Key Strategy for the Development

of a Person-Centred Paradigm of Counselling/Psychotherapy--and Beyond

(Person Centred Practice, 1996, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 12-18).

Ivan Ellingham


A Bare-Faced Proposition

            In a recent article I had the ‘bare-faced’ effrontery to propose that ‘it is the person-centred framework of thought...that is set to provide a more adequate base on which to ground a paradigm for the field of c/p [counselling/psychotherapy[1]]’ (Ellingham, 1995, p. 4). I am not alone in holding such a view. After I had made the same proposal in an earlier paper, Brian Thorne wrote: ‘With Ellingham I happen to believe that it is the person-centred approach engendered by Carl Rogers...which has the potential to be developed into a paradigm for the field [of c/p] as a whole’ (1992, p. 247).

            In the present article, following further discussion of the issue of the development of a paradigm for the field of  c/p, I outline a strategy by which I believe the paradigmatic potential of the person-centred approach can be realized. In part I, having explained the notion of a paradigm once more, I highlight the current paradigm-less condition of the field of c/p before briefly examining the views of individuals who believe that the development of a paradigm for the field of c/ is an unreal expectation. In part II, I point up how the question of developing a paradigm for the field of c/p cannot be divorced from that of generating a paradigm for the domain of psychology as a whole. In part III, following comment on the importance of key ideas for the development of scientific paradigms, I lay claim that central to the person-centred framework of thought is an idea capable of serving as the key idea for a genuine paradigm of c/p, an idea which because it has been employed by non-person-centred theorists can be honed and refined to form the foundation stone of such a paradigm.

 In part IV, I identify this idea and provide a skeletal description of the strategy by which, on the basis of the person-centred formulation of this key idea and the ideas ancillary to it, real progress can be made towards the development of a person-centred paradigm of c/p.


I. Naked Without a Paradigm

            Leaving aside the much discussed issue of whether c/p is an art or a science, certainly the great pioneers in the field of c/p--ranging from Freud to Jung to Rogers to Skinner--have been bent on developing scientific understanding of how it is that ‘formal talking-centred treatments’ enable individuals to overcome their psychological problems.

            Bent these pioneers may have been, but the extent to which members of the field of c/p are currently in possession of scientific understanding regarding their professional activities is highly questionable. For, as spelled out by Thomas Kuhn especially (Kuhn, 1970), scientific understanding only properly exists where members of a field of human endeavour are jointly committed to a unitary scheme of thought--committed, that is, to a ‘paradigm’ by which they define their science’s legitimate subject matter and methodological procedures.  Within the field of c/p, far from being intellectually bonded by a paradigm, members display instead entrenched rivalries and deep divergences of theoretical understanding: to such an extent, according to Cecil Patterson, that


[a]s a person immerses himself or herself in the study of the dozens of theories and approaches to counselling or psychotherapy, he or she...develops the feeling of being in a jungle. Differences, inconsistencies, and contradictions appear at all levels, from philosophy to techniques. (1986, p. 532)


            Confronted, therefore, by a field which Hans Eysenck colourfully describes as a ‘mish-mash of theories, a hugger mugger of procedures, [and] a galimaufry of therapies’ (1970, p. 145), various commentators advance the view, either explicitly or implicitly, that scientific understanding of c/p in the Kuhnian sense represents an impossible dream--Freud, Jung, Rogers, Skinner, and many others, were victims, so the claim goes, of a futureless illusion.

            Take, for instance, the way in which the authors of ‘The Counsellor’s Handbook’ (1994) handle the task of providing a succinct definition of ‘counselling’. Aware of differing approaches to ‘defining "counselling”’, they plump for what is termed ‘an integrative process model’ (p. 35). That such a model is more mish-mash, than truly integrative and hence more scientific, is made only too plain however when the authors openly confess that one of the key assumptions on which the model is based is the premise ‘that people are too complex to be explained by any one theory (ibid., my emphasis).

