Coaching Foundations 2: Unconditional Positive Regard
Welcome to Coaching Foundations Lesson 2!
This lesson continues what Foundations Lesson 1 started–we are adding to the foundational philosophy of our coaching systems. Before we go any further, I want to offer you a quick aside of something to think about. As you read and learn about our foundations, please don’t just take the lesson at face value. Think about how you can follow a similar process to create your own philosophy–or update the one that you already have. Consider the elements abstractly and what we’ve actually done, not just the concrete elements. You’ll need both for your philosophy and systems, so, please, take the 30,000 foot view as well as the close up view.
During this lesson, we’ll discuss one huge thing–unconditional positive regard. It’s absolutely necessary element of the coach-client relationship. Without it, nothing else works as well as it should. Let’s dive in.
Unconditional Positive Regard
Carl Rogers, the humanistic psychologist that created the term and a guy that we all owe a lot to, believed that people had the internal resources to be self-determined and to develop fully as a human being. That’s the underlying foundation of why unconditional positive regard works. People are people, we have our bad and our good, but we all have the ability to choose our path and change.
Unconditional positive regard is recognizing a person as a human being because you’re a human being and you get it—you know what it’s like to have quirks and be a little weird, and, all the while, you see your own potential for self-improvement and change. It allows you to recognize that other people have that potential, too—quirk and all. Besides, doing weird things, that even sometimes seem to obstruct our forward movement, is part of being human. It’s accepting that. It’s noticing behaviors without ascribing a positive or negative valence, without jumping to a final, concrete judgment about a person. This all blends into a neat little unconditional package, one that you present to a person, showing them that they don’t need to do anything to earn your esteem.
There is, however, a misconception that UPR is just being nice to everyone all the time, and that’s not it. It doesn’t necessarily scale beyond close, interpersonal relationships. At times, like in a public situation in which we have to evaluate someone’s motives, our regard must be conditional. It’s not just a “everything is sunshine and roses” approach to life. UPR has a goal. That goal is growth through honest communication.
Through practicing UPR, we communicate competency and autonomy. The relationship communicates to the people in it that, “You’re accepted, you can handle this, and navigate it in your own way. I’m here for support and I’m not going to remove my care for you because you make a mistake.” And, “You are worthy of the truth.” When a relationship, and an environment, communicates that to a person, watch out, because that person has the foundational goods to skyrocket their trajectory.
The question is, how do we put this into practice?
Watch that first rep and let it suck. There’s nothing in the fitness coaching setting that better communicates that “you don’t have to earn my regard” more than avoiding immediately jumping in with a correction as soon as a client does something imperfectly. When people get to try and miss the mark without interruption, it subtly communicates to them that they are able to keep trying and that you’re going to regard them positively no matter how many times they try and fail. Further, it makes trying and failing safe. If someone were to get smacked with a rebuking correction every time they teetered on the line of doing something incorrectly, they’d stop taking the risks that they need to take to grow. The caveat to all of this, of course, is actual physical safety. If someone is going to do something that will likely injure them, of course you need to stop them. Use your reason to make the distinction between the situations.
Also, remain unflappable in the face of people’s weirdness. Weirdness, in this case, is a blanket term I’m using to describe all of the things that people tell us that could be potentially shocking, the stranger parts of people’s personalities that they show us, or the crazy shit that clients try in the name of furthering fitness and body composition. When I say unflappable, I don’t mean be an emotionless robot. I do mean maintaining a warm, yet consistent demeanor. Let’s use an example to illustrate.
Let’s say a client shows up for a session and they make some kind of crazy confession. They say, oh, I don’t know, that they ate forty-two donuts between four and five in the morning and then, in a sugar-induced psychosis, they French kissed their doorman and took a Fed Ex truck for a three-block joy ride that ended in her actually safely delivering a few packages to the nice people of her neighborhood. Since she did such a good job delivering the packages, Fed Ex decided not to press charges.
