Article Psychotherapy  

Peter F. Schmid

Person-Centred Psychotherapy

Overview, contents, abstract, keywords

Abstract, Keywords

This brief introduction* tries to catch the essentials of a multi-faceted and highly influential approach to psychotherapy and counselling in many respects. After a short overview of its development and the work of its founder Carl R. Rogers the basic principles of its philosophy, theory and practice are outlined. The article is concluded by a succinct description of the World Association for Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapy and Counselling and its goals.**

Person-Centred (also: Client-Centred) Psychotherapy is the best known and most widespread form of Humanistic Psychotherapy in the world. It was founded by Carl Rogers and his colleagues in 1940 in the United States of America.

Its foundation is the view of the human being as a person — hence its name —, i.e. dialectically in their substantial and relational dimensions. Thus it is to be regarded as the practice of an image of the human being which rests on both, their autonomy and their interconnectedness. Its distinguishing characteristics are that it places the experience of client(s) and therapist(s) and the immediate present relationship between them at the centre of attention. Moreover, Person-Centred Therapy tries to locate its ‘work’ as closely as possible to the experience of the client in the present relationship. The experience of the individual is taken seriously without any preconditions as he or she is in the immediate moment. This includes how the person came to be who they are through relationships, what he or she is at the present time, and how the person is able to develop further in the future. The client is trusted to be capable of living his or her life and dealing with their problems using their own personal resources, if they experience a relationship with certain facilitative conditions.

On principle this involves a break with the traditional image and function of the therapist as an expert on the client’s problems. On the contrary, the therapist understands him- or herself as a collaborator and equal partner — developing together with the client in a process of encounter person-to-person. A further essential characteristic of Person-Centred Psychotherapy is that person-centred theory and language stay close to colloquial experience. Finally, it has been part of the person-centred tradition of over sixty years to openly encourage continuous research and further development of theory and practice.

Beyond psychotherapy, the Person-Centred Approach is a way of being and working with persons in a wide range of fields of human endeavour where interpersonal relationships are central.


Historical Development

Carl R. Rogers

Carl Ransom Rogers was born on January 8, 1902 in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago. He described his home as traditional, strictly Protestant, marked by close family ties and the worship of the virtue of hard work. He first  studied agriculture, history and theology which he all abandoned to change to psychology at the Teacher’s College of Columbia University in New York City. Here he came in contact with the ideas of John Dewey and his views on progressive education. Whereas his study was mainly orientated behaviouristicly his first professional work as a psychologist at the Child Study Department of the Rochester Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was influenced by psychoanalytic, mainly Rankian, ideas. Based on his clinical experience he more and more got convinced of the centrality of the clients’ understanding of themselves and their self-direction as opposite to interpretation, traditional diagnosis or modification techniques. He came to the conclusion that it is the client who knows how to proceed from which follows that the therapist’s task is to rely upon the client’s capacities and support him or her by facilitating their self-understanding.

In 1939 Rogers became full professor at Ohio State University. Later he considered a lecture entitled ‘Newer concepts in psychotherapy’ delivered at the University of Minnesota in 1940 as the birthday of the person-centred approach to psychotherapy. His central thesis was that psychotherapy should not aim at solving problems but at personality development with the therapist being the facilitator of the client’s development instead of being an interpreting expert on psychological problems. Thus Rogers came into a sharp contrast to traditional psychiatry, psychoanalysis and behaviour therapy (and nowadays the approach also contrasts with a-personal, one-sided systemic orientations). As opposite to them Rogers’ approach was designated as ‘non-directive’ (Rogers, 1942) in order to stress the self-directive movement of the ‘client’ (a term which Rogers introduced as a replacement for patient) instead of guiding or interpreting attitudes of the therapist. Rogers turned away from the traditional medical model for psychotherapy which he understood no longer as treatment but came to realise its subject-to-subject quality. In this stage of the development of the approach a technical understanding still was predominant to ensure a climate free from anxiety and to foster the verbalisation of emotions and experiencing of the client. The main task for the therapist was to be an alter ego for the client. It was at this time when audio recordings (later on followed by films and video recordings) started to contribute to systematic empirical research and training in psychotherapy. Psychotherapy was brought out of the closet and lost its mysterious reputation. One of Rogers’ main merits for psychotherapy in general was to initiate profound scientific research.

