Person-Centered International


The Large Community Group

The intent of this chapter is to: (1) Describe the history and some
features of person-centered community groups; (2) State several
theoretical and functional assumptions of these community
groups; (3) Discuss the role of facilitators (or conveners) in the
large groups; and (4) Offer some emerging research findings from
qualitative research.

Personal Background in relation to groups

First, a note about my background in experiencing
person-centered community groups. As I stated earlier, I learned
about the person-centered approach working with chronic,
long-term hospitalized psychotics and neurotics in state mental
hospitals as a Psychiatric Rehabilitation Counselor. My first
experience ‘leading’ a group was with a heterogeneous group of
‘patient’ who had been placed in group homes outside of the
hospital. I was exposed briefly at this time to community group
meetings in one state hospital where patients voted on
off-grounds passes, medical treatment and other similar
decisions for their fellow patients. Other than that I had no
experience in therapy or growth groups.

I facilitated many Basic Encounter Groups of rehabilitation
agency clients and of graduate students prior to attending the
renowned client-centered encounter group known as the La Jolla
Program. After the La Jolla Group experience in 1974, I was a
participant in person-centered community groups of one kind or
another for, at least, one time a year to the current date. I also
facilitated (or convened) large groups numerous times, more
recently (since 1987) coordinating and being one of the
conveners of the annual Person-Centered Workshop in Warm
Springs, Georgia.

My first experience as a group ‘leader’ in the psychiatric hospital
was with a group of about fifteen individuals who had entered a
group home outside of the hospital after twenty or more years as
hospital patients. The group was established in order to permit
me to meet with all of the individuals during my community trips
each week. In short, nearly every semblance of the group
violated the traditional knowledge about groups (since I didn’t
know much about the group literature at the time). There were
over 15 participants in the group who usually met under a shade
tree. The structure consisted of my request for us to meet ‘ . . .to
see how things are going’. It was a heterogeneous group that
was diagnosed with a variety of labels. For example, members
included a sixty year old male with ‘chronic alcoholism:
undifferentiated type’; a sixteen year old male ‘schizophrenic,
hebephrenic’; a ‘mentally retarded’ (IQ: 50’s) thirty year old
woman; a forty year old male ‘manic-depressive’; a thirty-five
year old female ‘schizophrenic, hebephrenic’; a forty-five year old
male ‘schizophrenic, paranoid’, and a variety of individuals with
still other diagnostic labels. They simply had the opportunity to
talk (or not talk) about anything. No rules, directions, orientation
were ever given. It was years later that I discovered that nearly
everything about the group went against guidelines for groups.
Nevertheless, standard criteria suggested that every member
made clinically significant progress.

It was from this early experience in the psychiatric hospital that
I became interested in groups and was involved as a facilitator
and participant many times and in many kinds of groups over the
years. These experiences included participation in Gestalt
groups, Adlerian groups, Psychodrama, Tiger training, encounter
groups, and T-groups. I personally facilitated ‘client-centered’
groups with graduate students, vocational rehabilitation clients,
‘out-patients’ from mental hospitals and others. I had some
experience observing several therapeutic community groups in
mental hospitals but did not experience large community groups
until 1974 in the community meetings at the La Jolla program.
My dye was probably cast by this time. Every year from that year,
I was a participant in groups of some type with Rogers and his
various colleagues. I became in effect a participant/observer
who, I have been told, Rogers viewed as a puzzle and wondered,
‘Why does this guy come to these groups. He never says
anything’. As an aside, I have always wondered why he forgot his
own admonishment when he thought a Japanese woman who
never said anything in any of his classes ‘ . . .couldn’t possibly be
getting anything from the class’. When she turned out to be the
major force promoting the client-centered approach in Japan,
Rogers said that he would never again assume that he could
predict what a person was learning. I also noticed that over the
years in the large groups, he became more silent himself with
less need to respond to individuals. It was, at least, somewhat
satisfying to me to view Rogers as moving more towards a
stance in the community groups that was more akin to my way of
thinking about convener activity in the groups.

