Putting theory into practice: Carl Rogers' UPR

08 February 2021

The theory

Unconditional positive regard (UPR) is a concept developed by Carl Rogers, one of the founding fathers of Humanistic Psychology, which has had a profound influence on psychology and society and has been labelled the ‘third force’ after psychoanalytic theory and behaviourism.

Rogers argued the central hypothesis of UPR was “that the individual has within him or her self vast resources for self-understanding, for altering her or his self-concept, attitudes, and self-directed behaviour - and that these resources can be tapped if only a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided.”

Rogers developed this concept into a psychological therapy where the counsellor suspends judgement, opinions and biases about their client’s behaviour and instead helps them realise that they have the power to change and build themselves new behaviours. Known as humanistic therapy it sees therapists isolate behaviours as distinct from the person who displays them and can be changed by that person.

The concept and humanistic psychology has moved into all walks of life that involve people and teams working together, including the business world. It calls for managers to become listeners and allow their staff and colleagues to speak freely, openly and spontaneously without judgement, fostering an environment of acceptance of each other’s failings, feelings and vulnerabilities to build authenticity and a culture of empathy.

Rogers even applied his ‘person-centred approach’ to politics and national conflicts, working with influential Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland and setting up workshops to address apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s.

Building trust: Alexis de Bernerde (left) uses unconditional positive regard in his art start-up

The practice

Alexis de Bernede, 22, of Paris, learned about UPR on the Styles of Coaching and Team Leadership: An Interdisciplinary Approach module while studying for a BSc International Management.

The French-American now uses the concept every day in his start-up Darmo Art, which he co-founded with Marius Jacob-Gismondi in 2017. The business finds promising young artists and introduces them to the art market and collectors.

“It taught me how to bring people together and the importance of allowing each person to unlock their potential. Bringing a team together - which is what we have to do when we hold exhibitions with 20 people joining us to put it together - is complicated, trying to assess the qualities of many different people.

“I try to use the concept of unconditional positive regard to help people feel comfortable and be able to work together in a team. It is really about how to behave with people to create a sense of comfort in place, creating comfort in a vulnerable environment when people don’t know you or each other, which is the situation when joining a new enterprise. I use this to put people at ease and allow them to open their minds and bring value to the organisation.

“When somebody speaks to you, they are giving you a part of themselves. When it is an opinion, people often want to disagree and put forward their alternative opinion, but unconditional positive regard teaches you to try to understand other mindsets and acknowledge them, asking them to develop it further, or add on it so you can comprehend the perspective fully and have a constructive conversation.

“When people don’t understand or think differently, their first reaction is to go on to what they think. In a business, teamwork means bringing everyone to the team and that means bringing their opinions, ideas and personality - I apply that to my business.

“Trust is essential in our industry. The art market is quite opaque, with very few actors that have large sums of money, so the key thing to develop is trust. You need your clients, collectors and partners to trust you 100 per cent. That results in the way we build relationships in the organisation, in our behaviour, the little things that build a relationship.

“Rather than being overly concerned with being professional and adhering to a script, we want our staff to be passionate, to try listening and reflecting. Debate is good, so we work with our staff on the way to phrase their opinions. We want them to be authentic and share their views on the art, but also realise there are other perspectives and there is no right or wrong answer, but a debate is healthy.

“We train our client-facing staff one-on-one and in small groups. We give constructive feedback and train them to be empathetic, listen and reflect, also their body language, the way they respond to others' views, and how to tell their story and the story of the exhibition.

“Our customer-base trust us in selecting the right artist, so we’re really building a community, which involves trust and creating a space to freely express views. Our staff need to understand what is interesting about the exhibition and artist and show their reflection beyond subjective opinion. At the same time we attempt to have them share their own experience with the artist’s work, what they feel when they see a specific piece of art.

“Their role is to be natural and who they are. That builds trust; a lot of our clients have become close friends, so it is beyond being just business, it is trying to be as human as possible. The concepts and soft skills learned in this module have helped me reflect on the company I am building now, teach us the way a business should be run, to be more viable and ethical.”

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