Article

Why great leaders mentalize

– and five exercises to help you do so

Published

September 2022

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Author

Maria Ebro Andreasen
+45 5221 6154

Psychological safety, trust and emotional intelligence have been the talking points across industries and regions the past decades. It is time we dig deeper into the psychology behind these terms and the capabilities needed from leaders to enable safe relationships and trust to exist in the workplace. Spoiler alert: Mentalization is the key! In this article, you can learn more about what mentalization is and how to practice it.

What is mentalization?

“Mentalization is to understand your own and others’ mental states that lie behind actions and behavior”1. In the theory of mentalization, we understand mental states as emotions, thoughts, intentions, wishes, needs, assumptions, bias, etc.

Other ways of defining mentalization include2:

  • Mentalization is to understand your own and others’ behaviors as meaningful.
  • Mentalization is to understand misunderstandings.
  • Mentalization is to be mindful of the mind, both your own and others’.

The theory of mentalization was proposed by Fonagy (1991) and developed by several authors over time3. Originally used as treatment for patients with borderline personality disorders4, mentalization is today mostly used within the fields of pedagogy and teaching, as a tool to enable better learning in schools and work with kids from 0–20 years of age with different disorders.

However, with the new age of leadership entering our workplace, I believe it is time to bring mentalization into focus also when talking about leadership, adult development and growth. In fact, in many companies we already have – we just haven’t called it mentalization.

For years, we have talked about how ‘emotional intelligence’ has become more important, and training within relationship-building, trust and ‘understanding each other’ has grown tremendously over the past decades. Never has the industry of profiling each other with DiSC, MBTI, Whole Brain, etc., been so productive – showing that the need to understand your own mind, as well as the minds of others, has proven a valuable tool for growth in the workplace. Those tools can be a great help in understanding minds (if used correctly and not to box people in). But let’s look deeper into what the underlying reason for this is – let’s look deeper into mentalization.

To understand mentalization better, we need to first understand the mind and how we think.

How do people think?

Theories about “how people think” is a science that has evolved massively over the past centuries. One of the most revolutionary thinkers on this topic is Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist mostly known for his work within the psychology of decisions.

Kahneman explains the concept of dual thinking; as humans, we have two distinctly different systems through which we process the world around us.

System 1

Our system 1 is quick to react, always on and totally biased. It reacts and processes the world around you before you even realize it. This system has already judged the person in front of you before you have had the chance to shake his hand.

Constantly operating, system 1 is always on – even when you sleep, which is also why you dream. It is our survival mechanism – it tells us to run if there is danger, to move if something is about to hit us, to REACT, basically.

System 1 is also where emotions and experiences are stored and remembered. It is our long-term memory. It is vital for us to have this fast-reacting system, which also contains our memories to be able to quickly assess a situation of danger and react to it – BUT, as you can imagine, to be able to react this quickly, it simply HAS to understand the world through a pre-defined grid / set of boxes, which makes it heavily biased.

When you have to react quickly to survive, there are no gray areas, and so system 1 is very black and white. It divides the world into categories based on previous experiences, and when something new happens, it aims to quickly understand and process the new information by mapping it into already existing boxes in the mind, hereby enabling a quick but extremely biased reaction.

By storing feelings, beliefs, biases, we use system 1 over time to create an understanding of ourselves.

System 2

System 2, on the other hand, is slow. It needs your attention to work – it needs your concentration to be activated. We use system 2 to solve complex and logical issues. If I ask you, for example, what 50 x 17 is, you will feel your system 2 starting to work.

Working as “knowledge workers,” many of us use our system 2 a lot as part of our daily work. We actually attempt to do that about 8 hours a day. Try for yourself to reflect on how long you think you can focus on a task at a given time; how many hours can you, for example, sit with a PowerPoint presentation, an Excel task, or programming and actively think about how to solve the issue?

When asking this across companies, most people have a tendency to believe they can do this for 2–3 hours at a time. Some even say 8–9 hours straight. However, science shows that your system 2 has a capacity of about fifty minutes. Fifty minutes, and then it shuts down. Which means that having lectures for more than this, or very technical meetings, doesn’t make any sense at all.

