A Powerful Interpersonal Model

I have been using the FIRO-B[1] for over 25 years. It’s a questionnaire that provides feedback on three dimensions of interpersonal behavior that are thought to represent basic human needs and sources of motivation (i.e., factors that help explain why we behave the way we do in relationships).

Making relationships work or work better can make life and career much more satisfying.

Making relationships work or work better can make life and career much more satisfying.

The Three Dimensions

Inclusion represents our needs to be a part of something, i.e., an intimate relationship, a family, a friend group, or a work team. We are social animals. [2] We all have some needs for belonging and participation in social life. These needs and motivations manifest in two ways: 1) in our expressed behavior insofar as we invite others to be included, involved, or to participate in something; and 2) in our desires (wanted behavior) to be included, involved, or to participate in something.  

Control represents our needs to take charge, and to shape and influence action and interaction by giving direction (expressed behavior) to others. It also manifests in what we want others to express toward us, i.e., giving direction, providing structure, guiding action, or setting expectations. We all have some inclinations and needs for agency (initiating action) and dominance (asserting control). When our expressed and wanted needs for control are both low, it may reveal a desire for independence.

Affection represents our needs for warmth, intimacy, acceptance, and sensitivity. As with the other dimensions, our expressed affection may register differently than our wanted affection. We may have a lower level of expressed affection, a more reserved, emotionally controlled style, while having a much higher wanted affection level. High wanted levels in affection and inclusion can moderate expressed control, due to our concerns with alienating others, putting needs for inclusion and affection at risk.

Interpretation and Practical Relevance

In the course of describing the three dimensions, we can already recognize that they interact and affect one another in the person of any individual. If we consider the basic stages of joining in relationship with others – the movement from dependence to independence to interdependence – we can see that our needs and tendencies across these three dimensions will affect our ease/difficulty in the joining process.

There is a natural tendency for most people regardless of their dispositional tendencies, as measured on the FIRO-B, to err on the side of being more polite and considerate in the early stage of meeting others. As the relationship becomes more established, our differences will usually manifest with less concern for politeness. Some tensions and working-through of differences may yield a state of interdependence.

Of course, that is a normal, adaptive experience and outcome. But it may not play out so easily in some relationships. Indeed, an asymmetry of power may prevail. And their may be misalignments of inclusion and affection preferences. Such maladaptive outcomes may arise in a crisis or under conditions of stress. However, they may also become chronic patterns that leave us feeling dissatisfied and unhappy.

Fixing Relationships

What you should know is that relationship issues seen through the lens of the FIRO-B become more amenable to resolution. Chronic patterns of maladaptive behavior can take on a sense of fixity or permanence, which can lead to resignation. And the longer we allow this to prevail, the more hopeless and helpless we can become about making change.

But the truth is that where there is a “will” (a good reason to make it work, and a commitment to doing the work), there is a way. And it is for this reason that tools like the FIRO-B have been developed. They generate “data,” which, when patiently examined by individual, couples, or groups, can stimulate hope. Of course, having someone facilitate this process is essential. Why? Let me briefly explain.

The facilitator, a psychologist or coach, creates a level playing field. He or she ensures that everyone has an equal voice, that all the possibilities are considered, and poses working hypotheses to be tested. We separate discovery and the search for meaning (curious mind) from evaluation and prescription (judging mind). We notice where and how we miss the mark on interdependence and how that might be changed.

NOTES:

[1] FIRO-B stands for Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation-Behavior.

[2] This is something observed by Aristotle in ancient Greece when he was writing about human psychology, ethics, and politics. Indeed, Socrates (5th century BC) chose death (taking hemlock) over being exiled from the Greek polis (Athens) because he could not conceive of living a truly human life in isolation from society.