Unconditional Positive Regard: The Key to Powerful Relating

We’ve all had interactions with people that believe in us, that really connect with us somehow. Those interactions are inspiring and energizing. They can bring out the best in us. The connection can also inspire a sense of loyalty to that person.  This is the power of unconditional positive regard.

Do you have a person like that in your life? If so, is that person your supervisor, your spouse, your best friend? Can you say that you are that person, a person of undiminishable faith and belief, to someone else?

The pioneering psychologist Carl Rogers is credited with originating the phrase unconditional positive regard. It refers to the basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does. Rogers believed that unconditional positive regard is essential to healthy development. Unconditional positive regard is also a basic premise in successful coaching. Robert Hargrove, author of Masterful Coaching calls it “standing in a person’s excellence.”

You may have been trained or conditioned to do just the opposite – to see, suspect, and expect the worst in people. This might especially be true at work. You may have also seen your worst suspicions be borne out – confirming that you must continue to be vigilant, to maintain command and control. This combination of expecting the worst and getting the worst can create a negative feedback loop. After a while it seems like the feedback loop is just reality – which, of course, reinforces the negative feedback loop.

People tend to give what is expected of them. Perhaps more importantly, people tend to give on the level that they are appreciated. It’s called the Pygmalion Effect. Most people have heard the stories where the teacher mistakenly speaks to a class of supposedly low aptitude kids as if they have high aptitude, then the “low-aptitude” kids end up achieving far more than anyone thought they could.  There are several scientific experiments that validate the same outcomes. People respond to your belief in them.

If you start to believe in people and to notice their best sides, their strengths, their talents, and their virtues – it can start a positive feedback loop. Why do people more readily give what is appreciated in them? Perhaps it is because giving our best can be a somewhat vulnerable act. This is true especially when creative thinking is involved. Many times the best ideas exist as a whisper that is withheld in favor of the clamor of conventional, socially safe thinking. Certainly, the best ideas don’t start as the best ideas but, more often, as an undeveloped seed that needs nurturing to flourish. To share such thoughts involves an act of faith that others will receive it.

It is simply not possible to relate positively to a person without, at the very least, being open to holding them in positive regard. Otherwise they will not feel encouraged to dig deep and give you their best. They will feel your skepticism and act accordingly. They will withhold information by either shutting down or by giving you an answer they think you want to hear. They may frantically or grudgingly deliver something that they think will be passable. But, you won’t get their sustained, best effort. Their whispers of genius will be reserved from you as will their loyalty.

It is by remaining in a place of unconditional positive regard toward a person that you can understand them more completely, create trust, and get the very best from them at work. Rewards and punishment might work in the short term but neither of these will create a sustainable relationship that optimally supports your organization or the individuals involved.

Seeing the best in people is a skill that can be practiced – and it’s a very powerful practice. It can help all of your relationships in every area of life. It can help you get things done that you may have thought were impossible. Unconditional positive regard does not mean you ignore problems. However, when problems are acknowledged in the context of what’s right in a person you will, most likely, resolve the problem with greater ease and in less time.

Here are a few tips to help you along:

  • Appreciate their contributions. Look for positive intent and continually find ways to say “thank you.” Celebrate successes and learnings.
  • Seek understanding. Empathize. Get curious about the other person’s perspective.
  • Seek common ground. Emphasize common values, intentions and goals first, continually and primarily.
  • Appreciate what they appreciate. When you find what lights them up, share their excitement, and ask them more about it.
  • Ask open-ended, positive questions such as, “What’s been interesting for you lately?”, “What do you really enjoy doing?”, “What’s [important person in their life] up to?” As the conversation opens up a bit, ask about their dreams, “What would you like to be doing in a few years?” or ask “If you woke up tomorrow and a miracle happened, what would that look like?” In addition, once they’re talking, find opportunities to ask about more.
  • Be absolutely authentic with them, it will invite their authentic self to show up.
  • Continually seek their best qualities, when you have a chance, point them out as actions and illustrate how their action helped you. For example, “your empathy really helped me discover something about myself,” or “your tactics helped us get out of what would have been a big mess.”

This article is dedicated to my dad, Robert F. “Bob” Utter, who passed away in October 2014. I considered him to be the king of unconditional positive regard. When he was sick, the nurses fought over who got his room. He had a knack for seeing the best in everyone he met. At least I thought it was a knack. The year he died he let me know that he had been practicing his whole life. My wife and I call giving unconditional positive regard “doing a Bob.”

I wrote an earlier version of this article as part of an effort to create a strengths-based Talent Management philosophy for Washington State Department of Health Services. 

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