Person-Centered International Posted by Jerold Bozarth and
Sam Evans

(March 25, 2000). Paper presentation at the Eastern Psychological Association, Baltimore, Md.

Non-directiveness in client-centered therapy:
A vexed concept

Jerold D. Bozarth

Non-directiveness is often a perplexing concept in psychotherapy and, at times, summarily dismissed as impossible to attain (Bowen, 1996; Kahn, E., 1999; Lietaer, 1998). Carl R. Rogers popularized the term in psychotherapy when he developed a theory of therapy identified as "Non-directive" therapy. The non-directive attitude was adeptly defined by a statement of Raskin which Rogers (1951) summarized:

He (or she) tries to get within and to live the attitudes (of the client) expressed instead of observing them, to catch every nuance of their changing nature; in a word, to absorb himself (or herself) completely in the attitudes of the other. And in struggling to do this, there is simply no room for any other type of counselor activity or attitude; if he (or she) is attempting to live the attitudes of the other, he (or she) cannot be diagnosing them . . . cannot be thinking of making the process go faster (p. 29) Rogers dropped the term after he wrote his book, Client-Centered Therapy (Rogers, 1951). This led to interpretations that client-centered theory evolved from a non-directive theory to an experiential theory (Lietaer, 1990; 1998). Others (Bozarth, 1999; Brodley, 1997; 1999; Merry, 2000; Prouty, 1994; 1999) adhere to the notion that the non-directive approach to psychotherapy is not formalized but " . . . is one of the distinctive features of client-centered therapy" (Brodley, 1999, p. 5).

Rogers was clear that the term, "non-directive", was dropped because it was misunderstood and maligned leading to distortions of the approach. He did not use the term after his book, "client-centered therapy" (Rogers, 1951). He used "non-directive" interchangeably with "client-centered" for a few pages in this book and then dropped the term altogether. Client-centered and non-directive were presented and left as synonymous terms. His view of non-directivity was later clarified by him in an interview with Evans (1975). Evans asked Rogers:

Would you say today that you have perhaps qualified

somewhat this notion of being non-directive? (p. 26)

Rogers replied:

No. I think perhaps I enriched it, but not really qualified

it. I still feel that the person who should guide the client's

life is the client. My whole philosophy and whole approach

is to try to strengthen him in that way of being, that he's in

charge of his own life and nothing that I say is intended to

take that capacity or that opportunity away from him (p. 26).

Non-directivity is defined by Rogers as referring to the central notion that it is the person who should guide her or his own life. In one of his last statements, Rogers (cited in Baldwin, 1987) cited the suitable goals for the therapist as revolving around the question, "Am I really with this person at this moment?" (p. 48). Due to the centrality of the term to the theory, it is important to delineate non-directivity as integrally related to Rogers’ theory. It is not, however, Rogers’ intentions concerning the term that argue for the non-directive component of client-centered/person-centered therapy. It is implicit in the theory! The theory is non-directive!

The Theory of Client-Centered Therapy

The primary axiom of client-centered therapy determines the non-directivity of the approach. The axiom is:

There is an internal force (the actualizing tendency) in each individual which is the motivational force for change. This force is always constructive and directed towards developing the potentialities of the individual. This force is promoted by the therapist’s congruence, and by the client’s perception of the therapist’s experience of unconditional positive regard and empathic understanding of the client’s frame of reference. It is clear from this axiom that there are no directive intentions to instruct, guide or direct in client-centered therapy. Such intentions are antithetical to the theory. The therapist creates an atmosphere of freedom in the client/therapist relationship by embodying the facilitative attitudes and by trusting the natural developmental direction of the client. The client resources for change and healing emerge from this relationship.

My personal conclusion concerning the essence of client-centered therapy is a radical statement of the principle of non-directivity. In examining Rogers’ works and comments, as well as review of his theory, I concluded that the client-centered therapist " . . . can not be up to other things, have other intentions without violating the essence of person-centered therapy. To be up to other things-whatever they might be is a ‘yes, but’ reaction to the essence of the approach" (Bozarth, 1999, p. 11).

Specious Arguments

Perhaps, the status of non-directivity in client-centered therapy should be left as a natural consequence when in compliance with the basic axiom. However, several specious arguments against non-directivity as a viable concept are periodically espoused. Several of these arguments are refuted herein. Most of the critiques of non-directivity in therapy are couched in an implicit pre-conceived view that it is impossible for anyone to operate from this perspective. These critiques of Rogers’ theory dismiss the fundamental assumptions of the approach (actualizing tendency, self-authority and self-directivity of the client) and proceed with criticism from other frames of reference (Bozarth, 1999, p. 4).

Underlying assumptions of critiques

Critiques are usually founded upon the authority of the therapist rather upon the authority of the client. Lietaer’s (1998) work is illustrative of this point. He casts the client-centered therapist in the role of an expert of "the process" (although his argument is based more upon Gendlin’s experiencing theory than Rogers’ client-centered theory) and thus promotes the role of the therapist as "expert". Cain (1986), a vigilant promoter of client-centered therapy, also espouses a position which Grant (1989) identifies as instrumental non-directivity. The crux of "instrumental non-directivity" is that non-directivity is important as long as it is useful; that is, up to the point of determination by the therapist that an "intervention" is needed. I consider this to be a position alien to Rogers’ theory since the locus of control is switched to the therapist. The English definition of intervention is that the therapist will interfere in order to hinder or alter actions or behavior. To Kahn (1999), for example, the therapist’s authority is endorsed with the rationalization that the client is "allowed" to agree or disagree, ignore or confirm the therapists’ input. It is rationalized that the therapist intends the "intervention" only as a suggestion. The question missed by such adherence to interventions in person-centered therapy is: What does one intervene between (Bozarth, 1999, p. 80)? . In person-centered theory, non-directivity is logically deduced from the axiom of the actualizing tendency and by the attitudinal conditions of the therapist.

