The secret desires of teams: Part I: On the trail of the unconscious in business communication
One cannot not communicate – Paul Watzlawick’s sentence has become common knowledge. It is more or less clear to all of us that we communicate constantly and often not just what we say. But how exactly does non-verbal and unconscious communication work? How can the unconscious level of communication be deciphered, understood and above all used personally and professionally in a proactive way?
When we say something, when we move, when we laugh or when we remain silent: The unconscious is a constant companion, and what is received by others is often not what we have said, but what we carry along as a second level.
The unconscious can not only be found on Freud’s couch…
If we look at the dynamics in our psyche as if under a magnifying glass, one thing stands out in advance. Every communication, no matter what we say, how we move and what is reflected in our face, is an expression of our desires. Our feelings, closely linked to these desires, show us whether we are approaching our desires or whether we have to fear or fight for them.
Our conscious and unconscious desires are our deepest motivation and reason for our actions.
Even when we talk formally and soberly about processes or other topics in a team, a hidden wish is never far away. It manifests itself in the way we speak, in the urgent intensity or in the limp routine.
But here is the catch. Because we are not always internally congruent. Some experience themselves as friendly and indulgent, but are subliminally full of anger and resentment. Some give a speech about financial accounting, but are uncertain and distracted. Some seem tireless at first sight and are always there for others, but in other moments their deep exhaustion and fear is noticeable. All these are moments in which what we see and what is experienced subliminally fall apart. In some moments we are aware of such a divergence of reality, but often we are not. Then the desire hidden in communication is not conscious and therefore not clearly visible. It must be deciphered, identified and put together like a mosaic, from small clues and fine traces.
Why are so many of our wishes and feelings not conscious and encoded?
There are different approaches and everything I write in the following is certainly a strong simplification and would cause numerous psychoanalysts* to tear their hair and put the article aside. I still risk it.
Trace reading in search of the unconscious
Let’s assume that we all have lots of wishes and feelings. We have impulsive desires for quick pleasure or short satisfaction, we desire relationships, love, autonomy, power and security, social recognition and care. Depending on our personality and biography, some wishes are more important to us than others. However, these desires partly compete with each other or are in conflict with each other. If I act out the desire for autonomy in my marriage, I cannot fulfill the desire for security in commitment at the same time.
Even if I feel impulsive desires, this is true. Let’s take a simple example: a piece of cake catches my eye in the shop window of the bakery. Part of me wants to take it and eat it immediately. Another part knows – I need money, I stand in line and I remain friendly, even if the customer in the queue in front of me buys the last piece. I don’t push or pinch the customer in front of me either, although I might feel like it. In psychoanalysis it’s called an “id about super-ego-conflict”: my libidinous part experiences itself as greedy and angry and my socially motivated strict super-ego instructs me to continue to behave inconspicuously and to choose another piece of cake.
Internal conflicts are hard to bear
Internal conflicts such as the one, either between different needs or between parts of id and superego, are difficult to bear. Depending on how stable we are internally and how relaxed we are, our psyche can endure conflicts better or worse. But it can be said that a lack of balance and homeostasis leads to tension and stress. And tensions are hard to bear.
But our psyche is smart. She knows how to help herself and she knows a way out of the tension. She pushes unwanted and inappropriate wishes and the corresponding feelings into the unconscious. So, to stick to our example, in the end we may not even be aware how much we would like to pinch the customer in front of us when he leaves the bakery with our piece of cake. Or we stay in relationships in which we have not been doing well for a long time without feeling that we long for something new in our lives, because we think we cannot bear the fear that comes with autonomy. You can imagine the unconscious as a cellar in which we toss what bothers us in our tidy home and is in our way. What is wrong with this picture is the following: Everything we hold in the unconscious has an immense power: it wants to become conscious, and it shapes us and pushes to the surface. It needs mechanisms to keep it where it is: in psychoanalysis we call these mechanisms defense.
Defense mechanisms are border guards
Some defense mechanisms are more gentle and stay close to what we unconsciously experience, some are more radical and divisive. In order not to feel our desires, we have numerous strategies. We rationalize, we deny, we somatize (so we don’t feel) or project our desires onto others. Some get scared instead of getting angry and others get angry so they don’t feel needy. The concept of defense is a broad one and it is a fact that defense is absolutely necessary to get by in life and not to be constantly torn apart by ambivalences and driven by libidinal desires.
Perhaps it is still exciting that there are some defense strategies that benefit us and bring us forward, that help us to achieve our goals and protect our relationships. Some of these strategies also keep violent feelings and desperate desires away from us, but ultimately lead to neurotic disorders or problems in relationships. Depression can also be understood as defence: if you are listless and depressed, you hardly feel your feelings, and you no longer feel your mourning and aggression. Narcissistic personalities have distanced themselves so far from their own neediness that they become cold and inaccessible. If you have panic attacks, you don’t have to stand on your own two feet and assert yourself in a world that is hard in some places. In the end, every form of mental illness can be explained by a functional but increasingly rigid defence. But this goes beyond the limits of this article.
The unconscious and our defenses shape our personality.
What is important for us is that defence also shapes the relationships we have in different ways. Communication is strongly influenced by whether we can endure reality and whether we can acknowledge the otherness of our counterpart. Those who deny the truth of others or project their feelings onto others in order not to have to perceive it in themselves can, depending on the extent of their resistance, seriously disturb their relationships.
