The Interpersonal Circumplex

Graphical representations of human behavior, especially interpersonal behavior, can be very helpful in coaching and psychotherapy, within and outside the consultation room. They become an image in our mind that can help guide our actions. The graphic I share today is one that I use frequently with couples, but also in teams, The Interpersonal Circumplex.

The Interpersonal Circumplex as adapted by J. Kim Penberthy (2016)

The Interpersonal Circumplex as adapted by J. Kim Penberthy (2016)

What it Represents

The Interpersonal Circumplex (IC) represents expressed behavior in two-dimensional space. The vertical axis locates behavior on a dimension of dominant/submissive qualities, while the horizontal axis locates us on a dimension of friendly/hostile behavior.

The IC not only helps us differentiate the behavior we express towards others. It also indicates the response that we are likely to elicit from others. Dominance will "pull" for a submissive response, and vice versa, submissiveness pulls for dominant. But it works differently with friendly and hostile behavior. Friendly and hostile pull for like behavior.

Thus, we could characterize a proper assertive quality of behavior as falling within the upper right quarter, to the friendly and respectful side from an affective standpoint, but from the dominant region in the top of the IC. The closer the behavior is to 12 o'clock while remaining in the friendly half of the IC, the more declarative or direct it is. If our tone takes on a harsher quality, we might describe it as sliding over to to the 10 or 11 o'clock position.

If we assert ourselves verbally and/or nonverbally from the dominant-hostile area, we can expect that we're likely to evoke a response from the hostile-submissive area. Similarly, if we assert a dominant-friendly tone, we will likely invite a friendly-submissive (agreeable) quality of response. The part of the IC we have not yet addressed is the Neutral box in the middle. Let's do that now.

Meeting in the Middle

I will often refer to the Neutral zone on the IC after I have intervened to arrest escalating patterns of conflict. As things heat up, I might first interrupt the back-and-forth with an observation of what I see happening: He/she is raising their voice, flushing with emotional intensity, and expressing a harsh or critical tone, and in response the other person is rolling his/her eyes or using other nonverbal behavior while remaining quiet.

By now, you should be able to plot these two sets of behavior, one in the hostile-dominant area and the other is in the hostile-submissive area. And as we all know from experience - yes, my wife and I can get stuck here too - this pattern of conflict can be difficult to halt once it's begun. And here is where the presence of a skilled third party and proper use of the Neutral zone can pay off.

As I interrupt and offer feedback on what I see, they pause the escalating pattern of conflict. We then notice, without placing blame, that this way of relating to one another is not working. In taking notice, we are moving toward the center of the IC. The grip and amplitude of chronic behavioral routines are weakening. We achieve a greater sense of calm and distance from the heat of battle - we're entering the Neutral zone.

A finer-grained view of behavior on the Circumplex

A finer-grained view of behavior on the Circumplex

Concluding Comments

Neither the Interpersonal Circumplex nor my use of it with couples is a silver bullet. But it's helpful in getting us all on the same page, understanding how things go off the rails, and what it feels like in our body and emotional reactions as the wheels begin to wobble. It's helpful in prompting us to consider - once we're in the Neutral zone - what kinds of behavior could help us get back on track and communicate in the friendly side of the IC.

It's hard to make change in our habitual patterns of behavior without having some sense of what the alternative looks like in concrete behavioral terms. And it's helpful to have a simple message in mind - especially outside of therapy - that can invite us to "meet in the middle," in the Neutral zone in order to create a calming and reflective pause. Only then can we exercise freedom in choosing our behavior rather than acting on auto pilot.

Of course each partner in a couple brings his or her own tendencies of personality and interpersonal style to the relationship. They shape what we expect and perceive and what we express. Some help and some hinder. And there’s room for misunderstanding. But when we keep our eye on the goal and the concrete behaviors that will realize the goal, we discover that we're more able to change than it may have seemed. Change is about learning. Confidence grows from practicing the new more adaptive behaviors we learn.