The Ties that Bind

The Ties that Bind

Picture of someone wandering in a maze

Recently, I’ve been studying and practicing Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, along with the ideas of his mentor, Carl Rogers – the founder of the client-centered therapy movement. At the heart of both methods (and many other modern humanistic psychotherapies besides) is Rogers’ idea of Unconditional Positive Regard (UPR).

The idea seems simple, but I find the practise of it extremely challenging – even though the idea is quite congruent with my long-standing Theory Y disposition towards people.

This post explores the concept of UPR, and its relationship with a particular bind I have, and which I see many other folks, especially coaches, struggling with too.

The Bind

The “bind” (for many, a double bind) in question revolves around wanting to change things. In particular, the wish to change things that depend on people (other people) changing e.g. their behaviours, attitudes, assumptions or mindset.

Let’s use an example to help illustrate this general nature of this bind – animal cruelty.

When I see reports of animals, such as cats, dogs or horses, suffering through neglect, starvation, isolation, and other such travails, it makes me sad. It contradicts my need for seeing compassionate treatment for all living things. I realise this as an attachment to a moral or sentimental position, and as the Buddha said:

“Attachment leads to suffering.”

~ Siddhārtha Gautama

So in this example I feel I have at least two options:

  1. Change myself – become more equanimous – so that I might be feel less troubled by, in this case, the actions of others as they affect “innocent” animals.
  2. Change others – i.e. feckless owners – so that fewer animals might suffer from uncaring or otherwise intentionally or unintentionally harsh treatment.

My bind arises because I don’t much like either option. I’m not averse to changing myself, in principle, but abandoning poor defenceless animals forevermore to the whimsy of brutes seems unappealing. Yet the thought of approaching others from a position of wanting them to change, even maybe coercing them to change, however much kindness and Unconditional Positive Regard I might feign, seems at least as unappealing.

UPR – A Definition

Carl Rogers describes Unconditional Positive Regard as “a quality of a therapist’s experience towards their client”.

  • Unconditional
    Someone experiencing UPR holds ‘no conditions of acceptance… It is at the opposite pole from a selective, evaluating attitude.’
  • Positive
    One offers ‘warm acceptance . . . a “prizing” of the person, as Dewey has used that term…It means a caring for the client…’
  • Regard
    One regards ‘each aspect of the client’s experience as being part of that client… It means a caring for the client, but not in a possessive way or in such a way as simply to satisfy the therapist’s own needs. It means caring for the client as a separate person, with permission to have their own feelings, their own experiences.’

Rogers noted that far from being a black-and-while, all-or-nothing experience for the therapist, UPR probably occurs sometimes (‘at many moments’) and not at other times, and to varying degrees.

Rogers theorised that the therapist’s modelling of UPR allows the client to build-up or restore their own positive self-regard.

The Bind in Mind

Moving on then from a general example of the kind of bind I have in mind, we come to my specific case, in the world of organisations. Organisations are of course made up of people. And some of those people sometimes, for their own reasons, can do things which make other folks’ lives less rich and less worth the living.

So, as in the more general example, I see “change agents”, myself included, as having at least two options:

  1. Change myself – become more equanimous – so that I might be feel less troubled by, in this case, the actions of others as they affect their employees and co-workers. After all, I have in some sense chosen to care about this issue.
  2. Change others – i.e. feckless managers, etc. – so that fewer folks might suffer from uncaring or otherwise intentionally or unintentionally harsh treatment.

I find option one highly unpalatable, yet I find option two reeking of judgementalism and contrary to the idea of Unconditional Positive Regard.

I’m sure I’m not the only one struggling with this question. I’m not sure even the Buddha had a good answer. Excepting perhaps:

“Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.”

~ The Buddha

And although I have no clear answer as to the better (less worse) option, I have at least made peace with myself – and the question. The idea of Unconditional Positive Regard has helped me greatly in finding a nonviolent way forward.

So, I have chosen the path of the humanistic therapist, making myself available to those who have some wish to change themselves, but maybe feel that they need some help in tackling that, someone to walk with them on their journey.

Or more accurately, I have chosen the path of the humanistic organisational therapist, making myself available to those organisations who have some wish to change themselves, but maybe feel that they need some help in tackling that, some companion to walk with them, for a while, on their journey of improving self-regard and well-being.

in other words, and to paraphrase Gandhi:

“We can choose to model the changes we need to see in the world.”

