The Key Ingredient to an Extraordinary Group Facilitator

Why is valuing someone more important than liking them?

It is easy to like the people we like. Those that are friendly and get along with others, ….those that enjoy the same things we do—we are conditioned to like them. Everyone is human and it is not likely that we ‘like’ everyone in the groups we facilitate. In some ways, how we are around those we care for is conditional. Valuing each person as someone of worth, however is unconditional. Valuing someone is even more powerful and loving than ‘liking’ them. Why? Because it does not make demands on them to be like us or to meet our needs.1

Unconditional Positive Regard

Carl Rogers was an American psychologist and he developed the widely used ‘person-centered’ approach to counselling.2 This approach included a concept he called “unconditional positive regard”.3 This is not something new, but bears looking at in our person-centered philosophy within the long-term care sector. This is an attitude, one that if we practice consistently (however imperfectly), results in helping those we care for break the cycle of self-defeating behaviors of low self-worth.1

Here is an adapted definition of “unconditional positive regard”—what I believe is the key ingredient of an extraordinary group facilitator:

Extraordinary group facilitators hold an attitude of unconditional positive regard. This means that they deeply value the humanity of those in their groups. They are not deflected in that valuing by any particular behaviors. The attitude manifests itself in consistent acceptance and enduring warmth.1 (p. 64)

“I just don’t know enough about them yet”

In his book, A Way of Being, Rogers (1980) states, “As persons are accepted and prized, they tend to develop a more caring attitude towards themselves” (p. 166). As the group facilitator sees the world through the group member’s eyes, so the member will come to see his or her view of reality as having value. Even if we do not understand or find their behavior unpleasant, if we value them consistently we can (over time) gain their trust, and find something that helps us make sense of ‘unacceptable’ behavior. Adopting a stance that says “I just don’t know enough about them yet” opens the door to change.

How do group facilitators practice unconditional positive regard?

It is not easy to suspend judgement, especially when behaviors are offensive to us, or we just simply don’t like someone. Mearns and Thorne (1999) suggested as a starting point to say: “I don’t know this person yet”. This calls us to take responsibility for our feelings as separate from their behaviors. But how do we put this into practice?

An exercise that is helpful is to rephrase the above statement as a question: “What do I not know about this person?” What seems to be offensive can be a call for compassion. It is different for everyone, but often angry behaviors come through with defensive patterns from someone who is sad, feels unloved and has no self-love and is vulnerable.

Everyone will have their own way of communicating unconditional positive regard. Here are some 10 simple suggestions to express warmth, adapted from Mearns and Thorne (1999) :

  1. Going over to the person and greeting them
  2. Shaking hands with them
  3. Using their first name
  4. Smiling (authentically)
  5. Using a warm tone of voice
  6. Holding eye contact
  7. Being present and attentive
  8. Showing genuine interest in what they say
  9. Offering a hug or touching their arm/shoulder
  10. Suspending judgement

Note: Dealing with Aggression and Responsive Behaviors

Sometimes the behaviors show up as aggression that masks a fear or vulnerability. We can be investigators and seek to find the issue. Continually treating them as a person of value while you are investigating, can break a cycle of defensive behavior.

Offering unconditional positive regard does not mean putting ourselves in danger—when we are unsure, it is important to leave the room and ask for help. For those with dementia, when we are attending to responsive behaviors (behaviors that are not predictable, aggressive or agitated—but nonetheless a response to something negative, frustrating or confusing to them), it is important to know that these behaviors can be a response to something external. We know that external social or physical things can be changed, once we find what they are.5 Please see for some excellent individualized training on this.

Another way to do this is to ‘mirror’ back what is heard. This means to restate what the group member has said, either exactly (if it is short) or to paraphrase.  This serves a number of purposes.

1.     It helps the group member to clarify what they are feeling.

2.     It helps them know that they were heard and that what they have to say is of value.

3.     It helps other members hear what was said.

This simple process validates whatever is being shared without placing any judgement.  At the center of support groups is a belief of the importance of valuing and actively supporting each member of the group.

1Mearns, D. and Thorne, B. (1999). Person-Centred Counselling in Action. (Second Edition). London: Sage Publications.

2Rogers, Carl. (1980). A Way of Being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

3Rogers, Carl. (1951). Client-centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications and Theory. London: Constable.

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