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 Bill Macaux, Ph.D. MBA  Consulting Psychologist 

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Development of Your Relational Mind


Whether you or people you know have recognized the need for some incremental and adaptive change or something deeper and more transformational, this article will speak to you. However, it is particularly relevant for those seeking the latter kind of development. In any case, I hope it encourages optimism about our life-long potential to grow, learn, and develop as persons.

Do you know people who seem to be coming from a place of confusion, overwhelmed with emotions, perhaps even struggling to articulate their concerns when offered a supportive sounding board? Or perhaps there are others with whom relations have become tense for other reasons; an edgy, irritable attitude, quick to anger. Indeed, you may recall going through a "rough patch" yourself during which you manifested these troubled feelings and found yourself alienating others, even retreating from life. These are ways of being that I refer to as living from the lower-right quadrant.

Mind as Relational Space

johariwindow not my versionThe quadrant I refer to is represented in the Johari Window. It is first and foremost a state of mind, one that is inherently lacking in rationality, verbal fluency, and conscious awareness. Therefore, when we are living from this state of mind we can find it very difficult to engage with others. Absent extreme cases, this aspect of mind does not rule us absolutely, but it can be a disruptive force. In its negative manifestations it distorts our appraisals of situations, self, and others in ways that arouse anxiety, defenses, and wreak havoc on one's feelings of self-esteem and self-confidence.

On the one hand, it is not a happy place to be, which is why so many people have difficulty exploring it. On the other hand, there can be great benefit in exploring this quadrant of mind when it obtrudes and threatens to disrupt our lives and relationships as described above. Not only might such an "adventure" bring relief to an acute episode of distress (the proverbial rough patch), it can also yield transformative personal growth for those whose aims are purely developmental, i.e. cultivate a greater capacity to lead change.

The Boundaries of Known and Unknown

Most clients who have worked with me have seen me refer to the Johari Window more than once. It is a wonderful model for conceptualizing the communicative dynamics that shape interpersonal relations. We are all drawn to certain ways of thinking about things. Some we exhaust rather soon. Others, like a good poem or deep well, seem to last much longer. I think part of what has kept me intrigued with the Johari Window is the lower right quadrant, often labeled the Unknown or the Unconscious.

There is something paradoxical about the Unknown area. Its magnitude appears to be affected, like the other three quadrants, by two kinds of communicative action, i.e. self-disclosure and feedback. These two acts arise from conscious intent. I choose to share information about myself with others, reducing the size of the Hidden area, i.e. self-disclosure. Others choose to share their experience of me, which reduces the size of my Blind area, i.e. feedback. Both actions serve to increase the Open quadrant, enhancing mutual understanding and the potential for collaboration.

Let's grant that disclosures and feedback may take the form of "slips," spontaneously evoked and unintentional. That does not alter the fact that they originate in an area of awareness, yours or mine. But presumably the Unknown is equally unknown to you and to me. So, how is it that feedback and disclosure can decrease the size of the Unknown area? It must be that the known and unknown are connected in ways that the linearity of a 2x2 matrix has difficulty representing. Perhaps it is like tugging on a loose thread (the known) and having it reveal other unanticipated connections (the unknown).

Self-Discovery in Dialogue

It would seem, then, that the opacity of the Unknown area is not total. Known and unknown sound like binary states, e.g. black and white, up and down, on and off. In this respect the model's rationality deceives, for it implies logically independent and opposite states of mind. But somehow dynamically the unknown becomes known. It enters awareness through communicative interaction. The loose thread metaphor serves to suggest where the precision of rationality is at a loss.

Recent research in interpersonal neurobiology (Seigel, 2012) and relational psychotherapy (Holmes, 2010), indicate that mind is essentially relational. Our sense of self (one aspect of mind) is interpersonally constituted early in life between infant and caregiver. Similarly, our normative assumptions about what to expect from others (relational mind) in terms of openness, sensitivity to others, emotional safety, and readiness to collaborate and work through issues are forged in the crucible of relationships.

As adults, however, we often have less access to these aspects aspects of mind because they were shaped in the precognitive and preverbal stage of life. However, we do regularly "enact" our less conscious sense of self (I am adequate or not) and relationships (I can communicate openly in trust or not) in our interactions with others. To a trained eye they can thereby become visible and brought into the Open area for discussion. Doing so, requires trust, care, and a special competence in fostering a helping relationship.

For some of us, the proper avenue may be psychotherapy because the issues have resulted in significant functional impairment, i.e. clinical depression, substance abuse, etc. For someone who is less seriously impacted, i.e. feeling stuck with chronic feelings of unhappiness and alienation, and perhaps noticing decreased effectiveness in one's professional life, relational coaching might be the answer. It builds on the same research but applies it to a professional/executive population in the workplace.

Either avenue represents the third form of communicative action in the Johari Window, "self exploration." Both represent a more direct and skilled means of recognizing "enactments," the threads of meaning connecting known and unknown aspects of mind. As these themes are explored, one is able to "edit" aspects of his or her personal narrative, i.e. self, relational dynamics, and possibilities for being and being with others. Change at this level is what I mean when I speak of transformation.

II would like to hear from you. Please use the space below to to share questions and comments. I will respond. You may also contact me privately at bill.macaux@generativityllc.com. Thank you. 

Bill Macaux, Ph.D. MBA
Principal & Management Psychologist
Generativity LLC

Helping executives unleash their potential to lead and make a difference


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