therapist. Thus client was the one who lead the therapy, who was coming up with solutions.

His approach was not authoritarian like Freud’s, he didn’t try to manipulate the client towards theories made beforehand. Although authoritarian model seems to work at first, in long – term view it creates only dependency on therapist. Another difference with Freud is Rogers’ focus on the psychotherapist rather than psychotherapy itself. Rogers felt that the main factor for successful therapy is the therapist who, in order to be effective, must dispose three essential qualities:

1.     Congruence – honesty with client

2.     Empathy – feel what client feels

3.     Respect – unconditional positive regard towards the client

The client’s problem will improve if therapist has these qualities disregarding other special techniques, for example if we use psychoanalysis or different type of therapy. In other words the personality of the therapist matters more than the therapy he uses. This idea is very similar to some researchers who identified psychotherapist’s personality as the most important factor thus therapists are “born”, not “made”.



At the end of his life

In 1957 he returned to University of Wisconsin where he previously started his agriculture studies. But he was highly disappointed by their higher education system so he gratefully accepted a research post in California, in La Jolla. This was his last residential place where he gave speeches, wrote books and provided therapy.

At the end of his life he got engaged in political and social conflicts in different parts of the world where he tried to apply his theories. He went to Belfast to bring together Protestants and Catholics or to South Africa to bring together blacks and whites. His last trip at the age of 85 was to Soviet Union. For his residential programs he was nominated for Nobel Peace Prize. Unfortunately before he received the nomination he fell and broke his pelvis in 1987 and died of a severe pancreatitis few days later.



His followers and students

One of his main followers is his daughter Natalie Rogers who founded the Person-Centred Expressive Therapy Institute in 1984, few years before he died, with aim to join people from all over the world participate in the transformative programs of Rogerian and expressive art therapy as she specialises herself in  incorporating the expressive arts in cross-cultural work. Maria Bowen, Maureen O’Hara (who was recently awarded with Award of Carl Rogers) and John K. Wood were psychologists who followed Carl Rogers and his daughter on their mission for conflict resolution.

One of his graduate students Thomas Gordon established during Carl Rogers’ life Parent Effectiveness Training (P. E. T.) movement continuing in Rogers’ interest in problematic children and raising parental awareness.

Many psychologists were influenced by Carl Rogers. His ideas were implemented in many fields. The medical approach today is based on similar ideas and doctors and psychologists are educated to focus on client / patient, be less directive and more supportive. Teach the client / patient to help himself. Although it doesn’t have his name on it, this humanistic approach is clearly parallel with Carl Rogers’ theory.




Gendlin, E. (1988). Carl Rogers (1902-1987). American Psychologist, 43, 127-128.

Evans, R. (1975). Carl Rogers: The man and his ideas. New York: E. P. Button

Kirschenbaum, H.f & Henderson, V. L. (1989). The Carl Rogers reader. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Kramer, R. (1995). The ”bad mother” Freud has never seen: Otto Rank and the birth of object-relations theory. Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 23(2), 293-321.

Haggbloom, S.J. et al. (2002). The 100 Most Eminent Psychologists of the 20th Century. Review of General Psychology. Vol. 6, No. 2, 139–15

Porter, E.H. (1941) The development and evaluation of a measure of counseling interview procedure. Ph. D. Dissertation, Ohio State University.

Porter, E.H. (1950) An Introduction to Therapeutic Counseling. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Rogers, C. R. (1951) Client-Centered Counselling, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.  

Rogers, C. R. (1983). Conversations with Carl Rogers [Videotape]. Produced by the Encinitas Center for Family and Personal Development.

Thore, B. (1992). Carl Rogers. London: Sage.