What is unconditional positive regard?

Aug 26, 2019

In honor of International Dog Day, I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about a concept exemplified by dogs: unconditional positive regard (or should it be unconditional pawsitive regard???).

Dogs are the most amazing creatures on this planet. Well, maybe whales would give them a run for their money, but since we know a bit more about dogs, I’ll stick with my original hypothesis: dogs are #1.

If you’re lucky enough to have a dog in your life, then you’ll know right away what I mean when I say that nothing exemplifies unconditional positive regard better than them. Dogs don’t have an agenda. If you’re sad, they try to comfort you. If you’re happy, they’re happy. To a dog, there’s nothing more important than their human.

Since I began learning about coaching, the concept of unconditional positive regard has made an incredible impact on me. It’s one of the first things we cover with any new coach in our coach training program because it’s so fundamental to being a good coach. So here’s my take on what unconditional positive regard is, why it’s important to coaching and some personal struggles that it’s helping me face.

What is unconditional positive regard?

Unconditional positive regard is a concept from psychology, developed by Carl Rogers, who is largely regarded as one of the founding fathers of psychotherapy and of coaching. It’s a belief that the client you are working with (in our case, client who we are coaching) has the capacity within themselves to find the answers for whatever problem they are facing. And as a coach, then, you see this client as capable, in a completely positive light, without judgement. With such an approach, literally everything becomes possible.

You can see the official unconditional positive regard definition below, in Carl’s own words.

The individual has within him or her self vast resources for self-understanding, for altering her or his self-concept, attitudes, and self-directed behavior—and that these resources can be tapped if only a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided.

Carl Rogers
“Client-centered Approach to Therapy“

Application of unconditional positive regard in coaching

Coaching is a development process where the coach supports the client so that the client can reach their goal. The coach’s job is to listen actively and ask powerful questions, which helps the client figure out how to reach their goal. The coach doesn’t give any answers, nor does the coach lead the client towards any specific answer. To do that, the coach must act without judgement and without any personal agenda. Coaching is only about the client and no one else.

Given the necessity to remove judgement out of the conversation, but knowing that each coaching session (as well as a coaching engagement across multiple sessions) always has a goal in mind, how can this be achieved? If the coach can’t say things like, “Here’s what I would do,” how can the coach be effective? By putting unconditional positive regard at the core of their coaching.

Think about it… if you approach each client with the attitude that this person has the capacity to get to the right answer, your job as a coach becomes super easy. Instead of asking leading questions to point them to an answer, or guiding your sessions to make sure you hit all the PCC markers, you’ll ask questions that will lead the client to the realization that they have the answer.

In my experience, looking at my client with unconditional positive regard changes my entire presence and energy. Even if I had a bad day, when I put on my coach hat and think, “Yes, this person has what it takes to reach their goal,” my body language changes and any personal negativity I had before the session is put aside along with any judgement. The client picks up on this and their energy lifts as well.

This is such a powerful concept! Just by deciding to take the approach of unconditional positive regard, you set up a coaching conversation for success. I’m a huge fan, if you can’t tell already :).

It can change your life. Really.

I’ve gotten pretty good at ensuring I approach coaching conversation with it in mind. I’m also getting there when it comes to personal conversations with friends, family and colleagues. That one is a bit harder to achieve, but even with limited application it has helped my interpersonal relationships quite a bit. (Try it! For example, instead of being annoyed with your sibling when they call you with another one of their dramas, imagine looking at them with unconditional positive regard. Will that change how you listen? How you respond? How you experience the conversation emotionally? Seriously, try it.)

Unfortunately, an area I still struggle with is applying unconditional positive regard to myself. I daresay a lot of women struggle with this, actually. (I also think that it’s directly related to the concept of the confidence gap, but that’s a whole other blog post… or book…). On the grand scheme of things, I’ve always been confident and have had high self-esteem. Then life happened and I’ve gone up and down on both (and that’s a whole other article yet again, so I won’t go into details here).

Even though I’ve largely bounced back, I have yet to be able to apply unconditional positive regard to myself. When I try, I inevitably think that I’m not deserving of unconditional anything. Or that it’s selfish to look at myself so positively. When I look in the mirror, I notice every imperfection. When I write, I think, “You’re not an authority on this. Why would someone read this?” When I accomplish something that I would celebrate if it was any other person who did it, I rarely share it publicly because it feels like bragging – why should I deserve the attention?

But let’s look at the bright side – I’ve seen what applying unconditional positive regard can do when that’s how I interact with other people, so I’m excited at the potential I can unleash in myself once I get to the point when I can see myself in this light. So I’m not going to give up.

I can. I will. Watch me!

Smita Raghum
Smita Raghum


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