The Ties that Bind
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” (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:
- 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.
- 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”.
Someone experiencing UPR holds ‘no conditions of acceptance… It is at the opposite pole from a selective, evaluating attitude.’
One offers ‘warm acceptance . . . a “prizing” of the person, as Dewey has used that term…It means a caring for the client…’
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:
- 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.
- 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?
Unconditional Positive Regard – Constituent Activities ~ James R. Iberg
When Bad Things Happen to Good People ~ Rabbi Harold S Kushner
Nonviolent Communication ~ Marshall B. Rosenberg