The core conditions model introduced by Carl Rogers
The core conditions model introduced by Carl Rogers was originally a feat by Rogers to devise an empirical formulation of an approach to therapy that was already successful and widely implemented. Rogers attempted through his model to envelop the core concepts of his unique approach to clients specifying the features of an interpersonal environment facilitating actualisation and personal growth. The six conditions presented by Rogers (1957:95) provided a bold statement to alternative psychological perspectives by its claim that they were not just useful, but completely sufficient in themselves.
They enabled the person-centred counsellor to form a relationship with the client that is healing, allowing the client to feel accepted and valued. According to Rogers, for productive and positive personality change to occur these conditions must be present continuously for them to be sufficient. This mode of working is dependant on the counsellor’s ability to convey these qualities in terms of authentic and powerful presence (McLeod, 2003). Three concepts from the original model are the core conditions used in contemporary person-centred counselling, they include congruence, empathy and unconditional positive regard.
This combination of attitudes and skills are also considered sufficient to facilitate therapeutic progress because the belief is that the relationship between counsellor and client (or person to person) is the central element in effective therapy (Dryden and Feltham, 2004). However, there remains considerable debate over the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the necessary and sufficient model and much effort has been invested by person centred theorists and researchers to clarify what the concepts mean, and identify the various facets of them (McLeod, 2003).
In order to consider the level of ease in which a person centred counsellor might use these attributes, it is important to first explore the meanings of each concept individually and in adequate depth. The Dictionary of Counselling (Dryden and Feltham, 2004) describes empathy as an attitude and a skill, used to comprehend the perspective of the client as if it were the counsellor’s own. This is then reflected back to the client to demonstrate that the counsellor is experientially beside them, striving to fully grasp what they are feeling or perhaps struggling to articulate (Dryden and Feltham, 2004).
Empathy is a distinctive feature of the person-centred approach which allows the client to benefit from experiencing being heard and understood, an experience they may not have had previously, enabling them to progress to a stage of exploration and acceptance of any buried aspects of self. It can also provide a sense of relief for the client that something is at last making sense or make the client feel less alone (Barret-Lennard, 1993: 6). However, there are numerous difficulties in the notion of empathy. There is some philosophical debate regarding the appropriate characterisation of this phenomenology.
Carl Rogers describes empathy as a ‘a state of being’ whereas in contrast, Truax and Carkhuff defined it more as a communication tool that can be taught, demonstrated and enhanced through a structured training program. When considering the ease in which this skill is adopted and implemented by counsellors the Truax and Carkhuff definition would suggest that a counsellor with sufficient and continuous training would be an excellent empathic responder. Rogers’ description would suggest that it is more of an innate ability rather than a professional interpersonal skill.
Kurtz and Grummon’s experiment (1972) attempted to measure empathic responding and sheds an interesting light on this debate. In this experiment, specific counsellor statements were rated for empathy differently, by the client, counsellor and an external observer depending on each rating giver’s position and awareness of the situation (McLeod, 2003). This suggests that the client’s experience of empathic contact will differ to the counsellor’s experience of being empathic, creating an obstacle to the aim of being side by side and sharing the client’s perspective, the concept of empathy itself.
In contrast, Perraton-Mountford explains in his article ‘Take Six Core Conditions… ‘ that humans are in fact innately empathic creatures. When a human witnesses another human experience physical brain researches have found observable brain activity in the witness that reflects that of the person feeling the pain, a kind of neurological mirroring (Therapy Today, 2006). This would almost certainly imply that empathy is an ‘easy attribute to use’ however, in order to be truly empathic (as well as respectful), the active listening skills required are both tiring and difficult.
The late American Psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan reportedly claimed that 90% of human communication was designed specifically to avoid communication It could be said that in order to listen and empathise effectively, the counsellor must possess the quality of altruism, a quality that many theorists debate the human being’s capability of (Nelson-Jones, 1997). Further debates on empathy include the philosophical quandary as to whether it is even possible. Firstly, the belief that people, their experiences and their perspectives are all unique appears to contradict the idea of empathy.
How can a counsellor empathise with a client without identifying with what the client is explaining by recalling similar previous experiences? If Alfred’s wife is killed in a car accident and when speaking to an acquaintance she claims to ‘know just how he feels’, Alfred is unlikely to be reassured by this and might question how she could possibly know how he is feeling, unless she had previously experienced the exact same thing (McNabb, Philosophynow. org).
