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To Be a Better Coach, Learn This One Skill
If unconditional positive regard is used successfully in therapy and even parenting, why not talk about it in the context of the workplace?
A few months ago, I drove down from San Francisco to Los Angeles for an appointment at the Romanian consulate. For the road, I decided to re-listen to one of my favorite audiobooks: “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed” by Lori Gottlieb.
In her book, Lori gives a funny, warm, and insightful introduction to psychotherapy through real-life stories. Her storytelling is relatable and compassionate, but what I loved most was being fed bite-sized nuggets of psychology.
While driving down I-5, something shifted in me as I listened to Lori introduce the concept of “unconditional positive regard”.
“The humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers practiced what he called client-centered therapy, a central tenet of which was unconditional positive regard. His switch from using the term patient to client was representative of his attitude toward the people he worked with. Rogers believed that a positive therapist-client relationship was an essential part of the cure, not just a means to an end—a groundbreaking concept when he introduced it in the mid-twentieth century.”
I could feel my excitement build up. How did I miss this the first time I listened to the book?
Then Lori continues:
“But unconditional positive regard doesn’t mean the therapist necessarily likes the client. It means that the therapist is warm and nonjudgmental and, most of all, genuinely believes in the client’s ability to grow if nurtured in an encouraging and accepting environment. It’s a framework for valuing and respecting the person’s “right to determination” even if her choices are at odds with yours. Unconditional positive regard is an attitude, not a feeling.”
Whoa! 💡Lightbulb moment💡
Why This Matters
Sure, Irina, this is all very interesting, but I’m not a therapist, why should this matter to me?
Maybe you opened this article because you’re interested in improving your coaching skills. Perhaps you’re a leader or want to grow into a leadership role, and you’re interested in becoming more effective in your role. You know coaching is a very important component of leadership because to build high-performing teams and successful businesses, you need to help, guide, and develop people.
Similar to therapists, social workers, and parents, good coaches want to help people change and grow. They’re all in the business of “helping people”.
If unconditional positive regard is used successfully in therapy and social work and even parenting, why not talk about it in the context of the workplace?
Regardless of the domain, to help create lasting changes in people, we need to cultivate an attitude of unconditional positive regard towards them.
The Psychology Behind It
The drive towards socially constructive behavior, or interacting effectively and positively with others
The need for self-determination, or the right and responsibility to choose one’s path
In other words, unconditional positive regard works because we, as humans, want to fit in and make our own choices, instead of being told what to do. Sound familiar?
“The kind of caring that the client-centered therapist desires to achieve is a gullible caring, in which clients are accepted as they say they are, not with a lurking suspicion in the therapist’s mind that they may, in fact, be otherwise. This attitude is not stupidity on the therapist’s part; it is the kind of attitude that is most likely to lead to trust…” — Carl R. Rogers
Trust! 🤯 This is it!
Unconditional positive regard helps build positive, trusting relationships.
Courtney E. Ackerman holds an MA in positive organizational psychology and actively works as a researcher in this field. She explains: “having this attitude toward someone can encourage them to share their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors more openly”.
Managers often want to know:
How do I make my reports open up?
How do I make them tell me what’s going on, what they’re thinking, what their goals and interests are?
Unconditional positive regard fosters honest and open communication. Even when the news isn’t necessarily good, the conversation will be much more productive if anything one says is received with positivity and non-judgment.
On the other hand, people who are afraid of their superiors are not going to be forthcoming with information that might be perceived as unacceptable.
Similar to the practice of blameless postmortems, there is no room for blame in unconditional positive regard. Why? Because, as the name suggests, it’s unconditional. And that’s the hard part because it means that you, as a leader/ coach/mentor, cannot withdraw or limit your acceptance of people when they make mistakes.
Putting It In Practice
To recap, unconditional positive regard is:
Based on the belief that the other person can change (growth mindset)
The best occasion to employ unconditional positive regard is in each 1:1 meeting.
Suspend your judgment and truly listen to the person you’re meeting with. Express concern, and kindness and put yourself in their shoes. This doesn’t mean you have to like the person. Or even agree with them. It also doesn’t mean you need to endorse all their behaviors or become too permissive. But it does mean you want what’s best for them.
Examples of things to say in 1:1s:
“I have an open-door policy”, “You can always talk to me”
"I’m not here to criticize you. I am here to understand, guide, and help you”.
“Mistakes happen. I believe in your ability to learn from them.”
What comes next on a foundation of trust and open non-judgmental communication?
Hint: It starts with “F” and ends with “eedback”. Feedback!!
Give feedback from the same place of unconditional positive regard.
If you’re apprehensive about giving hard feedback because you don’t know how it’s going to be received, remind the person you’re giving feedback to that you’re still holding them in positive regard. Your opinion of them will remain unchanged no matter what.
In her book, Radical Candor, Kim Scott emphasizes the importance of caring deeply in giving feedback. Stemming from a genuine desire to help, unconditional positive regard is fundamentally a form of caring deeply.
When giving difficult feedback, don’t dwell on what went wrong, focus on what can be improved. Still not sure how? Use the STAR (Situation/Task/Action/Result) framework, an action-oriented, non-judgmental way to give candid feedback.
Unconditional Positive Regard (UPR) is conducive to lasting change, but it doesn’t guarantee it.
For change to happen, the UPR receiver needs to be willing to put in the work. Resistance is a normal, natural initial response to change. Unfortunately, some folks never get past this level. In this case, considering termination might be the best solution forward.
When dealing with a low performer, a manager should keep in mind that they need to do right by their entire team. Firing too fast isn't fair to the low performer because it hasn't given them a chance to improve. Firing too slow isn't fair either, but to the rest of the team, because they’re probably affected by the low performer.
For coach-client or mentor-mentee relationships, if too much time has passed without much progress, maybe the relationship isn’t the right fit.
A coach/mentor/manager shouldn’t feel stuck in a relationship that isn’t working simply because of UPR.
I’ve been fortunate to have had managers and mentors who held me in unconditional positive regard. They might have done it without knowing, but I felt it and the effects were undeniable. I took risks. I learned. I thrived. And I wish that for everyone.
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