Person-centred therapy emphasises the importance of people’s subjective self-concept which consists of the ways in which they perceive and define themselves.
In the person-centred approach, the therapist seeks to establish a relationship with the client that will allow the client to start daring to face the anxiety and confusion which arises when the self-concept is challenged by the awareness of experiences which do not fit into its current configuration. If such a relationship can be achieved, the client can then hope to move beyond the confusion and gradually to experience the freedom to choose a way of being which is closer to their deepest feelings and values. The therapist will therefore focus not on problems and solutions but on a person-to-person relationship. The person-centred therapist does not hesitate to invest himself freely and fully in the relationship with his client. He believes that he will gain entrance into the world of the client through an emotional commitment in which he is willing to involve himself as a person and to reveal himself, if appropriate, with his own strengths and weaknesses. For the person-centred therapist a primary goal is to see, feel and experience the world as the client see it, feels it and experiences it, which would not be possible if he remained aloof and psychologically distant.
Clients in person-centred therapy are responsible for finding and formulating their own goals and directions. Such goals may emerge and become clearer during therapy. The process of person-centred therapy places emphasis on the client taking responsibility for the contents of therapy sessions and working on material that has personal meaning for them.
Therapeutic change in the client is described as a process of greater openness to experience. Carl Rogers, who developed the person-centred therapy approach characterised the direction of therapeutic growth as including increasing awareness of denied experience, moving from seeing the world in generalisations to being able to see things in a more differentiated manner and forming a greater reliance on personal experience as a source of values and standards. Eventually, these developments lead to changes in behaviour, but the "reorganisation of the self" is seen as a necessary precursor to any new behaviour.
The therapeutic process of the counselling in person-centred approach can be conceptualised as a series of stages. In successful counselling the client will become able to process information about themselves and experiencing at greater levels of depth and intensity. The seven stages of increasing client involvement in their inner world are summarised as follows:
1. The client’s communication is about external events, their feelings and personal meanings are not "owned", close relationships are construed as dangerous, and there is rigidity in thinking. The client presents as impersonal and detached and tends not to use first-person pronouns.
2. Expression begins to flow more freely in respect of non-self topics. The client starts to describe feelings, but does not yet own them and describes behaviour rather than inner feelings. At this point the client should start to show more interest and participation in therapy.
3. The client describes personal reactions to external events, there is a limited amount of self-description and communication about past feelings. The client begins to recognise contradictions in experience.
4. The client starts to describe feelings and personal experiences and begins to experience current feelings, but is in fear and distrust of this when it happens. The client’s "inner life" is presented and listed or described, but not purposefully explored.
5. The client starts to express their current feelings with increasing ownership of these feelings. The client becomes more precise in differentiating feelings and meanings. There is intentional exploration of problems in a personal way, based in processing of feelings rather than reasoning.
6. The client starts to demonstrate a sense of an "inner referent", or flow of feeling that has a life of its own. There can be "physiological loosening", such as moistness in the eyes, tears, sighs or muscular relaxation, which accompanies the open expression of feelings. The client will speak using the present tense or offers a vivid representation of the past.
7. The client can express a series of felt senses connecting the different aspects of an issue and has a basic trust in their own inner processes. The client is experiencing their feelings with immediacy and in rich detail, and can speak easily about this in the present tense.
The process in the client is facilitated by the empathy, congruence and acceptance of the counsellor. For example, sensitive empathic listening on the part of the counsellor enables him to reflect back to the client personal feelings and meanings implicit in stage 1 statements.