Carl Rogers, a late and eminent American psychotherapist, argued that the essence of any successful therapeutic relationship was what he called ‘unconditional positive regard’. It sounds very grand, but what it means in practice has taken me years to grasp – and more years to feel.
The phrase is especially useful in coaching, advising or mentoring (and what management, leadership or consultancy relationship doesn’t do this?) It’s about deciding to put away all manipulative devices – carrots and sticks – and to respond to events simply on the basis that the person in front of you is doing the best he or she knows how at any given moment.
For Rogers, that meant letting go of all those inner judgments that you and I hold about the way things and people should be – and all the anger and blame and fear that go with those beliefs.
At first sight, all this looks absurdly risky and naive – a position in which you’re sure to be taken advantage of (I never said it was easy, only that it was simple). But when you slow down and look at the logic a little more closely, a rather different picture emerges.
Any time someone – a colleague, a subordinate, even a client, service user or a member of your family – does something you regard as ‘wrong’, there are only three possible explanations:
1. He or she doesn’t know how to do it right.
2. He or she knows how to do it right, but didn’t know you wanted it done that way.
3. He or she knows how to do it right, knows you want it done that way, but is getting blocked right now for some reason.
In none of these circumstances is criticism or confrontation going to be the slightest use. The solution for 1 is training, at least to start with. If that doesn’t help, you may eventually have to consider changing his or her role, or parting company.
For 2, you’ll need to sit down and explain your requirements until they’re understood in full.
And 3 requires you to listen, help your colleague dig down to what’s driving the problem, and encourage him or her to find a solution.
In each case, what works best is directness. Not, a critical shove or insincere praise. Just truth-telling, untainted by a desire for approval or superiority. And of course a warm hand always helps.