            Another commentator who takes a similar line is John McLeod. ‘Counselling’, avers McLeod in his generally excellent ‘An Introduction to Counselling’ (1993),


is in many respects an unusual area of study in that it encompasses a set of strongly competing theoretical disciplines. The field of counselling and psychotherapy represents a synthesis [my emphasis] of ideas from science, philosophy, religion and the arts. It is an interdisciplinary area that cannot be incorporated or subsumed into any one of its constituent disciplines. An approach to counselling which was, for instance, purely scientific or purely religious in nature would soon be seen not to be counselling at all, in its denial of key areas of client and practitioner experience. (pp. 7-8)


            As with the authors of ‘The Counsellor’s Handbook’, McLeod appears to believe it possible to have a ‘synthesis’ or ‘integration’ of ideas in the presence of competing theories--a logically puzzling notion if, like me, you consider it proper to define a theory as a ‘synthesis’ or ‘integration’ of ideas. Aside from which,  McLeod, on a more fundamental level, looks to be suggesting that what for common-sense are disparate aspects of human mental functioning--scientific, philosophical, religious and artistic thought--can never be understood in terms of a single scientific paradigm, a single scheme of mind. This issue of an integral relationship between the development of a paradigm of c/p and that of a paradigm of all aspects of human mental functioning,  is a topic I now address.


II. Family Nudity      

            An interesting connection between John McLeod and the authors of  ‘The Counsellor’s Handbook’, a connection which I believe applies to many who are critical of the possibility of the development of a paradigm of c/p, is that they like him share a background in academic psychology. With this academic discipline generally defined as ‘the science of human behaviour and experience’ and with members of the field of c/p concerned with generating scientific understanding of a portion of such behaviour and experience, the field of c/p can fairly be said to be a sub-field of the domain of psychology as a whole--which makes it perfectly comprehensible why the generation of scientific understanding of the phenomenon of c/p should be considered the special preserve of psychologists.

            So far so good. The problem arises though when, wearing Kuhnian spectacles, we take a closer look at the nature of the discipline of psychology, per se. What we discover when we subject this overarching discipline to such an inspection is that as a science its Kuhnian credibility too is sorely lacking (cf. Kuhn, p. 160 & Gross, 1992, p. 26); and indeed that the entrenched rivalries and theoretical divergences of its daughter discipline of c/p have their roots in the disparity of ideational perspectives intrinsic to the parent (viz., the physiological, cognitive, behavioural, developmental, humanistic, and psychodynamic psychological perspectives). In spite of such theoretical divisions, the discipline of  psychology is nevertheless mainly marketed as a ‘science’--its status as such having initially been proclaimed not much more than a hundred years ago. Standard introductory psychology textbooks invariably tag the discipline a ‘science’, even as they demarcate and individually elaborate the various theoretical approaches which go to make it up.

            In general, therefore, psychologists are schooled (a) to gloss over the scientific significance of the diversity of theoretical perspectives within their discipline, scientific knowledge assumed to be being generated even so; (b) to make sense of their subject matter from within the conceptual straitjacket of a particular perspective.

            Thanks to such schooling psychologists are not in the habit of  developing cross connections between their own ideas and those of members of other schools; nor do they find it easy to entertain alternative interpretations of  the significance of  their work; whilst most extremely, the idea that it is ‘in principle possible to create a universally acceptable framework of human behaviour [and experience]’ (McLeod, 1993, p. 99),  i.e. a scientific paradigm of psychology, tends to be beyond their comprehension, if not literally inconceivable.

            It is this malady of ‘psychologist tunnel vision’ that appears to infect  McLeod’s discussion of the nature of c/p. When he affirms that ‘the field of counselling and psychotherapy is currently involved in an important debate’ over issues related to extending the scope of individual theories and of combining those which are different, McLeod rightly, in my view, links this debate to the issue which confronts the discipline of psychology as a whole: that of whether the creation of a paradigm, ‘a universally acceptable framework’,  of human behaviour and experience is ‘even in principle possible’ (ibid.). However, if we accept such a linkage, it is vital, as far as I am concerned, that we be clear concerning its implications. For if we say, as McLeod implies, that the field of c/p can never possess a paradigm on the grounds that it ‘represents a synthesis [better ‘mish-mash’] of ideas from science, philosophy, religion, and the arts’ (ibid. p. 7), we need to be mindful that what is true for the daughter discipline of c/p is just as true for the parent domain of  psychology--given that the daughter is part and parcel of the parent, that the field of c/p is a sub-field of psychology. In short, therefore, if we support McLeod’s position, we assert that both the field of c/p and the overall domain of psychology will for ever remain quasi-religious realms made up of rival and competing schools or ‘cults’, a state of affairs in which, with no paradigm, there is no accepted yardstick for judging whether one school’s ideas, explanations and therapeutic procedures are in any way better than another’s.

