What Does It Mean To Be Person Centered?

David Cain

Sometimes I wonder what it means to be “person-centered.” At first blush it seems to imply that one embodies the beliefs, philosophy, and values implicit in person-centered therapy and interpersonal relations as defined by Carl Rogers. More specifically, person-centered suggests a “way of being” toward others (and perhaps oneself) that is genuine, empathic, and accepting. Although these three qualities often have other names such as authentic, congruent, understanding, respect, caring, non-possessive warmth, unconditional positive regard, accurate empathy, and so on, it seems that these qualities or attitudes are composed of three components. This makes me wonder “why three?” Although I am fully aware that a considerable body of research in psychotherapy indicates that these qualities in the therapist lead to constructive change in the client, I am puzzled as to why three human qualities should define or qualify one as person-centered.

I can’t imagine that a Freudian, Adlerian, Behaviorist, or that a Catholic priest, a democrat, a feminist, or a member of the daughters of the American Revolution could possibly be defined by three characteristics. Even a boy scout is said to have twelve essential qualities plus a motto. Certainly, being person-centered must mean more than possessing three qualities, as nice as these qualities are.

Although I continue to ponder over the meaning of person-centered, others seem to have a clearer sense of its meaning. I infer this from the comments I have heard at a variety of person-centered meetings or groups I have attended. At such meetings I have, on occasion, heard one participant accuse another of not being person-centered, presumably because of some “wrong” (non-person-centered) behavior or attitude displayed by the accuse. Therefore, it seemed that the person who judged the offender behavior must have had some clear notion of what it means to be person-centered. Yet I became puzzled. I couldn’t figure out how the judgmental behavior of the accuser could be considered person-centered since it was clearly nonaccepting (not to mention nonempathic). But perhaps judgmental behavior is acceptable as long as it has a good purpose or intent—in this case to correct the bad attitude or behavior of someone who had gone astray.

As I thought about this scenario it occurred to me that one might consider oneself person-centered if such were displayed at least most of the time. Perhaps there is a critical percentage of time—say 75% that one must engage in the appropriate behavior with others to qualify as person-centered. The problem here is that some would inevitably argue that a figure such as 75%, is either too stringent or too lenient to qualify. Purists say that “you can’t just turn it on and off” –that “person-centeredness” must be a “way of life.” They seem to feel that in order to consider oneself truly person-centered, one must be so at all times.

The standards of the purist also imply that one should be person-centered in all situations and under all circumstances. As I think about this apparently desirable standard, I find myself starting to feel a bit overwhelmed and discouraged. Although I’d certainly like to consider myself person-centered, I’m no longer sure I have enough of the “right stuff.” Being person-centered doesn’t seem to allow enough room for one to be simply human, imperfect. Who wants to look over one’s shoulders with some trepidation and wonder if one is perceived by one’s colleagues and clients as fully (as opposed to partially) person-centered? The more I think about it, I’m not sure I even want to be person-centered all the time. Sometimes I just don’t feel like it. At other times, I’m not sure it’s appropriate or desirable.

Thomas Gordon, one of Roger’s former students and the author of Parent Effectiveness Training (1970) suggests that one’s capacity to be accepting is influenced by:

  • One’s current mood or state of mind.
  • One’s environment.
  • The characteristics of the person with whom one is interacting.

That is, one simply feels more able or inclined to show acceptance at some times rather than others, in some situations or environments rather than others, and toward some people rather than others. Imagine, if you will, two boxers being person-centered during their fight. One punches his opponent and sees a wince of pain cross the opponent’s face. Would one then expect a person-centered boxer to say something like, “that must have hurt a great deal,” or upon being hit convey his continuing acceptance of his opponent as a human being. Even Carl Rogers acknowledges that he doesn’t believe it is appropriate to be person-centered under all circumstances. He once stated that if he were attempting to buy a car he would attempt to be “shrewd.”