When identification such as this occurs in a counsellor/client relationship it can obstruct genuine empathy because counsellor’s own feelings could get in the way of accurately understanding the client’s (Sanders, 2002). Paradoxically, by Alfred assuming his friend couldn’t not possibly know what he is feeling he is also claiming to know that she couldn’t, that is to say, he is making an assertion as to how she is feeling (McNabb, Philosophynow. org). This argument might be resolved by the fact that many descriptions of empathy claim that is it to “try” to see another person’s world from their own point of view.
If the skill is defined merely by the attempt, then it would no doubt be easy for the counsellor to empathise. Congruence is also referred to as genuineness or authenticity in many texts and is to a counsellor’s demonstration of honesty as an important element to both their character and their practice. It infers that the counsellor has an awareness and connection with their thoughts and feelings and the ability to judge when it is appropriate to express them (Dryden and Feltham, 2004). Failure to exhibit congruence will result in incongruence, and discrepancies between feelings and communication in verbal and non-verbal form.
These discrepancies will be received as behaviour which is inauthentic, and if consistently present will result in ineffective counselling. It is interesting to note that The Dictionary of Counselling (Dryden and Feltham, 2004) states that nearly all clients begin counselling with some level of incongruence. It could be perceived that it is a typical way for a person to behave when greeting someone unfamiliar. Consequently, it could be argued that may be congruent for a counsellor to behave incongruently in the initial stages of form a relationship with the client.
A paradoxical and philosophical argument perhaps, similar to that by of the existence of empathy as mentioned previously in this discourse. Motives for counselling are both complex and encouraging of self-deception. Many counsellors enter the profession due to unresolved issues and could deliver damaging or mixed messages to the client originating from counsellors internalising the feelings of significant others, or transferring unfinished business. It is important for the counsellor to listen to their own feelings as well as the client’s.
Bringing vulnerability to counselling may demonstrate that the counsellor is caring and human, but this message can be either affirming or negating if the conflict or pain has not been properly worked through (Nelson-Jones, 1994). Carl Rogers describes congruence as being ‘transparently real’ and promotes the exposure of vulnerability in counsellors, particularly by them not pretending to know all the answers, a difficult thing for a counsellor to achieve as it goes against training of keeping a professional distance (Sanders, 2002).
Counsellors must not avoid or deny their true feelings in order to achieve congruence, another difficult feat but an important one to accomplish since many triggers, sensitivities or prejudices are unconsciously driven. These values and beliefs should be properly addressed through reflection and supervision, but if they should arise when a client is present then the counsellor is obligated to make a judgement on how authentic it is appropriate to be in that moment (Sanders, 2004). The third of Roger’s core conditions is unconditional positive regard.
This is the acceptance of the client, a respect, warmth and value for them which is demonstrated with a consistently non-judgemental attitude allowing them to trust, feel relaxed and able to disclose. Although it denotes the acceptance of the person, this does not necessarily include all the person’s behaviours. Although most counsellors concede that UPR comprises a desirable base for counselling, it is also recognised as one that is not always possible to attain or sustain (Dryden and Feltham, 2004).
The article by Perraton Mountford (2006) explores the concept of extending the core conditions to inanimate objects, he says; The unconditional positive regard, or UPR, the prizing of love which a therapist offers the client, maps onto trees, cats, mountains… without difficulty. It is easy to love a tree; sometimes, it is easier than loving human beings, I find. ” (Therapy Today, 2006 p32) Perraton Mountford describes here a common problem for counsellors attempting to have respect for clients, although it is believe their behaviour does not define their character, who have behaved in such a way that makes it difficult to empathise with them.
When there is a conflict of values, morals or ethics it is difficult to step into the shoes of a client that one is uncomfortable around or feels threatened by. Although the three core conditions are discussed here in separate forms, it is logical to assume the three are indissoluble in practice. A counsellor can not be empathic and accepting while be being inauthentic (Perraton Mountford, 2006).
Amalgamated as one tool the counsellor should easily be able to implement the core conditions through effective counselling skills such as; listening, paraphrasing, summarising, asking questions, reflecting, helping people clarify their thoughts encouraging them to focus on key issues. These skills should be second nature for the counsellor as will the attempt to be genuine, respectful and empathic. Although sometimes these attempts will be difficult, for the majority of clients it should not be. As Perraton Mountford suggests in his article (Therapy Today 2006 p34); “I am inclined to think that this is just how it is to be human. “.