            In contrast to such a viewpoint, it is my belief that both with reference to the field of c/p and to the domain of psychology as a whole, it is possible to develop a paradigm generative of genuine scientific understanding. It is also my belief that such a paradigm can be developed on the basis of the current framework of ideas of  the person-centred approach. I move on now to consider how this might be done.


III. The Bare Essential

            In their best selling ‘Person-Centred Counselling in Action’ (1988), Dave Mearns and Brian Thorne concede that ‘[i]n some academic quarters the person-centred approach to counselling currently receives scant attention’ (p. 5). They postulate that one of the reasons for this is because the approach ‘travels light as far as theoretical concepts are concerned’ (ibid.)--a judgement underlined by McLeod who, in contrasting the person-centred and psychodynamic approaches to c/p, makes the point that ‘[c]ompared to the massive edifice of psychodynamic theory, the conceptual apparatus of the person-centred approach is an insubstantial scaffolding’ (1993, p. 67).

            Such charges of lightness and insubstantiality can, I admit, freely be granted with respect to the present framework of person-centred thought; not so much, though, apropos the quality of the concepts involved, but rather in relation to their quantity. Here the point is not how many notions currently make up the total theoretical edifice (on such a basis, the person-centred framework is certainly heavily outscored by the psychodynamic); but rather the power and fecundity of the key concepts on which that edifice is based. For, as Susanne Langer emphasizes, we should think of  ‘the sciences’ as ‘born under quite special conditions--when their key concepts reach a degree of abstraction and precision which makes them adequate to the demands of exact, powerful and microscopically analytic thinking’ (1962, p. 13). ‘Newton’s concept of gravity’, she elucidates, ‘was such a concept; so was the concept of evolution which Darwin’s Origin of Species sprang upon the world (though he was not the sole originator) to transform the whole study of natural history from pure taxonomy into a science of biology’ (ibid.). It is ‘generative’ ideas of this kind which foster a new paradigm, ‘the reconception of facts under a new abstractive principle, in a new intellectual projection’, and so bring into being ‘a young, exciting, it may be blundering, science’ (ibid.)--although at first admittedly the new conception of facts, the new world-view, is likely to be comprehended in only a dim and diffuse fashion. Nevertheless, as a paradigm’s central and generative idea becomes increasingly honed and refined and as those ideas which are its offshoots are further elaborated, so the vision projected becomes ever more sharply focused and clearly determined.

            With respect, therefore, to the development of a person-centred paradigm of c/p, even of psychology itself, my basic claim is this: that at the heart of the person-centred theoretical framework lies an idea so defined as to be capable of  serving as the nub and generative source of such a paradigm. My further claim is that given that Rogers and other person-centred theorists are not alone in seeking to make sense of the world on such a basis, the quality of the present framework of thought of the person-centred approach, and ipso facto the sharpness and scope of the vision it promotes, can be enhanced by fusing and interweaving the person-centred formulation of such a visionary idea with the comparable formulations of others.


IV. Clothing the Scantily Clad

            The idea central to the person-centred framework of  thought which in my view is capable of serving as the generative source of a future paradigm of c/p, and beyond to psychology itself, is the notion of ‘growth’. Evident in Rogers’ writings throughout his life is ‘an almost religious reverence for growth’ (Van Belle, 1990, p. 47), a notion whose definition in Rogerian/person-centred terms seats it at the heart of a world-vision variously labelled ‘holistic’, ‘organismic’ or ‘process’. In an academic career devoted to scientific understanding of c/p, Rogers early posited that,


Therapy is not a matter of doing something to the individual, or of inducing him to do something about himself. It is instead a matter of freeing him for normal growth and development. (1942, p. 29)