But as mentioned, your system 1 is always on – even when your system 2 shuts down. Maybe you recognize the scenario where you have focused on a problem using system 2, and simply couldn’t solve it – however later on, during your run or in the shower, the solution suddenly hits you. This is because system 1 is working in the background, still trying to map the issue to the long-term-memory boxes – trying to find the solution.

Therefore, when you have to learn something new, you do it best by activating BOTH of these systems. Let’s take an example: If you are an experienced driver, you have likely experienced driving to work and then realizing you don’t really remember how you drove there. System 1 just drove you there while System 2 was somewhere completely different. When you had to learn HOW to drive, however, I bet you were using all of your system 2 energy trying to remember it all, and your system 1 was likely also on high alert, to ensure no danger would occur. You were likely nervous, excited and full of emotions.

What do system 1 and system 2 have to do with mentalization?

Mentalization is when you are able to use your System 2 to reflect upon your own System 1, as well as understand that other people also have a System 1 with bias, assumptions and boxes to fit the world into.

Mentalization is characterized by non-knowing – meaning that if you truly mentalize, you are aware that another person’s System 1 is never fully available to you (or even to that person), and hence you cannot know with certainty what is happening and should never assume that you do. The non-knowing approach engages your System 2 in actively mentalizing and trying to understand the other person’s System 1, without you forming an assumption up front.

Here, I would like to introduce the concept of pseudomentalization. Pseudomentalization is when we, with inappropriate certainty, think we “know” what is going on within another person5. When, without asking, we assume we know the intent behind the action. Pseudomentalization is, in its essence, when we use our own System 1 without reflection and project that upon the other person, instead of actively using system 2 to attempt to understand the other person’s System 1.

Pseudomentalization is dangerous, in that we tend to believe we are really good at mentalization and think that we are actually mentalizing about the other person when, in fact, we are only projecting our own feelings and bias onto the other person.

We typically tend to pseudomentalize when we ourselves have intense feelings about the subject or the person we are processing, or when we are stressed and frustrated. As soon as emotions are strong, our system 1 has a tendency to dominate our minds (go into survival mode), leaving challenged our ability to actively reflect using System 2. Our natural survival instincts of System 1 take over when feelings are involved, and we regress into previous mental states and lose the ability to meta-reflect.

The ability to mentalize is therefore extremely complex. It is both an ability you can develop, grow, practice and actively work on as an individual, yet it is an ability so deeply enslaved to your own System 1 emotions and state of mind that the specific situation and relations you are in play a huge role on your ability to mentalize in that given moment.

It is clear that when we are with people we like and in a relationship without conflicts, we are a lot better at mentalizing and staying curious about the other person’s thinking, whereas when we are in a conflict-filled relationship, we are much quicker to jump to conclusions and loose our ability to mentalize. The ability to mentalize is therefore affected by the relationship in question, but the interesting thing is that the relationship is likewise deeply affected by the ability to mentalize.

To understand the correlation between mentalization and our interpersonal relationships better, lets dive a bit deeper into how the ability to mentalize gets developed in the first place.

How do you develop the ability to mentalize in the first place?

Learning to speak is highly dependent on the child getting spoken to and hearing people speak6. Likewise, the ability to mentalize is highly dependent on the quality of early relationships between child and caregiver (parents, teachers, etc.). Namely, the mentalization of the caregiver in the early years.

For the child, the relationship with the caregiver in the early years is tremendously important in all aspects of development, but especially in relation to mentalization. The development of mentalization depends entirely on the attachments of the child to the caregiver. In a healthy and safe attachment, the child learns about themselves as an individual with a mind and feelings, but also about how other people have a different mind and emotions separate from the child. The child learns the appropriate level of nearness and distance to other people, and when uncertain or in doubt, the child feels safe that the caregiver has their back and is there for them. This safe attachment enables the child to grow mental flexibility that enables them to seek closeness and guidance not only from the caregiver, but also with other people and within themselves.