In order to emphasise that the focus of psychotherapy should be on the inner world of experience of the client and to contradict a misunderstanding of ‘non-directive’ as non-direct or mirroring only Rogers (1951) later renamed his approach to ‘client-centered’. At that time he put the accent on the attitudes of the therapist towards the client. In 1957 he published his well-known article ‘The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change’ (see below) which stimulated the largest amount of empirical research carried out in psychotherapy to date. In this period Rogers’ main interest moved from methods to attitudes and focussed on the process of therapy and the fostering of the client’s self-exploration. In 1959 he published a precise description of his theory of psychotherapy, personality and interpersonal relationships. His book ‘On Becoming a Person’ (1961) became a best seller in the academic world, for his film ‘Journey into Self’ (Rogers, McFaw and Farson, 1968) he got an Oscar.

Two profound experiences led to further developments within the approach: A long-term research project with schizophrenic patients (Rogers, Gendlin, Kiesler and Truax, 1967) in Wisconsin on the one hand and the participation in the encounter group movement with ‘normals’ (Rogers, 1970) on the other hand forced the therapists and group facilitators to much more engage themselves in the relationships as persons. This contributed to a dialogical understanding of psychotherapy. Rogers came to comprehend therapy as an encounter relationship, a mutual relationship person to person. In dealing with Martin Buber (Rogers and Buber, 1997) and Søren Kierkegaard (Rogers, 1961) he further developed an image of the human being deeply rooted in encounter philosophy and existentialism. Accordingly the term ‘person-centred’ was introduced which also seemed to be appropriate for applications of the approach in fields such as education, training (Rogers, 1983) and supervision, social and pastoral work, partnership and family life (Rogers, 1972), large groups, intercultural communication and politics (Rogers, 1977; 1980).

After a long academic career at the Universities of Ohio State, Chicago and Wisconsin Rogers moved to La Jolla, California in 1964 where he co-founded The Center for Studies of the Person. In his California years he got involved in work with large groups and communities and with peace work and conflict resolution. He travelled into many countries, including crisis areas like Northern Ireland, South Africa, Eastern Middle Europe, Russia and Georgia. He died in 1987, shortly after being nominated for the Nobel peace prize.[1]

Further developments of and from the approach

A whole string of developments[2] of the approach took place in its history, among which clinical and process-orientated (Binder and Binder, 1991; 1994; Swildens, 1988), constructivistic (Frenzel, 1991; O’Hara, 1998; Fehringer, 2002), hermeneutic (Finke, 1994), spiritual (Thorne, 1998) and personal-dialogical (Pfeiffer, 1995; Schmid, 1991; 1994 1998a; 1998b; 1999) ones are the most significant of the phenomenological-existential orientations. Besides these there were more behaviouristic and cognitive-psychological orientations in the sixties and seventies (Martin 1972; Tausch and Tausch 1960), empirical-descriptive and developmental-psychological ones  (Biermann-Ratjen, Eckert and Schwarz, 1995), sometimes near to psychoanalytic concepts and several eclectic combinations. 

A separate modality was developed by Eugene Gendlin (1996), born in 1926 in Austria, student, colleague and successor of Rogers at the University of Chicago, with his Experiential or Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy. Here the therapist focuses on the experiencing process of the client and intentionally induces its deepening. Offsprings are the process-experiential or process-directive therapy (Greenberg, Rice and Eliott 1993; Greenberg, Watson and Lietaer, 1997), goal- and intervention-oriented procedures by Sachse (1992; 1999) and similar methods.