            Seeking to specify the character of such ‘growth’ more precisely, Rogers initially drew parallels between psychotherapeutic ‘growth’ and the growth of all living organisms (particularly plants); thereafter between psychotherapeutic ‘growth’, the growth of living organisms and the evolutionary ‘growth’ of the universe as a whole (cf. Rogers 1980, chpt. 6). Thus, just as Newton apprehended an analogous relationship (i.e. a common logical pattern) exhibited in the motion of  ‘heavenly’ and earthly bodies, so Rogers discerned a common pattern in the self- ‘growth’ of counselling client, the growth of living organisms, and the evolution of the universe. However, whereas Newton formulated a single concept, the concept of gravity, to define the character of  the analogous relationship he had detected, Rogers came to deploy two interrelated concepts to define his: the common growth pattern shared by the counselling client and all living organisms he characterized in terms of  ‘the actualizing tendency’; that shared by counselling client, living organisms and the universe as a whole he conceived to be the expression of  ‘the formative tendency’--the actualizing tendency being part and parcel of  the formative tendency (cf. Rogers, 1980, pp. 118 & 124). According to Rogers, then, these two hypothetical concepts, specifically the formative tendency, are what ‘definitely forms a base for the person-centered approach’,  and possibly ‘could be a base upon which we could begin to build a theory for humanistic psychology’ (ibid., p. 133).

            In identifying the origin of these concepts, Rogers freely acknowledges that not only is  his conception of the actualizing tendency influenced by the views of others (e.g. Andras Angyal, Kurt Goldstein and Abraham Maslow, Albert Szent-Gyoergi), but so too is his conception of the formative tendency (e.g. Albert Szent-Gyoergi & Lancelot Whyte--ibid. pp. 119 & 124). In addition Rogers points up connections between his two basic concepts and the formulations of both Jan Smuts (1926),  the philosopher of ‘holism’  and Alfred North Whitehead, the individual who has provided the most definitive expression of  ‘organismic’ or ‘process’ philosophy (ibid. pp. 113 & 132; cf. Emmet, 1966 & Scruton, 1994, pp. 371ff.).

            Thus, in that person-centred theory and its conceptualization of ‘growth’ constitute but one of a number of concordant attempts at making sense of reality--all of which share a ‘holistic/organismic/process’ world-vision (‘field theory’, ‘systems theory’ and ‘deep ecology’ are other terms employed)--I would propose the following three-pronged strategy as a means to further developing the present framework of person-centred thought and so realizing its paradigmatic potential. Overall this strategy  involves comparing and interrelating person-centred ideas with ideas formulated by individuals who although not specifically identified with person-centred thought nevertheless espouse the same underlying philosophical world-view. The strategy thus involves: 

            (1) defining further and with greater precision and abstractness the logical pattern of the central notion of growth.

            (2) examining the ideas in person-centred theory ancillary to the notion of growth and considering their relative merits with respect to comparable ideas of non-person-centred theorists--this with a view to (a) reaffirming the present worth of individual person-centred ideas; (b) enriching other person-centred ideas by linking them to non-person-centred ones; (c) replacing certain person-centred ideas with those developed by a non-person-centred thinker.

            (3) applying ideas of non-person-centred thinkers in areas where person-centred thought has not previously ventured.

            By means of this three-prong strategy, I believe, real progress can be made towards the development of a person-centred paradigm for the field of c/p, even for the discipline of psychology as a whole. It is a strategy I have already attempted to implement  (cf. Ellingham, 1992, 1995), a strategy I aim to pursue further in future articles.



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Ellingham, I. H. (1995) ‘Quest for a paradigm: person-centred counselling/psychotherapy versus psychodynamic counselling and psychotherapy’. Counselling, Vol. 6, No. 4, pp. 288-290.

Ellingham, I. H. (1996) ‘On the quest for a person-centred paradigm’. Counselling, Vol. 8. No. 1, pp. 52-55.

Eysenck, H. J. (1970) ‘A mish-mash of theories’. International Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 9, pp. 140-146.

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Rogers, C. R. (1942) Counseling and Psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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Smuts, J. C. (1926) Holism and Evolution. New York: Viking Press (1961).

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Van Belle, H. (1990) ‘Rogers’ later move toward mysticism: implications for client-centered therapy’, in G. Lietaer, J. Rombauts, and R. Van Balen, eds Client-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapy in the Nineties. Leuven: Leuven University Press, pp. 47-57.


[1]  In the present article, in line with the person-centred view that the terms ‘counselling’ and ‘psychotherapy’ refer to the same phenomenon, I employ the double-barrelled term ‘counselling/psychotherapy’, ‘c/p’ for short.