Here, we again witness a circular effect between the ability to mentalize and the state of the relationship in question . The primary caregiver plays an important role in developing mentalization abilities through the safe relationship and attachment created, and science shows that the safe connection is likewise created through mentalization from the caregiver7. This becomes a circle effect, where mentalization enables a safe relationship, which in turn enables the development of the ability to mentalize. Likewise, the circle can be broken into a downwards spiral, where the lack of mentalization creates an unsafe environment, resulting in disorganized attachment where the child will then either try to hyperconnect (become clingy) or detach completely to protect themselves, making mentalization even more difficult.

Mentalization plays a huge role in the development of epistemic trust, which needs to be in place for any child (or human) to learn. Epistemic trust is the basic belief that the caregiver / the other person really wants you to succeed, wants the best for you, and basically means you well. When epistemic trust is in place, learning can take place. Research shows that the practice of mentalization from caregivers has a tremendous impact on epistemic trust and hence on learning and growth.

So, what does mentalization have to do with the workplace?

Over the past decade, the concept of “Psychological safety” has become the center of workplace conversations. When understanding the importance of epistemic trust in relation to attachment and learning, the importance of psychological safety only grows. Even more interesting is how mentalization then affects psychological safety, and how we can use mentalization in the workplace to advance that safety and trust and to ultimately advance our workplace development and growth through that endeavor.

Not much research exists on mentalization in the workplace (yet). However, much research has been done comparing the leader to the role of the primary caregiver8. Research shows that, like the parent with the child, the leader plays an almost equally important role in relation to the employees, when it comes to creating an environment for learning and growth.

The attachment between the leader and the employee is directly linked to psychological safety, and hence the employee’s ability to flexibly seek guidance from the leader, other experts and within themselves. And there is a direct link between the leader’s ability to mentalize and the creation of a safe attachment, where the employee feels that the leader wants the best for them, which again directly influences the employee’s ability to mentalize, as well.

When the leader understands and is mindful about the employee having a different and separate mind with a biased System 1 controlling the basic understandings and assumptions, the leader can then start reflecting on both their own and the employee’s assumptions and biases, and ask to deepen their understanding of the employee’s thoughts, wishes, needs and assumptions. This active attempt to understand (mentalize) will further strengthen the relationship and attachment into a psychologically safe environment in which the employee can likewise grow their mentalization ability and generally feel safe to explore, learn and grow – to the benefit of the employee, the leader and the workplace as a whole.

Why is mentalization important at the workplace?

Why is it important to understand that safe attachments and psychological safety is vastly impacted by the leader’s ability to mentalize?

Working with psychological safety and trust in companies has been a fluffy topic of trust exercises and experimentation over the past decades. But if we understand the ability it requires from a leader (mentalization), it enables us to focus on developing exactly THAT ability (& hiring for THAT ability) and hence we will be able to accelerate our company growth all together.

Already, massive amounts of training, courses and exercises exist within the space of mentalization – just not aimed at the corporate leader. Even tests exist (some more accepted than others) that can help you understand your current level of mentalization ability9.

The existing training is currently designed for teachers and people working with children with learning disabilities, and the tests are currently meant to test children who lack mentalization ability. But with a little bit of work and research, I believe we can transfer this learning across disciplines and utilize all the research and knowledge already created to accelerate mentalization in the workplace.

If we start using the exercises we currently use to teach our teachers, to advance the mentalization ability of our leaders, we can enable the development of safe attachments in the workplace, hence enabling growth and development of all employees.

But don’t just take my word for it. Test it out yourself!

In the coming section, you will find five different exercises you can use to grow the mentalization abilities in your leadership group.

Five exercises to get you started with mentalization

There are many tools and exercises that enable the development of mentalization. Below, I will walk you through five exercises you can use in your own workplace. You can use some of the tools yourself as a leader (official leader or unofficial leader – both apply here), while for others, you will benefit from having an external facilitator who is experienced in mentalization.