Fact is, our wishes and feelings are partly unconscious but not gone. They and our defences shape and influence us and thus also our communication with others. Defense hides our feelings and our desires and takes care so they do not become conscious.
In order to understand the concept of the unconscious and the concept of defence in depth, we still need an important piece in the puzzle. Which is our biography. Because in our early relationships we learn to name and evaluate our feelings. What the infant initially senses are not differentiated feelings. It is tension and when the tension increases even pain. The infant does not tell himself, “Oh I am hungry, oh, I long for warmth”. He feels physical tension and hunger as pain in his body. Only the mirroring and the naming by the parents enable him in the course of his development to differentiate and understand his inner and so far physically experienced emotional states. When things go well, parents look at their child and begin to contain the child in how it expresses emotions. They reflect on it and they find words for the so far unspoken experience. Thereby tensions become feelings and with increasing age physical experience becomes psychic. The child cannot yet regulate its tensions alone, it is at their mercy and dependent on the calming and regulating help of its parents. In psychoanalysis, it is called “containment”, parents absorb the feelings and instinctive desires of the child, they name, differentiate and endure them and then return them in a well-digested and bearable way. This may sound unfamiliar, but in the end it describes, again under the microscope, the moment when the baby cries desperately because he is hungry and the mother comes and says “oh are you hungry? (mirroring, differentiating) and then comforting “come on, dear, I’ll feed you” (calming and regulating).
Our ability to experience and feel ourselves and others is shaped by the ability of our parents to endure and accompany our experiences and feelings
It is not always the case that the parents contain us as described in the example above. Parents are never perfect and they do not have to be in order to enable their child to develop in a healthy way. However, this also means that they pass on their own blind spots and tensions to the child. If the 4-year-old child rages and refuses to walk up the stairs alone because he wants to be carried, then you react in your own personal way. Some people carry their child in any case, because they cannot bear the anger of others. Some let themselves be infected by the anger of the child and punish them. Others manage to endure the anger of the child without getting angry themselves or having to “clear” the anger immediately. Depending on how the anger of the child is answered, the inner imprint of this small interpersonal sequence will look like in the child’s psyche. Taken together, all his emotional experiences lead to the fact that later as an adult he can allow some feelings and experience others as unbearable and finally only unconscious. At this point I would like to point out again that my descriptions of the inner psychic processes are very simplified. If it has become a little clear how our biographical experiences shape the functioning of our defence system, then this is sufficient at this point.
We push those desires and feelings into the unconscious that we experience as unbearable or socially undesirable. We are strongly influenced by our early biographical experiences
So now back to the present. When we communicate as adults, then we already have developed our personal way of dealing with feelings and desires. We endure some feelings well, others less well. And we have developed our personal favourite defence mechanisms to protect ourselves from conflicting feelings. Taken together, this describes our personality.
I would like to make two more concrete examples: some people consider their neediness unbearable. They are little aware of it. Often these people can be found in social professions, they take care of others sacrificially and thus prevent themselves from feeling their own neediness. At the same time they experience themselves as important and strong. Such behaviour is called altruistic defence and it becomes clear that defence, as always, has both the effect of keeping the unconscious unconscious as well as, so to speak “through the back-door”, coming too close to the unconscious wishes. Others have a rather compulsive structure, their aggressions are unconscious and they follow rules and plans in their defense, are often perfectionist and – very controlled. In this way, possible aggressive impulses and desires remain under control. Often these people have experienced that their aggressions were answered with severity or even violence. There was no room for deviations. A high degree of control in their relationships protects them both from their own aggressions and from early feelings of powerlessness.
The unconscious and the defensive shape personality
When people come together and have professional and personal relationships, they never come together just for the cause. Without wanting it or even suspecting it, they always meet for the fulfilment of their unconscious desires. We experience the world through the glasses of our early experiences and our unconscious desires. Thinking this through is essential for a deeper understanding of communication.
The professional setting is often about conscious and unconscious desires to be seen, about narcissistic confirmation and recognition, about desires for power and freedom from dependencies, but also about desires for identity and personal development. If we move in hierarchies, the re-staging of early dependencies and hierarchies is not far away. This means that we experience ourselves with our boss in the same way as we experienced ourselves with our father, in our colleagues we reexperience the relationship with our siblings.
Re-enactments of our early emotional experiences are frequent and an immanent urge of our psyche
In the desire to get the unconscious consciously and the unfulfilled fulfilled, we see our early caregivers in others. Who, if not the boss, could fulfill our hidden and so far unfulfilled desires to be understood and seen. Of course, we know that this is not the case and we understand that today we are adults and that some of our desires may no longer be fullfilled in their depth. But in a subtle way we still stage our original situation and hope to free ourselves from old patterns.
And they are clearly there. Those who really understand the unconscious dimension of communication create a short space between situation and reaction. They can learn to experience and feel affects and desires and thus get out of the compulsion to repeat early experiences and to be driven by unconscious desires.
Our ability to endure reality, our own and that of our counterparts, is extremely important for successful communication
If the communication with a colleague or superior has gone wrong, then you can ask yourself the following question:
- How did I feel during the conversation? What was my emotional wish for my counterpart?
- What do I suppose my counterpart felt like? What do I suspect was the emotional wish of my counterpart?
- And how did we both deal with it? What did we talk about, what did we leave out?
You can find out more about the unconscious in business communication in our individual coaching or in the next blog article, which will deal with the unconscious in team communication.