Unconditional Positive Regard

In the 1950s, Carl Rogers made a defining change in the way therapists viewed their patients: rather than the expert therapist needing to fix the patient (as in psychoanalysis), Rogers proposed that the client was the expert in their own life and therefore the client was best-placed and capable to find a solution to their situation. Rogers believed the therapist’s role was to help the client realise their own potential, supporting and encouraging them through a process of self-discovery.

Client-centred therapy (aka person-centred therapy; non-directive therapy; Rogerian therapy) believes that the therapist’s attitude to the person is more important than their skills as a therapist. It asks them to have the following three characteristics:

  1. Empathy
  2. Congruence
  3. Unconditional Postitive Regard

The last is the aspect we want to focus on for this post, but let’s cover of the others briefly.

Empathy

This will be a topic of a future post but, for now, let’s define empathy as identifying, understanding and accepting another person’s thoughts, feelings or attitudes.

Congruence

An honest, authentic, genuine depiction of oneself.

Unconditional Postitive Regard

This is a key theme of Rogers’ work.

Gillian Butler and Tony Hope (in Manage Your Mind: the mental fitness guide) explain the concept using an analogy of parental love: the child may do some things that the parent doesn’t approve of, sometimes they may even not like the child, but the love remains regardless. ‘It is unconditional in the sense that your personal, unique value does not depend on your origins or on your talents any more than it depends on what you do. It cannot be lost by doing something “bad” any more than it can be gained by doing something “good”. You do not have to strive in any way to deserve it.’

And so the therapist is asked to accept and support the person, regardless of what they say or do. When a client understands that there are no conditions of acceptance, they can accept themselves and take responsibility for themselves. From there they can grow.

Like the therapist, coaches are asked to set aside their opinions and biases to accept their client’s failings. The client can be themselves without worrying what the coach will think of them or that they may lose face, which encourages the client to open up. Trust is built. This is one reason coaches tend not to ask questions that begin “Why…?”

Is unconditional positive regard really possible?

Many suggest that therapists and coaches are unable to set their judgments aside because humans are judgemental beings. Would your opinion of someone be changed if they said they hated people of a certain race, sexual orientation, religious belief or gender? If so, that’s conditional positive regard.

Maybe it’s not binary (i.e. either having unconditional positive regard or not). Ruth Sanford argues ‘that unconditional positive regard is an attitude varying along a continuum from intimate and long-term relationships to remote and brief contacts.’ Maybe unconditional positive regard takes time to develop?

4 thoughts on “Unconditional Positive Regard”

  1. Alexandra Rodrigues

    Really good share, I would like to practice to have more unconditional positive regard. However it leaves me feeling unsafe, how can I practice feeling more safe as a coach whilst having unconditional positive regard. For me conditional positive regard has protected me.

    Look forward to hear your thoughts.

    1. Thanks for your comment Alexandra. Can you elaborate about how it makes you feel unsafe and how making it conditional has protected you?

  2. When you have dealt with verbally abusive leaders, gaslighting and sexual harassment, you might think otherwise.

    Unconditional positive regard can come across to manipulative people as weakness or a “green light” to do more.

    Further as a black female coach unicorn I am vulnerable to a lot of illegal and unethical behavior. My psychological safety and mental health is most important over the energy forcing myself not to judge some shitty behavior and make someone else feel accepted. While I’m always compassionate that’s about far as I can often go sometimes.

    As black woman in general I have a very different relationship and view of the working world. Black people, and I’m sure a lot of other marginalized identities, never have the level of psychological safety at work. IT is a bastion of very smart people with varying but generally low emotional intelligence. Perfect conditions for microaggressions and inappropriateness that I am vulnerable to experiencing and definitely have experienced. Frequently. And does make me not extended unconditional positive regard or feel safe. My job entirely influence and white /male fragility too often makes calling out on bad behavior lose/lose. But If I say nothing than not standing up for myself will erode my integrity as my positive regard for the team/leader/organization. It’s never “if” it will happen but “when.”

    How does one coach when feeling unsafe? I learned I cannot. I will have strict boundaries and a kickass emergency fund

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