Introduce the mentalization concept

Before you introduce the five tool examples, it is important that you introduce your leadership team / your peers to the fundamental concept of mentalization, Kahneman’s dual thinking and the importance of mentalization in relation to building psychological safety. By introducing this, you have already started the meta-reflection of the people you want to help.

The concept of mentalization can be difficult to grasp, which is why you would likely need to perform a number of exercises for people to fully understand it. However, research in the 5–20 age group has shown that having the concept fresh in mind, discussing it, practicing it openly, maybe even having it depicted on the wall, actively engages and enables the growth and focus on developing it.

Exercise 1: Coaching or supervision

Having a coach or colleague follow you for a period is one of the strongest tools of mentalization development.

In several schools, research has shown that by having a coach or colleague follow the teacher every three weeks and enabling timely mentalizing reflection sessions with the teacher, the teacher’s own mentalization ability grew rapidly10. Every three weeks, the coach observed the teacher for a day. At the end of the day, the coach would not provide feedback in the “traditional” way (Sandwich model or “This is how I felt it” model), but instead the coach would mentalize with the teacher on the events of the day.

In the corporate world, we can use the same approach of having a colleague or a coach follow you for one day a month. After the day or after specific meetings, the observer helps you to mentalize on the day, asking mentalizing questions, such as: What happened in your head and stomach during the meeting today when the discussion got tense? Did you assume anything about the behavior of your employee? Was there an opportunity where you could have mentalized more today? When were your own feelings at play today, where you might have failed to mentalize? How might you react differently next time to mentalize more?

It makes the coaching easier if you have someone from outside of the company follow you, as the coach is then less likely to have their own emotions involved. However, if the observer is a colleague, make sure you find one that is as far away from your normal work as possible and who is strong within mentalization themselves. If the observer already knows you and your employees too well, they might find it more difficult to remove their own emotions and biases from the scenario, and the mentalization experience might be weakened.

Exercise 2: Collegial sparring

Introduced by Brasnett & Troupp (2014), the concept of collegial sparring describes when teachers want to grow their mentalization ability within the teacher group. The methodology can easily be transferred to leadership development, and I have also performed it in the corporate world with great success.
You can perform this tool yourself, but the results are often stronger if you select a facilitator with strong mentalization ability to guide the conversation – at least the first few times.

The sparring should be time-limited and can be done either in a group or 1:1.

The process consists of four steps:

1. 2–3 min: Determine the agenda.
Have one person with a specific dilemma sit in the center (if 1:1 you might benefit from doing this as a walk-and-talk). Ask clarifying questions about the focus for today – not yet about the dilemma itself, but about the context of today. For example, what does the person want out of the sparring today? What is he/she hoping to gain from the conversation? What would he/she like the colleagues to focus on?

2. 2–3 min: Explain the dilemma.
The person explains the dilemma at hand. As the facilitator, you help the person to not dive into a rabbit hole of details but to keep it to the core issue.

3. 10 min: Mentalize in the moment.
This step consists of two aspects, and it is key that you don’t reverse the order:

a. Understand the person: What does he/she feel in this dilemma? What does he/she think? How is he/she experiencing the dilemma? What bias and assumptions might he/she have that affects the dilemma?

b. Understand the problem: What might others involved in the dilemma think/feel? What could be at play? Could it be viewed differently?

4. 5 min: Round off.
This last step also consists of two aspects. This time it is the person with the dilemma that takes over to:

a. Summarize the problem: What possible solutions arose? What possible routes were shown? What did they learn from the conversation?

b. Summarize the session: Did they get what they wanted from the session? Did they get the sparring they needed? Would they like different kinds of questions or sparring next time?

If you have introduced mentalization as a concept, I recommend you also round off the session with a short discussion of how the people involved experienced the mentalization aspects of this exercise. Was anything surprising? Did new knowledge arise? How was it different from other types of sparring?

Exercise 3: Check-ins

When you initiate longer meetings or workshops, consider starting out with a longer check-in. Here, the idea is for all individuals to present what is on their mind and what state of mind they are in.

