The Meaning of Carl Rogers

at the Opening of the 21 st Century


Ruth Sanford


What is the distilled essence of the life and work of Carl Rogers that is relevant to our life as we pause on the threshold of the 21 st century? To answer this question I relived my experience with Carl Rogers the man and reviewed my knowledge of his work. After meditating at length I entered into a deeply empathic process. The words came to me: "power and the use of power." "But," says another voice,

"It is about deep listening with a will to understand. It is about caring and accepting the other as a person as that person is. It is about being real and open. It is about being nonjudgmental in my acceptance of others as persons. It is about a way of being. if

"True," says the first voice, but as Carl stated in On Personal Power "it is personal power, inner power, inner strength, power within rather than power over., It is about the healing power of deep empathic listening, of the extension of caring to the point where it genuinely tries to understand. It is listening to and trusting the power and the efficacy of the self-actualizing tendency at work in all of nature, including the human organism. This tendency can be perverted or damaged but not destroyed as long as the organism is alive. This was substantiated by rigorous research. We have strong evidence that this tendency toward realization of full potential is functional In all aspects of our society by releasing the inner power of the individual.

1 Carl Rogers,Carl Rogers On Personal Power,New York:Delacorte Press, 1977




Extended to the universe it is called the formative tendency. Carl described it in A Way of Being:

We are tapping into a tendency which permeates all of organic life-a tendency to become all the complexity of which the organism is capable. find on an even larger scale, I believe we are tuning in to a potent creative tendency which has formed our universe, from the smallest snowflake to the most gifted of persons. And perhaps we are touching the cutting edge of our ability to transcend ourselves, to create new and more spiritual directions in human evolution. This kind of formulation is, for me, a philosophical base for a person-centered approach.2

If this tendency is working in plants and animals and the human organism, we know it is working in groups and other larger social organisms. Far from being simple and easy, it is probably the most rigorous way of life and of self discipline, the most enacting test of coming to maturity as a fully functioning person.

After writing these preliminary notes, I decided to reread via Talking Books Carl Rogers on Personal Power. I found Carl saying:

I believe that individuals are culturally conditioned, rewarded, reinforced for behaviors that are in fact perversions of the natural directions of the unitary actualizing tendency ... This dissociation that exists in most of us is the pattern and the basis of all psychological pathology in humankind, and the basis of all his social pathology as well.3

2Carl Rogers,fA Way of Being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin,l980,p.134

3 Carl Rogers On Personal Power,pp.247-248


This statement is central to the message of Carl Rogers to the world and it poses a question and a challenge to all of us in the western world. Unfortunately many countries including the United States seem to have adopted in the name of democracy some of the patterns which Carl referred to as perversions. Businesses and large corporations driven by the profit motive, depend on power over others and the power of money.

National governments then in the name of economics tend to yield to the widespread influence of high powered lobbyists representing big corporations with the result that the responsible electorate is sacrificed to the power of corporate money. There is evidence however, that In the United States common citizens are becoming more aware of the displacement of power and are responding actively via the ballot box to choose leaders who will listen to the people and will not be bought.4

We may be reaching a critical point. My research with Bob Barth on the inner process of significant change in the individual found that when individuals reach a critical point they're most likely to change.5

4Limitations in my knowledge of political structure in other countries makes it impossible for me to draw parallels but citizens of other countries can look for similar applications or take initiatives appropriate to their political structure

5The Person-Centered Journal, vol l,no.2,1994,pp.19-37


This finding is in agreement with the contemporary work of researchers in complexity and their findings concerning "the edge of chaos" as well as earlier work on open systems. At that critical point, the organism moves toward self-destruction or to reorganization at a higher, more complex level.6

One important example of shared power helping to bring about such a critical point in US national politics is the emergence of volunteer groups (including Vote Smart) that publicize the voting record of every legislator so that the public is informed systematically of their representatives, enabling the active participation of the American people in the political process. With this Information the voters are better able to inform their legislators of their needs and their wishes and demand accountability of their legislators. Shared power has also been the goal of John Vasconcellos. As a member of the State Assembly of California for thirty years, and founder of the Task Force on Self Esteem, he has had wide influence on the direction of the state budget and legislation, on the openness of contact between the elected official and so-called ordinary citizens.

There is strong evidence that members of the electorate are beginning to rebel against government by lobbies protecting special interests. This is one of the reasons that has led John Vasconcellos to find that Person-Centered Politics is the wave of the future.7

6 Ruth Sanford, "From Rogers to Gleick and Back Again" in Beyond Carl Rogers: Towards a Psychotherapy for the 21 st Century, ed. David Brazier, London: Constable,1993.

