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21 Jun, 2009

Unconditional Positive Regard

Posted by: The Coaching Academy In: Coaching Articles|Life Coaching Articles

Unconditional Positive Regard - Coaching Blog

‘I like only half of the idea of “unconditional positive regard” – the positive-regard half … Unconditional positive regard is not contingent on anything your child does. Mastery, in stark contrast, is conditional, defined as an outcome strictly dependent on what your child does.’
Professor Martin Seligman,
Authentic Happiness.

Professor Seligman may be referring to bringing up children but does he have a wider point? Has the idea of ‘Unconditional Positive Regard’ first advocated in the 1950s by Carl Rogers become another idealistic, outdated idea past its ‘best by’ date? Why might unconditional positive regard be important? What need might it meet?

Meeting a need
In developing his ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ Abraham Maslow identified the need for security as a fundamental, powerful human need, particularly mental or psychological security. Dr Raj Persaud writes in The Motivated Mind (Bantam Press, 2005) about how ‘everyone hungers for appreciation and acceptance’ – suggesting that if you can ‘genuinely provide these things you will have the key to human influence’. He echoes Rogers’ statements by suggesting that people with low self-esteem may not have had nurturing care in their childhood.

Never mind what experts have to say – what’s your experience? To what extent do your clients or even you, feel pressure to seek approval, to conform to imposed ideas, peers or even your carers? Have you ever felt threatened by the opinions of others – even if they should not matter? Have you ever felt that your self-esteem depended on possessions, success or winning an argument? What sort of tensions built up from internal messages like these, of ‘should, ought and must’? What sort of emotional baggage is attached to these tensions which make it hard to examine them; let alone change them?

What might help your clients move out of their comfort zone, or even denial zone, beyond such pressures?

A relationship for change
Rogers’ insight, which he based on evidence and controlled trials, was that people can resolve many of these conflicts and make progress to greater mental well-being if certain conditions are met when working with a counsellor. His conclusion was that processes are not as important as the personal relationship between the counsellor and the client. These conditions are:

• Congruence: That the counsellor ‘is what he is’, being genuine in what he or she says and does. The counsellor is fully aware of his or her own feelings, accepts them and is able to communicate them if appropriate; a balance between recognising one’s own feelings yet not imposing them on the client.
• Empathy: To sense the client’s inner world of private personal meanings ‘as if’ it were your own but without ever losing the ‘as if’ quality. To sense the client’s anger, fear or confusion as if it were your own, yet without your anger, fear or confusion getting bound up in it.
• Unconditional positive regard: ‘An atmosphere that simply demonstrates that ‘I care’; not ‘I care for you if you behave thus and so.’ This is an outgoing, positive feeling without reservations and without evaluations. It means not making judgements.’
• Client perceptions: These attitudes need to be conveyed to the client in some way that they exist in his or her perceptual world. (A greater challenge in therapy with more disturbed persons.)

Not a technique
Thorne, a Professor of Counselling, reports that Rogers strongly emphasised that these conditions cannot be treated as a technique, rather that they are deep attitudes. They demand the highest levels of self-knowledge and self-acceptance and require the most delicate skill springing from the counsellor’s own unique personality.

Being non-judgemental
Rogers relates the idea of unconditional positive regard to being non-judgemental. Kaufman details a graphic example of being non-judgemental and offering unconditional positive regard – though he does not use that description. The case describes working with an individual convicted of repeatedly causing severe injuries to his young daughter. Kaufman expressed no evaluation of John’s behaviour. He just gently helped John to explore his own judgements, beliefs and actions ‘In an environment of acceptance, John shared fears and secrets he had never before been willing to voice to anyone’. He goes on to the realisation that violence was the expression of fear of the daughter becoming as out of control as both he and his parents were. The person in the case felt severe remorse for his behaviour describing himself as a terrible person – but he did not know any other way of expressing himself under stress. When for the first time in his life he found himself fully accepted without judgement, he could examine his behaviour without threat, in an accepting way. He was able to understand his own behaviour and find new ways of dealing with his daughter’s disobedience.

Wider relationship
And what of our attitude to ourselves? Thorne stresses that in order to be able to genuinely accept someone else and show them this caring attitude, we need to feel a deep level of acceptance of ourselves – to acknowledge and accept our own limitations, and feelings without self-recrimination.

While Rogers and Kaufman refer to therapy, and Thorne discusses how difficult it is to achieve the right attitude, there are significant lessons here for Coaching. When another person offers me unconditional acceptance I feel far more able to express myself and examine my own feelings and reality.

In his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Little Brown and Company, 2005), Malcolm Gladwell reports studies on married couples through skilled analysis of conversations between a couple on an issue involving their relationship. For long-term stability the ratio of expression of genuinely positive to negative emotions needs to be five positive to one negative – with any expression of contempt or disdain indicating a higher probability that the relationship may not survive.

Practical implications
Perhaps the key to understanding what Rogers means by Unconditional Positive Regard is that it does not mean unconditional praise, whatever a person does. Praise or criticism is a separate issue entirely. Unconditional positive regard is the opposite of conditional love and acceptance. It is about accepting the other person, it is about showing you care, without reservation, without evaluation. And if you are going to show this attitude, where better to start than with showing it to yourself.

For coaches, Unconditional Positive Regard has several valuable lessons:
Coaching is more than a set of skills; our underlying attitudes are critical.
• Putting certain attitudes into practise enables another person to feel unthreatened and secure, greatly facilitating their ability to change.
• We do not teach our clients, they learn for themselves – we create an environment that makes it easier for them to learn and to change.
• A key attitude is our ability to demonstrate a positive feeling of caring, without reservations and without evaluations; being non-judgemental.
• We can separate our appreciation and acceptance for another person as a fellow human being from any assessment of their behaviour – it is for our clients to assess their own behaviour.
• The more we show unconditional positive regard to ourselves, the easier it will be to show it to others.

By Richard Cree

Seligman E. P., 2003, ‘Authentic Happiness’, Nicholas Brealey, London
Persaud R., 2005, ‘The Motivated Mind’, Bantam Press, London
Thorne B., 2002, ‘Person-Centred Therapy’ in the ‘Handbook of Individual Therapy’ Edited by Dryden W., Sage Publications, London.
Rogers C. R., 1967, ‘On Becoming a Person’, Constable, London; reprinted 2004. (First published in USA 1961)
Rogers C. R. and Stevens B., 1967 ‘Person to Person’ Real People Press, USA. Reprinted 2002, Souvenir Press, London
Gladwell M., 2005, ‘blink’, Allen Lane, London

1 Response to "Unconditional Positive Regard"

1 | Linda Shurlock

June 29th, 2009 at 12:09 pm


Richard, thanks for this great article. there is a lot in here that I feel very much in tune with and that I believe is so fundamental to being a good coach. I very much appreciate the references and tags which will ease my follow up and improvement in this area. Linda

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