Key Concepts from Humanistic Approaches

Originally developed for therapists’ use in psychotherapy, these concepts are easily extrapolated for relationships such as coaching and translated into coaching practice.

Growth-Oriented View of the Person

An optimistic view of the person entails believing individuals can use their experiences and resources to move forward and grow.

Given the right environment, people’s internal mechanism, the self-actualizing tendency, enables growth.

The actualizing tendency is a universal human motivation to grow, develop, and be individually autonomous; it is a biological tendency, not a moral imperative.

Congruent self-actualization defines psychological functioning. Greater congruence results in greater wellbeing and more optimal functioning, but less congruence, results in greater distress and dysfunction.



Human development is directional, and people have a fundamental striving to reach their full capacity; this is the tendency of organisms to self-actualize (Rogers, 1951).

When the context allows, people choose what is good because they experience satisfaction or pleasure, resulting in continuing efforts to evolve and grow.

Humanistic practitioners act to free clients to find their directions, solve their problems, and evolve congruently; they facilitate the client’s natural potential for growth. Clients grow into their potential in a contextual climate that supports and nurtures self-actualization.

Self-actualization is the process of becoming and can be either in a socially constructive or destructive direction, depending on the social environment.

People are intrinsically motivated to grow and develop in the direction of enhanced optimal functioning when the right social-environmental conditions are present.


Translation to Coaching

The coach is a facilitator rather than a subject matter expert or a more experienced guide. The coach is an expert at the coaching process; clients are the experts on their experience’s content.

Any information provided by the coach should serve the client’s unique potential and innate growth capacity.

Establishing a climate of respect and trust provides the right environment for growth and evokes people’s tendency to develop positively and constructively.

The three practitioner characteristics of congruence or genuineness, unconditional positive regard and acceptance, and accurate empathic understanding create the climate to promote client growth and realize their inherent potentials.

The client-centered coach facilitates conducive social-environmental conditions within the context of the coaching relationship, i.e., provides a climate of facilitative psychological attitudes to enable the client to tap into inner resources for self-understanding and alter their self-concepts, basic attitudes, and self-directed behavior.


The humanistic practitioner aspires to help clients grow into their potentials; to this end, they facilitate the creation of a conducive climate for self-actualization.

Reflection in action: Does this serve the client’s unique potential?


The self-actualizing tendency of organisms;

Human development is directional;

People have a fundamental striving to reach their full capacity.


Practitioner-Client Relationship

Through the relationship and the environment set by the practitioner, clients can explore their experiences and choose directions for the future. The two aspects of building a productive relationship are a collaboration between client and practitioner and the practitioner’s qualities conducive to client growth.


Collaboration in the Practitioner-Client Relationship

The client is inherently capable of positive growth. Establishing a helping relationship becomes the ground to collaborate with the client. The self-actualizing tendency provides the client’s sense of unfolding growth and potential; the work involves tapping into this sense and honoring the client’s direction. Active practitioner engagement facilitates the client’s self- and situational awareness {Need/Press, how am I doing}, what it means {SED, social-emotional development, what should I do and for whom}, and where they want to go with it {CD, cognitive development, what can I do and what are my options}.


Translation to Coaching

Collaborating with the client is essential; coaching is working with the client to construct meaningful choices and actions for the client’s specific situation.

Empirical testing of core conditions associated with the personal change of high-functioning individuals reveals that when a caring relationship is established, the executive may be willing to go beyond their comfort zone.

The creation of facilitative social-environmental conditions within the context of the coaching relationship and the collaborative stance enables the client to open up to experience, develop greater trust in themselves, and continue to grow, pursuing their chosen goals.

These are the general goals of client-centered coaching:

Openness to experience; for the client to become less defensive and more aware of reality.

Achieving self-trust is primary.

Internal source of evaluation; looking to oneself for the answers.

Willingness to continue growing.

Specific goals are not imposed on clients; they choose their values and goals.

Person-centered coaching emphasizes the successful formation of a collaborative relationship as a primary factor in coaching effectiveness.

Other factors include the client’s attributes of authenticity, emotional literacy, etc.


Honor the client’s direction;

Work with the client;

Construct choices and actions.



The client is the expert on their experience. Directing content in the interaction is generally not consistent with a humanistic approach. Instead, the practitioner facilitates the client’s growth by engaging the client through interaction.

In Gestalt, process-experiential, client-centered, and other humanistic approaches, the practitioner is highly involved in directing the client toward greater awareness of experience and choice by helping to explore their “growing edges.”

