The Naked Coach gets Coaching: Unconditional Positive Regard

On this early summer evening I’m walking fast through the Amsterdam Central Station area towards a meeting I am very much looking forward to: I am to meet again with Victoria Speers (from Contiguity Partners) the coach that has given me the virus of coaching. She has been coaching me four years ago when I was Chief Risk Officer and member of the Executive Committee of this Dutch bank in Italy. It is this experience, the realization of how much a coach can help you change for the better your professional and personal life, that has pushed me to undertake this conversion into Executive Coaching, and this is the first time I will see her from coach to coach, so to speak. I graduated in May and I am looking forward now to build my own coaching activity.

We are meeting in the Sky Lounge of the DoubleTree, a bit of a show-off place, but one of the very few spots in Amsterdam where you have a breathtaking 360 degrees view over the city, with the Central Station, the North area and the Sint Nicolaas Church on the foreground. After having taken in the view, as we settle in our comfortable lounge chairs, Victoria is inquiring about my progress in acquiring new clients. And there, we stumble, as if by accident, on a coaching moment. The fact is, I have had quite a few chemistry meetings lately, but my “hit rate” is on the low side. Why is that? Calling back the memories of these different chemistry calls, I have to admit that I am always at a loss when my client is asking me how we are going to operate in our coaching. I stutter, I search for my words, I hesitate. Why is that for me such a difficult question?

The thing is: as Charlotte Sills, our Ashridge professor and adulated role model used to say (after Richard Wainwright), coaching is nothing more than: “sitting down and having a conversation we never had before”, something I have evoked in my previous blog The Ashridge Odyssey. Telling that to my clients in chemistry calls is hardly going to win me any new clients. And this is my problem: a lot of what is implicit in these simple words is hard to convey. As I was telling all these things to Victoria, I was feeling the same anxiety and the same powerlessness I had experienced in these chemistry calls when the client was asking me the simplest question: what are we going to do? Somehow, I was as speechless with her, equally at a loss for words, I felt as naked as the emperor I was referring to in my blog. All this time, Victoria was sitting there, in front of me, smiling with her warm and encouraging smile, a smile that says: I’m with you, I’m listening and I’m picturing what you are feeling. Victoria has this unique talent to make the world less threatening just by looking at you and smiling understandingly while showing her curiosity about your situation.

And then it came: the ingredient that was missing in my picture, the thing that would help my client create a mental picture for himself of what coaching really is about. Victoria suggested it at first very casually, as if it was just a tool that was laying there all the time but my eyes hadn’t actively seen it yet : the unconditional positive regard. Victoria said : “what you have not yet expressed, when you say you will listen with care, when you say you will be curious and ask all sorts of questions, when you say you will focus to be in contact with what is there, is that you actually will give your client your unconditional positive regard’. A big word, but a simple concept really: it means that I will not judge my client whatever it is he brings to our discussion but accept to work with him on it. And of course, she was right: this was the missing piece: my client, when he is exposing something that troubles him wants to know he is safe with me.  All the way back home, Victoria’s words were dancing in my head, and as soon as I got home, I couldn’t but read again this article of Carl R. Rogers (dating back to 1957, mind you) and called The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change (in : Journal of Consulting Psychology, Vol 21, No 2). I won’t bore you with all the details of it. In short, it says that if a client and a therapist (we will take here the coach to be doing the same sort of work as a therapist) are in relation and communicate and the therapist shows unconditional positive regard and he has an emphatic understanding of the client’s internal framework, then constructive personality change will be able to take place.

Unconditional positive regard has to be nuanced : we are not always completely unconditional nor completely positive. This is more of a goal, something to strive for. At Ashridge, my Coaching school (Ashridge Executive Education) we used the term of « bracketing my judgment »: if only I am able to suspend my judgment and accept my client as he is. And then comes the empathy, which is there to say that I am able to have an accurate emphatic understanding of the client’s awareness of his own experience. In other words, I am able to understand what the client is experiencing including in the parts where he is having difficulties to picture it fully. The words in italics in this paragraph are directly borrowed from this article.

And then, as I am pondering this, two opposite feelings are surfacing. The one is one of anxiety and stress: how often, in my coaching, am I failing this unconditional positive regard? How often am I taking sides and judging my client? How often am I conditional: liking my client better when he says this or that or when he is responding to some unspoken expectations I have? But at the same time, somehow, I have this positive and energizing feeling that I want to do this. I can be this empathic coach that does not judge his client but tries to understand him and help him understand himself. In these moments, I am almost happy with my grey hair, with the long years I passed being in the business and facing the sort of challenges my clients are facing now: this experience helps me tremendously to have this empathy.

Zoom forward: late summer: an other part of Amsterdam: I am about to enter one of my favorite late evening venues. At the entrance stands Tom, a 2 meter tall giant who is the security guard of the place. I hug Tom, as do more than half the customers of this place. Tom has become the face of the joint. Where in other places generally distant and rather aggressive looking bulgy security blokes are scanning you arrogantly from top to toe and somehow making you feel guilty even if you haven’t killed a fly in your life, Tom is welcoming you with his protective and generous smile, his arms always open, always ready to make a joke or give you a compliment about your clothing. And it came as a lightning: because I was writing this paper, I understood: Tom is the incarnation of unconditional positive regard. Somehow, he has managed to make this thing his own active ingredient, in the job where this is the least expected. And guess what: he is the most effective, most respected, most hugged and loved, and also the most famous security officer of Amsterdam’s nightlife. His relation with the customers goes way beyond his role, he is a confident and a consolation, a father and a brother, a friend to most. Because he does not judge. Because he is grounded, self-assure, focused on his job and on his customers, attentive, listening and fundamentally positive. Tom: tonight, you are my hero. And as I was formulating these words in my mind,  as if by echo, I had to think of Victoria as we were sitting on the terrace of the DoubleTree, smiling at me confidently. She shares with Tom this capacity to diffuse around her the same confidence as Tom does: the face of unconditional positive regard.

So what will I do differently in my chemistry meetings? How do I convey these active ingredients of my coaching to my client? How do I communicate this conviction that I know what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for coaching to be effective and that I will apply myself to embody them the best I can? Tom and Victoria are showing me the way: just be them, as often and as much as I can. And when asked, simply explain that this is my belief: unconditional positive regard and empathy are what makes coaching such a different and life changing experience. That simple.