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Managing conflicting desires with relational dialectics theory

Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

June 21, 2023

Everyone knows what it’s like to want two opposing things at once. You need some alone time, but you also have FOMO. You want a healthy salad, but you can’t tear your eyes away from that burger. If you’ve experienced these kinds of tensions, then you’ve encountered what scientists call ‘relational dialectics’. Relational dialectics theory offers a way to understand how tensions arise, and the effect those tensions have on our relationships. This, in turn, helps us to make sense of the complex and often contradictory ways we relate to others.

In this article, we’ll explore the basics of relational dialectics theory, including its history, key concepts, and practical applications in the workplace. Let’s dive in! 

Relational dialectics: a quick history lesson

Relational dialectics theory has its roots in the early work of scholar Mikhail Bakhtin, who highlighted the importance of language in human communication. But it was the pioneering work of Leslie Baxter and Barbara Montgomery in the late 1980s and early 1990s that really brought relational dialectics theory to wider attention. 

Baxter and Montgomery argued that all relationships are characterized by “dialectical tensions” — or in other words, opposing forces that pull us in different directions. 

For example, we may desire both intimacy and independence in our romantic relationships, or both certainty and uncertainty in our friendships. These tensions can be both internal and external, and they can change over time as our relationships evolve.

Relational dialectics theory has grown over time, moving from personal contexts to wider communication processes, such as conflict management, decision-making, and identity formation. One major breakthrough in this field of thought has been the recognition that dialectical tensions can actually be a source of creativity and vitality — meaning they don’t all need to be ‘solved’ — something we’ll talk more about in the next section.

What exactly is relational dialectics theory?

At its core, this theory is all about understanding the tensions that exist in relationships. 

These tensions happen because relationships are ever-changing. As we interact with others, we are continually navigating various needs, desires, and expectations — some of which are contradictory. 

Relational dialectics theory focuses on three main types of tensions: 

  • Autonomy vs. connection: the tension between the need for independence vs. the desire for closeness with others. 
  • Openness vs. closeness: the tension between the desire to share personal information and the desire to draw boundaries.
  • Predictability vs. novelty: the tension between the desire for stability and the desire for change and excitement.

Dialectical tensions aren’t necessarily something to be resolved or eliminated. Instead, they can be a source of energy and creativity in relationships. By recognizing and embracing these positive tensions, we can create more vibrant and productive relationships. 

Relational dialectics theory also emphasizes four key concepts: contradictions, totality, process, and praxis. Here’s what each of these means. 

  • Contradictions refer to the opposing forces that exist within relationships. These range from individual tensions to social tensions shaped by larger cultural and historical contexts.
  • Totality refers to the idea that relationships are not just a collection of individual parts, but are instead interconnected wholes. Each aspect of a relationship is intertwined with others and cannot be fully understood in isolation.
  • Process refers to the ongoing, dynamic nature of relationships. This means that the tensions and contradictions within relationships are also liable to change.
  • Praxis is the idea that saying and doing are connected. In other words, the way we communicate shapes how we act, and vice versa. Being aware of this helps us create more productive relationships. 

Dialectics in relationships

So what kinds of tensions are you likely to experience day-to-day? Here are a few examples:

Autonomy vs. Connection: This happens when we want to be a lone wolf, but also desire closeness with others. As an example —  we may want to spend time with our other half but also pursue personal interests.  This one is closely related to ‘integration vs. separation’. 

Openness vs. Closedness: This tension crops up when we want to share personal info, but also desire privacy and boundaries. For example, we may want to keep certain thoughts or experiences to ourselves, even though we value open communication in our relationships on the whole. 

Predictability vs. Novelty: This happens when we appreciate stability, but also want a little excitement in our lives. For example, we may enjoy having a predictable routine but also embrace new things. This one is closely related to ‘stability vs. change’; and ‘certainty vs. uncertainty’. 

Dialectics in the workplace

While relational dialectics theory began as a tool for helping us understand personal relationships, it’s since expanded into the professional world. It makes sense since most of what we experience in real life also happens in the work environment.

Here’s how each of the three main tensions listed above play out in the workplace: 

Autonomy vs. Connection: We might want to work on a project alone, but also desire input from colleagues. This one can be particularly tricky in hierarchical environments (e.g. a top-down company) where power dynamics make it hard to find a balance between freedom and collective goals.

Openness vs. Closedness: We can all agree communication is pretty important in the workplace, but boundaries and privacy are also key. For example, it’s wise to maintain a level of personal privacy as professionalism. We might also need to keep the details of our clients confidential in order to protect them and their data. 

Predictability vs. Novelty: Routines and procedures form the backbone of most businesses. They help us work efficiently and minimize miscommunication. On the flip side, they also fuel boredom and stagnation. Change can lead to innovation and excitement, while on the other hand, too much novelty can lead to overwhelm and stress, especially in high-pressure environments.

Key concepts you need to know 

Relational dialectics is underpinned by a few key concepts, which we’ll define here.

Dialogue: Dialogue sits at the heart of relational dialectics theory. It refers to the ongoing communication between people in a relationship and includes verbal and nonverbal communication, as well as virtual/remote communication done via email, on the phone, or via chat apps. Understanding its role in relationships is essential to managing dialectical tensions.

Constitutive Dialogue: This refers to the idea that communication not only reflects our relationships but creates them. In other words, the way we communicate with others shapes our relationships over time. 

