This blog explores a central concept of client-centred/person-centred therapy, that of ‘unconditional positive regard’. It will look at what unconditional positive regard is and the potential advantages and disadvantages of applying unconditional positive regard in a range of situations.
The concept of unconditional positive regard has been widely discussed since Carl Rogers considered it to be central to his theory for psychotherapy and interpersonal relationships. There are many different qualities that you will commonly find are associated with unconditional positive regard, including:
- Accepting the person as a unique individual
- Accept the person has views, opinions and beliefs
- Respect for the client
- Understand that the client has issues, problems or challenges
Unconditional positive regard and clients
Do you form an immediate judgement of a client within a few sentences about what their issue is? Do some clients ‘push buttons’ because of how you form a perspective about them? Imagine you have a new client called Nicola who has booked a therapy session to deal with anxiety. When you start talking with her, you find out that Nicola is having an affair with a work colleague. Her anxiety is about being caught in the affair, either by work colleagues or her boyfriend. Now if you, on a personal level, are morally opposed to infidelity, this can lead to a change in how you interact with a client, sometimes even without realising it. It can be more helpful to recognise your initial reaction and then transform it to acceptance. For example, “I may not approve of all of your actions. However, I accept you for how you are”. By doing so, you are then able to take a rational and realistic approach towards achieving the client’s goals.
In terms of genuineness, if a therapist is naturally challenging, to not be so with a client is perhaps incongruent. However, it is possible to challenge without being judgmental or assigning blame.
Whilst it could be said that Unconditional positive regard relates to the therapist’s focus on the client, it goes much further than this within the therapy session and also applies to the client’s focus on the therapist. Clients will often be influenced by how the therapist treats them. If the therapist appears judgmental, it is more likely that the client will take a judgmental view of the situation (which may not help towards a resolution), and of the therapist (which could affect rapport).
Unconditional positive regard and colleagues
Do you accept your colleagues for who they are? Or, are you often wishing, “If only they were more X, or less Y”? By focusing on what someone isn’t, rather than considering them how they are, you may be missing out on key information. Furthermore, by either forming perceptions, pigeonholing or classifying/typing someone, you are limiting your interactions with them. Let’s take the example of Simon. He is a new accounts colleague and when you first met him, he was rather grumpy. Straight away, you are starting to form a perception of him. Maybe over the next couple of meetings, he is also a bit short or grumpy. You then start to regard him as a ‘grumpy person’. He won’t become your ‘go to’ person for accounts queries, as you don’t like grumpy people. However, your work friend Melissa has fully embraced the concept of unconditional positive regard and formed a different perspective of him. Initially he was grumpy. This was possibly due to being a new dad (1 month old daughter when he joined the company). However, he also really knew his job. He became Melissa’s ‘go to’ person, because she recognised there was more to him than just the initial grumpiness.
Unconditional positive regard and social media
Do you use the same profile for work and leisure in social media? How you interact with people on social media can have a huge impact on your brand and on your business. Have you ever spent time on Facebook and noticed the many different views a contentious point may raise? You are likely to notice the views that are perhaps less kind or less professionally worded. Especially those which do seem judgmental. Whilst some individuals can have a consistent agenda associated with their brand, such as being super empathetic, or highly critical, or political, a reader of that individual post may not be aware of this.
If your personal or professional profile is publicly viewable, then think carefully about what impression you are making to potential (or existing) clients and colleagues. It is important to be authentic and congruent with your brand. However, do bear in mind that those seeing your posts may be doing so for the first time. As an example, think about Jessie. She is a personal trainer and weight loss coach whose brand is all about ‘tough love’ and ‘telling it how I see it’. She is a member of many groups and is very vocal. Martin has just joined a healthy eating group and asked a question about positive thinking. Jessie jumped in with a clear view promoting fat shaming and that he couldn’t think himself thin by magic. When Martin noticed she was one of the local personal trainers he had been looking at, he immediately crossed her off his list. He didn’t look at her page or took time to explore her brand. He instantly reacted against the perceived judgement. She knew nothing about his past or his present circumstances. Had Jessie approached his question with Unconditional positive regard and perhaps found out more first, then introduced her brand, her post may have at least been received in context.
Unconditional positive regard and yourself
Finally, as well as applying unconditional positive regard to others, it can be helpful to treat yourself with unconditional positive regard. Not only are you ‘treating yourself how you would like to treat others’ and thus reinforcing that behaviour pattern, it can be of significant help to your mental and emotional wellbeing. By being hard on yourself, you are focusing on what you don’t want, rather than directing your resources towards a solution or even leaving the solution open, without judgment. By accepting yourself, treating yourself with compassion and kindness, you are not wasting energy being critical or beating yourself up. Instead, you are open to possibilities.
Developing unconditional positive regard
Fundamentally, with unconditional positive regard, when you think about the client (regard), two components of your thoughts about them are worthy of greater exploration. The term ‘unconditional’ can be regarded as ‘without conditions’, yet can anyone ever truly be without conditions? Humans naturally have preconceptions, preferences and biases. It may be more realistic for a therapist to be aware of the impact of these on their attitude towards the client.
By suspending your own personal judgment and accepting the client for who they are, regardless of any disclosures they have made, a client can feel more able to release further information, which may be of significance when leading to the issue being successfully addressed.
By avoiding judgment, you are also reducing the risk of shutting down some aspects of a client’s description of their experience. There is a risk though of not being able to communicate your lack of bias or judgment. For example, imagine that your client is telling you about some problems they are experiencing at work and saying that those problems are due to their manager being critical of them. If you were to take an unbiased view (in your perception) and say, “Well I don’t know them, I am only getting your view” this may be regarded by the client as minimising their issue, perhaps even disputing whether the client is telling the truth. You might instead invite the client to look at it from different perspectives, such as how the manager might be viewing the situation.
Some therapists consider the client’s issue is of less interest than the positive perspectives going forward. However, for many therapists, they will find that the best way to look towards a solution is to fully explore the client’s issue, so that they can gain understanding of both the issue and what they desire as a solution. In other words, know where you are coming from in order to know where you are going to. By expressing unconditional positive regard, the client can feel accepted and more able to freely share (without filtering) their thoughts, feelings, emotions and behaviours.
This goes beyond simply allowing the client space to share freely without fear of judgement. By suspending judgment and bias, and allowing the client space to explore their own views, they are better able to understand what their issues truly are and what internal resources they may already have to apply to the issue.
Putting aside bias also influences how a therapist will ask questions, keeping them open, rather than coming from a particular perspective. For example, rather than, “Did you feel angry when your manager was mean to you?” you might ask, “How did you feel in that situation?” This avoids judgment of the client’s emotions and the manager’s actions. Also, rather than directly advising a client based on any judgements you’ve made, such as “What you should do when your manager is mean to you is…”, you might instead ask, “How would you like to respond in a situation like that?”.
If a therapist is being unconditional, then it could be questioned whether being ‘positive’ is perhaps leading, or a bias in itself. Instead, there may be times when ‘neutral’ might be more appropriate, taking a concept from mindfulness of being in the moment, being present and not projecting into the future. However, there may also need to be some consideration of the past and even how the client’s future may be affected by their present or intended choices or actions.
We hope you enjoyed this blog on unconditional positive regard. If you have any questions about this topic or anything else for that matter, do please get in touch, because we’re always happy to help!
– written by Dr Kate Beaven-Marks