Person Centred Theory in Social Work Practice

When a social worker encounters a service user they have a fundamental choice of approach. A social worker can either choose to be person-centred, or they can choose not to be person-centred. When a person approaches a social worker the social worker may choose to see the person as a problem to be solved, a customer to be served, a target to be met. A social worker may listen very careful to the service user in order to learn what they need to know to solve the problem, to give them what they want, or to meet the targets of the service. Each of these might lead to efficient and effective social work practice, but not to person-centred practice.

A social worker using person-centred theory will also approach a service user first and foremost as a human being of infinite value, worth and potential. They will seek first not to fix them but to understand and accept them. In this context a social worker will listen actively to what the service user says in order to see and feel what life is like for the service user.

One of the most powerful applications of person-centred theory to social work practice is the separation of the person from their behaviour. Person Centred theory does not mean that we have to accept what people do. We can still be clear that certain types of behaviour, behaviours that have a harmful effect upon others, are wrong or bad. The key point from the theory is that a person does not become bad because they have done bad things.

When applying person centred theory in social work practice the start point is the equal value and worth of all human beings.  The person who has abused a child is not of less value or worth than the child that they have abused. Both are equally in need of being met by a social worker who will treat them as a human being. This is far from easy to do in practice as it is normal to have strong feelings about behaviour that offends our sense of morality.

Rogers’ ‘necessary and sufficient conditions’ can be extremely helpful. When Rogers says that the worker must be congruent and integrated in the relationship this implies a high degree of honesty. This means that a social worker can express their feelings about a particular piece of behaviour, for example to say, “I know what you have done, and I don’t agree with it and I do feel uncomfortable when I think about it.” However they can then add something like, “However I think none of us should be judged by our behaviour and that what you did is not the whole story of who you are as a person.”

From a person centred perspective this is not simply a technique, but a genuine held belief. It can only be done well when you are sure you do separate people from their behaviour. If it is just words without belief then most service users will see the words as fake and react with due contempt for the worker who says them. However if you believe all humans deserve equal worth and respect and communicate this with integrity and empathy most service users will be grateful for your honesty.

Some may object to this honesty; concerned that it will hurt the service user’s feelings. This however shows a lack of understanding of the person centred theory. If you think you have to hide your feelings from the service user (and if you believe that most service users will not be fully aware of the fact that you are hiding them) you cannot have a genuine person centred encounter with a service user.

In many ways the skill in using person centred theory is to know when and how to share your feelings, not whether to share them. A purposeful use of self to model respectful acceptance is a powerful person-centred tool. However it is easy to share your feelings with a service user in ways that serve your needs, not the service user’s needs.

As stated earlier, Person Centred Theory rejects the idea of identifying an individual with a single aspect of their experience. This means that words and phrases such as “the elderly”, “a bully” or “an anorexic” are not acceptable. This is not a case of being ‘politically correct’. It is simply that these words take a facet of the person, their age, their behaviour, their medical diagnosis and use this to label the person. According to the Person-Centred theory when working with some diagnosed with schizophrenia or manic depressive there is a huge difference between seeing them as a unique individual who experiences the world in their own way and seeing them as ‘a schizophrenic’ or ‘a manic-depressive.’

So a person centred approach to social work practice means to see the individual as a person of value and worth in their own right. It means accepting that whatever the person experiences is true and valid for them. It means actively seeking to place yourself in their place without losing sight of your own individuality and sense of the world.

It is quite possible to do all of this whilst still challenging a person’s behaviour. It is possible to use a person centred theory base even when you are saying that someone cannot adequately care for their children or needs to be detained in hospital against their will. To be person-centred is not to deny that a person’s behaviour has consequences, or to fail to follow through on the consequences of a person’s choices. It does mean that even when doing so you never lose sight of the potential, worth, dignity and value of the person. You never treat them in a lesser way because of their behaviour.

In many ways Person Centred Theory is more about a statement of values then a specific scientific approach to our work. It is also an approach that is much more espoused in theory than delivered in practice.

What it’s not

 Person Centred theory is not the same as active listening. Whilst active listening can help you treat others with respect and can help you see the potential in them it is also possible to actively listen without using a person centred approach. In fact some of the best active listeners on the planet are expert sales staff. Being able to see the world from someone else’s point of view is incredibly helpful if you want to persuade them to do something that is in your interest.

It is quite possible to actively listen in a Person-Centred way or in a self-centred way. It is possible to use the technique of active listening without having a genuine unconditional positive regard for the other person. It is therefore important when we claim to be using a Person Centred Approach that we are using the core elements of the theory and not simply applying a few of the more superficial techniques that come from the theory.

Mearns and Thorne, leading writers in the field of Person Centred counselling have identified how dangerous this lack of a solid understanding of Person-Centred theory is in practice. They comment that “many practitioners with inadequate or even minimal understanding were prepared to label themselves ‘person-centred’, bringing the approach into disrepute by their superficial, muddled or misguidedly anarchic practice, which had not solid foundation in genuine person-centred theory.” (Mearns and Thorne 2007, p2-3)


A second thing that can be confused with Person Centred theory is Person Centred Planning. This is defined as “a way of discovering what people want, the support they need and how they can get it. . . . . that assists people in leading an independent and inclusive life.” (DoH, 2010, p3) While this is consistent with Person Centred theory, it is not the same as Person Centred theory. It is possible to carry out Person Centred Planning in a managerial way. It is possible to engage in the process of Person Centred Planning without having a deep regard for the person. This does not necessarily mean it will be bad practice. Sometimes an effective and efficient response achieves goals more quickly that a more person centred approach. Despite this it is important to understand that just because an approach has ‘person centred’ in the title does not mean that it will be automatically use all, or even most, of the things from Person Centred theory.