The practitioner adheres to the philosophical principle of respecting the other’s self-determination, focusing on facilitating the client’s self-determination and full functioning. Individual autonomy is deeply respected.

The client-centered approach does not prescribe what the client should do because it is grounded in the meta-theoretical assumption that people inherently tend to grow, develop, and optimally function.

Humans are capable of growing toward self-direction in a healthy therapeutic relationship.

The person-centered approach has little use for any system based on assumptions that people could not be trusted or must be directed, motivated, instructed, punished, rewarded, controlled, or managed by others who are in a superior or expert position.

Principled non-directivity refers to the practitioner’s ethical values of non-interference and respect for the other’s self-determination. We refrain from explicit forms of direction, such as offering a diagnosis or giving advice, and more subtle forms of control, such as asking direct questions.

Instrumental (non-)directivity refers to the set of behaviors applied by the practitioner to achieve a particular goal, such as building rapport.

Client-centered practitioners do not assume what people need or how they should be free. They do not attempt to promote self-acceptance, self-direction, positive growth, self-actualization, congruence between real or perceived states, a particular vision of reality, or anything.

The non-directive attitude represents profound respect for the constructive potential in persons and great sensitivity to their vulnerability.


Translation for Coaching

In coaching practice, process directiveness is generally accepted; content directiveness may vary, depending on the context of the coaching engagement.

Coaching for skills may entail certain content, e.g., information about listening skills, which the coach provides in facilitating the client’s skills development.

In executive, organizational, or performance coaching, the balance of directiveness depends on the coaching contract. The organizational needs or context may require the coach to focus on a specific area with the client; however, coaches will still use process directiveness in collaborating with the client about the most suitable actions.

Personal coaching helps clients flesh out a vision of their ideal existence and develop and enact steps toward it. The coach is there to help the client fully describe their ideal and design steps to take them toward it; the coach does not direct the content of that ideal.


Engage the client through interaction;

Direct the client toward greater awareness of experience and choice;

Help clients explore their growing edges.


The Practitioner’s Qualities

Research points to the working alliance as essential to positive growth. For Rogers (1980), it is through an optimal climate of empathy, positive regard, and genuineness in the relationship and provided by the practitioner that the client’s self-growth capacity is accessed.



Empathy understands another’s experience or viewpoint on an intellectual and emotional level. By trying to understand and accurately communicate the client’s whole reality, the practitioner demonstrates empathy; to achieve accurate empathy, the practitioner must set aside their feelings, reactions, and thoughts to sense the client’s world as if it were their own. It is a demanding process of trying to enter the client’s private world and accurately capture meaning and experience. Understanding another’s frame of reference is a cognitive process possible only by attending to the other’s emotional experience.

By demonstrating empathy and communicating their understanding, the practitioner is allowing clients to become more fully aware of their construction of reality, demonstrating positive regard for the client, and building trust in the relationship.

Clients gain another’s view of their own experience, which often feels like a gratifying sense of being known. At the same time, it can allow clients to know themselves more fully.

Empathy builds trust that the client’s experience holds the ingredients for future growth in the relationship.


Unconditional Positive Regard

This is accepting and valuing clients for who they are. The practitioner can refrain from judgment and cultivate a sense of continually being on the client’s side without imposing their agenda or values on the client.

This stance is also necessary for achieving accurate empathy.

Clients are accepted as they currently are, right now. Under this condition, defensiveness is not needed, and openness is possible, empowering the client to change. The greater the degree of caring, acceptance, and valuing, the greater the chance that (therapy) coaching will be successful.

Conditional parental acceptance is underneath the split between a person’s sense of their real and ideal self. The result is a vague and chronic feeling of inadequacy.

Unconditional positive regard is used to merge real and ideal so that one’s sense of authentic self is accepted and even embraced. This loosens one’s tight clutch on identity and corresponding self-defeating behavior and allows honest self-examination. Giving up the need to defend one’s identity can result in real change.


Authenticity, Genuineness, Congruence

With accurate empathy and unconditional positive regard, we reach an understanding and accept clients for who they are.

With genuineness, or congruence, the practitioner can accurately note their experience regarding the client in the present and thus be themselves therapeutically with the client. Authenticity, in the existentialist tradition, means being open and true to the experience during therapy. All these terms describe the practitioner’s awareness of their thoughts, feelings, and sensations in the moment of contact.

The practitioner’s genuine experience is shared with the client in a context of caring and understanding.

