Unconditional positive regard describes an essential attitude that person-centered therapists adopt toward their clients, promoting growth and personal change (Wilkins, 2000).
As mental health professionals, therapists recognize that they must deeply value their client’s humanity while being undeterred by any particular client behaviors for a successful outcome (Mearns & Thorne, 1988).
Typically, the client experiences this as ongoing acceptance, understanding, and warmth (Mearns & Thorne, 1988).
While recognized as an attitude, unconditional positive regard can be learned through practice and good technique, encouraging change in the client and a positive outcome from therapy.
This article introduces several worksheets, tools, and activities to build respect and empathy for the individual seeking help.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive CBT Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will provide you with detailed insight into positive Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and give you the tools to apply it in your therapy or coaching.
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What Is Carl Rogers’s Unconditional Positive Regard?
Supporting only ‘positive’ aspects of a client while discouraging ‘negative’ aspects would suggest that therapists have an agenda different from their clients. Empathy and acceptance would be conditional (Wilkins, 2000).
Instead, effective client-centered therapy requires unconditional positive regard, where every aspect of the client’s experience is accepted while working toward a positive outcome (Bozarth, 2013).
According to Carl Rogers, one founder of the client-centered approach in psychology, individuals have a strong need for positive regard, particularly in therapy. Such “warm acceptance of each aspect of the client’s experience” occurs when the client believes they are making a difference to the therapist’s experiential field (Rogers, 1959, p. 209).
Crucially, for personality change to occur within the client, the therapist must experience and display unconditional positive regard and empathy toward them (Bozarth, 2013).
As a result, Rogers (1957) describes unconditional positive regard as one of several necessary and sufficient conditions required for a positive outcome to the therapeutic process.
Importantly, that acceptance must be equally present for negative and abnormal feelings (pain, fear, and defensiveness) and positive, social, and confident feelings (Rogers, 1957; Wilkins, 2000).
While psychologists from classical and post-classic person-centered approaches sometimes disagree on exactly what unconditional positive regard is and how it should be adopted, it is clear that consistency in therapy is vital. The therapist must, throughout treatment, care for the client while accepting and permitting their right to have and share their feelings and experiences (Bozarth, 2013).
Ultimately, “the communication of unconditional positive regard is a major curative factor in any approach to therapy; congruence and empathy merely provide the context in which it is credible” (Wilkins, 2000, p. 23).
Applying It in Counseling: 4 Techniques
As person-centered therapy and our understanding of unconditional positive regard develop, therapists are often recognized as agents promoting activities and processes that facilitate growth (Bozarth, 2013).
Such a view can be described as the therapist “valuing the deeper core of the person, what she potentially is and can become,” involving (Lietaer, 2001, pp. 92–93; Bozarth, 2013):
- Positive regard – found in the therapist’s affective attitude toward the client
- Non-directivity – adopting an attitude of non-manipulation with the client
- Unconditionality – constancy and persistence in accepting the client
Applying Rogers’s (classical) view of unconditional positive regard as part of his theory of therapy includes therapists engaging in the following (Bozarth, 2013):
- Being congruent in the therapeutic relationship
Acting in harmony with the client, strengthening their connection by maximizing the therapist’s unconditional positive self-regard.
- Maximizing their unconditional positive regard through empathy
Experiencing empathy by focusing on the client’s frame of reference and considering what it might be like to be that person.
- Encouraging unconditional positive self-regard in the client
When clients recognize and accept their best and worst, they are free; they can fully accept themselves and experience unconditional positive self-regard.
- Trusting the client
Throwing away preconceptions of what must happen in each session and, instead, recognizing the client’s capacity and ability to set their direction and choose their own pace.
However, as a necessary and sufficient condition for successful treatment, “unconditional positive regard is perhaps the most challenging of all the conditions to meet and thus to offer” (Gillon, 2007, p. 50).
4 Helpful Worksheets for Your Sessions
Person-centered therapists must show empathy, understanding, and acceptance within the therapeutic relationship to encourage positive outcomes and change within the client.
The following worksheets help by promoting unconditional positive regard, including empathy and acceptance, within therapy sessions (modified from Nelson-Jones, 2005, 2014; Bozarth, 2013).
Assess Barriers to an Accepting Attitude
Respect and acceptance are crucial in developing a positive therapeutic alliance and unconditional positive regard.
Use the Assess Barriers to an Accepting Attitude worksheet after individual therapy sessions or at the end of the day to reflect on what thoughts and beliefs may hold you back from a more accepting attitude.
Consider each of the following:
- Anxiety-evoking feelings, clients, and situations
- Trigger words, phrases, and attitudes that caused you upset or a reaction
- Prejudices that you found uncomfortable or annoying
- Business that remains unfinished or issues not addressed
- Emotional exhaustion, stress, and burnout
Which of these did you experience? How could they have prevented you from adopting an attitude of respect, empathy, and acceptance toward your client?
Using Small Rewards
Richard Nelson-Jones (2005, p. 99) defines small rewards as “brief verbal and non-verbal expressions of interest designed to encourage clients to continue speaking.”
