Limits and Possibilities of a Person-Centered Approach

{Bachkirova & Borrington, 2018, The Limits and Possibilities of a Person-Centred Approach In Coaching Through the Lens of Adult Development Theories. Philosophy of Coaching: An International Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1, May 2018.}



The person-centered approach (PCA) is grounded in a positive view of the person innately striving toward becoming fully functioning, called the “actualizing tendency” (Rogers, 1951). This innate tendency can be blocked by an individual’s acquired “conditions of worth,” forming their self-concept. Individual development entails developing the person’s self-concept, their personality aspects formed and approved through their countless interactions. This makes the client’s experiences central to the person-centered approach. The practitioner provides a safe and nurturing environment so the person can start to loosen their conditions of worth and develop positive self-regard, self-trust, and the ability to view the world more accurately.

The prime determinants of outcomes are the quality of the relationship and the attitudes and personal characteristics of the practitioner. The approach minimizes directive techniques, such as interpretation, questioning, and collecting history, while maximizing active listening, reflecting feelings, and clarification, committed to the idea that the client already possesses growth resources. It is an integrated approach to practice espousing a genuine wish for individuals’ flourishing.

Coaches commonly hold the assumption that clients are resourceful and capable. Furthermore, focusing on client experiences and being led by the client’s agenda is central in coaching practice. The coach-client relationship is considered the most important in coaching outcomes. These principles parallel the person-centered approach making it a good candidate for a theoretical foundation for coaching practice.

When coaches are interviewed about what they do, many approaches and interventions are cited, not directly recognizable as conforming to the criteria of “person-centeredness.” Although principles of the person-centered approach are espoused, the practice may deviate from these principles considerably, for example, to the point of removing the uniqueness of principled non-directivity that is integral to it. Such reduces an integrated approach that combines an established theoretical framework with a well-tuned methodology for practice to a philosophical attitude.

Where, when, and why is PCA the most effective interpersonal strategy, and what occasions might compromise its suitability?


Theories of adult development

Many adult development theories look for patterns connecting specific psychological phenomena, trying to understand individual differences. For example, how does an individual become significantly different from how they used to be concerning how they make meaning of their experiences, reason about their values, and act in the world?

Structuralist theories have identified certain patterns in these changes, common to all people, suggesting changes occur in sequential stages through which people progress. The pace of such development is highly individual and occurs naturally as a result of engaging with life tasks but can also be influenced by appropriate support and challenge arising from supportive relationships.

What are these specific psychological phenomena we might consider characteristic of most adults? What are the most defining aspects of adults (in developmental formation)?

The most studied aspects are cognitive style (Basseches 1982; Kegan 1982, 1994); interpersonal style (Loevinger 1976, 1987); conscious preoccupations (Graves 1970); character development (Loevinger 1976; Kohlberg 1969); engagement in action (Bachkirova 2011); action logics (Torbert 1991; Cook-Greuter 1999, 2004).

{We are setting aside controversy and the traps of prescribing development to individual clients for another day’s discussion!}

Bachkirova (2011) distinguishes unformed, formed, and reformed ego as overarching categories, where “ego” indicates the agency of the whole organism, i.e., its capacity to act in response to internal and external stimuli. For example, a sign of a fully formed ego is the organism’s capacity to take ownership of past actions, withstand anxiety about the future, and build relationships with others without losing the sense of who they are.


Exploring the applicability of the Person-Centered Approach in light of adult development theories

There is a difference between a person-centered attitude and utilizing a fully integrated PCA methodology in practice when working with clients from the three different stages of adult development. When might the strength of this approach realize, and when might we encounter limitations and become ineffective?


Unformed ego

A note: when using the phrase, “unformed ego is,” it is meant as a short-hand for: “an individual at the developmental stage of “unformed ego” has the characteristic feature of someone who is …”

One more note: ego is the (psychic) agent, narrowly defined, but more broadly, it is the author, agent, actor trio, i.e., the whole organism in action.