Directive responsivity

In his critique of non-directivity in client-centered therapy, Kahn (1999) suggests the use of "directive responsivity" by the therapist. He believes that this "may be beneficial" (p.108). His discourse, however, reveals a tapestry of "interventions" which are clearly founded upon the expertise of the therapist. These interventions include those of pointing out life issues with early childhood memory, determining what topics clients are reluctant to bring up, and that of restoring "needed vitality" to clients (p. 108). These examples reflect the dedication to problem oriented psychotherapies and reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of person-centered therapy by casting it as a problem oriented theory.

Therapists can not be consistently non-directive

Maria Bowen (1996), a close friend and colleague of Rogers, suggested that non-directivity is a myth. She focused on Rogers’ verbal responses and supports her argument with examples from Rogers’ demonstration interview with "Jill". Here, she interprets a number of Rogers’ responses as interpretive and directive where I view them simply as the momentary verbal interchanges within the context of non-directivity which are continuously corrected by Rogers staying with the client’s frame of reference. In addition, she interprets some of Rogers’ responses as avoiding the "dark" side and suggests that the general critique of Rogers to avoid the negative comments of the client is a fact. This general conclusion should be put to rest with the empirical investigation of the question, "Did Carl Rogers’ positive view of human nature bias his psychotherapy?" (Bradburn, 1996). She evaluated 25 of Rogers’ therapy interviews to assess the charge of positive bias. Her findings reveal that Rogers did not put a more positive spin on things than did his clients. In fact, he tended to veer more towards responding to the negative than to the positive client statements.

O’Hara (1996), also a close friend and colleague of Rogers, adeptly points out different responses from Rogers that she might make due to their "world view" differences. To me, Bowen and O’Hara bring forth an interesting point concerning non-directivity. That is, "Can non-directivity be determined by response criteria alone?". Their observations suggest to me that non-directivity does not necessarily lie in the particular responses which emanate from the person of the therapist. Rather, non-directivity is the attitude that is predicated upon the self-authority and self-determination of the client without the therapist’s intentions to assist the client with pre-determined directions. Brodley (1999) cuts to the heart of the matter: "The issue is whether we follow the self actualizing, non-directive intent of Rogers’ empathic view, or subscribe to an empathically reduced view of therapy" (p. 10).

Unavoidable Biases

Kahn also argues that theoretical and personal biases are unavoidable, thus, the therapist can not be consistently non-directive. Again, Rogers (1959) was clear that consistent adherence to the conditions did not mean infallible adherence. Therapist fallibility is corrected within the framework of the stance of non-directivity. Reasonable consistency of the conditions offered over a period of time is considered enough to facilitate growth. The facilitative condition of congruence in person-centered therapy involves the constant exploration of the therapist’s subjectivity and consistent correction of the therapist’s "fallibility". Kahn’s point is extended with the assertion that any therapist’s bias will influence the client. This is certainly true when the therapist "is up to other things" other than creating the conditions for growth. But, what if the therapist’s bias is that of non-directivity? For example, my personal and theoretical bias is that therapists should not impose their ideas directly or indirectly on clients. Guidance and direction of individuals rob them of their dignity and their freedom. In short, my very biases are non-directive. The arguments of therapist’s bias tacitly assumes that the bias is directive; hence, the therapist will in some subtle ways influence clients to conform. The logical conclusion from this premise is that non-directivity is an illusion. But if the therapists' bias is non-directive there is no basis for subtle direction of the client. Thus, the logical conclusion is that non-directivity is a fact. Directive bias makes non-directivity impossible. Non-directive bias makes non-directivity possible.


In person-centered theory, particular actions become irrelevant as determinants of directivity or non-directivity. The therapist might interpret, analyze a dream, or even discuss transference. The issue has to do with the extent that these interactions communicate the facilitative conditions. Otherwise, Rogers (1957) considered such actions to be worthless. A client-centered therapist might argue with a client, accompany a client to look for a job, or assist the client to enter a behavior modification program. The issue is not the behavior but whether or not the therapist’s actions emerge from the therapist’s dedication to the client’s frame of reference. The most meaningful question determining person-centered non-directivity is: Does the therapist consistently operate with the facilitative attitudes?

It is not that the therapist should attempt to be non-directive. Rather, the theory of client-centered therapy results in non-directiveness. When the therapist’s only goal is to experience and embody the attitudes central to person-centered theory (Baldwin, 1987, p. 47), the therapist’s behavior is emergent from the frame of reference of the client. The therapist who operates on the premise that the therapeutic conditions are necessary and sufficient is inherently non-directive.

Non-directivity is part and parcel of client-centered theory and practice and, as well, a behavioral result of adhering to the central conditions of client-centered therapy. For those who believe the critical foundation of client-centered theory, i. e., that the client is his or her own best expert about his or her life, non-directivity is a natural stance that emerges from the theory.


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JEROLD D. BOZARTH, PH. D., is Professor Emeritus of The University of Georgia, where his tenure included Chair of the Department of Counseling and Human Development, Director of the Rehabilitation Counseling Program and Director of the Person-Centered Studies Project. He is a consultant for person-centered programs throughout Europe and is author of a recent book, "Person-Centered Therapy: A Revolutionary Paradigm". Dr. Bozarth is currently president of Person-Centered International (, a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of person-centered principles.