Now, there’s the human element in all of this that calls us to be enthralled by a wild story—and so we should be. But, see, the client was super-worried that you’d jump on her about the forty-two donuts. She mentions them waiting for your negative reaction, thinking that you’ll lay some serious disapproval on her. But you don’t. You say something like, “Dang, that’s a wild story! Well, do you feel like you’re ready to train with what we had planned today, or do you think we need to redirect course?” Then she relaxes a bit—maybe (everyone is different, but most people respond pretty well to not being judged.) She brings up the donuts again, and you say something like, “You keep bringing up the donuts, do you want to talk more about those?” What follows next is a client-driven, client-centered conversation, with a warm, consistent coach, about the donuts and some strategies about how she can avoid this situation in the future, rather than a reprimand from someone who is essentially a peer trying to help them achieve some goals. And, ultimately, options are laid out for her to choose which one might work for her rather than firm directions handed down from her coach. That’s remaining unflappable.
Another aspect of bringing UPR into the real world and out of the realm of nice ideas is practicing detached compassion—which is productive, but folks confuse it with empathy. Over the past few years, empathy has buzzed around the fitness industry as the blanket term of choice. But I think that word has walked us into a real Princess Bride situation—you keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.I should know, I’ve definitely mistakenly used it. Empathy literally means feeling what the other person is feeling at the same time. Sure, there are elements of compassion and caring built into the definition, but empathy can’t be practiced without concurrently feeling what the other person is feeling. In a coach-client relationship, that’s an issue. Coaches must retain some objectivity, some level of detachment, depending on the context, for them to be able to help a person.
For example, a client comes in despondent and despairing over their current body composition situation, and they confide in you these feelings and then explain further that they stem from his overly judgmental relationship with his father. You connect with him empathetically, feeling his despondency and despair, and connecting with him also on the botched parental relationship—you’ve had a similar experience. Now, you’re both caught in a swirl of unrelenting emotions and there’s no one left to guide either of you out of the situation. Even worse, there’s a strong likelihood that you’ll retract your focus from the client and instead focus on your own feelings. When we feel bad, we tend to have a hard time not focusing on ourselves. This, ladies and gents, is not the correct outcome.
Detached compassion, however, offers us the opportunity to notice, and care, without getting caught up in our own feelings. (There’s a time for us to be concerned with our own feelings, when we are with a client and trying to help them is not one of those times.) Detachment, in this context, means that we can stay firmly rooted in ourselves and give objectivity a fighting chance. Compassion is the caring element—and in this case, without pity. It’s the effort to understand, the person’s situation, and perhaps connect some of your personal experience, while helping them improve it without having to feel exactly as the other person feels.
It all sounds well and good, but how do we actually do it? How do we act on detached compassion and keep it from drifting off to the land of forgotten nice words? Awareness is a good start. If you know that you’ll be working with a demanding client, or you know you have a propensity to be empathetic, prep yourself by giving yourself some boundaries before you work with, or chat with, someone.
On the other side of empathy is the tendency to be overly judgmental—we’re human, judgment’s squinty eyes find us all at some point. There are appropriate times to judge, and inappropriate. Working with a client is one of those inappropriate times—judgment, in that setting, spoils unconditional positive regard. And our clients deserve that regard, so how do we combat passing judgement? Curiosity is my favorite weapon.
“I wonder why?” is my favorite question when someone does something, well, human and weird or what would seem counterproductive to anything that promotes progress. Asking, “I wonder why” gets us to think about circumstances and to evaluate a situation dynamically rather than making a static judgment about a person. That simple question gets us thinking about what factors could possibly contribute to a person making a decision. And when we think that way, we can see the person as a person that’s moving through the world as a person, doing silly person things as a person often does—rather than some…well, I’m sure there are plenty of unnecessary words that fit there. People are people—and curiosity helps us see them as such.
Now you’re armed with a working definition of UPR and ways to practice it—a foundational and actionable coaching philosophy. Let’s continue on to the three client archetypes we use to form a basic understanding of client personalities. UPR keeps the relationship open so we can develop understanding and the archetypes help us turn understanding into communication.