The Person-Centred Approach is spread all over the world and probably the most practised psychotherapeutic orientation worldwide. Since the late eighties Europe has been the main focus of the development of theory and practice of Person-Centred Therapy (Thorne and Lambers, 1998). It continuously develops its theory and practice and seeks the dialogue with other therapeutic orientations, science and art (Korunka 1997).  Beyond psychotherapy and counselling and those already mentioned above it influenced a wide range of areas like social sciences, medicine, organisational psychology, economics, ecology, philosophy, theology, ethics, theory of science, sports, art etc. Besides being a reliable way of interaction and communication, of living and working together in different circumstances and contexts it became a philosophy of culture and a leader in the effort of developing the human sciences in a humane way. Although often ignored or denied it also influenced other modalities like psychoanalytic, behaviouristic and systemic approaches in their way to a more personal, dialogic and intersubjective understanding. In quite a few tendencies of underrating or watering down the approach a resistance might be seen against the radical claim of its paradigm change with its threat for established power, status and prestige. Rogers (1977) himself spoke of it as a ‘quiet revolution’. (Schmid; 2000; 2002b)

Principles of Person-Centred Psychotherapy

Person-Centred Psychotherapy is a way of relating with persons, one to one or in groups, which fosters personality development through personal encounter. It assumes that every person has the capability and tendency to make use of his or her resources in a constructive way. Living in a satisfying way, both personally and in relationships is achieved through increasing self-understanding and less defensive openness to the continuous flow of experiencing. This tendency to actualise one’s own possibilities is stimulated and supported by person-to-person encounter. This encounter of another person is a form of relationship characterised by the fundamental and unequivocal respect held by the therapist. The therapist’s quality of presence in this encounter is authentic, congruent, unconditionally acknowledging the individual otherness of the client, deeply empathic and non-judgemental. Both therapist and client, develop together in this relationship.

These principles generate some characteristics described below essential to Person-Centred Psychotherapy, whether practised with groups or as one-to-one therapy.


Ethics is grounded in the experience of encounter. This means being called to respond by other persons in need and when responding, to do so out of response–ability and solidarity. In this respect, developed by the Lithuanian encounter philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1961; 1974), psychotherapy must be seen as an ethical enterprise (Schmid, 2002c). So Person-Centred Psychotherapy is always simultaneously an individual, social and political way of acting.


The image of the human being underlying this understanding of psychotherapy, based as it is on the view of men and women as persons, suggests the dialectics of autonomy and interconnectedness, sovereignty and solidarity. Central to this notion is trust in the actualising tendency as the motivational force constructively working on behalf of the client in facilitative relationships.

It implies that, crucial for this endeavour, are the necessary and sufficient conditions for therapeutic change in psychotherapy described by Carl Rogers. These conditions are: psychological contact between client and therapist; the client being incongruent in the relationship; the therapist being congruent in the relationship; the therapist experiencing unconditional positive regard towards the client; the therapist’s empathic understanding of the inner world of the client and his or her communication of it; and client’s experience of the positive regard and the empathy at least to a minimal degree.

Furthermore, these conditions must not be seen as techniques or methods but rather as a way of being with the client by the person of the therapist. Consequently, when the therapist is present to the client, there is no hidden therapeutic agenda. They accept the client in his or her moment-by-moment process — including what brought them to this moment and the possibilities of further development in the future. This excludes diagnosing and pathologising the client and precludes the therapist having any pre-determined method. Such lack of categorisation invites the therapist to experience the client as a unique individual, embracing their entire personhood without favour or discrimination. This encourages conceptualisation of aspects of humanness as equally valid ‘perspectives’ (hence a ‘female perspective’) and to celebrate all difference including, gender, sexuality, differing abilities, religion, culture and race etc. It also means that the therapist does not solely concentrate on feelings or on verbal interaction but also gives room and pays attention to the body and the spirit, to cognitions, ideas and emotions, etc.


Epistemology is based on empowerment. The Person-Centred Approach is founded on a phenomenological epistemology. It allows a variety of possibilities for understanding (thus it is constructivistic) and a variety of possibilities to realise in practice (thus it is pluralistic). It is personal and holistic in its embrace of the organism as an integrated whole and is therefore concerned with dialogical and empathic and hermeneutic communication: hermeneutic in the broader sense of understanding the meaning of personal communications, not in the meaning of interpreting them by an expert, pretending to know better what the author of a statement meant than the author himself.

Theory of personality and developmental psychology

Psychotherapy is considered to be a special form of personality development and interpersonal relationship. Thus the principles of the approach can be adapted for other forms of relationship and fields of life. Person-centred theory focuses more on the process of the development of a so called ‘healthy’ person — its principles do not arise from a theory of disease. These basic principles apply to all persons independently of categories like ‘neurotics’, ‘psychotics’, ‘borderliners’ or ‘normals’. In the place of a conventional theory of diseases or illness we find a theory of the suffering person based on human potential, and in the place of problem– , goal– or solutionoriented therapy, we find person–centred therapy.