The unformed ego is unsure of its abilities in certain life areas and consequently needs more guidance and support. This higher dependency on others results in a reduced sense of control over their environment. {How does enhancing self-efficacy impact ego development?}

The wellbeing of the unformed ego depends on how they are seen, valued, and validated by others, making issues of confidence and self-esteem the salient, overarching developmental theme for coaching. The esteem at this stage is not “self-generated” but received and formed from the unexamined opinions of others.

The esteem and belonging needs of Maslow (1954) would correspond to the unformed ego stage.

This is the dependent or conformist, self-conscious interpersonal style with a prominent need for belonging and observing socially expected behavior in relationships. They are the peacemaker and peacekeepers. Their (multiplistic) conscious preoccupation is social acceptance, reputation, and moral “should’s and ought’s.” Their character development is rule-bound, such that rules of important others are internalized and obeyed, and “inappropriate” feelings are denied or repressed. Their engagement in action is accompanied by a reduced sense of control over themselves and the environment, with a higher dependency on others for action. The cognitive style of the socialized mind is marked by the ability to think abstractly and self-reflect.

The developmental themes expressed by and emerging from the needs of the unformed ego might include self-esteem, performance anxiety, work-life balance connected to an inability to say “no,” decision-making in difficult situations with several stakeholders, and taking a higher level of responsibility than they can cope with.

These themes indicate the types of difficulties clients experience and wish to overcome. Clients’ actual issues for coaching are possible indicators, or markers, of their center of developmental gravity.

A practitioner provides value, showing unconditional positive regard for these clients, irrespective of their actions, achievements, values, or development stage. Clients lacking self-acceptance can reclaim self-respect and gain a deeper sense of their needs and strengths.

Coaches can work effectively with these clients using PCA as the sole methodology without bringing greater methodological diversity to their practice.


Formed ego

Practitioners make adjustments when engaging clients that demonstrate different ways of thinking. The practical use of adult development theories in practice can inform meaningful interpretations of psychological phenomena despite the postmodern attitude of rejecting apparent hierarchies implied by stage theories and their seemingly teleological nature.

The formed ego might be recognized by the client themes indicating difficulties, such as coping with a high amount of self-created work, achievement of recognition or promotion, interpersonal conflicts, problem-solving, learning to delegate, and stress management.

The need for acceptance is no longer an overriding concern for these clients, who can generally accept themselves and “stand on their own feet.” They can differentiate themselves from their immediate contexts and express their individuality (without feelings of shame or guilt). They can rely on themselves as they manage important tasks, reflect on their qualities more detachedly, and may willingly face and even create challenges to test their ego.

The sense of control and self-ownership developed in the formed ego stage may lead to an overestimation of what is possible and realistic for the individual. However, they feel less likely as victims of circumstances and may even enjoy the emergent challenges. Therefore, they may experience the PCA practitioner’s style as insufficiently challenging, wishing for a more open and intense engagement, whether in a direct coaching style or active dialogue with greater self-disclosure and even confrontation.

With clients from this developmental category, it is justified to move beyond strict adherence to a person-centered methodology and to draw upon other resources.

Psychological development is open-ended with infinite unfolding potential, as any learning process in response to living in and acting in this world. It is influenced by many internal and external factors and thus happens at a different pace for different people. The amplifiers of development are natural and include people and events, making the coaching relationship ideal support for the person’s actualizing tendency.

Patterns of changes in various psychological aspects of individual development are identifiable, yet stages are not fixed, and sequences are not linear but contingent upon context, the nature of each aspect, and individual circumstances.

