Carl Rogers (1902-1987)

By Eugene T. Gendlin, Ph.D., University of Chicago

February 1988 - American Psychologist
Vol. 43. No. 2. 127-128

Carl Rogers died suddenly on February 4, 1987, after surgery for a broken hip. He was born in Chicago, January 8, 1902. He was still very active at the Center for the Study of the Person. in La Jolla, where he moved in 1963. Previously, he taught at the Universities of Wisconsin, Chicago, and Ohio State, and directed the Child Guidance Center in Rochester.

Rogers is world renowned for originating and developing the now prevailing humanistic trend to psychotherapy, pioneering in research, and influencing all fields related to psychology.

Visitors came from everywhere. Some were inspired to self-empowerment by a single meeting. Some were disappointed. Rogers seemed ordinary; he was not a sparkling conversationalist. He would certainly listen to you, and with real interest. He would sit forward and look you in the eyes, wanting to hear what this person—you—had to say. But, then, on his side he might just state his position again, rather than replying in detail to your detail. He also kept his new thinking silently, perhaps wordlessly, inside. When he was ready, he wrote his ground-breaking ideas.

He rarely exuded feelings, and hardly ever anger. He would strongly state his feelings and needs, but without pouring them on the other person. If his secretary was on the phone with her friend. he would stand, patiently, holding his letters in his hand, waiting until she was ready. But he faced down the hatred of most of the profession because in the work place, classroom, therapist's office, and all around him, he turned the social system upside down.

He cared about each person—but not about the institutions. He did not care about appearances, roles, class, credentials, or positions, and he doubted every authority including his own.

His immense power came from the fact that once he discovered something, he followed it through. He saw no reason to limit it by all those irrelevancies that stop most people. So he was able to launch practices that revolutionized the field.

In the 1940s. he was accused of "destroying the unity of psychoanalysis". He founded a frankly different method: nondirective therapy. It meant war against monolithic authority. He won that war. Today we have many methods and the opportunity for open inquiry.

He insisted on testing his new therapy to show that it worked. To Rogers, that meant objective, quantitative research. But there were few usable procedures and no examples of research in psychotherapy. Such research was considered impossible because therapists had never let anyone listen in, let alone measure and compare. Rogers recorded therapy sessions on the clumsy glass disks of that time. He was accused of "violating the sanctity of the analytic relationship"—another war.

Rogers wanted comparative research, and he tried hard to get the psychoanalysts to record and test their therapy. For years their reply was "You can record the residents" (in other words, the trainees.) It showed whose sanctity was being protected.

Rogers's group was the first (by 20 years) to analyze every sentence of hundreds of transcripts and to measure outcomes on psychometric (and other newly devised) tests given to clients before and after therapy, and also given to a control group. Rogers won that war too; such research is now common.

He proclaimed new ethics: Recording requires the client's permission. Confidentiality was emphasized, and the answer to all inquiries was only "The person was in therapy here." In spirit, his ethics is now accepted, but at the time it was new. "Professional ethics" mostly meant a doctor's duty to protect other doctors.

The way in which Rogers came to his new method was characteristic of him. He found something, and then, because there was no relevant reason to limit it, he did not limit it.

Otto Rank interpreted only when the patient "stood in the very experience being interpreted." Jesse Taft and Frederick Allen (with whom Rogers studied) found this conjunction only when they interpreted interaction. So they were otherwise silent. Rogers eliminated all interpretation. Instead, he checked his understanding out loud, trying to grasp exactly what the patient wished to convey. When he did that, he discovered something: The patient would usually correct the first attempt. The second would be closer, but even so, the patient might refine it. Rogers would take in each correction until the patient indicated. "Yes, that's how it is. That's what I feel." Then there would be a characteristic silence. During such a silence, after something is fully received, the next thing comes in the client. Very often it is—something deeper.

Rogers discovered that a self-propelled process arises from inside. When each thing is received utterly as intended, it makes new space inside. Then the steps go deeper and deeper.

Call it a way of circumventing defenses, or making maximal closeness without imposing. Whatever you call it, observe the result. For Rogers, theory comes after experience. He wrote a theory in Client-Centered Therapy, and then a fuller theory in On Becoming a Person, his best-known book. But he did not try to convince by theory. He wrote. "Try it as an operational hypothesis; see what happens."

In the therapist's chair. this way of listening is entirely different. Instead of being set to deal with what a person says, to move it in some way, to agree with one part and differ with another, one listens to grasp what the person intends to convey—the sense that makes when felt as that person feels it.