Personality development and integration bring about an increasing capability to fully live in the moment; to have a less distorted, less defensive and more comprehensive self-image (or self) — adequately perceiving both the phenomena of experience and changes in experience —, and to live in relationships more realistically. This naturally coincides with more self-determination and self-responsibility. This shows that person-centred theory is much more interested in processes than in structures.

Also to be consistent with the basic principles, training, or education of psychotherapists in the Person-Centred Approach, is rooted in the development of the personality of the therapist-in-training, rather than in the training and practising of skills — the German word ‘Aus-bildung’ denotes this process of becoming.

Theory and practice of therapy

According to the theory of personality and the theory of the suffering person the theory of therapy relies on both, the resources within the client and the relationship between therapist and client. Thus therapy must be seen as personality development (personalisation) and healing through meeting (encounter). Person-Centred Therapy is therapy of the self inasmuch as it is a possibility for the reorganisation of the client’s self towards a more authentic and flexible self, a process to overcome incongruence and alienation. This is facilitated by the therapist’s readiness to enter a relationship person to person and his or her im-media-te presence in this encounter relationship, which means ‘to be with’ the client in an authentic, acknowledging and empathic way. (Schmid, 2001a; b; c; 2002a; Bozarth, 1999)

The therapist focuses on the client’s experience, understanding and evaluation of their inner world. The therapist follows him or her in this inner world wherever and however the client moves and at the client’s pace. In this sense it is an experiential and phenomenological approach. The therapist is available for the client as a living person and not only in his or her function as a therapist. It is crucial for the development of both, client and therapist, that their attention to the immediate present experiencing in the relationship is as free of judgements and interpretations as possible. The attitudes of authenticity, unconditional acceptance and sensitive empathic understanding in this process imply a radical counter-position to expert-oriented approaches (in terms of the contents as well as the process) emphasising that it is the person as such, and not techniques, methods or skills, that is the active agent of change. The therapist offers a way of being with the client making possible a process of communication and encounter which moves towards mutuality and dialogue.

The practical consequences of the clear exposition of fundamental therapeutic principles in the form of ‘therapeutic conditions’ include the fact that they can be used as reference points to ensure that all aspects of practice (even including such concrete aspects as the arrangement of the setting of therapy) are geared to the needs and possibilities of the client and the possibilities of the therapist. Another consequence is that the therapeutic relationship is allowed to express itself in multiple ways, verbally, bodily, with the help of expressive, creative or artistic means if the client wishes.

By its nature a socio-psychological approach Person-Centred Therapy often takes place in groups because of its understanding of the group as the primal locus of life and living together. Since it is the place where problems originate the group is regarded as a primary source for dealing with problems in order to experiment with new ways of understanding oneself and others and new ways of behaving in relationships. (Schmid, 1994; 1996)

Research and development of theory

Philosophical reflections arising from therapeutic work are an important part of the development of psychotherapy. This happens both at the level of the individual practitioner and case, and also in terms of psychotherapy as a whole. Continued research, including empirical studies, are necessary in order to improve the quality of and to further develop the practice of psychotherapy. Person-Centred Psychotherapy has a tradition of innovation in research, whether developing a better understanding of science and research, or challenging the traditional paradigms of medicine, natural science and research. In terms of a theory of science, an adequate understanding of psychotherapy has to include the persons engaged in the process and has to be developed beyond traditional concepts. Theory is continuously tested, developed and possibly revised in the light of experience and research. (Barrett-Lennard 1998, pp.232-323; Cain and Seeman 2002)

Politics and social relevance

Practitioners, theoreticians and researchers are invited, even urged, to find their own and independent ways to interpret their practice on the basis of these convictions and attitudes. These principles represent more than a theory of therapy, they represent a philosophy of life, within which to experiment in a responsible way and to support each other. This points to a world-wide psychological, social, cultural, political and — first of all — ethical challenge which gives neither room to orthodoxy or fundamentalism, nor to an unreflected eclecticism nor an attitude of ‘do what you like as long as you do it congruently’. The Person-Centred Approach, beyond psychotherapy, is an attitude, a way of being in many fields of life and interpersonal work, which stands counter to many streams of the zeitgeist, e.g. those of efficiency and cost-effectiveness which think only in terms of how to eliminate problems as quickly, inexpensively and painlessly as possible.

