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FIRO and the Openness continuum

By Julie Standfield

Are you an open or closed book?

open and closed books





The element of ‘openness’ within Firo, previously known as ‘affection’ relates to the extent to which you are willing to be open with people, and how open you want people to be with you.

By openness, think about how private you like to be – if you have a high need to be private and keep intimacy for a very select few people, you probably have a low openness score.  If the details of your life are transparent and you are comfortable discussing them with all sorts of different people, you probably have a high openness score.

Other words that you would associate with a low openness score would include: professional, business like, cautious, selective, discreet, guarded.

Words that might be used to describe a high openness score would include: sharing, trusting, honest, warm, friendly, empathetic.

Interestingly, I think all of us can be a range of the above depending on who we are with, so although I have a low openness score generally with all and sundry, I have a high degree of trust, honesty, warmth, friendliness and empathy with a select few. My close friends would describe me very differently to how a work colleague would for example.

In this blog, I want to explore what openness can mean to how you are perceived in a work scenario. I recently finished a work project with a client, in which I was providing coaching for a group of senior managers and one in particular wanted some help getting his head around why his people felt the need to unburden themselves onto him, when he really didn’t want to know about their personal problems!

When we explored this frustration, we discovered that he had a very low openness score.  Looking specifically at the four elements measured using Firo, he wasn’t open with people now and he didn’t want to be more open with people in future, he felt people were too open with him now and he wanted them to be less open with him in future.  This was a large dissatisfaction gap for him, and one that he wanted to address.

As part of our discussions, we explored two different viewpoints – what he wanted and needed and how to achieve this, and what his team wanted and needed and how he could facilitate this.

What he wanted was for his team to come to work, be professional (do their work, have adult to adult conversations, be logical, get on with the task in hand without having unnecessary personal conversations) and achieve their objectives.  What was currently happening in his team, was that people were making personal friendships, discussing their home lives whilst at work, befriending each other on Facebook, arranging nights out and worst of all, inviting him to join in! It was genuinely causing him a high level of annoyance and frustration that they couldn’t just make friends outside of work, like he did. This individual’s preferences were so extreme that he operated in a very contained and emotionless way with his colleagues and simply couldn’t comprehend why anyone would choose to do anything else.

After several coaching sessions, he came to the realisation that his extreme personal preferences were what needed to shift in order for him to close his dissatisfaction gap.  He decided that the first priority was to develop a higher tolerance level for the different behaviours and needs exhibited by his team; by the end of our coaching contract, he had demonstrated some significant improvement and had achieved a huge decrease in his stress levels as a result.

One interesting action that he took was disclosing this to his team in an away day discussion, with the intention of helping them to understand why he wasn’t as approachable as some of them would like.  This in itself was a massive leap up the openness continuum for him, as he disclosed a potential area of weakness, opened himself up for judgement, and left himself exposed to possible criticism.  Luckily the team reacted really positively to this approach and it actually encouraged him to try experimenting more with openness on subsequent occasions.

The underlying fear behind the openness element is that we are unlikeable.  In other words, if you knew about me, what I know about me, then you wouldn’t like me. This can translate into behaviours like;  I’ll either shield my real self from you so you don’t have enough information to be able to judge me (low scores) or I’ll over-disclose so much about myself  and laugh at or criticise myself so much, that you wont have any room to do it (high scores). Both ends of the continuum are efforts to avoid rejection, but are achieved in different ways.

When we understand the underlying driver behind these behaviours, it helps us to achieve a higher level of understanding and tolerance for extremes of behaviours in ourselves and others.  It can be particularly useful in developing compassion and patience for people with very different approaches to our own.

If you want to explore this in more detail, contact us to discuss how Firo can help you in your essential relationships.


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