Today, many companies already use this tool in various forms; some using a mood barometer assessing their mood of the day or smiley boards. However, many unfortunately use check-ins without deeper reflection on why they have the introduction to the state of mind people are in. In my experience, the check-in tool is strongest if you introduce the concept of mentalization to the group in advance and use the check-in to actively assess people’s ability to mentalize on that given day.

The ability to be present and to not be overcome with one’s own emotions is dependent on the individual’s state of mind and mood. Your ability to mentalize is already under enormous pressure if you come running in from a rushed morning of delivering a crying child in kindergarten, knowing you have a full inbox waiting for you, and then have to spend three hours in a workshop. Honestly and openly discussing that up front not only provides the rest of the group with a better understanding of your state of mind (helping them to mentalize), but actually also helps you to ground yourself and leave some of those feelings in the background, enabling you to mentalize better in the session or, at the very least, be mindful about your lack of mentalizing ability in the situation.

This tool can easily be incorporated without a facilitator, but it does help to designate someone as “process handler,” ensuring that everyone has time to speak and ask a few follow-up questions such as: So where does that leave you in terms of state of mind for today’s session? How ready do you feel to engage your full mind in today’s topic?

Exercise 4: Creating a backdoor

You can use this tool by yourself in relationships where you know you have conflicts or have a history of conflicts. You can use the tool in relationships where you wish to advance the trust and the mentalization between you – where you want to rebuild a healthy and trusting relationship.

Creating a backdoor is a proven tool with kids with developmental difficulties (centerformentalization.dk), but you can use the tool in the workplace equally as well.

The basic idea behind the tool is that you agree with the other person on a back-door policy. When in peace, you sit down with the person in question and together you acknowledge that there is indeed a history of distrust. Discuss whether there is a genuine wish to rebuild the relationship, and if there is, discuss how you might both work on your ability to mentalize to rebuild this (if there isn’t a wish, the dialogue becomes much more complicated and the back-door policy useless).

We know that when there is a history of conflict, it is much more difficult to mentalize. The backdoor tool revolves around being actively aware of this challenge so we can practice recognizing our own feelings when we fail to mentalize. Having an encounter between you, you might feel “old” feelings of conflict bubbling to the surface, and you might feel the ability to mentalize growing smaller by the minute. You can recognize the signs such as: Your own stomach and feelings starting to take over, you start formulating assumptions about the other person in your head, you get annoyed/frustrated, you jump to conclusions.

The idea with the back-door policy is that when you recognize these feelings, you call a backdoor/time-out. By having this agreement up front, you are able to say: “Hey, I can feel my ability to stay on topic and mentalize is drifting right now, I think we need a time-out from the topic.” You can then either step away from the conversation for a little bit or, if you both feel like it, take it to a meta-level and discuss: “Why do you think that you are experiencing mentalization failure at this very moment?”

This tool can also be used in a group / team setting as a call-out option that the entire team agrees upon.

Exercise 5: Conflict mediation

If a conflict has arisen, Mediating Mentalization can be a strong tool. This tool requires a facilitator to engage, and the facilitator must have strong mentalization skills to do this properly. It can be someone within the organization if you don’t have the option of external consultancy, but make sure it is someone both parties in the conflict feel safe with.

In short, the mediation consists of six steps (www.kursuscetersputnik.dk):

  1. Let the persons involved cool down. Conflicts are best resolved when feelings are less strong – typically the day after the event.
  2. Gather the people in a room with a whiteboard and explain how the mediation will work. Introduce the rule that people cannot interrupt each other.
  3. Split the board into two sections and let each party present their view of the situation, covering aspects such as: Who is involved, what happened (facts), who did/said what. Write notes on their side of the whiteboard as they speak.
  4. When both are done, it is the facilitator’s task to bring the stories together. Circle the places where they agree on the situation and acknowledge that there are aspects they agree upon.
  5. Now, underline the places where they do not agree. Don’t necessarily chase the “right” answer, but invite to reflection on why their stories differ.
  6.  Ask questions such as:
    1. What do you think was the intention behind the action?
    2. What was your intention behind the action?
    3. What other actions would you have preferred in this situation?
    4. What might you yourself do differently next time / in the future?
    5. What happened in your stomach during the conflict / feelings you had?
    6. How could you have mentalized more in the situation?

