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Are you one-up or one-down? How the Relationship Grid can improve businesses

The Relationship Grid is a psychological tool created by Terry Real, and is typically used in couples therapy, relationship therapy and intimate partner therapy in order to help partners and friends understand what happens for them when they encounter shame.

The Relationship Grid: A response to shame

Real suggests that when we encounter shame, it is such a painful experience, that we are engulfed by it, or attempt to defend or protect ourselves against it by moving into one of the quadrants on the Relationship Grid. Real identifies these quadrants as ‘Walled off and one up’, ‘Walled off and one down’, ‘Boundaryless and one up’ and ‘Boundaryless and one down’. 

Real suggests that by understanding which of these four quadrants we move into when we encounter shame, we can break dysfunctional cycles in our relationships and find exit routes out of unhelpful communication loops and patterns. Instead of becoming stuck, we can identify what is happening for us, and move into the ‘health zone’ at the centre of the Relationship Grid.

The four quadrants of the Relationship Grid

Although we might move around the Relationship Grid, depending on who we are with and how much shame we are feeling, Real suggests that we each have a certain quadrant that we find ourselves in frequently. 

Walled off and one up

‘Walled off’ means that a person’s boundaries are incredibly strong; they feel much more comfortable distancing themselves from someone else, and vulnerability feels like a risk. ‘One up’ means that they are much more likely to lean into superiority to defend against shame. A person who is ‘Walled off and one up’ is likely to become defensive, critical, passive aggressive, and struggle to take responsibility for their mistakes. 

Walled off and one down

Just like the person who is ‘Walled off and one up’, a person who is ‘Walled off and one down’ also has incredibly strong boundaries. Closeness, intimacy and vulnerability might feel too risky. However, this person is also ‘one down’, which means they are often engulfed by their shame. A person who is ‘Walled off and one down’ will often withdraw from others, experience depression or be ‘resigned’ to their lot in life.

Boundaryless and one up

A person who is ‘Boundaryless and one up’ will lean into superiority to defend against the shame they are experiencing; they can be certain that their perspective is the ‘right’ one. However, they are also ‘boundaryless’, which means that they can struggle to see themselves in a positive light and need others to maintain a positive view for them. This person is often emotionally volatile when they encounter shame, and can struggle to emotionally regulate themselves, becoming controlling and angry.

Boundaryless and one down

A person who is ‘boundaryless and one down’ also struggles to hold a positive view of themselves, and can find themselves engulfed by shame easily. When they find themselves encountering shame, they might feel desperate and attempt to manipulate relationships in order to ‘fix’ the rupture that has occurred. Their priority is often to resolve issues by compromising, conforming or people pleasing. 

Why the Relationship Grid is essential for businesses

Terry Real originally intended the relationship grid to be used for intimate partners; however, it can be enormously useful for business owners, managers, and colleagues. When things go wrong at work, whether something has happened with a customer or a colleague, we can find ourselves pulled into one of the quadrants of the Relationship Grid.

Crucially, when we are in one of these quadrants, we aren’t thinking clearly. This means our communication will be poor, our problem solving skills will suffer, and we can become inefficient and ineffective. And if we’re pulled into one of these quadrants when a crisis strikes at work, we can often make things worse. 

Getting back to the health zone at work

To get back into the health zone at work, we need to ensure that we’re consciously responding, rather than reacting from a place of shame. We can do this by taking some intentional steps.

  1. Prepare
    We can prepare by understanding which quadrant of the Relationship Grid we typically move to when we encounter an issue, and experience shame.

  2. Pause
    When something goes wrong, or a crisis occurs, we can pause. Taking a short time out to notice where we’ve moved to on the Relationship Grid shifts us from being ‘in’ our reaction to ‘observing’ our reaction.

  3. Plan
    We can then respond, rather than react, by acknowledging the facts of what has happened rather than the feelings attached to those facts. Using these facts, we can then communicate effectively and plan our next steps with our team.

When we move back to the health zone, we can communicate effectively with our clients, our colleagues and our employees and make informed choices for our businesses in those difficult and emotionally activating moments. 

Want to know where you fall on the Relationship Grid? Check out Terry Real’s free assessment tool


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