This time last week (17th June) I was asked to join some other great speakers at the 75th MPF Retuning your firm online session.  Richard Chaplin asked me to speak about psychology and business relationships. The intersection between the topics of relationship management and psychology is an area of particular interest to me…I covered over 150 topics on this subject on my 2018 book Bloomsbury “Better Business Relationships” (Bloomsbury). But on this occasion I drew on my training as a counsellor/therapist for a different perspective to ask – is there a general law of interpersonal relationships?

One of the therapeutic models is based on the work of American psychologist Carl Rogers – you may have heard of the Humanistic approach to psychotherapy. He is considered only second to Sigmund Freud as the most eminent psychologists in the 20th century.  It is also know as person-centred or client-centred therapy. This is an approach to counselling where rapidly establishing trust and a strong relationship is critical – so it stands to reason that the principles would be helpful in business relationships. It is based on three core and – on the surface relatively simple and straightforward – principles: Empathy, congruence and universal positive regard. Let me explain. 


Empathy is one of the core elements of emotional intelligence. EQ is recognised as important in the professions, but I learned during my research for Essential Soft Skills for Lawyers in 2020 that few firms provide training on the subject.

It is the ability to step into the other person’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.

It sounds easy enough. But then we realise that each person has a unique view of the world shaped by many factors – their nationality and culture, their gender, their generation, their personality and all of their life experiences.

We have to put our experiences and views aside. We have to become really self-aware. We have to be genuinely curious (there’s a short video on the importance of curiosity in business relationship). We have to learn to ask questions. Even when we have no idea where the answers will lead the conversation. And to listen to really hear and understand – rather than to formulate our response.

It also means forcing our brains to operate differently. We must challenge our own biases and assumptions which are deeply ingrained and designed to help us be more efficient. There were over 180 cognitive biases at the last count – and the number in the codices is increasing.

There’s a short (eight minutes) video explainer on empathy and emotional intelligence. 

And this book explains emotional intelligence and includes a self-assessment of your EQ in four key areas. 


This is about aligning what we say with how we say it. It is about being authentic. Rogers described it as an accurate matching of experiencing and awareness and communication.

Authenticity is how it is described in modern business thinking. And is one of the 10 attributes of a trusted adviser too.

Authentic people:

  • Have realistic perceptions of reality
  • Are accepting of themselves and of other people
  • Are thoughtful
  • Have a non-hostile sense of humour
  • Are able to express their emotions freely and clearly
  • Are open to learning from their mistakes
  • Understand their motivations

Exploring congruence a little – Think about that little social ritual we go through so many times each day – “How are you?” people ask. And almost without missing a beat, the answer is invariably “I’m fine thanks”. Very often we are not fine – so that’s incongruent behaviour right there.

How often do we mask what we feel or what we really want to say? Whether that it because of politeness or social norms in our culture. Or because of roles or masks we adopt in our business life. Or whether we fear what reaction we might evoke. Or we want to avoid of discord or conflict.

Maybe we don’t care about the other person enough to probe when it appears that their spoken words are at odds with what our eyes are seeing in their non-verbal communication. Or maybe we don’t feel our relationship is strong enough for them to hear how you are really feeling.

Being congruent means being brave. And, as psychologist Brene Brown argues so persuasively, it means being brave enough to show our vulnerabilities. Not just our strengths.

Related posts on these subjects include:

Leadership: Authenticity, values and culture – an overview (

trust for better business relationships (

Soft skills – Dealing with difficult conversations (

Universal Positive Regard (UPR)

UPR is about accepting people unconditionally. To some extent it is about seeing the good and the positive in people – regardless of how different or unpalatable their views or behaviour might be. It means making no judgements.

Can we truly always see the positive intent that drives the way people behave?

Again, we are wired to make judgements – to keep us safe. It is natural that we evaluate the people we meet and work with. We have to fight against the myriad of tiny judgements our brains make when we see or hear or think about someone else. So can you really withhold all those views and prejudices that you have formed during your life?

In therapy, it is only when these three conditions are met in a relationship that change can occur.

A similar thing can be seen in Human Resources – when people feel they can speak up and share their views in a safe environment – and he truly heard they are their most happy and productive. It is called psychological safety.

Psychological safety requires:

  1. Accepting the individual as of unconditional worth
  2. Providing a climate in which external evaluation is absent
  3. Understanding empathically

A key aspect of psychological safety is that people feel comfortable sharing mistakes and there is no blame.

As a therapist it takes years to unlearn all of the ways we have been taught to feel, think and behave. And it takes years of training and practice to put these simple principles into practice.

When people feel these core conditions they feel truly received. Developing these skills makes you a mature, non-defensive and understanding person.

So it’s no wonder that towards the end of possibly his most famous book “On becoming a person” Carl Rogers saw these three principles (core conditions) as being the possible foundation of a general law of interpersonal relationships. And a way to enhance creativity.

When you look at most sales models you will see these core principles – the need for empathy and listening. And you also see them in negotiation models – even the FBI’s hostage negotiation model – the Behavioural Change Stairway (BCSM) five stages: active listening, empathy, rapport, influence and behaviour change.

The author of Never split the difference: Negotiating as if your life depended on it, Chris Voss – also talks about the need for UPR (Universal Positive Regard – one the three tenets of Carl Rogers and Humanist psychology).

So. Empathy, Congruence and Universal Positive Regard. Simple concepts that take a lifetime to understand and master. But which have the potential to thoroughly transform our business relationships – both within our firms and with our clients.

The five minute video of this talk on a general law of interpersonal relationships (the MPF site).