Instructions for Beginning to

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Instructions for Beginning to
Practice Client-Centered Therapy

Barbara Temaner Brodley, Ph.D.
Illinois School of Professional Psychology, Chicago

Client-centered therapy is a therapy based on attitudes. Unlike other therapies its essence involves the implementation of therapeutic attitudes congruence, unconditional positive regard and empathic understanding (Rogers 1957; 1959), not the diagnosis of disorders and subsequent application of treatments. The client-centered therapist's behavior is guided by a philosophy of persons and by her/him holding the therapeutic attitudes in relationship with a client; it is not an application of techniques.

Nevertheless, for the very beginner, it is usually helpful in learning the approach to start behaving like a client-centered therapist before the philosophy and the therapeutic attitudes have been understood and assimilated well enough to guide the therapist's practice. Instructions concerning what to try to do and what to try not to do may be useful in that they help the student to enter into a relationship and to experience and to observe some of both the client's and the student's actions and reactions. Such experiences can help the student to understand the client-centered philosophy of persons, the therapeutic attitudes and some of the benefits to clients in a personal and experiential way.

It may, however, smack of "applying techniques" to behave like a client-centered therapist before being guided by the therapeutic attitudes. Thus, introductory instructions, such as these which follow, risk stimulating misunderstandings of client-centered work.

These instructions are only an introductory way to experience a client-centered relationship. Study of and reflection upon client-centered philosophy of persons and the therapeutic attitudes are essential for developing a true client-centered way of practicing. This should be kept in mind when employing the instructions because of the hazard they bring of confusing client-centered work with application of techniques.

These instructions may be validly useful and not be misleading only if they are used while you are learning about the philosophy, the values and the therapeutic attitudes that are the essence of client-centered work.

The basic situation for which these instructions are intended is one in which a speaker (client) is explaining or expressing some personal concern, problem or symptom s/he currently experiences to a listener (therapist). The listener (therapist)in the situation attends to the speaker (client) and attempts to understand the speaker from the perspective of the speaker's internal frame of reference. This intention, to attempt to understand a speaker from the speaker's perspective, is what is called "empathic understanding" in client-centered work.

Empathic understanding is fundamentally a subjective experience on the part of the listener (therapist). It is a subjective and tentative understanding of thoughts and feelings that are being expressed by a speaker. Empathic understanding can only be tentative understanding unless or until it is confirmed by a speaker.

The attentive listener (therapist) absorbs the client's communications and personal expression and, at some point, comes to have a feeling of understanding the client. From time to time, then, the listener needs to articulate her/his felt understandings to find out from the speaker whether or not they are accurate according to the speaker. The speaker is the only possible judge concerning what s/he has been meaning or intending to express and communicate.

The listener's articulations of felt understandings along with expressive intonations and gestures are often called "reflections of feeling' or "empathic understanding responses" in client-centered work. They are usually expressed in the form of declarative statements. Although empathic responses are usually in the form of statements, they are always implicit questions addressed to the speaker. They implicitly ask the speaker "Is this what you have been telling me?", or or "Do I understand you correctly?".

Empathic responses in client-centered work are almost always expressed with the sole intention to check or verify the accuracy of the listener's empathic understandings (Rogers, 1986). They are offered by the therapist to give the client the opportunity to confirm, reject or qualify them.

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