Rogers's discovery led further! He found that every person makes internal sense. That sense evolves and corrects itself as it deepens. This discovery put Rogers ahead of the country in another way. In 1945, Blacks, women, gay people, and others felt helped at the Counseling Center; because these therapists knew that every client had to teach them a new world. A Black client might spend months teaching a therapist about Black experience. Yet, another Black client might say, with relief; after one hour, "With you I can forget about race." These therapists never forced a policy on a client. They would not coerce a woman to stay in a marriage, as the psychoanalysts then did. Nor would they decide what another person's sexuality should be. To therapists trained by Rogers, it was obvious that every person is at the directing center of a life, and that one can help people only by means of their own intricacy and their own steps.

Rogers published the transcripts of a failure case of his. In the intern group he would play model tapes, but sometimes he would bring one, saying, "I don't know what's going wrong here." The students could hear a great deal going wrong, and it made them feel fine to present their own bad interviews.

He found diagnostics to be inadequate, prejudicial, and often misused; so he eliminated it. It was another affront to the profession, but it made the space of psychotherapy an open reception.

Rogers renamed his nondirective therapy client-centered therapy (and recently, person-centered). As in law, the client, not the lawyer, decides each move. But that was only the outward sign of breaking the medical model of "illness," "diagnosis," and "the doctor knows best". Today, most therapists see "clients," and they don't think of therapy as analogous to medicine.

Rogers's discovery had implications for other fields, and he followed them up in his usual way: Is it just as true in education that a deeper process develops from inside? Rogers began teaching by handing out lists of "available resources" and then pursuing the good sense of each student's proposal. The result, each time, was an enormously excited class directing its own exploration. Without assignments, students read and did more than ever under the old system. Rogers soon contributed to a new literature that influenced a generation of educators.

To learn this method of therapy requires some years of practice, supervision, and consultation, but academic education does not help. That led (and Rogers followed where it led) to the conclusion that one does not need degrees to be a therapist.

Another war. Why not train church workers, nurses, mothers, teachers—anyone—to be a therapist? There was no inherent reason not to, and irrelevancies did not stop him. Although millions were trained, Rogers did not win this war. The method was simplified, so that it became verbal repetition, rather than a way of really sensing each point. That ended up discrediting the method. Recent training is much more exacting. This listening is hard to learn.

Rogers was constantly invited everywhere. He would try to decide, saying: "Where could I have the most impact?" As often as not he would choose a group in nursing or in education.

Would the approach apply in work settings? In 1947, Rogers gave up control of the Chicago Counseling Center. Student-interns, secretaries, and faculty ran it equally. Of course, involvement and work went to new levels. Later, when the Center lost its grant, this model showed its resilience: All pooled their pay, and worked for very little, until new funding was found.

This model was not free of troubles. In Wisconsin (where Rogers was invited to do research with "schizophrenics"), this organizational model could not cope with even one deliberately unethical person, (who removed the data, tried to publish it, and then destroyed it so that much work had to be done again). In less dramatic ways, this type of problem could also be observed at other times.

Half the therapists of Europe and Japan are client centered. In the United States, that organization is only now beginning. Rogers encouraged, but would not lead an organization. He helped found—but would not lead—other groups; the encounter group movement, the field of counseling psychology, the Humanistic Association, and the joint psychiatry-psychology American Academy, among others.

There was little to criticize in Rogers. Some said that in not expressing anger, he forced those around him to express it by fighting each other. But the fights were due rather to his refusal to fill his own role. In giving up control, he gave up all of it; he refused to decide even what was so defined that only he could decide it. That did force those around him to fight. But it is little to criticize, amid so many contributions and so much novelty, honesty, and courage.

In his last 15 years he applied his method to politics, training policymakers, leaders, and groups in conflict. Better decisions are made with empathy for what things mean to the other side. Others are never only what we oppose. Rogers said the world is "fragile," and he worked for peace. When he was well over 80, he led huge workshops in countries such as Hungary, Brazil, and the Soviet Union and conducted communication groups in South Africa.

I am glad that Carl heard me say these good things. The last time was on a video-recorded panel a few months ago. Later there was an argument between those who uphold the pure client-centered method and those who integrate it with other methods. I said we need both groups. But Carl said, "I didn't want to find a client-centered way. I wanted to find a way to help people."

Eugene T. Gendlin
University of Chicago