Person-centered practice is a way of being and a shared journey where the practitioner and the client reveal their humanness and participate in a growth experience.

{Be aligned in your thoughts, feelings, behavior, and actions; be real, genuine, integrated, and authentic. Drop any “expert” facade. Through authenticity, you may serve as a model of a human being struggling toward greater “realness.” Be yourself during the time you are coaching. Put aside all facades and roles during the coaching process and be “fully present” for the interaction. This naturally may require you to engage in self-disclosure from time to time.}


If these three practitioner attitudes are communicated to the client, Rogers postulates that the client will become less defensive and more open to necessary therapeutic change.


Translation for Coaching

Accurate empathy, unconditional positive regard, and authenticity between the practitioner and client and within each are critical guides for effective coaching practice.

The client’s feeling understood and accepted within the coaching becomes the ground for the coach and client to work together for change.

Feedback in coaching conversations regarding what the coach experiences in the interaction is an essential information source for the client.

The coach demonstrates these qualities in building rapport so that clients can actively choose the actions they will take in their growth. This contrasts with the therapeutic aim of these qualities, providing a context for increasing awareness in the service of healing.

The first phase in executive coaching is forging the (relationship) partnership.

Coaches must build trust and understanding so that people will want to work with them. A partnership requires coaches to earn the trust of the people they coach to provide the right amount of challenge and support.

To build trust, you must learn how people view the world and what they care about.

Rogers: “The best vantage point for understanding behavior is from the internal frame of reference of the individual.”

Trust is essential for the client to open up, take risks, and experiment with new behaviors.

The executive coach’s role is as a listener, confidant, and personal adviser; to serve as a sounding board and objective and trustworthy source of feedback. Sessions consist of discussions initiated by the executive client, who sets the agenda.

{Our role is grounded in a way of being, an attitude; you must be willing to be authentic in the relationship with the client. You create a climate that allows the client to grow. You do not try to get the client to do something or to change. You do not diagnose, label, or give advice. You aim to give a client or person your full, caring attention without judging or evaluating them.

You need to be able to fully engage with the client, undistracted by personal agendas or roles; you cannot, therefore, be an agent of the company, attempting to mold their client according to company needs or the dictates of a boss.}

The coach’s task is to trust the client to find their direction in life, to hold an attitude of principled non-directivity towards others, and to be a person who can maintain an empathic, congruent, and positively regarding stance towards the other.

The coach strives to understand the content, what the client is saying, and the process, what the client is working through, reflecting their understanding to the client, so the client has a mirror to their experience in that moment.

At no point does the coach direct the client as to how they ought to be experiencing; the coach’s role is only to offer the relational conditions within which the client’s own process will direct the session.

Process-directed techniques, when used, become an expression of the meta-theoretical assumptions of person-centered theory. The coach may introduce the use of a technique because they have information the client does not have and which could be helpful to the client.

Taking the lead as an expert versus assuming the client is the expert and following their lead.



Boundary issues include what should or should not be included in the coaching plan. The coach and client must pay attention to the role of influential others, the client’s system, and circles of influence.

‘Whose agenda am I addressing?’ It has to be the client’s agenda, and boundaries must be set clearly when the contract is with an organization.

Issues could arise from a lack of clarity in contracting or aligning client and organizational goals.

Aim to understand the client system and influential others who may undermine the coaching process.


Confidentiality and reporting within an organization:

It would be helpful for details of the coach-client relationship to remain confidential. Details are shared with the organization only at the client’s agreement. The coach would give the client an opportunity to discuss the report and agree with the coach that it provides a fair representation.


Holistic View of the Person

The individual is a dynamic whole. Descriptions of parts, e.g., cognitive functions, emotional states or traits, etc., help understand the whole person like anatomical study helps understand a living, moving body. It can give a particular view but is inadequate for understanding the whole. When we are functioning at our best, we generally describe this state as “whole,” “integrated,” or in “flow.”


Range of Human Experience

To reach full potential, individuals must value the full range of human experience: our physical, cognitive, and affective realities.

Growth is interrupted if attention is not paid to all of our experience.

The innate developmental trends and propensities may be given voice by an organismic valuing process occurring within the individual. The voice can be tough to hear, but the ability to hear it is crucial for the pursuit of happiness.


Translation to Coaching

We cannot see our clients unidimensionally; instead, we tend to look at all areas of our clients’ experience. In humanistic therapy, the client may access direct experience by becoming aware of in-the-moment micro-level experiences. In coaching, the focus is on the broader picture, and internal states are inquired into about their impact on this broader picture.

