The most important relationship skill you've never heard of
or, applying the concept of reflective functioning at work and home
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If you’re a regular reader, you know I’m big on cultivating transferrable skills that can be used in both parenting and leadership. This week I want to talk about the concept of reflective functioning, also called mentalization, which hinges on understanding the importance of mental states—the collective term for feelings, thoughts, intentions, beliefs, fears, and desires.
Reflective functioning refers to an individual’s ability to recognize their own and others’ mental states in an effort to understand, and ultimately anticipate, the impact that these states have on subsequent behavior1. This skill requires both empathy for others and awareness of oneself. Put more plainly, mentalization is the process of seeing oneself from the outside and seeing others from the inside. And it’s key to understanding others and maintaining meaningful relationships.
Take, for example, a young toddler who has a meltdown each morning as his parents leave for work. It’s easy to become frustrated in this situation (I’ve been there myself!) Parents may wonder why their child is adding stress to their already hectic morning and perpetually making them late to the office. They leave every weekday morning and are exasperated by this dramatic reaction to a normal routine.
However, when we take a more reflective stance, we (1) recognize our judgment might be clouded by our strong emotions in that moment, and (2) shift our attention to consider the child’s perspective in an effort to understand his underlying mental state. If these same parents were able to set aside their own reactions and instead focus on their child’s experience, they would realize that he is likely feeling anxious—and not being deliberately difficult or defiant. Unable to express his fear adequately with words, the child is consumed with emotions that spill out in a tantrum.
When we have a more accurate understanding of what is driving our children’s behavior, we are better able to address the issue at its root cause. In the first scenario, the parents may yell at their son, releasing their own anger and likely escalating their son’s negative emotions. By understanding the underlying emotional state, the parents can respond with empathy and reassure their son that they will return and perhaps think through a way to help him feel connected to them in their absence.
Expanding our understanding
Most human beings naturally engage in mentalization, but we don’t always do it well. Strong negative emotions like fear, shame, defensiveness, and anger (and even strong positive ones, like infatuation) often get in the way of effective mentalizing—so it is important to be aware of how our own heightened emotions can cloud our perceptions. When we are more cognizant of our own internal processes, we can begin to approach others’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors from a place of curiosity rather than judgment.
In the psychological literature, reflective functioning is most frequently discussed in the context of early childhood—in part because a parent’s capacity to engage in reflective functioning has been closely tied to both the development of a secure parent-child attachment2 and the transmission of reflective capacities to young children3. But it’s an equally valuable skill to apply to other important professional and personal relationships.
In professional settings
The ability to mentalize is also a key skill for effective managers, both because it strengthens relationships and because it leads to more efficient problem solving.
I had a client—let’s call her Caroline—who found this concept helpful in managing one of her direct reports, Rishi. Though his work was very strong, Rishi was consistently missing deadlines. Caroline was frustrated by what she originally interpreted as Rishi’s lack of drive and focus. I encouraged her to challenge some of her assumptions, and she agreed to take a more reflective stance.
She decided to ask Rishi directly what was getting in his way of meeting deadlines. She was surprised to hear that Rishi was struggling with paralyzing perfectionism; he would write and rewrite reports several times, often obsessing over small details, thus resulting in an overdue product.
With this information in mind, Caroline was able to mentor him in a supportive way. Had she intervened earlier by sternly expressing her disappointment in his tardiness, it likely would have increased his anxiety and quest for perfectionism and decreased his ability to deliver results.
Adopting a mentalizing mindset
Deepen your understanding of your own mental states. When you are experiencing particularly strong emotions, pause and notice ways you might be jumping to conclusions about others’ behaviors or intentions.
Challenge the assumptions you make about other people’s mental states. Ask yourself, “What leads me to think that? What facts support my story? Under what conditions is this true and not true? Is there a different way to understand this behavior?”
Adopt a curious and inquisitive demeanor. Test your interpretations of other’s mental states by asking nonjudgmental questions. Potential suggestions include: “I wonder what this experience is like for you?”, “Why is this important for you?” “What emotions does this raise for you?”
Model mentalization for those around you. Mentalizing begets further mentalizing, so look for opportunities to model a reflective mindset. As I said above, it can be challenging to mentalize when we’re upset, but in the middle of an argument, you may stop and ask, “hey, what’s really going on here? Tell me about the feelings underlying your position.” Or, if you think your kid might be excluding one of her friends, you could ask her to consider how her friend might be feeling. If she has trouble putting herself in her friend’s shoes, you may talk about a time that you were left out and how that made you feel.
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Slade A. Parental reflective functioning: an introduction. Attach Hum Dev. 2005 Sep;7(3):269-81.
Fonagy P, Target M. Bridging the transmission gap: At end to an important mystery of attachment research? Attachment and Human Development. 2005;7:333–343.
Slade A, Grienenberger J, Bernbach E, Levy D, Locker A. Maternal reflective functioning, attachment, and the transmission gap: A preliminary study. Attachment and Human Development. 2005a;7:283–298.