The World Association for Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapy and Counselling (WAPCEPC)

Repelled by fights about orthodoxy and rigidity of other orientations Rogers himself refused to create a ‘Rogerian school’ or to support the foundation of modality-bound associations, although such associations came into being all over the world. Thus it took ten years after his death till the time was ripe for the creation of an identifiable, world-wide organisation with the intention to overcome the lack of international communication, connection and representation, to ensure the continuing vitality and influence of the approaches and to further and stimulate global exchange within the paradigms and with other modalities.

This sprang from an international colloquium of thirty person-centred theoreticians and practitioners convened by the Austrian Person-Centred Association PCA after the First World Conference on Psychotherapy in July 1996 in Bad Hall, Upper Austria. During this meeting a letter was drawn up and afterwards sent to person-centred and experiential associations and persons all over the world and to internet networks. The official foundation took place on the occasion of the Fourth International Conference on Client-Centred and Experiential Psychotherapy (ICCCEP) in Lisbon, Portugal on July 8th, 1997 and the definite Statutes and Bylaws were decided three years later at the Fifth Conference in Chicago.

The association is open to both, individual and organisational members. Associations, organisations and institutions must have clearly defined and published ethical standards. It was deliberately chosen to co-operate between the person-centred and experiential approaches in order to promote continued dialogue between and development of them.

The ‘Principles’ of the WAPCEPC state that ‘the aim of this Association is to provide a world-wide forum for those professionals in science and practice who 

·   have a commitment to the primary importance of the relationship between client and therapist in psychotherapy and counseling 

·   hold as central to the therapeutic endeavor the client's actualising process and phenomenological world 

·   embody in their work those conditions and attitudes conducive to therapeutic movement first postulated by Carl Rogers 

·   have a commitment to an understanding of both clients and therapists as persons, who are at the same time individuals and in relationship with others and their diverse environments and cultures 

·   have an openness to the development and elaboration of person-centered and experiential theory in light of current and future practice and research.’ (WAPCEPC, Statutes I.) (See

The World Association has the following ‘goals:

·   to further cooperation between associations, organisations, institutions and individuals on an international level, in the field of person-centered, client-centered and experiential psychotherapy and counseling, 

·   to support/facilitate person-centered and experiential associations, organizations, institutions and individuals in their work, 

·   to promote person-centered and experiential perspectives and to support and encourage the scientific study as well as the improvement of practice, specifically in the field of psychotherapy and counseling, 

·   to engage in socio-political processes to ensure the continued contribution of the paradigm in health, education, academic contexts etc., 

·   to exchange ideas with other psychotherapeutic orientations and to stimulate cooperation in the field of psychotherapy and counseling, 

·   to have a commitment to the organization and support of international conferences, in particular the World Conference for Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapy and Counseling (abbreviated as PCE Conference; formerly ICCCEP) and possible future developments of it 

·   to produce a high-quality journal and to foster the exchange of research, theory and practice among language groups through existing journals and other means.’ (Ibid., II)

The General Assembly of the World Association takes places every three years. Its office is in Zurich, Switzerland (CH-8005, Josefstraße 79; The journal of WAPCEPC is entitled ‘Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies’ (published by PCCS Books in Ross-on-Wye, England).

In 1998 the ‘Network of European Associations for Person-Centred and Experiential Psychotherapy and Counselling (NEAPCEPC)’ was established on the occasion of the annual meeting of delegates of the boards of European associations in Luxembourg whose principles and goals are modelled on the World Association’s ones. The European General Assembly meets annually. (See


* With many thanks to Pete Sanders for his help with the English language.
**Published in: Pritz, Alfred (Ed.) Globalized Psychotherapy. Vienna: Facultas Universitätsverlag, 2002. [Enlarged version of paper # 35 plus new parts on Carl Rogers, the development of PCT and the WAPCEPC.]