In 1986, several client-centered advocates envisioned an annual
workshop which developed into what has become known as the
Warm Springs experience which held the twelfth meeting in 1998
(Eleven of the twelve workshops through 1998 were at Warm
Springs, Georgia). This gave me the opportunity to participate
and observe an ongoing experiment with large groups.

The Historical Development

The person-centered community group evolved from the
framework of the client-centered approach as depicted and
researched by Carl R. Rogers and his colleagues. The central
theoretical base is that of Rogers’ (1959) statement of the
Client-Centered Theory of therapy, personality and interpersonal
relationships. This statement is summarized in several other
chapters in this book.

The community group evolved with Rogers’ expanding interests.
Rogers more expanded interests and efforts evolved from his
interest in individual psychotherapy (1940’s & 1950’s) to the
Basic Encounter Group (the term applied to client-centered
encounter groups; 1960’s; see Chapter 17) of eight to ten
individuals. The term person-centered crystallized in the 1970’s
to denote the application of the principles of client-centered
therapy to areas other than psychotherapy. Rogers and his
colleagues started to experiment with the concept of large
community groups of fifty to three-hundred or more individuals
(Rogers, 1977). This experiment increasingly involved more and
more individuals from different cultures and eventually led to an
emphasis on cross-cultural groups often represented by twenty
or more nationalities. The work of Chuck Devonshire (1991) in
developing client-centered training programs in Europe added to
the focus on cross-cultural groups. Eventually, the cross-cultural
groups provided Rogers with a foundation in which to attempt
workshops focusing on client-centered principles for societal
change. One of his major intentions was to assist with the
diminishing of international tensions among nations. John K.
Wood (1984; 1994a; 1994b) has pointed to some of the difficulties
in such groups including the difficulty of operating in the way
that Rogers proposed. I have been told that in 1987, Rogers was
recognized for this societal effort by being one of the individuals
nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Ironically, when he
received this nomination he was in a coma preceding his death.

Some Features

The person-centered community group usually refers to a group
of thirty to three hundred individuals who meet for three days to
two weeks in a psychological atmosphere founded upon the
principles of the person-centered approach. The setting is
generally one in which participants will have contacts in their
daily activities including dormitory rooms with shared baths,
cafeteria meals, and facilities which offer opportunities for
participants to meet each other. There are generally small
groups, topic groups, paper presentations, experiential activities
such as expressive therapy; and recreational activities. These
may or may not be structured prior to the meeting. They often
develop from the large group community meeting. It is the large
group meeting of all participants that might be described as the
one major activity of person-centered community groups. The
large group involves the meeting of all workshop participants
who choose to attend a ‘nondirective’ meeting. There are
facilitators who are dedicated to the principles of the approach
and who have previously experienced such groups. These
facilitators presume various responsibilities depending upon the
particular facilitators. However, they are for the most part willing
to go with the direction and pace of the group.

In such groups, there are usually periods of silence, anger,
attempts to organize, criticism of the facilitators and expression
of various emotions as well as, at times, long dialogues by
participants. In the case of cross-cultural workshops, the verbal
communications are translated into one or two languages.
Personal encounters among individuals and power struggles
among group factions often occur. These large groups usually
meet for three or more hours. They usually meet, at least, once
each day although they have remained as the only agreed upon
meeting of the community in some workshops. The development
of the "formal" activities of the workshop usually emerges from
these meetings.