These subtle but powerful tools can encourage clients, friends, colleagues, and family members to share their thoughts and feelings and, equally importantly, communicate their internal frame of reference.
Try out the Using Small Rewards worksheet to learn what small reward phrases look like and consider whether you are using them in sessions.
Examples include (modified from Nelson-Jones, 2005):
- Please continue
- Tell me more
- Go on
- I hear you
- Repeating the last word can also be effective.
[Client] I am feeling sad. [Therapist] Sad?
- Were you using small rewards enough?
- Could you use them more?
- What effect did they have when you used them?
- When did you not use them?
Reflect on how and when small rewards can keep clients talking, helping them feel respected and understood.
Understanding Context and Differences
Without realizing, therapists can let contextual and client–therapist differences cloud their judgment, preventing empathy and understanding from growing and being communicated.
Use the Understanding Context and Differences worksheet to review a session and interaction with a client to see if context and personal differences are standing in the way of the therapeutic alliance (modified from Nelson-Jones, 2014).
Reflect on the following factors:
- Social class
- Medical and health conditions
- Sexual orientation
- Any other important context or factors
Reflect that some of your biases may be harming the therapeutic alliance you are forming with your clients and hindering positive treatment outcomes.
How could you form stronger bonds, show more understanding, and develop empathy?
Visualizing to Improve Positive Regard
Visualization can be a powerful technique for walking in another’s shoes and understanding their thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
Use the Visualizing to Improve Positive Regard worksheet to help you gain empathy and grow unconditional positive regard in situations where you were previously unable to do so.
- Describe a situation during a therapy session when you found you were less able to show empathy and understanding.
- How did you react?
- Visualize the experience described by the client. What feelings do you experience as the client? Fear, sadness, loneliness? Imagine how it must have felt for the client talking through the situation and how they felt.
- Visualize how you could have reacted. Experience that (new) reaction from the client’s perspective. How might you feel? Accepted, understood, and ready to move forward?
Fostering It in Your Sessions: 4 Activities
There are several skills and activities that can be used to foster unconditional positive regard inside therapy sessions (Nelson-Jones, 2005, 2014).
Walking in Their Shoes
It is helpful in therapy to become aware of, empathize, and understand the client’s internal frame of reference more deeply. To fully empathize with clients, it is necessary to learn how to get inside their skins and ‘feel’ their experiences.
Experiencing the world through the client’s eyes can lead to a more profound, internal frame of reference response and offer understanding. For example:
You are frightened by the news that you are being laid off.
You are fed up with your family and their petty squabbles.
You really love having that person in your life.
Use the Walking in Their Shoes worksheet to reflect on how sessions went and consider whether you were adopting an internal or external frame of reference.
Capture some of the key points you made as a therapist. Reflect on your frame of reference and how changing it could improve the therapeutic alliance in the future.
Receiving Verbal Communication Accurately
Verbal and nonverbal communication can strengthen, weaken, and even confuse a client’s communication (Nelson-Jones, 2005).
Using the acronym VAPER (volume, articulation, pitch, emphasis, rate) with the client to consider five aspects of voice messages can help communication inside and outside treatment and ultimately increase the chance of empathizing and understanding the client and their experiences.
Use the Receiving Verbal Communication Accurately worksheet in sessions with clients to explore the voice messaging techniques using the five dimensions:
- Volume – Does the client speak loudly, softly, or somewhere in between?
- Articulation – Is their speech clear and distinct?
- Pitch – Is their tone harsh (too high or too low) or even threatening?
- Emphasis – Does the client use emphasis in the wrong place (too much, or too little) so that their conversation is difficult to listen to?
- Rate – Is the client anxious and speaking too quickly? Slowing down speech may help them calm themselves and experience less stress.
Work with the client to consider and reflect their verbal communication in terms of the above factors. Reflect on how they could communicate more clearly in future sessions.
Use of paraphrasing
“A good paraphrase can provide mirror comments that may be even clearer and more succinct than the original comments” (Nelson-Jones, 2005, p. 103).
It can be helpful to start each paraphrase with the pronoun ‘you’ to signal that you intend to mirror the other person’s internal frame of reference.
Paraphrasing can be difficult, especially when the client is talking quickly or nearing the end of the session, yet it is valuable in strengthening the therapeutic relationship.
At times, therapists may interrupt too often, eager to clarify a point or offer advice. Goal-setting self-talk can help focus on listening and showing respect to the client (Nelson-Jones, 2005).
Before or during sessions, come up with a set of self-talk statements to act as in-session reminders; for example:
- Stop and think …
- Calm down and listen carefully …
- Let’s work hard to understand their perspective …
- Let the client own their problems …
- Remember to hear the client out …
- Don’t judge …
Practice using helpful self-talk until using it becomes a habit.
Using It in Education: 5 Tips
According to Carl Rogers (1957), unconditional positive regard is vital to the client’s development and positive change.
