Unconditional positive regard, sometimes referred to as “UPR”, is a term attributed to Carl Rogers, the creator of person-centred counselling and one of the founders of humanistic therapy.
Unconditional positive regard refers to accepting and supporting another exactly as they are, without evaluating or judging them.
At the heart of the concept is the belief that every person has the personal resources within to help themselves, if they are only offered the environment of acceptance to foster their own recognition of this.
It can help to think of a parent/child relationship to understand UPR.
If you were lucky enough to have had a healthy childhood and good parenting, your parent or guardian loved and accepted you regardless of how you behaved or what you did. If you made mistakes, or had a temper tantrum, it was okay. When you were a teenager with wildly different opinions to your parent, that was entirely acceptable. You were trying out new things and discovering who you are, and you were offered unconditional positive regard.
If your childhood did not contain unconditional positive regard, you were shown disapproval if you did something that did not match what your parent wanted or if you disagreed with their idea of what was correct. You were only accepted if you fit into their wants and needs. Perhaps you were taught that some of your emotions were ‘bad’ and that you must learn to hide them and be more pleasing. You were shown conditional positive regard.
Unconditional Positive Regard vs Unconditional Love
Unconditional positive regard does not imply you have to like someone, be particularly nice to them, or do anything at all for them, other than just put your personal opinion to one side and receive them just the way they are.
You accept them, no matter what they say or do. You see them as as a person, not a set of behaviours.
In this way unconditional positive regard is a psychological approach over the biological impetus ‘unconditional love’ could be seen as.
So while many parents offer their children unconditional love because it feels a natural drive within them, few offer their child unconditional positive regard, which requires mental effort and commitment.
The Power of Unconditional Positive Regard in the Therapy Room
According to Carl Rogers, UPR is about creating an environment for clients that most allows for their healthy development (combined with other key mindsets he felt a therapist should offer, some of which you can read about in our article on the Elements of Good Listening).
An environment of unconditional positive regard benefits the client in the following ways:
when the therapist offers no judgement the client feels less fearful and can share their thoughts, feelings, and actions freely
as the therapist accepts the client, the client is encouraged to find self-acceptance
the therapist allows the client space to think for themselves over using questions designed to illicit certain answers
by allowing the client such space the client can begin to cultivate their inner resources
by seeing the client through their behaviours, the therapist offers the client a chance to realise they are more than just their behaviours
At the heart of unconditional positive regard, then, is hope. The therapist, by putting aside their own biases, shows optimism that the client can create positive change for his or herself. They are more than what they have done.
How you can apply Unconditional Positive Regard to Your Own Life
Expect people to have internal resources. How often do you assume that others don’t have the skills or knowledge to figure things out by themselves? Start to notice how often you give advice under the guise of being ‘helpful’.
Suspend judgement and bias. Start to notice the lens you see others through. Are you like a laser, scanning people for what is wrong with them? What would happen if just for one day you decided that everyone was perfect just as they were, even if you can’t understand their choices?
Listen without a soundtrack. Notice what is in your head when you are apparently ‘listening’ to someone. Are you trying to figure out what is wrong with what they are saying? Thinking about your own similar experience you will tell them when they are done speaking? What would happen to your interaction if you cleared your thoughts and only focused on hearing what they were saying, just as it is?
Allow others to be different. Notice how often you use the phrases ‘that’s wrong’ or ‘you’re wrong’. What if they are just different? What would happen if you stopped seeing others in terms of right and wrong?
Allow yourself to be different. You don’t have to always agree with what others do, or do things because everyone else is. Ask yourself, am I doing this because I really want to? Or is it just easier than saying no? What would I rather do/say/think instead?
Practise self-compassion. What would happen if you were as accepting and nice to yourself as you are to your best friend? If you let yourself off the hook when you made mistakes? Learning to accept yourself as is is the fastest way to then accept others.
Is it really realistic to practice unconditional positive regard with everyone?
It’s a worthwhile question, one that other psychologists have posed. Should unconditional positive regard be something we attempt to show everyone we meet? You might have your own questions too, such as, do your colleagues really need or deserve your positive regard? Won’t that make you seem weak and not business like? Should UPR be reserved just for those close to you?
Perhaps the best way to approach such a question is to begin to experiment with the perspective shift of unconditional positive regard in your daily life. See what affect it has on your relating to others and your own mood and decide for yourself.
Do you have an experience of person-centred counselling and the power of unconditional positive regard you’d like to share? Do so below.