7More about John Vasconcellos's program can be found on

his World Wide Web home page (


An increasing number of pro-active citizens are involving themselves in a diversity of causes aiming to increase the freedom and responsibility of the electorate in determining political values and directions, such non-partisan volunteer organizations as Common Cause, Greenpeace, Environmental Defense Fund, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Public Citizen, to name a few.

There has been an improvement in the political and social coverage of national public TV and radio programs who are increasingly relying on public contributions rather than federal funding or corporate money.

South Africa with its "people driven government" or "people's government" is another rich example. Educators, social workers, helping persons in the health care professions are striving together to make their services available to all South Africans.

In contrast to the quote on psychological and social pathology I wish to place a very positive quotation of Carl-s, often repeated, which lies at the core of the client-centered therapy/person-centered approach to relationships:

the individual has within himself vast resources for self-understanding, for altering his self-concept, his attitudes, and his self-directed behavior-and these .resources can be tapped if only a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided.

Carl also quoted Gertrude Stein on Paris, "it is not what Paris gives you; it is what she does not take away". Carl continues:

8Carl Rogers On Personal Power .P. xii



This can be paraphrased to become a definition of the person-centered approach... It is not that this approach gives power to the person; it never takes it away. That such a seemingly innocent base can be so truly revolutionary in its implications may seem surprising. It is, however, the central theme of what I have written."

In the person-centered way of being the therapist does not empower the client, but does not take away the power of the client by controlling, advising, analyzing, interpreting. The therapist trusts the client as another person who can find his/her own way of changing and growing toward realization of his/her potential. The therapist respects and accepts the inner strength of the client.






Rather than empower the student the teacher as facilitator does not take away the student's freedom to be a full

partner in the learning process.

In the marriage relationship each partner respects and shares with the other power and responsibility within the relationship.

The administrator and employer share power and responsibility with employees.

Shared power has already been demonstrated in situations of ethnic, racial, cultural and religious conflict. In the words of Carl Rogers:

small-scale examples exist in abundance to show that improved communication, reduction in hostility, steps toward resolving the tensions are entirely possible and rest upon tried intensive group approaches.9

In politics we're becoming aware of the challenge to extend similarly the sharing of power and responsibility in regional, national, and international politics.

We need not wait for a new millennium or even for tomorrow to experience this "quiet revolution." In Carl Rogers' own words "[the PCA] changes the very nature of psychotherapy , of marriage, of education, of administration, even of politics".

The person-centered approach is available for the use of everyone who has the understanding, the courage, the self discipline, the will, the commitment to use them in whatever field-professional or personal-is his or hers to practice.

These changes indicate that a quiet revolution is already under way. They point to a future of a very different nature, built around a new type of self-empowered person who is emerging. What's most important for the future Is that each person recognize the areas in which they can best function, can best use their talents and abilities, can apply and extend a trust in the self-actualizing tendency, and consciously apply the concepts of the Person-Centered Approach in their own lives everyday with everyone they meet. I want to return to and emphasize the issue of power and the radical implications of sharing power, and more importantly, creating the conditions for our own and each others' power to flourish in personal relationships and endeavours and in all spheres of political and social life.

9 ibid. p.289


In "The World and Person of Tomorrow", Carl said

"The winds of scientific, social and cultural change are blowing strongly. They will envelop us in this new world, this world of tomorrow... Central to this new world will be persons, the persons of tomorrow. This is the person-centered scenario of the future. We may choose it, but whether we choose it or not, it appears that to some degree It is inexorably moving to change our culture. find the changes will be in the direction of more humanness"'10

10 Carl Rogers A Way of Being, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1980,p.356





Barth, Robert Human Science and the Person - Centered

Sanford,Ruth Approach : An Inquiry into the Inner Process of Significant Change within individuals . The Person - Centered Journal, 1 994 vol 1, number 2,9-37

Rogers, Carl Carl Rogers On Personal Power: Inner Strength and Its Revolutionary Impact New York : Delacorte Press, 1977.


Rogers, Carl A Way of Being . Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1980.


Sanford, Ruth From Rogers to Gleick and Back Again : The Theory of the Person - Centered Approach and the Theory of Chaos . in Brazier,David (ed.) Beyond Carl Rogers : Towards a Psychotherapy for the 21 st Century. London : Constable, 1993.