This article describes a patient-centred clinical method appropriate for family medicine. The method is designed to attain an understanding of the patient as well as his disease. This two-fold task is described in terms of two agendas: the physician's and the patient's. The key to an understanding of the patient's agenda is the physician's receptivity to cues offered by the patient, and behaviour which encourages him to express his expectations, feelings and fears. The physician's agenda is the explanation of the patient's illness in terms of a taxonomy of disease. In the patient-centred clinical method, both agendas are addressed by the physician and any conflict between them dealt with by negotiation. This is contrasted with the disease-centred method in which only the doctor's agenda is addressed. Further articles will describe the patient-centred method in operational terms.