Why does person-centred counselling work?

In person-centred counselling, the therapist makes way for the client. Photo by Francesco Gallarotti on Unsplash

Person-centred counselling is based on a belief that we are all able to grow ourselves, given the right conditions for growth.

What are these conditions? Three main ones are:

  1. Unconditional positive regard: being accepted – we learn and grow best when we are accepted.
  2. Congruence: being with honest, consistent people – we learn and grow best when we are with someone who is open, trustworthy and non-hypocritical.
  3. Empathy: being understood – we learn and grow best when we are with people who can see our point of view.

The counsellor, therefore, commits to being accepting of the client, being honest and transparent in their own conduct, and working hard to appreciate life from the point of view of the client.


The following are cognitive advantages of a person-centred approach:

  • Humans can think more clearly in an atmosphere of acceptance. Counselling is a chance to self-explore, and this is much harder if we are feeling judged.
  • Humans can think more clearly when there is nothing hidden. Instead of having to account for possible deception by others (mistrust), brain energy can instead be spent focusing on the personal issue at hand.
  • Humans can make progress in thinking more clearly with someone who can support and reflect the process. The counsellor can ‘hold the ladder’ while the client climbs.


The following are socio-biological advantages of a person-centred approach:

  • Humans have evolved to respond strongly to parental and peer acceptance. Where we find it, we use it as a base for exploration.
  • Humans have evolved to learn fastest from others who are consistent, or at least open about their faults. It means we don’t have to be so defensive.
  • Humans have evolved to seek closeness with those who appreciate our point of view. The counsellor’s empathic example then helps a client to be closer to others, by appreciating their points of view.


Generally, a client should feel accepted and understood. They should also feel that the counsellor is ‘being themselves’ with the client, and not putting on a false front of any kind. Overall, this should mean that the client feels safe and secure in the counsellor’s presence, and able to be themselves in return.


Of course, if a client has major difficulties trusting anyone, then this might be a block to the process. Also, if a client is used to high levels of manipulation in relationships, then they may push, pull, and severely test the counsellor.

Imagine a dog who has been mistreated in the past. Even if they meet a kind human who wishes them well, and makes this clear, the dog may continue to bark and bite, because the defensive behaviours are strongly embedded.


All being well, the client should feel ready to learn and grow. Instead of hating themselves, they should begin to find themselves interesting, a focus of exploration.


Again, some clients have difficulty focusing in on themselves, and are much happier blaming others, and using the counsellor as an ‘agreement mechanism’. This can be a bit of a trap, in which the client only comes to counselling to be told they are a righteous victim, and to be absolved of responsibility for their life.

To counteract this danger, a good person-centred counsellor will be able to challenge as well as agree. They may say something like ‘I want you to feel comfortable when we’re together. But I’m curious about how you would wish to change your world for the better.’


A client should be able to think more clearly than usual, and have a sense of making some progress in understanding themselves and their situation.


The client may also experience a renewed curiosity about themselves and others. This may go together with a less defensive attitude to others, and a greater ability to manage sensitive conversations.

In their social life, a client may begin to see that they are better able to develop intimacy without compromising or hiding themselves. In this way, the example of the therapeutic relationship may act as a useful model for accepting, honest, empathic relationships in real life.


If you are interested in having person-centred counselling, then you are welcome to make contact using the contact section of this website. You can have a free phone chat, and a free first session, before you take things any further.