This is also true in education (Swarra, Mokosińska, Sawicki, & Sęktas, 2017).
Psychologists agree that teachers’ attitudes – positive and negative – influence the development of students’ potential (Swarra et al., 2017).
Several tips and techniques can help educators exhibit positive regard with their students and encourage a learning mindset (Mississippi College, 2018):
- Don’t see students as test scores, but instead as humans wishing to connect and interact with others. They want to be accepted and understood, despite any flaws they or others perceive.
- Using students’ names when possible during and outside class shows that the teacher or lecturer knows they exist and are important.
- Become aware of the students’ choices and why they made them. For example, why did they select the subject of a paper or a piece of research, especially when you are aware it was a difficult decision?
- Be sure that the student knows if you are in contact with parents or guardians and show that you wish to work together as a team.
- Be seen as a real and authentic person, acknowledging your mistakes and letting others see you are not so different from them.
It is vital as an educator to be comfortable letting people see who you are and accepting yourself and the students you are teaching.
While unconditional positive regard can have more than one interpretation, it remains clear that showing it to a client or student requires trust, good communication, and empathy. The following resources from our Positive Psychology Toolkit© can help:
- Giving Negative Feedback Positively
While most of us neither like to give nor receive negative feedback, it can be constructive when done well. These eight steps provide a positive approach that is conducive to the receiver’s wellbeing.
- The Four-Step Nonviolent Communication Process
Relationships based on honesty and empathy are usually healthy and positive. This tool provides four steps to improve communication and includes practical examples.
- Understanding the Inner Critic
Our inner critic can negatively impact us and the relationships we form. Explore what you are saying to yourself and practice ways of being less critical.
- Naikan Reflection
These three simple questions are powerful in helping people with psychological disorders and, more generally, in reflecting on our interaction with the world and those around us.
- Anger Exit and Re-Entry
While aimed at couples, these three steps are invaluable for anyone trying to turn conflict into something constructive.
- Conflict Resolution Checklist
Check off the 10 items in this checklist to encourage resolution to a conflict situation.
- 17 Positive Communication Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others communicate better, this collection contains 17 validated positive communication tools for practitioners. Use them to help others improve their communication skills and form deeper and more positive relationships.
A Take-Home Message
Therapists, counselors, and educators have a powerful tool available when adopting unconditional positive regard. Used well, it can strengthen the therapeutic alliance, increase the potential for personal change, and drive positive treatment outcomes.
It is not a given. Unconditional positive regard ultimately requires accepting another human being’s worth and recognizing and understanding their experiences without expectation or bias (Rogers, 1957).
However, we are all clouded by our own experiences, biases, and belief systems. We may need to park them to be nonjudgmental and accepting. Only when these are set aside can we genuinely adopt a position of unconditional positive regard and encourage self-acceptance and self-belief in the client.
We must also be able to show and communicate to the client our recognition and acceptance; otherwise, they will remain unaware and uncertain of our position.
Unconditional positive regard is powerful and requires self-awareness, learning, and a possible change of mindset. Use the tools and activities within this article to challenge your belief system and assess your position as a therapist. Learn to treat clients as equals with the respect they need and deserve for transformation and change.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. For more information, don’t forget to download our three Positive CBT Exercises for free.
- Bozarth, J. D. (2013). Unconditional positive regard. In M. Cooper, M. O’Hara, P. F. Schmid, & A. C. Bohart (Eds.), The handbook of person-centred psychotherapy and counselling (2nd ed.) (pp. 180–192). Palgrave Macmillan.
- Gillon, E. (2007). Person-centred counselling psychology: An introduction. Sage.
- Lietaer, G. (2001). Unconditional acceptance and positive regard. In J. Bozarth & P. Wilkins (Eds.), UPR: Unconditional positive regard (pp. 88–108). PCCS Books
- Mearns, D., & Thorne, B. (1988). Person-centred counselling in action. Sage
- Nelson-Jones, R. (2005). Practical counselling and helping skills. Sage.
- Nelson-Jones, R. (2014). Practical counselling and helping skills: Text and activities for the lifeskills counselling model. Sage.
- Rogers, C. R. (1957). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 21(2), 95–103.
- Rogers, C. R. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality, and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centred framework. In S. Koch (Ed.) Psychology: A study of science. Vol 3. Formulation of the person and the social context (pp. 184–256). McGraw Hill
- Swarra, A., Mokosińska, M., Sawicki, A., & Sęktas, M. (2017). The meaning of teacher’s unconditional positive regard towards students in educational contexts. In J. Nyćkowiak & J. Leśny (Eds.), Badania i Rozwój Młodych Naukowców w Polsce – Rodzina, dzieci i młodzież (pp. 112–117). Młodzi Naukowcy.
- Mississippi College. (2018, May 7) The importance of positive regard in education. Retrieved August 18, 2021, from https://online.mc.edu/degrees/education/med/leadership/importance-of-positive-regard-in-education/
- Wilkins, P. (2000). Unconditional positive regard reconsidered. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 28(1), 23–36.