Something Old, Something New: The Johari Window in Relational Coaching

Most of us who've worked in the fields of leadership development and group dynamics have encountered and perhaps used the Johari Window. It's a classic conceptualization of how self and other awareness affect quality of interaction. Like many models, it may suggest conceptual simplicity. Don't let that fool you. It contains powerful layers of complexity worth discovering.

I can only suggest a bit of the richness of this model here. Therefore, I'll link my comments to recent developments in professional psychology, which I believe indicate new and powerful uses for the model, ways to leverage it and achieve deeper and lasting leadership development in an organizational setting. I will address the intersection of Relational Coaching and Johari Window.

Basics of the Johari Window

Any 2 x 2 matrix will simplify a phenomenon as means of purchasing focus. In the case of the Johari Window the two axes, Known/Unknown to Self and Other (see graphic), create four cells whose boundaries change largely as a function of two kinds of interpersonal communication, i.e., self-disclosure and feedback. There's more to it, but let's start with these dimensions of behavior.

The quadrants are labeled to signify the descriptive differences and normative effects shaped by these patterns of interaction. As they are enacted, cell boundaries expand or contract, our shared space (Public) grows or shrinks. And research in group dynamics, human development, interpersonal neurobiology, and clinical psychology indicates that enlarging this space yields adaptive gains.

Entering relationships, at work or in the community, we all have social-emotional habits that govern what we disclose (make Public) and what we hold back (keep Private). Such "rules" are acquired early in life; so are those that govern the felt ease, willingness, and candor with which we share our feelings and experience of others with others (feedback). No wonder we are be left with Blind Spots.

All this can be changed in varying degrees. It depends importantly on all parties in the social-relational context, and specifically on the changes in overt behavior they are willing and able to make. It also depends on the less visible forces that work from within and between us and others - that's the "stuff" in the Unknown quadrant. And that takes us to the topic of Relational Coaching.

Relational Coaching and the Unknown

The contents of the Unknown cell of the Johari Window are not "unknowable", but they are not as easy to access. The reason that they are important, is that they also can energize our stubborn attachment to certain mental, emotional, and social habits that prove to be self-limiting. These contents were placed in the Unknown space of our mind for a reason. They were problematic.

In most cases, the dimensions of experience and behavior that are relegated to the Unknown region were placed there because they did not fit or got in the way of high-value attachment relationships when we were young. Perhaps certain expressions of subjective experience (emotions, attitudes, action tendencies) were not deemed appropriate. And we noticed, even as very young children.

In other cases, there may have been a keenly felt threat of losing the support and attention of an attachment figure if we made certain demands. So, we may have learned to suppress a good deal of what we subjectively experienced; not only because it could not be freely expressed without risk of alienation, but also because most of our attention was focused on the needs of our caregiver.

In any case, my point is that we currently have easiest access to those dimensions of our experience that we feel are permissible, safe to express, and legitimate. If we’ve cordoned off certain dimensions of experience that reduce our ability to be fully present, cognizant, and attuned to what is happening in a contemporary situation, we constrain our functional and adaptive capabilities.

Relational Coaching, focuses on quality-of-relationship variables that enable one to freely explore dimensions of the "knowable unknown" that feels out of reach and not so easy to access, express, and understand. This exploration requires that a client take risks in a relational space of felt safety. It requires the coach to use special skills along with trust, empathy, and a bit of "tough love".

I want to reinforce that Relational Coaching depends upon the joint commitment, energy, and hard work of both parties. It does take two to tango. Nobody can be mandated to pursue this kind of develop. Both a strong will and a competent guide are critical to success.

In closing, it should be noted that valuable growth in relational skill-building and relationships, as portrayed by the Johari Window, can be achieved with a bit of training - Relational Coaching may not be require. But as we encounter bigger challenges and changes in our career and life, it is not at all unusual that we find ourselves needing to reclaim potential capabilities from the Unknown.

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