Finally, being person centred does not mean putting the person at the centre of the process. If you put the person at the centre of the process, but you fail to recognise the person as a unique person with a fully valid experience of life you will not be being person centred.

Theory Checklist

Do you believe that all people have an innate potential to be the best they can possibly be?

Do you believe that all people have the same inherent worth and value, without regard for their past behaviour or any other characteristic?

When talking with a service user do you seek to understand fully how they experience their life circumstances?

Do you actively seek to communicate the belief in people’s innate potential and worth, and your empathic understanding of their lived experience?

When you engage with service users are you conscious of being emotionally honest and genuine?

Unless you can say ‘yes’ to all these questions you are not using Person Centred theory, regardless of what other techniques and approaches you use.

Critique of the theory

Many people do not accept the idea of an inherently good human nature. Those who are influenced by evolutionary psychologists (such Steven Pinker) see human nature as being driven by competing demands. Whilst altruism, love and integrity are part of human nature, so is selfishness, hate and lying. In general how humans behave owes more to what will meet their self interest (as they perceive it) than it does to any innate sense of goodness.

If a social worker sticks overly rigidly to a Person Centred approach they may fail to challenge a person when challenge is required. Instead of seeing the person as inherently positive a worker may begin to see all aspects of the person’s behaviour as positive. This can lead to very serious poor practice. For example in a child protection role a social worker may strive so hard to understand and validate a parent’s experience that they fail to recognise that a parent’s behaviour or view of their child might pose serious risks to a child. Whilst it is true that most parents do love and care for and about their children a significant number do not. Of those there are many who fail to do so in a way that actively harms their child’s well-being. A social worker must never allow a commitment to Person-Centred theory to lead to practice where they ignore the real harm one person can do to another.

It is also possible to critique Person Centred theory from a more political active stance. Whilst Person-Centred theory rejects the idea of identifying people according to an individual characteristic there are strong political reasons for doing this. Feminist theory is largely built upon a collective experience of being a woman. By individualising and personalising women’s experience, by seeing the problems faced by women as a problem of a lack of an authentic sense of self, the oppression of women as a group, by men, as a group, may be down-played or denied completely.

For groups who have been oppressed in society such as women, lesbians and gay men, member of ethnic minority populations, older adults, people with disabilities, working class people, it is worth asking it the problem one of individual authenticity or collective oppression.  Person-Centred theories approach may in effect deny this oppression. Radical action may be helped by identifying the self primarily in terms of a part of your experience. Many consciousness raising approaches require a person to actively embrace a label instead of denying it.

In a similar way Person-Centred theory may be critiqued for having a Euro-centric bias. The model is based upon the individual as a discrete and separate entity, complete and entire in itself. In many cultures in the world this is not how a person is perceived. The concept of Ubuntu can be widely found in African cultures. This is often defined as something like “I am because of who we are.” In many African and Asian cultures the self is seen as far more of a connected, interdependent entity. As a result a worker using a Person-Centred approach cannot assume that someone will share the idea of a self-actualising individual as the model of human nature.

Although there is a danger of a Euro-centric bias it is important to remember that Ubuntu is itself described as a humanistic model. A person using a Person Centred approach may be able to validate and accept another individual’s worldview that includes an inter-connected, interdependent self rather than an isolated, independent self.

Despite these serious problems with Person-Centred theory it remains probably the most significant theory underpinning social work practice. There is a solid body of evidence that workers who work in a Person-Centred build stronger relationships with service users, and that the strength and quality of the relationship is a key factor determining the overall effectiveness of social work practice.

Whilst it may be true that Person-Centred theory has an overly positive view of human nature it seem likely that it is better to treat people in a positive light. The idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy is very powerful here. (Merton, 1968) If you consistently treat someone as a person of value and worth; as someone with many positive qualities, they will often respond to such treatment by becoming the person you believe them to be. The cynics may be right; human nature may be far from the positive thing posited by Person-Centred theory, but the paradox may be that by acting ‘as if’ it is that positive thing individual humans may become much more positive in ways congruent with the goals and roles of social work.

In the same way a Person-Centred approach may be the first step on a journey of overcoming oppression. For example a gay man from a religious background that strongly condemns homosexuality may find the acceptance and respect of a Person-Centred worker a useful first step that leads them to taking a more strongly political position of identity politics.

On balance it is likely that if a social worker fails to operate in a Person-Centred way; fails to respect the unique value and worth of each person, their practice is unlikely to be as effective as it could be. Equally a commitment to fight oppression that fails to be Person-Centred is likely in the end to dehumanise and therefore increase the level of discrimination and oppression. However to be so Person-Centred that we fail to see the level of oppression faced by some individuals as a result of their actual or perceived membership of a particular group or class is also likely to lead to us failing to confront oppression. This is why effective social work practice needs both a Person-Centred approach and an understanding of social systems. It is only by integrating both that social work can really live out its goals of “empowerment and liberation” based upon “principles of human rights and social justice”. (IAASW, 2001)


Part One         Library        Home