Person-Centered Theory

This basic premise of person-centered theory is that the human
being moves naturally towards constructive growth and
development of his/her inherent potentialities and that such
growth is fostered by an identifiable, attitudinal environment
created by the attitudes of the therapist. Again, this critical
assumption is repeated in this book as a continuous reminder of
the foundation block of the theory (Rogers, 1980). I have also
periodically stated that the three conditions of congruency,
empathic understanding and unconditional positive regard are
integrally interrelated and functionally necessary and sufficient. I
have concluded from Rogers’ major theoretical statement and his
personality theory that the curative condition in the theory is that
of unconditional positive regard (Bozarth, 1992). Genuineness is
the state of the therapist/facilitator/convener that enables him or
her to experience empathic understanding and unconditional
regard for other individuals. I suggest it is consistent with
Rogers’ statements to conclude that empathic understanding is
the pure vehicle or vessel for communicating unconditional
positive regard. I believe that this idea is basic to Rogers’
general theoretical statement. I think that this schema of the
theory has implications for further consideration of the theory as
related to community groups.

Theory and Application in the Community Group

The person-centered community group can be summarized as
one application of the basic premise of the person-centered
approach; i.e., dedication of facilitators to the natural growth
process of individuals and of the universe. This is the
fundamental theoretical point in the person-centered approach
which is true whether or not the approach is implemented in
individual therapy, The Basic Encounter Group, Person-Centered
Family Therapy, organizations, the community group or any other
human activity (Bozarth, 1991a). Several of the functional
manifestations of facilitators operating on this premise in
community groups are that facilitators (or conveners) entrust
themselves to: (1) Trust ‘group wisdom’ as well as individual
wisdom; (2) Become participants in the group as well as
facilitators; (3) Trust the inherent therapeutic potential of all
members realizing that any particular person may be more
therapeutic with any particular group member than any of the
facilitators; (4) Combine the spontaneous, genuine
responsiveness with their desire and efforts to understand, and
(5) Relinquish control of outcome, direction, or mood (Bozarth,
1988). The following axioms seem to me appropriate for
person-centered community groups:

Axiom 1:

The basic intent of the person-centered approach is to
perpetuate the nature and destiny of humans and, in doing so, to
perpetuate the nature and destiny of the universe. By considering
the actualizing and formative tendencies, this axiom was
developed. The large group exemplifies this axiom in that a
major intent of the facilitator is to create the trusting atmosphere
that promotes both individual growth and the ‘wisdom’ of the

Axiom 2

The primary thrust and abiding intent is to be a genuine person
who attempts to understand and who accepts the world of the
other person from the perspective of that person. It is interesting
that Rogers’ comments on understanding in the community group
suggests the importance of the intention to understand and the
willingness to have no preconceptions of what might occur. He

That’s one of the duties of learning to be truly empathic. You may
not have known that this would occur-or that would crop-up-but
your whole mind-set is a readiness to understand, to try to grasp
what it is that has meaning for the person at this point and that
gets across to the group- that desire to understand. (Rogers,
1975, p. 63)

Axiom 3

Individuals move toward the best growth mode available to them
through their own best process. Another comment of Rogers
relates to this axiom and is reflective of periodic references. He
said, ‘The whole aim is to relinquish any attempt to control the
outcome, to control the direction, to control the mood’
(Rogers,1987, p. 64).

Axiom 4

The infusion of one’s self into the group as a genuine person and
group member helps to facilitate the group. Rogers indicated
specifically that one thing about the facilitator ‘is the need for
genuineness’ (Rogers, 1988, p. 68). Genuineness helped him to
be ‘more one of the group’ (p. 68) and to even help a group realize
‘that I really was experiencing the whole thing with them’ (p. 69).
Maintenance of ‘spontaneity and openness to the
moment-by-moment process of group communication’ (p. 68) was
one way he referred to the intertwining of genuineness and
empathy in the large group.

Axiom 5

There is no pre-supposition of what people will be like, or do, or
become during or after the group experience. One of the
essential points in person-centered theory is that those with
designated ‘leadership roles’, ‘accept what is’ (Rogers, 1987, p.
65). Rogers’ thoughts on this point are relevant here in view of
discussions about facilitator roles. In The Association for The
Development of the person-centered approach newsletter, the
Renaissance, Rogers states:

If you’re going to expect a certain degree of affect-if you expect
that of the process-then that can be artificial. If the degree of
affect is what is comfortable, reasonable, or natural for this
person, this group, then that’s fine (Rogers, 1987, p. 65).