For a biography of Rogers see Kirschenbaum, 1979; 1995; Thorne, 1992; de Peretti 1997.
For an overview see Levant and Shlien, 1984; Lietaer, Rombauts and van Balen, 1992; Suhd, 1995; Hutterer, Pawlowsky, Stipsits and Schmid, 1996; Barrett-Lennard, 1998; Thorne and Lambers, 1998; Andrade and Autunes, 2000; Mearns and Thorne, 2000; Patterson, 2000; Frenzel, Keil, Schmid and Stölzl, 2001; Watson, 2002.


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Schmid, P. F. (2001a) Authenticity: the person as his or her own author: Dialogical and ethical perspectives on therapy as an encounter relationship. And beyond. In Wyatt, G. (Ed.) Rogers’ Therapeutic Conditions Evolution, Theory and Practice. Volume 1: Congruence. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books, pp. 217-232.

Schmid, Peter F. (2001b) Comprehension: the art of not-knowing. Dialogical and ethical perspectives on empathy as dialogue in personal and person-centred relationships. In Haugh, S. and Merry, T. (Eds.) Rogers’ Therapeutic Conditions Evolution, theory and practice. Volume 2: Empathy. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS, pp. 53-71.

Schmid, P. F. (2001c) Acknowledgement: the art of responding. Dialogical and ethical perspectives on the challenge of unconditional personal relationships in therapy and beyond. In Bozarth, J. and Wilkins, P. (Eds.) Rogers’ Therapeutic Conditions Evolution, Theory and Practice. Volume 3: Unconditional Positive Regard. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books, pp. 155-171.

Schmid, P. F. (2002a) Presence: Im-media-te co-experiencing and co-responding Phenomenological, dialogical and ethical perspectives on contact and perception in person-centred therapy and beyond. In Wyatt, G. and Sanders, P. (Eds.)  Rogers’ Therapeutic Conditions Evolution, Theory and Practice.  Volume 4: Contact and Perception. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books, in press.

Schmid, P. F. (2002b) Knowledge or acknowledgement? Psychotherapy as 'the art of not-knowing'  — Prospects on further developments of a radical paradigm. Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies 2002, in press.

Schmid, P. F. (2002c) ‘The necessary and sufficient conditions of being person-centered’: On identity, integrity, integration and differentiation of the paradigm. In Watson, J. (Ed.), Client-centered and experiential psychotherapy in the 21st century: Advances in theory, research and practice. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books, in press.

Suhd, Melvin M. (Ed.) (1995) Carl Rogers and other notables he influenced. Palo Alto: Science and Behavior Books.

Swildens, H. (1988) Procesgerichte Gesprekstherapie: Inleiding tot een gedifferentieerde toepassing van de cliëntgerichte beginselen bij de behandeling van psychische stoornissen. Leuven/Amersfoort: Acco/de Horstink.

Tausch, R. / Tausch, A.-M. (1960) Gesprächspsychotherapie: Einfühlsame, hilfreiche Gruppen– und Einzelgespräche in Psychotherapie und alltäglichem Leben. Göttingen: Hogrefe; 9 ed. until 1990.

Thorne, B (1992) Carl Rogers. London: Sage.

Thorne, B. (1998). Person–centred counselling and Christian spirituality: The secular and the holy. London: Whurr.

Thorne, B. and Lambers, E. (1998) (Eds.) Person-Centred Therapy: A European perspective. London: Sage.

Watson, J. (Ed.) (2002) Client-centered and experiential psychotherapy in the 21st century: Advances in theory, research and practice. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books


Peter F. Schmid, Univ. Doz. HSProf. Mag. Dr.

Born in 1950; Associate Professor at the University of Graz, Styria; teaches at European universities; person-centred psychotherapist and supervisor, practical theologian and pastoral psychologist; founder of person-centred training and further training in Austria, co-director of the Academy for Counselling and Psychotherapy of the Austrian ‘Institute for Person-Centred Studies (IPS of APG)’. Board Member of both, the World Association (WAPCEPC) and the European Network (NEAPCEPC) and co-editor of the journal ‘Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies’.

Many books and articles about anthropology and further developments of the Person-Centred Approach.

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