Building Healthy, Flexible Relationships

PROSOCIAL outlines a set of core design principles that help groups cooperate. But what are the core skills that each individual must develop to get the principles working optimally?

Research has shown that people have better relationships when they have three key capabilities: perspective taking, empathy and psychological flexibility (e.g. Levin et al., 2016). Perspective taking allows us to step into the shoes of others – to understand how another person is making sense of the world and what they care about. Empathy is about shared feeling, and it allows us to care about the other. Finally, psychological flexibility allows us to maintain relationships we care about, even in the face of difficult feelings. There is now good evidence that each of these capabilities is needed to have relationships that can endure the difficult times, not just enjoy the good times.

PROSOCIAL is a practical approach to using the power of variation and selection to improve human relationships. But if we try to implement PROSOCIAL without paying attention to building relationship skills, it is like giving a car-repair manual to a person who lacks the skills of car repair. Implementation might happen, but it is just as likely to cause harm as it is to do good.

In this article, I want to explore how the skills of perspective taking, empathy and psychological flexibility support and enhance the core design principles of PROSOCIAL. Most readers will already know what it means to take the perspective of another or empathise with them. But the term ‘psychological flexibility’ may well be new to many readers. I will begin by defining psychological flexibility, and then talk about how these three capabilities affect each of the core design principles.

When a person is psychologically flexible, they can do what they care about irrespective of whether thoughts, feelings and sensations get in the way.  Groups of people attempting to accomplish shared goals need to be psychologically flexible, no less than single individuals. For example, group members may not speak up about issues with which they disagree because they fear angry arguments.  Alternatively, members might take on too much work because they are afraid of the social disapproval of others if they say no to new tasks.  Or they might refuse to take on challenging tasks because they are afraid of failing and being criticised, or they doubt their abilities.  Or they might give up in disappointment after their repeated attempts to make contributions have been ignored. In all these cases, the most effective action, both for the individual and the group, is thwarted by unpleasant thoughts, feelings or sensations.  And in all these cases, people genuinely want to act in their own and others’ long-term interests, but instead they act to alleviate short-term pain and discomfort even at the expense of their long-term interests.

So, what if it were possible to develop the capacity to act in the direction of your values, even when it felt difficult or unpleasant? PROSOCIAL includes training in just this skill, and we call it psychological flexibility – the capacity to do what is important even if psychological barriers such as fear, lack of confidence, anger, disappointment and guilt are present.  It involves ‘flexibility’ because we aim to help people develop multiple ways to respond to a given situation, not just avoidance.  When a person is psychologically flexible, they can choose whether avoiding or approaching the pain is likely to lead to better long-term outcomes.

So what does all this have to do with PROSOCIAL? Steve Hayes has already written HERE about how the first part of PROSOCIAL is a process called the Matrix which is designed to clarify individual and group purposes, but also expose difficult psychological experiences at the individual and group levels that might get in the way of cooperation. This process builds individual and collective psychological flexibility that then helps the core design principles to work more effectively. Let’s look at how psychological flexibility is important to each of the principles.

The first principle is “Shared Identity and Common Purpose”.   As the group uses the Matrix process to develop both their own and a shared group map of what they care about and what gets in the way, they are operating at two levels. On the surface, this is about sharing information – finding out what we each care about and how those interests and values overlap as a group, and finding out what trips us up separately and when we are together. But on a deeper level, if done well, this process of sharing our hopes and fears builds perspective-taking, empathy, safety and trust in the group.

During this process, group members become more vulnerable and human. Moreover, this encourages others to take risks where they may otherwise have let fear stop them from speaking up.  Group members see how others have the same difficulties, and they learn that most of the labels we use to describe ourselves and others (I am smart, he is stupid, I am introverted, she is extroverted, …) create illusory separation and unnecessary suffering. Instead of judging, criticising and defending; group members learn to notice what is happening and explore actions that might help them move towards individual and collective goals, thereby enhancing shared identity and common purpose.

Principle two is about “equitable distribution of costs and benefits”. Costs and benefits are not the same for everyone. One person might see group leadership as a benefit while another might see it as a cost, others might value or deplore spending time on other tasks.  Once we better understand the perspective of others, we can also better understand what they see as a cost or a benefit, and if empathy helps us care about the other, we can work more efficiently to maximise benefits and minimise costs on an individual basis.  The PROSOCIAL process transforms the meaning of relationships to be less about transactions and more about shared effort and co-creation.

How often have you felt that you are contributing more to a group than others?  You are not alone. Generally speaking, we are wired to overestimate our own positive contributions and underestimate the contributions of others.  Psychological flexibility can help us accept the pain of momentary or perceived inequity, and still act in the direction of what matters for the long-term aims of the group.

Principle three, “inclusive decision making” is important in PROSOCIAL because it helps build motivation for collective action, at the same time as protecting against individual interests dominating over shared interests.  Inclusive decision-making can take many forms; some groups might hold discussions until a consensus is reached, others might vote on options, and others might create a social contract where the group simply provides information to a designated leader or representative who is then entrusted to make decisions on behalf of the group. It just depends on what will work best for the group. For example, consensus builds involvement but it takes a lot of time and sometimes not everyone has access to good information to make a decision.

