The Reflective Function

The Reflective Function: A Key to Emotional Freedom[i]

How do we rise above the emotional storms that can erupt during times of change, strain, and struggle in order to get at the heart of the issues and find a constructive path forward? Whether this is applied to oneself, to relationships, or to events in a large-scale organizational initiative, this competency, emotional self-regulation, is often what makes the difference and distinguishes exemplary leaders. 

Image by Tsung-lin Wu

Image by Tsung-lin Wu

I’ll begin with an anecdote shared by Stephen Covey years ago. It portrays an emotionally charged social situation that we can use to gain insight into a powerful approach to emotional self-regulation called "mentalization."  As you will see it employs a special kind of reflective function, which can be learned and leads to greater emotional freedom and relational leadership competence.

A Human Situation

Renowned leadership author Stephen Covey shared a personal experience about riding the subway in New York City and becoming annoyed with the disruptive behavior of some young children who were running, jumping, and making noise. Meanwhile, their father simply sat there saying nothing. Finally, in growing frustration, Covey turned to the man and asked: "Sir, could you please control your children?"

Many of us can immediately sympathize with Covey: We are exhausted and on our way home. All we want is to be left alone. How inconsiderate of this guy to let his kids run wild in a confined public space. What is he thinking? We are offended and resent this father's neglect of basic parenting responsibilities. It’s all we can do to contain our annoyance and moderate our tone when we finally speak up.

Then Covey throws us a curve ball: The man responds as though awakening from a deep sleep. His stunned expression conveys confusion. He struggles to orient himself to the situation at hand. Then he speaks haltingly, "Oh, I guess I was not watching. We were just at the hospital. Their mother just died. I guess they don't know what to do with themselves, and I don't either."

Wow, talk about awakenings! Suddenly Covey sees things very differently. His feelings of annoyance now seem trivial, embarrassing. They shrivel into insignificance. His mind is flooded with feelings about this poor man, his heart is softened. What Covey earlier saw as rude indifference he now recognizes as shock and trauma. Covey calls this sudden shift in perspective a paradigm shift.

Call it what you wish, the disclosure is jarring and its effects are transformative. Even as second-hand experience for the reader, the power and impact of this story is stunning. We so easily sympathize with Covey's feelings of annoyance and his resentment of the father's inaction. We so readily accepted his attributions of inconsiderate behavior to this man—"how could this man be so rude?"

Covey's initial attitude was governed by norms of propriety and considerations of what was due him, Stephen Covey, as a fellow passenger. In that moment he does not wonder what might be going on with the man that would explain his actions. The father is objectified. He's merely a fellow passenger, and he and his obnoxious kids are being "bad" passengers, a source of annoyance.

Then suddenly all these assumptions are shattered. The emotional meaning of the interpersonal situation is transformed. A new set of values and norms now apply. It is no longer a matter of common courtesy among subway passengers. Offense at the violation of such perfunctory rules evaporates as Covey is drawn into this person's raw and early moments of bereavement and loss.

Covey finds himself sharing the bereaved man's confusion, caring less about how his children might be "misbehaving" and more about how he might comfort or help the man. His emotional attunement to this man's inner world activates norms of compassion, caring, and yes, patience. Time is suspended. This has become a moment to restart engagement, realign priorities, and connect with another human being if only to the next station stop.

The Reflective Function

First, I must say that I admire Covey's candor and willingness to confess to what some may regard as petty annoyance. Such disconnects and misunderstandings happen. We know from studies in human development (attachment) that even in a well-bonded infant-mother relationship there are many moments when the pair is out of synch. What differentiates a secure attachment is its capacity and commitment to repair ruptures, to restore connection.[ii]

Now, let's go to the heart of this example of human interaction, for it offers us some important insights that are equally relevant at home, at work, and in the community. And for those who seek to lead and lead well, I believe these insights should be of particular relevance and importance to you. After all, not only do leaders succeed by establishing and maintaining alignment with stakeholders, but when it comes to leading change, attunement to issues of the heart becomes especially crucial.

A colleague from whom I have learned a great deal, David Wallin[iii], has distinguished three levels of consciousness available to us in waking life: 1) embeddedness, 2) reflection, and 3) mindfulness. In the anecdote Covey shares with us, his initial social-emotional reactions arise from a state of embeddedness. He is in the grip of his own intensifying emotions and projects onto the father a role (rude passenger) and attitudinal characteristics (indifference), which justify his own reactions.