And, more specifically stated: ‘It’s best to be fairly naive or not
full of expectations’ (Rogers, 1987, p. 65).

I believe that these are important fundamental axioms when
considering person-centered community groups.

The Facilitator or Convener

My major conclusions about facilitators in such groups are the
following (Bozarth, 1996):

(1) It is most ideal not to have facilitators;

(2) If there are designated facilitators, they shouldn’t do very
much except be themselves;


(3) That pre-conceived ideas about groups emanating from other
theoretical stances have contaminated person-centered views
and practice in groups as well as in individual therapy (Bozarth,

These conclusions are based upon the theoretical considerations
previously mentioned, Rogers’ comments and my own
observations and experiences.

Some Evolutionary Considerations

More recently, my thinking has been influenced by recent
research, the Warm Spring Workshop experiences, and by
mulling over the theoretical underpinnings of Rogers’ theory of
therapy and interpersonal relationships.

An extensive qualitative study of person-centered community
groups offers some fascinating findings (Stubbs, 1992). First, she
found support for the construct of the actualizing tendency as
the foundation block of the person-centered approach. Her
findings also suggested support for the importance of
participants experiencing genuineness and unconditional
positive regard during the workshops. In addition, the importance
of ‘nondirectivity’ was supported as a basic theoretical premise.
Also of particular interest was the lack of reference and support
for experiencing empathic understanding from others. Likewise,
there were frequent references of interviewees to perceived
facilitators that suggested that the facilitators might have been
viewed as important; however, the importance was non-specific.
That is, there were no common facilitator characteristics or
behaviors that were noted as particularly important.

Mearns (1994) discusses the large unstructured group in relation
to training of person-centered counselors punctuated with the
comment: ‘The release into congruence enhances both the
quality and the quantity of the counselor’s unconditional positive
regard and empathy’ (p. 43). This is in accord with my thoughts
on the nature of the central concept even though I believe it is
more complex due to the intertwining of the conditions (Bozarth,

Although Rogers often discussed the facilitator as the person
who embodies the attitudes, it is the actualizing tendency of the
client that is the foundation block of the theory. This is the
natural motivational force of each individual of ‘ . . .a tendency
toward fulfillment, toward actualization, involving not only
maintenance but also the enhancement of the organism’ (Rogers,
1980, p. 123). He continues to say that humans are always doing
the best they can with a ‘ . . .flow of movement toward
constructive fulfillment of its inherent possibilities’ (p. 117). The
bottom line is explicit in Rogers’ theory; that is, it is the client
who has the capacities and inner resources. The climate of
unconditional positive regard enables individuals to develop their
own unconditional positive self esteem freeing them from the
interjections of conditional regard by society (Bozarth, 1993).

Some learnings from the Warm Springs Workshops

The first Person-Centered Workshop at Warm Springs, Georgia
took place in 1987. Carl Rogers had died just a week before. The
idea of an ongoing workshop was initiated at the first meeting of
the Associatin for the Development of the Person-Centered
Approach (ADPCA) in Chicago. The facilitators who were involved
were: Barbara Brodley, Chuck Devonshire, Nat Raskin, Dave
Spahn, Fred Zimring and myself.

These individuals were identified as staff on the brochure and
had somewhat varying ideas of what it meant to facilitate a
person-centered group. A core of students acquainted with
person-centered principles from the University of Georgia was
quite actively involved in creating the psychological environment
of the workshop. Warm Springs is the name of the Georgia town
in which the Little White House existed during the administration
of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt spent much of the
year at the center where he was close to treatment resources for
polio. This historical site seems appropriate for the
person-centered workshops.

