Most counsellors and psychology students will naturally be familiar with the work of Carl Rogers who advocated non-directive, client-centred counselling. Carl Rogers’ hugely influential view is that the counsellor essentially has a non-directive role and listens non-judgmentally to the client’s words.
The client-centred approach views the client as possessing the inner resources necessary to navigate his or her own path though life’s issues.
This article asks a question of fundamental importance: Did Carl Rogers actually remain true to his core beliefs and practice non-directively?
In other words, does the evidence of Carl Rogers counselling Gloria actually demonstrate a firm adherence to non-directive, client-centred counselling? It’s certainly not heretical to suggest that Rogers’ non-directive, client-centred counselling is the stuff of textbooks rather than actual practice. How client-centred was Rogers in real life? That one of counselling’s founding figures may have had feet of clay may make uncomfortable reading for his followers, but it needs addressing.
I should declare at the outset that I did not start out with a particular angle in mind. I am neither a detractor nor adherent of the client-centred approach. The commitment here is to forming a balanced view. I am not actually questioning the principles of client-centred counselling. I am simply asking whether Carl Rogers demonstrated a non-directive approach in practice as much as he elucidated it in his writings.
What does the Gloria session tell us about Carl Rogers?
The whole question of Carl Rogers’ own style is given an interesting twist by the fact that some sessions appear to show him in action with a far more directive style.
Whether Carl Rogers always remained true to the principle of non-directive counselling can be researched empirically. There is an abundance of material: the Gloria session and other video evidence is available so Rogers in action can be readily analysed. The Gloria session can be viewed on YouTube, demonstrating the accessibility of his work.
So the evidence is there for all to see. His responses to clients in counselling sessions can be analysed and any appropriate conclusions drawn. Compare this, for example, with Freud who working in an earlier age left a legacy of case study material, but whose actual sessions remain forever closed to public scrutiny and are beyond the reach of the video age and the YouTube generation.
We can attempt to measure whether Carl Rogers’ responses are ‘directive’ or ‘non-directive’, just as we can count the number of empathic responses he makes. The whole question of Carl Rogers’ own style is given an interesting twist by the fact that some sessions appear to show him in action with a far more directive style. This is seen by supporters of Carl Rogers as an unusual deviation from his normal style – but is it? The apparent discrepancy between his espoused views on non-directive counselling and his real life behaviour raises questions.
A non-directive counsellor would ideally avoid being interpretative because the client’s words should speak for themselves. Yet, when Carl Rogers counsels Gloria, he makes interpretations 36 per cent of the time which is more in line with what would be expected in a psychoanalytic encounter. According to Stephen Weinrach of Villanova University, he uses interpretation more than any other skill. Weinrach (1990) says:
Rather than focus on Gloria’s feelings and the meanings she attributed to her experiences, Rogers shares his meanings or interpretations of her experiences with her.
Carl Roger’s dismissal of the concept of transference and counter-transference very obviously undermines his approach too. Gloria admits the fact she is seeking a father figure and Rogers’ response is ‘You look like a pretty nice daughter’. But his directive approach is not just confined to the Gloria session.
Other evidence: ‘The Right to be Angry’ and ‘On Hurt and Anger’
In the video-taped sessions ‘The Right to be Angry’ and ‘On Hurt and Anger’, Carl Rogers counsels a black client who he later describes as an ‘armour-plated man’. But even his supporters are forced to admit his responses are ‘uncharacteristically directive’. They attribute the directiveness – at least in part – to the pressure of filming watchable material in just two sessions to professionally demonstrate the effectiveness of the client-centred approach.
In her analysis of ‘On Hurt and Anger’, Barbara Brodley (1996) suggests:
…many of these responses seem to reveal that Rogers had specific goals for the client…[an] uncharacteristic behaviour in which Rogers manifests a directive attitude in pursuit of an objective he has for the client.
Far from being non-directive, Rogers appears to shape the proceedings. Here are some of the responses to the client which appear to run against the non-directive thrust of the client-centred approach:
- “I was just thinking, if you could only cry?”
- “If you did cry, what would some of the themes of that crying be?”
- “You’d like to just tell off the bastard.”
The context of the dialogue has obviously been removed, but I don’t believe its inclusion would drastically alter one’s impression of the directiveness of these statements. They clearly move the client along in a particular direction, with the expression of hurt and anger in mind as an emotion that ‘should be felt’. In any case, fuller excerpts are readily available for interested readers.
The question is really whether we can generalise from Carl Rogers’ responses in these sessions to the rest of his therapeutic work spanning many years. Were these demonstrations merely ‘poor form’ in these sessions, or did they betray traits which would be apparent in many other sessions? Given that he was confident of his client-centred credentials in the Gloria interview straight after the session, the latter explanation is favoured. Like so many other founding figures, he had feet of clay.