Person Centred/Humanistic Theory

The Idea in a Nutshell

Our worth and value comes from being human, and not from who we are, what we do or what we own.

The idea in summary

By accepting people as they are, in all the complexity and messiness of human experience, and by consistently and actively demonstrating this acceptance through your behaviour, you create the conditions necessary for people to become the person they have always had the capacity to become. Above all else person-centred theory is a values led approach to working with people.

The idea in more depth

The person centred theory (sometimes known as the Humanistic Theory) states that human nature is essentially good. It believes that when people are accepted for who they are and are valued as a unique individual in their own right they will naturally seek to be the best they can be and will respect, love and value others.

Although this is the natural state of humanity in reality most people face conditional love when they grow up. Parents, carers, friends, family, peers and neighbours give us the message that in order to be accepted and be loved we must be something other than what we are. As a result of this we come to believe that we are not good enough. We then begin to put on an act; to present an acceptable face to the world in order to be loved and accepted. This however creates feelings of anxiety, inferiority and a lack of authenticity and integrity. The self literally “dis-integrates” as we present false selves to the world, and even to ourselves. Instead of having a core sense of our value and worth as an individual we judge ourselves in terms of how we perform on many different scales. The sense of integration, of being a person in our own right, is lost as we try and earn respect from others.

But person centred theory also notes that not only do we lose a sense of our own uniqueness and worth, but we also see others as less than fully human. Instead of being able to fully relate to others as a genuine meeting of equals we seek to judge relationships in terms of what people can do for us, or in terms of who is superior and who is inferior. So not only are we as individuals “dis-integrated” but we are also separated from integrated human encounters with others by the roles we play and the roles we ascribe to others.

One of the key ways in which we can see this “dis-integration” is by our tendency to see others as defined by their behaviour. When someone bullies another person we call them “a bully”. When someone lets people take advantage of them we call them “a doormat.” In both cases we identify the person with their behaviour. Person Centred theory explicitly rejects this idea. A person who kills another person is not a murderer, they are a person who has committed murder. A person who has sexually abused a child is a person who has abused a child, and not an abuser.

The same goes for any single aspect of our experience as a human. A person diagnosed with schizophrenia is not “a schizophrenic.” When we called some a dyslexic or a quadriplegic we are defining the person based on one part of their total experience as a human being. Once a person is labelled by their disorder something of their unique value and worth as a human being is lost.

When it comes to using this theory in practice Carl Roger (the main name associated with the birth of this model) suggested that there were six conditions required for this model to bring about change.

• Psychological contact between worker and service user

• The service user to be in a state of incongruence (experienced as a sense of anxiety or distress)

• The worker congruent or integrated in the relationship.

• The worker has unconditional positive regard for the service user.

• The worker has an empathic understanding of the service's way of making sense of the world.

• The worker achieves some degree of success in communicating their empathic understanding and unconditional positive regard to the service user. (Rogers, 1957)

Rogers argued that if a worker was able to be congruent (true to themselves and their core values) and could make psychological contact with a service user in distress; if they were able to fully value the service user as a person in their own right; if they could connect with the service user well enough to see life from the service user’s point view; and if they were able to communicate both the fact that they value the service user and can see things from their point of view then that alone will be enough to bring about positive change.

In practice Person Centred theory is applied in its purest form in non-directive person centred counselling. Here the worker seeks to listen with acceptance to whatever the person brings. The worker seeks not to challenge or change anything about the person or how they see the world, but only to empathetically understand the person’s view of the world. Key to this is the belief that by doing this the innate, natural drive to fully express all that is best in us will be set free by being accepted and understood by another human being.

The reality of social work practice is that social workers rarely have the time or the responsibility to offer person centred counselling. Social workers use the person centred approach in a more general way, as an underpinning principle rather than in its purest form.


Part Two