Over the twelve meetings through 1998, there was a shift
towards not identifying staff or facilitators. This took place to the
point that only my name was on the 1996, 1997 & 1998
brochures as the person to whom to send registration forms.
Only Dave Spahn, Nat Raskin and myself who had been
designated conveners of the 1987 workshop attended the 1997
and 1998 meetings. There were, however, other participants who
had attended most of the workshops. The first seven workshops
were held for four days while the 1995 and 1996 years were
seven days. The 1997 workshop was changed from a seven-day
workshop to a three-day workshop due to low enrollment in the
first session. Attendance was always mobile and fluid. There
were always some individuals who came for only a part of a day
and some who came, left and returned. There has always been a
structure on the brochure that included the community group,
topic groups and small groups. However, the schedule was
seldom adhered to in any structured way. The community
meeting was the core site of scheduling. I will mention some of
my observations about this experience. These observations are:

1. The event was in large part emergent. That is, there was
virtually no planning and little conventional organization.

2. Although there were no designated facilitators, some
individuals assumed that there were and, as well, identified other
participants as facilitators. A few people assumed that the
student coordinator and myself were the facilitators. Others
assumed prominent individuals were the facilitators. That is,
varying participants chose to perceive varying individuals as the
designated facilitators (A point consistent with Stubbs’ findings).

3. There were often statements at the end of the workshops that
the experience had ‘ . . . changed my life . . . ‘; ‘ . . . been an
exceptional experience . . . ‘; ‘ . . .will have a major impact on my
life . . .’ There were also some who complained that the group
should have been different but who continued to come back year
after year. About half of the participants never return for reasons
which vary dramatically. In addition, There were wide varieties
of perception of the event itself from those who attended. After
one workshop, I heard a range of explanations to others by
participants that included: ‘ . . .It was a big party’; ‘ . . .It was
group therapy . . .’; ‘ . . .great intellectual experience . . .’; ‘ . . .it
was a family reunion. . .’ ; ‘ . . . it was so terribly intense. . .’

4. I periodically thought that the 1994, 1995 and 1996 workshops
verged on the edge of being laissez-faire. I personally became a
bit concerned. Several times, only a couple of individuals of the
community came for the scheduled community meetings. Yet,
the community group at the end of the workshop was one that
reflected cohesion and individual satisfaction.

5. Considerable dissatisfaction was expressed during the 1995
workshop when I did not go to one of the community meetings. It
was reported that the group was leaderlessly walking the
grounds looking for me. One person was ready to leave and
another wanted a refund of her registration fee. The concerned
group met for the entire night and the next day had changed their
view to that of having had a very positive workshop experience.

I have reached the conclusion from the Warm Springs experience
that designated facilitators, workshop format, or the presence or
absence of particular individuals are of little relevance. When
people feel fundamentally free to be who they are at the moment,
they move in constructive directions. And that it is often in the
struggle that they find freedom and growth. The relevant
question to ask might be: "How is that atmosphere created’? The
general answer is ‘ . . .to be free to be themselves."

Coulson’s comment on encounter groups is, perhaps, relevant in
terms of the role of the designated facilitator in the community
groups. He suggested that the necessary and sufficient
conditions for encounter is that there be an occasion for it. The
major characteristic is to have the time for it in an unstructured
situation. Coulson (1970) specifically states:

This occasion, this sole necessary and sufficient condition of the
encounter, is one of stopping the action long enough for people
really to come to see one another, for them gradually to have
with one another the things which are so simple--to weep, to be
held, to be loved-that people ordinarily are too embarrassed to
mention them (p. 10).

Coulson suggests, though, that people need permission to talk
differently from the way they talk in ordinary social discourse.
Hence, individuals who have been in previous encounter
experiences, or ‘ . . .permission-giving facilitators can help
individuals to not ‘ . . .while away the time chit-chatting, vying for
leadership, or in other ways avoiding honest expression (p. 10).
As to the role of the facilitator:

. . .But put a facilitator in the room, imply that s/he knows what
he’s doing and then suggest to him that s/he not do anything,
except perhaps to gently express his/her own feeling from time
to time, and this assignment of leadership will both prevent
people from wasting time with such social maneuvers as
contending over leadership them-selves, and also give them
sufficient permission to speak honestly. People need an excuse
at first to speak honestly, and the mere presence of an ‘expert’
can be sufficient excuse- he (she) doesn’t have to do anything
special (Coulson, 1970, p.10).