The formed ego’s self-authoring mind can see multiplicity and patterns (even in places where none exist) and be critical and analytical. Their independent or conscientious, individualist interpersonal style values communication and individual differences while considering themselves separate but responsible for their choices. Their conscious preoccupation is relativistic or individualistic and focused on achieving personal goals according to inner standards. Their conscientious character development is self-reliant, and follows self-evaluated rules while judging themselves and being critical of others. Engagement in action of the formed ego shows the capacity to take ownership of the past and act independently, exerting “mind over body” action control.

The “onion” model (in contrast to the “ladder” model) of development implies a non-substantial self. This self is modular with functional mini-selves assembled when called upon by the tasks of the internal or external environment. With development, new layers of qualitatively different meaning-making and acting develop. All the available layers can be accessed and represented in different situations and contexts, and a particular mini-self can act and become dominant.


The reformed ego

The themes for this stage are dissatisfaction with life despite achievements, internal conflict, not “fitting in,” search for meaning, overcoming life crises, initiating a significant life change, and staying true to themselves in a complex situation.

The cognitive style of the reformed ego is a self-transforming mind with a systems view, increasingly tolerant of ambiguity, and a change from linear logic to a holistic understanding. The inter-dependent or autonomous, integrated interpersonal style takes responsibility for relationships, respects the autonomy of others, shows tolerance of conflicts, and has non-hostile humor. Their systemic or integrated individuality’s conscious preoccupation involves self-fulfillment, the immediate present, and understanding conflicting needs. Their self-regulated character development concerns conflicting roles, duties, and value systems, and their behavior expresses their moral principles. Engagement in action for the reformed ego involves harmony between mind and body in action and appreciation of complexity in the relationship between self and environment.

PCA may be effective when reformed ego clients need explicitly to process their developmental themes in their own way with a supportive listener. Such individuals are capable of self-developing. Their capacity to act and reflect goes beyond the other two groups. Their ability to act efficiently frees up attentional resources, allowing them to recognize conflicts between their various sub-selves, nuances of contexts, and limitations to how they perceive and interpret situations. This requires the practitioner’s capacity to resonate with the client’s meaning-making system and a matching developmental stage enabling them to offer sufficiently deep responses.

Reformed ego clients can tolerate the ambiguity of some needs and tasks without the need to control everything, paradoxically enabling them to take control of situations. In addition, they are interested in being authentic and genuine, not engaging in self-deception. As a result, being right and efficient may become less important.

These clients may be looking for a “growth edge” and a stretching assignment that Gestalt and Existential approaches could well serve. However, since these clients suffer from a lack of understanding and substantive connection with others, the practitioner self can make the key difference in this engagement more than the methodological approach itself.



The commitment of the client-centered practitioner to being fundamentally non-judgmental about the client person is a primary principle. However, does this contradict using a developmental lens that categorizes people according to stages and levels?

We can argue that people make such judgments daily, unconsciously or intuitively, and with an implicit set of assumptions that may be arbitrary or at least unsubstantiated. What matters in the coaching relationship is the purpose of the judgment or assessment and its validity. The person-centered practitioner can assess the client’s meaning-making or engagement in action while simultaneously displaying unconditional acceptance and positive regard. Making a developmental assessment does not provide a “complete” understanding but helps the practitioner to listen better to clients’ concerns and to be more present in their search for a better fit between the context in which an individual’s difficulty arises and their capacity to deal with it.

Furthermore, the developmental lens adds another dimension to the spectrum of psychological diversity we face in our work. The practitioner’s self, attitude to change and human nature, personal values, and how they make meaning are important in establishing the appropriate supportive relationship for the client. PCA is not “techniques and interventions” driven. Still, the client-practitioner relationship and the practitioner’s qualities are fundamental, introducing increased complexity for any significant developmental mismatch between the coach and client and the person-centered practitioner feeling “in over their heads.”

On the other hand, recognizing limitations may give the practitioner an incentive for personal development. Each stage enriches individual capacity for reflection and effective interaction with others and tasks. The capacity to understand others and notice nuances and details of situations increases with a better opportunity to articulate and potentially change these situations.