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Onion-peeling theories focus on the person served resolving past issues preventing forward motion in the present. These theories contain multiple subsets, which include person-centred approaches. Person-centred approaches have their historic roots in Carl Rogers work on inter-subjectivity.

Person-centred approaches believe in maximizing the self-determination of the person served. Self-determination is maximized through the social worker and person served working together to create a “non-directive, safe, and empathic relationship” (Ives, Denov, & Sussman, 2015, p.45). One important distinguishing element that separates person-centred approaches from psychodynamic theories is the more active role played by the person served in developing a mutual relationship. The person-centred approach eschews the more paternal and directive relational constructs used by psychodynamic theories. To be successful – like most approaches — the person served must feel heard and valued.

Two of the strengths of person-centred approaches are high satisfaction in persons served due to the deep listening and interpretation involved in the creation of the therapeutic relationship and the high amount of healing outcomes experienced by persons served. However, person-centred approaches are oftentimes intensive and have been considered “reductionist and deterministic” (p.46) for their focus on the past as the cause of present difficulties.

The majority of The Code of Ethics is easily integrated with the principles of person-centred approaches. Value 1: Respect for the Inherent Dignity and Worth of a Person and Value 3: Service to Humanity are particularly well aligned. However, Value 4: Integrity of Professional Practice is not as well aligned. Professional boundaries can be challenged by the relational aspect of person-centred approaches. The Code of Ethics requires “appropriate professional boundaries” (Ives et al., 2015, p.69) be maintained. The exact definition of “appropriate” is left for an individual to determine; appropriate could be defined more rigidly by some social workers than others.

The co-creation of a relationship, as demanded by person-centred approaches, allows for situations where a more reciprocal relationship is desired, but the very concept of a reciprocal relationship is “subversive of social work practice norms” (Alexander & Charles, 2009, p.5).

The desire for reciprocity may place the social worker in a situation where they must rebuff the attempts of a person served to create a reciprocal relationship, perhaps through the giving of gifts. The relationship then becomes a balancing act as a deep and professional therapeutic relationship is still required for person-centred approaches. Charles and Alexander argue the Code of Ethics is creating situations where “professional guidelines can restrict the potential for connection and paradoxically, this may limit the effectiveness of [the social worker’s] contribution to the client’s desired change” (2009, p.6).

By maintaining the boundaries mandated in the Code of Ethics, person-centred approaches may be weakened as persons served feel as if the enforced distance makes the social worker less trustworthy or authentic.

How are creating an authentic connection and maintaining professional boundaries to be balanced in practice? How does this effect self-disclosure?


Alexander, C., & Charles, G. (2009). Caring, Mutuality and Reciprocity in Social Worker-Client Relationships: Rethinking Principles of Practice. Journal of Social Work, 9(1), 5-22. doi: 10.1177/1468017308098420

Ives, N., Denov, M., Sussman, T. (2015). Introduction to social work in Canada:Histories, contexts, and practices. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford.

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