Most probably, we have all had periods when almost any behavior of another person was acceptable. Immediately after the completion of my doctoral oral exam I felt accepting of all the people I knew or had ever known. The level of noise one might accept at a rock concert (outside) most certainly exceeds the level of sound one would accept from one’s teenager’s stereo (inside). And one who has not known a person one could accept more readily than another person engaging in the same behavior. An important implication here may be that person-centeredness is not just an independent, trait-like characteristic but one that is affected greatly by our current state and our interactions with our environment, others, and ourselves. As the existentialists remind us, any manner of our being is always a being-in-the-world. We simply cannot escape our contexts and their effects on us.

Part of the dilemma in being person-centered seems to lie with the quality of congruence. If one behaves as, one always feels, one will inevitably be other than person-centered on occasion.

Genuineness simply precludes empathic and accepting behavior, at times, unless one has reached person-centered sainthood. As Rogers and most experienced therapists have recognized, clients have a hunger to know the therapist and to know that the therapist is a person. Therefore, if one’s authenticity is to affect the client, one must be perceived by the client as who one is, including one’s limitations and imperfections. I am reminded of a client I have been seeing recently. After some sessions she describes me as loving and supportive; after others she tells me she feels awful and hates me (although with a slight twinkle in her eyes) but finds our sessions helpful. One could make a case for or against my being person-centered. Certainly, I didn’t offer my client all three conditions all the time. This leads me to wonder if one must convey all three conditions simultaneously to qualify as person-centered. I hope not. I only experience such person-centered moments some of the time, and more often during my therapeutic work than the rest of my life. I guess I’ll have to keep at it.

At this point I find myself wondering just who it is that determines if one is person-centered. I used to think that it was Carl Rogers. Even though I “knew” Rogers would support me in my own way of working, I still found myself judging my therapeutic work against what I saw or heard him do. It was almost as if he were sitting on my shoulder as I was doing therapy. I imagined that my truly person-centered responses were like HIS while some others were simply mine. About 10 years ago I spoke with him about my continuing but reluctant use of him as a standard for my work, and of my genuine desire to get him off my shoulder. He understood my sense of “loss” as I expressed my desire to let him go and we shared a mutual feeling of being “equal” as we sat face to face.

Now I can’t imagine trying to be like Carl Rogers, or anyone else, though I believe there is an enormous amount I can learn from Carl as well as many others. As I have been taught many times by my clients, it is hard enough to learn to be oneself, let alone who one believes one should be. It is beginning to occur to me that neither Carl Rogers nor the “fully functioning person” can determine who qualifies or exactly what it means to be person-centered. As John K. Wood suggests (this issue-Roundtable discussion) there is not the person-centered approach. It he is right, then it seems that there may be more than one way to be person-centered. John Shlien (this issue- Roundtable discussion) urges us to define the meaning of client-centered. His message seems to be that some beliefs and behaviors simply fall outside the realm of what can reasonably be considered “client/person-centered. “Both Wood and Shlien make points worth serious consideration. So does Rogers (1986, pp. 3-4), who states:

The person-centered approach is paradoxical. It emphasizes shared values yet encourages uniqueness. It is rooted in a profound regard for the wisdom and constructive capacity inherent in the human organism—a regard that is shared by those who hold this approach. At the same time, it encourages those who incorporate these values to develop their own special and unique way of being, their own ways of implementing this shared philosophy.
Carl Rogers

Maybe, as Rogers suggests, our shared values and philosophy are at the core of our person-centeredness. Although being person-centered has some boundaries regarding our beliefs and the way we implement them, it seems that the qualities or attitudes that derive from our philosophy also free us to define ourselves in our own unique manner of being person-centered. I find a quiet sense of comfort and pleasure in that notion. Somehow, I like the idea that person-centeredness offers more freedom than limits. Maybe the paradox of the person-centered approach isn’t so bad. Perhaps, as the American journalist Walter Cronkite used to say at the end of his newscast, “that’s the way it is.”

REFERENCES
Gordon, T. (1960). Parent Effectiveness Training, New York: Wydon
Rogers, C. R. (1986), A comment from Carl Rogers, Person-Centered Review, 1, pp. 3-14

David Cain, Person-Centered Review, Vol. 1 No. 3 1986 251-256