Although Coulson is referring to the Basic Encounter Group, he
also echoes the role for conveners in the community groups.
Coulson’s observations resonate to the importance of the
nondirectivity and lack of interference. The important aspect of
group facilitation is that an atmosphere exists where individuals
are free to be themselves while overall experiencing themselves
as being unconditionally accepted by someone. In therapy,
Rogers hypothesized that individuals’ adaptation of unconditional
positive regard for themselves is related to experiencing such
regard from the therapist as a significant other. In groups, there
is no particular reason that the significant other should be the
facilitator. In fact, when freedom in the community exists, there
are many significant others accepting any given individual.

Recent Research Findings

As mentioned above, an extensive well designed qualitative
research study of person-centered community groups offers
some considerations for theory and practice of the
person-centered approach in community groups (Stubbs, 1992). A
more detailed look at Stubbs’ study is revealing. She used
heuristic methodology to study individual experiencing in
person-centered community workshops. She interviewed fifteen
individuals from nine countries at four person-centered workshop
sites held in Pezinok, Czechoslovakia; Coffeyville, Kansas;
Stirling, Scotland; and Modra Harmonia, Czechoslovakia. The
range of participants in the groups was from sixty to three-
hundred-thirty. She summarizes her data analysis in the following

The emergent depictions, portraits, and a synthesized integration
of the data produced a dynamic flowing among four categories:
(1) The individual factors of personal influencing including the
dimensions of identity and societal influencing; (2) The
community factors of power and diversity; (3) Struggling depicted
as organizing, dividing, and communicating; and (4) Freeing
characterized by accepting, belonging, experiencing,
empowering, and trusting. These four categories are interactive
with each category flowing into the core category of evolving.
The findings of the study indicate a process of individuals
evolving and through that evolving experiencing struggling and
freeing. Within this struggling, the individual synthesizes his or
her own personal boundaries with the boundaries of community.
(p. 2 abstract)

As referred to earlier, the results of her study supports the
construct of the actualizing tendency as the foundation block of
the person-centered approach in community groups. Her findings
also suggest support for the importance of participants
experiencing genuineness and unconditional positive regard from
other group members. In addition, the importance of
‘nondirectivity’ was supported as an important theoretical
premise. Also of particular interest was the lack of reference and
support for experiencing the construct of empathic
understanding from others. Likewise, the frequent reference of
interviewees to facilitators indicated an importance of the
facilitators; however, the importance was non-specific. There
were no common facilitator characteristics or behaviors that
were noted as particularly important. In addition, the importance
of personal contact was present as was support for the idea that
the group is a microcosm of society.

Implications of theory, research, axioms and practice

The implications are, simply put, that individuals who can
experience the freedom ‘to be who they are’ (unconditional
positive regard) can find themselves becoming freer to
experience growth (actualizing tendency). Facilitators/conveners
create this freeing atmosphere by trusting the process (hence,
acting in ways that promote that freedom), not interfering with
struggles, accepting each individual in his or her right as a
human being and by being open to whatever outcome might
occur. This is the essence of the atmosphere and the role of the
convener to promote such an atmosphere in person-centered
community groups.

Adapted paper presentations from:

Bozarth, J.D. (1992, August). The person-centered community
group. A paper presented at the America Psychological
Association symposium, Contributions of client-centered therapy
to American psychology's 100 years. Chaired by Ned Gaylin,
Washington D.C.


Bozarth, J. D. (1995, May). Designated facilitators; Unnecessary
and insufficient. A paper presented at the national conference for
the Association of the Development of the Person-Centered
Approach, Tampa, FL.