Utterance Chains: This concept refers to the idea that communication isn’t just a collection of individual statements, but part of a larger conversation. Each utterance is influenced by and contributes to the larger whole.

Dialectical Flux: This refers to the ever-changing nature of dialectical tensions present in relationships. These tensions can shift and change over time and may be experienced differently by different people within the same relationship.

Aesthetic Moment: This refers to moments of connection and meaning in relationships. They’re characterized by a sense of unity and can be a powerful tool for creating positive relationships, as well as solving negative tensions. 

Critical Sensibility: This refers to the ability to see beyond the surface of interactions and understand the larger cultural/social/historical contexts at play. By being aware of this, we can understand our own (and other people’s) motivations and behaviors better, and with more empathy. 

Types of dialectical tensions in the workplace 

Understanding dialectics is the first step, but to truly master this, you need to know how to manage different types of tensions. 

1. Denial

Denial involves rejecting one aspect of a dialectical tension in favor of the other. For example, a couple might deny the tension between autonomy and connection by prioritizing their individual needs over their relationship needs. Denial can be beneficial when the tension is having adverse effects. 

2. Disorientation

Disorientation involves acknowledging the tension and then becoming overwhelmed by it. For example, a team might become disoriented by the tension between predictability and novelty when they’re presented with too many new challenges at once. When disorientation happens, managers should do what they can to reduce the tension. 

3. Alternation

Alternation involves going back and forth between the opposing ends of dialectical tension. For example, an employee might yo-yo between solo work and teamwork to balance their desire for connection with their need for independence. 

4. Segmentation

Segmentation involves compartmentalizing different aspects of a relationship to keep tensions to a minimum. For example, two work colleagues might keep their work life separate from their personal life to maintain a level of professionalism.

5. Balance

This involves finding a middle ground between the opposing poles of dialectical tension. For example, a project manager might balance their team members’ need for autonomy and connection by giving them both the freedom to work independently, while also encouraging collaboration and teamwork. As a manager, it’s important to be aware of these dual needs and remain flexible. 

6. Integration

This involves blending the opposing tensions into a new, more complex whole. For example, a manager might take their opposing desire for control and employee independence and turn to project management software as a solution that allows them to track work while remaining hands-off. 

7. Recalibration

Recalibration involves adjusting the opposing tensions over time. For example, a team might recalibrate the tension between predictability and novelty by periodically introducing new challenges or adjusting their routines to keep things fresh.

8. Reaffirmation

Reaffirmation involves acknowledging the tension and affirming the value of both sides. For example, a manager might reaffirm independent work and teamwork, recognizing that each is important in different ways and finding ways to balance the two.

5 limitations of relational dialectics to keep in mind

As with all theories, there are valid critiques to bear in mind. Here are the main limitations of dialectics. 

  1. Lack of empirical support: Some researchers argue there’s a lack of empirical evidence to support claims.
  2. Limited applicability: It may be more applicable to certain types of relationships than others. 
  3. A simplistic view of relationships: Critics claim the theory presents an overly simplistic view of relationships, one in which tensions can be easily managed and overcome. In reality, relationships are often complex and trickier to navigate.
  4. Lack of attention to power dynamics: Power affects relationships, and it may be more difficult for someone in a lower position to manage tensions with someone in a higher position due to power imbalances.
  5. Overemphasis on communication: Some claim the theory places too much emphasis on communication as a solution to all relationship problems. Other factors, such as personality, individual differences, and external circumstances, may also play a significant role.

Managing relational dialectics: tips and tricks 

Mastering relational dialectics requires a combination of self-awareness, good communication, and a willingness to embrace tensions. Here are some insider tips to help you on your way: 

  1. Spot the tensions: Pay attention to conflicting needs, and be open to exploring these tensions with your partner or colleague.
  2. Communicate well: Be honest and open about your thoughts and feelings, and listen to the perspectives of others. Remember that communication is a two-way street, and that it’s important to be willing to compromise.
  3. Practice self-reflection: Take time to reflect on your own needs and desires and be willing to explore how they may be in conflict with the needs of others. By understanding your own motivations, you can better manage the tensions in your own relationships. 
  4. Seek outside support: Managing relational dialectics can pose a challenge, particularly if the tensions are deeply ingrained or the result of long-standing issues. In these instances, it might be time to call in professional help, usually in the form of a moderator or therapist who will help you manage conflict. They’ll be well-positioned to guide you through in an objective manner. 
  5. Embrace tensions: Rather than trying to eliminate or resolve opposing desires, try to embrace them as a natural and normal part of relationships. By recognizing their potential for growth and inspiration, you can shift your focus from finding a solution to managing them in a healthy way. 
  6. Use tools to bridge the gap: In the workplace, project management software and chat apps are a great way to balance independence and teamwork, as well as autonomy vs connection. As a manager, the more you can do to give everyone the best of both worlds (as well as the choice to pick and choose), the easier it’ll be to keep those tensions positive and productive. 

Final thoughts

Relational dialectics theory can offer a thought-provoking framework to understand the intricate dynamics within professional and personal relationships, shedding light on the inherent tensions that arise between autonomy and connection, openness and closedness, and predictability and novelty.

Embracing these dialectical struggles can provide an opportunity for personal and organizational growth. Recognizing that workplace interactions are not linear or static, but rather a complex interplay of conflicting desires and needs can foster an environment that encourages engagement and collaboration.



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