Whatever approach is used, enhanced perspective taking and empathy help group members navigate the turbulent and sometimes emotionally challenging waters of sharing and advocating for different ideas and options.  If the group has done the groundwork to build safety and trust, then risking giving others the power to make decisions can be a lot less threatening. Moreover, psychological flexibility can help us to sit more comfortably with the discomfort of disagreements and take control of our jobs (Bond & Bunce, 2003).  Psychological flexibility also reduces impulsive decision making – when people are more psychologically flexible they are less likely to gamble or to discount the benefits of long-term goals. Psychological flexibility shifts people from being under the control of short-term interests to long-term, and more deeply held interests.

If the group has a leader, psychological flexibility can help them handle the stress of making decisions often in the face of complexity and uncertainty. Another common dynamic is that leaders make decisions to help them look good, rather than in the interests of the group. As leaders learn that they no longer need to defend their egos, they can free up their attention to listen to others and base their decisions on better information.  It is well known that more transformational leaders tend to be those who are better able to act in the face of difficult emotions such as uncertainty and doubt.

Thus far, the design principles have been primarily about creating optimal conditions for cooperation. The next two principles, monitoring agreed-upon behaviours and graduated sanctions for misbehaviours, are key to managing individual behaviours.  The matrix work early in PROSOCIAL generates information about what needs to be monitored – valued individual and group behaviours and defensive individual and group behaviours that are likely to interfere with effective cooperation.  For example, if members of a group know that, when the leader feels insecure, he/she gets more dictatorial or avoidant or even excessively friendly, then they can act to help the leader and the group to act more effectively when these behaviours are noticed. Similarly, if members of a group know that that when they get stressed, they are more likely to argue, then they can put in place processes for noticing when that is happening and ameliorate the effects.  Monitoring is not just about selfish or unhelpful behaviour, it can also help align well-meaning, cooperative efforts that are pulling in different directions.

Principle five, graduated sanctions, is massively enhanced by psychological flexibility. It is helpful to imagine a parent dealing with a screaming child as a metaphor. One can imagine a parent over-reacting and coming down hard on the child to immediately terminate the uncertainty and discomfort of being in the presence of the screaming. However, one can easily imagine another parent who under-reacts by avoiding assertively responding to the child out of fear of conflict escalating.

In the same way, group members who are controlled by their emotions in the presence of conflict are more likely to either overreact or under-react to misbehaviours. Learning to respond at the right level of strength for the situation takes the capacity both to notice what is going on and also the capacity to not be excessively driven by one’s immediate emotions.  It can help group members and leaders find a wise middle way between sending in the bombers and ignoring the situation in the hope that it will go away.

At the same time, a capacity to step into the shoes of another and empathise can transform the ‘feel’ of being sanctioned. For example, being dismissed from an organisation (i.e. exiled by the group) can be done in a way that is harsh and punitive, or it can be done in a way that maximises the opportunities for the person leaving the group to learn and grow from the experience.  Psychological flexibility helps people use their power kindly.

Principle six is about fast and fair conflict resolution.  Conflict is to genuine cooperation as movement is to transport – conflict is an inevitable part of the process of cooperation. Whenever people are empowered to bring their whole selves to a cooperative venture, their interests will inevitably diverge. But most people, and sometimes even whole cultures, have learned to fear and avoid conflict. Learning to take the perspective of others, empathise with them and tolerate the pain of conflict, helps transform the meaning of conflict from something to be avoided into something to be used for learning and growth.

The last two principles of PROSOCIAL are about how the group engages with other groups: authority to self-govern, and appropriate relations with other groups. These principles highlight the need not only for individual flexibility but psychologically flexible environments. The system within which cooperation occurs has to afford the possibility of choosing wisely rather than reacting defensively in the presence of difficulties. Just as the first six principles afford the possibility of healthy, supportive relationships between individuals, the last two principles highlight the need for the same sorts of relations between groups. Psychological flexibility, along with perspective taking and empathy, allows us to move collectively in the direction of what we care about even in the presence of difficult experiences stemming both from inside and outside our groups.

Bond, F. W., & Bunce, D. (2003). The Role of Acceptance and Job Control in Mental Health, Job Satisfaction, and Work Performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(6), 1057-1067.

Levin, M. E., Luoma, J. B., Vilardaga, R., Lillis, J., Nobles, R., & Hayes, S. C. (2016). Examining the role of psychological inflexibility, perspective taking, and empathic concern in generalized prejudice. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 46(3), 180-191. doi:10.1111/jasp.12355

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Paul Atkins conducts research and teaches with the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at the Australian Catholic University. By training, he is a registered psychologist with a PhD in Psychology from Cambridge University. He is an endorsed organisational psychologist and has spent most of his career researching, teaching, and working practically in the areas of organisational behavior, leadership and organisational development.

Paul’s research interests are focused upon the use of mindfulness based treatments such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) for enhancing relationships, compassion and psychological flexibility. In 2012 he published an article in the world’s leading management journal (Academy of Management Review) on the application of ACT to enhance compassion in organisations. This year he published a book for Cambridge University Press on the use of mindfulness training in organizations. He is president-elect of the Australia and New Zealand Association for Contextual Behavioural Science.
Paul has a long practical career working as a psychologist in organisations. He has worked with thousands of managers and staff doing training or one-on-one executive coaching, mainly focused on improving wellbeing, resilience, stress management, conflict management and teamwork. He has delivered hundreds of workshops to clients from private, public and volunteer organisations. He is a member of the international design team implementing PROSOCIAL, an approach for enhancing cooperation in teams using principles derived from social psychology, evolutionary theory and economics. He is also using PROSOCIAL to enhance cooperation and teamwork in school, business and public groups.

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