How about you?

Do you struggle with the question of which is the best option?

Do you just let folks get on with their lives? Keep you head down and turn a blind eye to their potential sufferings? Choose to let them – or fate – sort things out?

Or do you try to help, try to get involved when e.g. injustice, ignorance, egregious self-interest or other circumstances cause folks worry, suffering and pain?

And where, if anywhere,  does Unconditional Positive Regard come into that, for you?

– Bob

Further Reading

Unconditional Positive Regard – Constituent Activities ~ James R. Iberg
When Bad Things Happen to Good People ~ Rabbi Harold S Kushner
Nonviolent Communication ~ Marshall B. Rosenberg

4 comments
  1. A thoughtful post, Bob. I certainly struggle with this bind. It speaks to a central moral dilemma: people (including me/us) behave according to their level of moral development, which often doesn’t comport either with social norms, or with their levels of cognitive, social, physical, or other line of conscious development.

    Most philosophical and spiritual traditions teach some version of the injunction to “Accept what happens.” Inner equilibrium seems to require full acceptance of the reality that others (including me/us) are acting in the only way they can.

    Yet, “getting involved,” speaking out or acting in the face of cruelty and injustice, seems to be a requirement of the spiritual life, too. From our own position on the moral trajectory of development, we must speak or act, and encourage others to speak and act–with hope for change, but without any expectation of change in others or fear of consequences to ourselves. Make plans, act, but detach from the consequences.

    The words of Martin Luther King in his sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 30, 1967 speak to the dual power of acceptance and moral action that release us from the bind.

    “I’m not in despair, because I know that there is a moral order. I haven’t lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

  2. UPR… I haven’t heard that term in the longest time. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. I see UPR is something that benefits all human interaction, not just the client/therapist, although it certainly needs special attention in that environment! Like you, I struggle with this bind, of wanting to both “help” (!) people and trust/release them. Ultimately, as we know, and as you state here, we can’t change other people, only ourselves, but at the same time we can model new behaviours and work on the principle of attraction. And, as you and all the other systems thinkers say, it isn’t usually the people that are the problem, but the system. There is nothing to prevent us working to change the system, e.g. in the animal cruelty example—where did that behaviour emerge from? Education helps, new ways of thinking, exploring empathy… And there’s also the opportunity to ask good questions of, e.g. ask the feckless, harsh manager about his own expectations following his actions. Sometimes when people are asked to introspect they have similar aha! moments that lead to the behaviour we would have like to request of them. Except this time they own it. Knowing this, and doing it though are poles apart. I find myself getting impatient. That’s the biggest thing that causes failure for me.

    Thanks again for a thoughtful post.

  3. I suggest that these situations e.g. the animal cruelty example aren’t necessarily subject to an either/or choice. In other words the concept of a double bind is in itself a limiting factor in our thinking about issues. It is possible to take a both/and approach as in…animal cruelty offends me…but I recognise and appreciate that others may not be so offended. I still have an unconditional positive regard for them and can demonstrate this by using a contracting based approach to the raising of the issue. I can offer them an opportunity to explore it. Typically this is in the form of a question. It might be, ‘would you like to explore X?’ or ‘I’d be really interested in your thoughts on Y. Would this be a good time for you to share them with me?’

    I find this a powerful concept and one that fits with my world view of UPR whilst not shying away from challenging people to explore their perspectives. The big point is that its up to me to be skilled in the contracting; enough to engage people’s energy and desire to explore. And then to be prepared to accept that the journey we embark on is in their control, not mine, the length is dependent on them, the outcome theirs.

    Moving into the organisational world, I try to take the same approach – working carefully and hard at developing my ‘contracting’ skills, questioning and listening. but it is hard at times – when I have strong views, the desire to let them burst out is powerful and I don’t always succeed. Still I’m just human.

  4. Very nice post! I used to struggle like you. Even now, sometimes, especially when not in an organizational context. Fortunately, I came to know about Constructivism and R Ashby’s law of requisite variety.

    Which basically means that I don’t know what others think, and that their map of the world (“the map is not the territory”) is as good as mine, especially from their own perspective. So I can genuinely express UPR and inquire into what makes them so, or possibly times where they behaved differently and that it pleased them.

    For that last, I make use of my knowledge of Solution Focus and/or Appreciative Inquiry by trying to find more of other things that might please other people, but always through respecting their own mental model!

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