At this point, you might also benefit from discussing if it is worth creating a back-door policy (see previous tool) for future reference.

Rounding off

These five exercises are just some of the tools you can start implementing to enhance mentalization in your workplace, thereby increasing psychological safety, trust and, ultimately, growth.

If you want to dive deeper into the topic, you can enable your own and others’ growth, borrowing exercises from the numerous research articles within the topic of psychological safety (e.g., how showing vulnerability as a leader also has a huge effect) and likewise within mentalization (albeit related to children still).

Here are a couple of other examples of exercises I have used:
  • Retrospectives in the agile world, where you reflect, together with the team, on what was learned, how it was experienced and how to do it better next time.
  • Evaluations with “hot-chair” settings, where individuals learn more about how others see them and how they see themselves.
  • Frustration exercises with purposefully challenging games, where employees only get half-truths/information and, in a very frustrating exercise, have to collaborate to succeed, which inevitably leads to conflicts. You can then mentalize upon the exercises together.
  • Self-reflection on your own can also help to advance your own reflection and understanding of System 1 using System 2.

Really, the possibilities and exercises are endless. However, if you want to continue the development of mentalization in the workplace, it is important that you link the exercises you use back to the ability to mentalize and use them to challenge your own and others’ System 1 biases and assumptions. By doing so, you enable the development, the trust and, ultimately, the growth of your entire company.

If you would like to know more, please reach out – I would love to hear about your reflections on the topic, your examples of where you met people who were really strong/weak in their mentalization ability and how it affected you. Or if you have ideas for additional exercises to help grow the topic of mentalization further.

Notes

1 See, for example;
Allen, J. G. (2006): "Mentalization in practice." In J. G. Allen & P. Fonagy (Eds.), The handbook of mentalization-based treatment (pp. 3–26). West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons.
Fonagy, P. (1991): “Thinking about Thinking: Some clinical and Theoretical Considerations in the Treatment of Borderline Patient.” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 72, p. 639-656.

2 Allen, J. G. (2006): "Mentalization in practice". In J. G. Allen & P. Fonagy (Eds.), The handbook of mentalization-based treatment (pp. 3–26). West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons.
Bateman & Fonagy, (2007): Mentaliseringsbaseret behandling af Borderline personlighedsforstyrrelse. En praktisk guide. Akademisk Forlag.
Skårderud & Sommerfeldt, (2013): Miljøterapiboken: mentalisering som holdning og handling (MBT-M). Gyldendal Akademisk.

3 See, for example, Bateman & Fonagy, (2012): Handbook of Mentalizing in Mental Health Practice. American Psychiatric Publishing.

4 Bateman & Fonagy, (2004): Psychoterapy for Borderline personality Disorder: Mentalization Based Treatment. Oxford University Press

5 Bateman & Fonagy, (2012): Handbook of Mentalizing in Mental Health Practice.American Psychiatric Publishing.

6 Berk, L.E. (2003):  Child Development, (6th edition). Allyn & Bacon.
Fonagy et al., (2007a): “The Parent-Infant Dyad and the Construction of the Subjective Self”. Journal of Child Psychology and Pcychiatry, 48.

7 Fonagy et al., (1994): “Theory and practice of resilience.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplins, 35.
Kelly et al., (2005): “Maternal Reflective Functioning, Mother-Infant Affective Communication, and Infant Attachment: Exploring the link between mental states and observed caregiving behavior in the Intergenerational Transmission of Attachment.” Attachment and Human Development, 7.

8 See, e.g., this Danish article: https://www.mm.dk/artikel/barndommen-oversete-element-ledelse

9 See: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/
10.1080/00223891.2017.1310730

10 Jacobsen & Guul, (2015): Mentaliseringskompetence I professional praksis. Frydenlund.

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