It's important to observe that we all do this regularly. That is, we evaluate and respond to others and social situations from an embedded level of consciousness. In most cases, it is not problematic, our reactions are more or less appropriate and proportionate to the external situation. However, as we see in Covey's story, our assumptions and attributions about others are not always accurate. In his case, Covey is shaken from his embeddedness by a rather dramatic disclosure from the man. This prompts what we might call "implicit" reflection and re-evaluation.

This reflective function places our social-emotional feelings and the associated assumptions and attributions that underlie them before us, questions them, making them problematic: "Wait a minute, this situation is very different in meaning than I thought. I was way off the mark! Oh my God, this poor man." In this reappraisal of the situation Covey is implicitly recognizing that the man is acting from his own unique subjective life experience, which is very different from Covey's. The man’s behavior is mediated by his state of mind, i.e. trauma, shock, confusion, disorientation.

This mode of reflection could also be more deliberately invoked ("explicit" reflection) by recognizing beforehand that a situation, e.g. a discussion about change with organizational stakeholders, is likely to evoke strong emotions from others. Anticipating this, we might expect that others may react from a state of embedded consciousness. Their reactions may be defensive, i.e., intended to protect them from what they perceive to be adverse effects of change. We might also anticipate that the tension of the situation could arouse our own anxiety and excite our own defenses.

In the embedded state, we believe that whatever we feel fully and accurately represents the objective state of affairs; it is the full story. In the reflective mode, we act from an awareness that each person experiences a situation from their own subjective point of view. We also recognize that each person's viewpoint is energized by feelings (desires, fears, worries, aspirations) and by the values that they believe are at stake (dignity, respect, fairness). A reflective attitude thereby opens a space for addressing these differences, giving them their due. This reflective function is central to an adaptive capacity of the person known as mentalization.

Mentalization, a concept coined by Peter Fonagy[iv] and his colleagues, has been defined as "keeping one's own [mental] state, desires, and goals in mind as one addresses one's own experience; and keeping another's [mental] state, desires, and goals in mind as one interprets his or her behavior."

An even simpler way of thinking about it is as the capacity to see oneself from the outside and to see others from the inside. It is particularly helpful when seeking to understand feelings. Mentalized affect provides us with a full and accurate grasp of the meaning and the importance of feelings, ours and those of others.


On the one hand, life would be a tedious affair if we had to deliberate or reflect on every action we took or each feeling we had in the course of a business day. Therefore, I want to reinforce that operating from an embedded state of mind is normal and healthy. Moreover, when we do mentalize, it need not always be explicit or deliberately initiated. The key to judging the quality of our emotional self-management is to appraise it from a pragmatic point of view: Is it working for us and for others?

On the other hand, the capacity to explicitly mentalize one's own and others' feelings, aspiration, values, and goals can go a long way toward promoting constructive problem solving, collaborative stakeholder relations, and resilience at the individual, team, and organizational levels. It is through explicit practice that one's implicit ("natural") mentalizing skills grow—mentalizing is action[v]; it’s something we do. And it can be incorporated into developmental interventions such as coaching, team development workshops, or change leadership programs.

I haven’t said much about the third of level of consciousness, mindfulness. Suffice it to say that it provides two vital functions: 1) a restorative function in meditation, which helps moderate our baseline emotional intensity; and, 2) an attentional function, invoked as an attitude in a helping relationship. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines this second function as, “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”[vi]

Contact Information:

As always, we're happy to discuss any questions you may have about how the topic in this blog might be relevant to you, others in your organization, and your ways of being helpful to them. Contact me by phone at 401.885.1631 or by email at


[i] This article draws upon research and practice in clinical and developmental psychology, which I have adaptively applied to developmental coaching and leader development in the workplace. As such, its use may imply needs for further training for those who approach the practice of coaching from outside professional psychology.

[ii] Indeed, it is by working through and repairing ruptures that relational competence is gained. E.g., see Safran J. & Kraus J. (2014). Alliance ruptures, impasses, and enactments: A relational perspective. Psychotherapy, 51 (3) 381-387.

[iii] Wallin, D. (2007). Attachment in Psychotherapy. New York: Guilford Press. Another good source on the practical application of attachment theory in helping relationships: Costello, P. (2013). Attachment-Based Psychotherapy: Helping Patients Develop Adaptive Capacities. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

[iv] Fonagy, P., Gergely, G., Jurist, E., & Target, M. (2002). Affect Regulation, Mentalization, the Development of the Self. New York: Other Press.

[v] Allen, J. & Fonagy, P. (2006). Handbook of Mentalization-Based Treatment. New York: Wiley.

[vi] Siegel, R., Germer, C., & Olendzki (2008). Mindfulness: What is it? Where does it come from? In F. Dionna (Ed.), Clinical Handbook of Mindfulness. New York: Springer.