Carl Ransom Rogers was a US psychologist and educator and a leading figure of what is often called “the third wave of psychology.” The first wave was Freud and Jung and their views of psychoanalysis. The second wave was the behaviorists symbolized by B.F. Skinner and the later behavior-modification specialists. The third wave, often called “humanist”, has Abraham Maslow, Rollo May, and Carl Rogers as its best known figures. Unlike Freud and Jung who developed relatively-closed approaches and a set of therapeutic techniques built on their theories, the humanist psychological theory and therapies could change according to the persons being treated or the setting in which work was undertaken.
In fact, Carl Rogers’ approach was first called “client-centered therapy” and was based on the idea that the client (no longer called a ‘patient’) had within him vast resources for understanding and accepting his dynamics of actions, attitudes, and emotions. These resources are released in working with the therapist (often called a facilitator). The therapist communicates his own caring, empathy, and non-judgmental understanding.
Carl Rogers’ way of working with the people was to bring his enormous capacity for empathy and understanding, his listening skills, and his caring for people to create a climate in which the inner potential of the client for growth could be realized. He had an unshakable belief that the person is trustworthy, resourceful, capable of self-direction, and consequently, able to modify his view of self to overcome obstacles and pain and to become more effective, productive, and fully functioning. The view that clients have, within themselves, vast, untapped resources for self-directed growth was met with rejection by many in the field of psychotherapy. As C.H. Pattrerson has written in his The Therapeutic Relationship,
“Person-centered therapy is often threatening to therapists, since it places responsibility on the therapist as a person, not on the therapist as an expert using a wide range of techniques supposedly selected on the basis of dealing with specific client problems or diagnoses.”
Even others within the humanist wave could be critical. Abraham Maslow said: “Rogers doesn’t have enough sin and psychopathology in his system. He speaks of the only drive as self-actualization, which is to imply there is only a tendency to health. Then where does all the sickness come from? He needs more theory of psychopathogenesis, fear, of resentment, of countervalues, of hostility.”
If many therapists were unwilling to follow Rogers in their therapeutic work, many more individuals who were working with people seeking growth and the release of potentials rather than overcoming personal problems, did follow Rogers’ lead. The 1960s and 1970s saw the development of encounter groups and a human potential movement. Rogers’ views on the need for empathy and unconditional positive regard were taken over by many of those who organized encounter groups. Rogers shifted some of his activities from one-on-one client centered work to what could be done in a group setting. The two foundation blocks of Rogers’ person-centered approach are 1) that each human being has within a growth potential or actualizing tendency, and 2) that this can best be realized if a proper interpersonal psychological climate is present. These elements could also be used in a group setting, and many of Rogers’ views were taken over in the training of primary and secondary school teachers.
With the experience of the positive results of encounter groups, late in his life, Rogers hoped that his healing techniques could be used to help heal the deep antagonisms within those who held responsibility for States. In the early 1980s, in the Soviet Union some persons became more open to an interest in what was being done in the intellectual life of Western countries. Carl Rogers was invited to lecture to mental health professionals in the Soviet Union. Soviet psychotherapy had been largely in the behaviorist tradition and the heavy use of drugs for behavior modification. Freud and Jung were known by reputation but not to be mentioned in polite company. Thus the largely unknown but not taboo humanist approach merited being known, and Rogers was warmly welcomed.
I met Rogers on his return from the Soviet Union when he gave a talk in Geneva on his Soviet experiences. He had seen people who were discovering new ideas, who had deep inner resources but these resources had remained undeveloped during most of the Soviet period by fear of stepping outside Communist orthodoxy. He saw the need for follow-up both by him and by others such as those of us meeting with him in Geneva.
Rogers’ peace activities also concerned Central America and South Africa − areas torn by deep divisions and uncertainty about the future. His death in 1987 ended his personal ability to carry on this peace-related approach. Much of Rogers’ influence today remains in the client-centered therapy field. Most political leaders do not feel that they are in need of help to discover new and more satisfying personal meaning about themselves and the world they inhabit. Perhaps power fills all their emotional needs. However for those of us who work without power for peace, the humanist psychology wave and its emphasis on the formation of attitudes, fears, and aspirations can give us real tools for action.
C.R. Rogers. Client-centered therapy ( Boston: Houghton-Mifflim, 1951)
C.R. Rogers. On becoming a person – a therapist’s view of psychotherapy (Boston: Houghton-Mifflim, 1961)
C.R. Rogers. Carl Rogers on encounter groups (New York: Harper and Row, 1970)
C.R. Rogers. A way of being (Boston: Houghton-Mifflim, 1980)