Coaches attempt to understand the client’s experience of self, e.g., values, personality, goals, health, etc.; of self-in-relation, e.g., essential relationships, interpersonal style, sense of community, networks, etc.; and of environment, e.g., work and career environment, financial situation, physical surroundings, etc.; and each in relation to the other. This communicates to our clients that their whole experience is interesting, meaningful, and worthy of attention.

The coaching focus also depends on what is part of the coaching contract.

In empathetic listening, the coach is sensitive to implied and explicit meanings, feelings, and thoughts not fully grasped by the client. The coach listens carefully to the client’s experience, asks for clarification, and communicates their understanding of the situation to the client.

The coach also communicates to the client that they have the knowledge, emotional strength, and personal power to make the desired changes. The client’s experience and understanding are the basis for the coaching work done together.


Uniqueness of the Individual

Understanding another is understanding the phenomenological experience of the other. In formulating that understanding, the practitioner must check out their understanding with the client and their hypotheses. This hypothesis testing applies to understanding the client’s experience and choices regarding intentions, goals, and actions.

An evidence-based approach involves the use of the best available knowledge integrated with the practitioner’s expertise in the service of the client’s experience and context.

This requires collaboration and the forging of a customized, tailored, unique coaching relationship. By recognizing the client as the expert on their experience and utilizing their expertise in facilitating awareness and choice, the practitioner and client together can formulate new understanding and directions for growth.

Person-centered practice focuses on client responsibility and the capacity to discover ways to encounter reality more fully. The emphasis is on the phenomenal world of the client. The primary intent is for the helper to comprehend the client’s internal frame of reference and focus on the client’s perception of self and world.

The approach is not a set of techniques; it is best seen as an attitude and belief system demonstrated by the practitioner.

Person-centered practice is not concerned with ‘repairing’ or ‘curing’ dysfunctionality and never adopted the ‘diagnostic’ stance of the medical model in which the therapist is the expert.


Translation to Coaching

The coaching relationship needs to be tailored to the client, and this concept of the uniqueness of each individual points out the reason why. Designing action plans and so on must be jointly constructed for the best chance of success. What will work for one client may not work for another. The coach communicates a customized method by asking clients to help design their “homework,” to assess what is likely to get in the way, what supports and resources are available, and how they will recognize success.

The basic philosophical assumption of person-centered coaching is that the client is their own best expert and has an intrinsic motivation towards growth, development, and optimal functioning; this will be given expression when the client’s psychological processes are trusted and encouraged in the context of a facilitative person-to-person relationship.

Reflective listening constitutes the majority of responses from the coach. The coach stays with the client’s agenda; neither introduces new material nor prompts the client about how to think about the content of what they say or what direction to go. Stay with what the client is bringing, reflect feelings, and help clients become more aware of how they are feeling.

Reflective listening requires attention to all that is said and not said; it requires the coach to choose what to reflect on based on empathic understanding and congruence at that moment.

Reflective listening, when skillfully done and in the context of an empathic, congruent, positively regarding, and unconditional relationship, encourages the client to verbalize further, explore issues in more depth, be challenged, reach new insights, and ultimately be more equipped to make new choices in life.}


Choice and Responsibility

People can choose how they respond to their environment. We may not have ultimate power over any situation, but there are always both given and chosen aspects of any particular moment.


Availability of Choice

At any moment, a choice is being made, whether we are aware of it. By cultivating awareness of choice being available, we have the power to make choices and responsibility for the choices made. This empowers the client to harness the self-actualization tendency.

Self-determination theory (SDT), a contemporary organismic theory of human motivation and personality functioning, emphasizes the central role of the individual’s inner resources for personality development and behavioral self-regulation. According to person-centered theory, SDT views the person as an active growth-oriented organism, attempting to actualize their potential within the environment in which they function.

The social environment can either facilitate or inhibit the person’s synthesizing tendency.


Translation to Coaching

In accord with the philosophical tradition of humanistic thought, the basic assumption in coaching is that change is possible and that we have a choice in terms of action and meaning-making. This humanistic value is implicit in questions such as

“Who do you want to be in this situation?”

“What do you want to accomplish in this?”

“How do you want to make that happen?”

In asking our clients to make clear and conscious choices, we ask them to become active architects of their growth. By holding them accountable for those choices, we underscore the responsibility of choice.