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Why Great Leaders Mentalize and Five Exercises to Help You Do So

By Mario Ebro

View Part 1 to this article here.

“Mentalization is to understand your own and others’ mental states that lie behind actions and behavior”1. In the theory of mentalization, we understand mental states as emotions, thoughts, intentions, wishes, needs, assumptions, bias, etc.”

Five exercises to get you started with mentalization

There are many tools and exercises that enable the development of mentalization. Below, I will walk you through five exercises you can use in your own workplace. You can use some of the tools yourself as a leader (official leader or unofficial leader – both apply here), while for others, you will benefit from having an external facilitator who is experienced in mentalization.

The concept of mentalization can be difficult to grasp, which is why you would likely need to perform a few exercises for people to fully understand it. However, research in the 5–20 age group has shown that having the concept fresh in mind, discussing it, practicing it openly, maybe even having it depicted on the wall, actively engages, and enables the growth and focus on developing it.

Exercise 1: Coaching or supervision

Having a coach or colleague follow you for a period is one of the strongest tools of mentalization development.

In several schools, research has shown that by having a coach or colleague follow the teacher every three weeks and enabling timely mentalizing reflection sessions with the teacher, the teacher’s own mentalization ability grew rapidly10. Every three weeks, the coach observed the teacher for a day. At the end of the day, the coach would not provide feedback in the “traditional” way (Sandwich model or “This is how I felt it” model), but instead the coach would mentalize with the teacher on the events of the day.

In the corporate world, we can use the same approach of having a colleague or a coach follow you for one day a month. After the day or after specific meetings, the observer helps you to mentalize on the day, asking mentalizing questions, such as: What happened in your head and stomach during the meeting today when the discussion got tense? Did you assume anything about the behavior of your employee? Was there an opportunity where you could have mentalized more today? When were your own feelings at play today, where you might have failed to mentalize? How might you react differently next time to mentalize more?

It makes the coaching easier if you have someone from outside of the company follow you, as the coach is then less likely to have their own emotions involved. However, if the observer is a colleague, make sure you find one that is as far away from your normal work as possible and who is strong within mentalization themselves. If the observer already knows you and your employees too well, they might find it more difficult to remove their own emotions and biases from the scenario.

Exercise 2: Collegial sparring

Introduced by Brasnett & Troupp (2014), the concept of collegial sparring describes when teachers want to grow their mentalization ability within the teacher group. The methodology can easily be transferred to leadership development, and I have also performed it in the corporate world with great success.

You can perform this tool yourself, but the results are often stronger if you select a facilitator with strong mentalization ability to guide the conversation – at least the first few times.

The sparring should be time-limited and can be done either in a group or 1:1.

The process consists of four steps:

  1. 2–3 min: Determine the agenda.
    Have one person with a specific dilemma sit in the center (if 1:1 you might benefit from doing this as a walk-and-talk). Ask clarifying questions about the focus for today – not yet about the dilemma itself, but about the context of today. For example, what does the person want out of the sparring today? What is he/she hoping to gain from the conversation? What would he/she like the colleagues to focus on?
  2. 2–3 min: Explain the dilemma.
    The person explains the dilemma at hand. As the facilitator, you help the person to not dive into a rabbit hole of details but to keep it to the core issue.
  3. 10 min: Mentalize in the moment.
    This step consists of two aspects, and it is key that you don’t reverse the order:
  4. Understand the person: What does he/she feel in this dilemma? What does he/she think? How is he/she experiencing the dilemma? What bias and assumptions might he/she have that affects the dilemma? b.Understand the problem: What might others involved in the dilemma think/feel? What could be at play? Could it be viewed differently?
  5. 5 min: Round off.
    This last step also consists of two aspects. This time it is the person with the dilemma that takes over to:
  6. Summarize the problem: What possible solutions arose? What possible routes were shown? What did they learn from the conversation? b.Summarize the session: Did they get what they wanted from the session? Did they get the sparring they needed? Would they like different kinds of questions or sparring next time?

If you have introduced mentalization as a concept, I recommend you also round off the session with a short discussion of how the people involved experienced the mentalization aspects of this exercise. Was anything surprising? Did new knowledge arise? How was it different from other types of sparring?

Exercise 3: Check-ins

Today, many companies already use this tool in various forms; some using a mood barometer assessing their mood of the day or smiley boards. However, many unfortunately use check-ins without deeper reflection on why they have the introduction to the state of mind people are in. In my experience, the check-in tool is strongest if you introduce the concept of mentalization to the group in advance and use the check-in to actively assess people’s ability to mentalize on that given day.

The ability to be present and to not be overcome with one’s own emotions is dependent on the individual’s state of mind and mood. Your ability to mentalize is already under enormous pressure if you come running in from a rushed morning of delivering a crying child in kindergarten, knowing you have a full inbox waiting for you, and then have to spend three hours in a workshop. Honestly and openly discussing that up front not only provides the rest of the group with a better understanding of your state of mind (helping them to mentalize), but also helps you to ground yourself and leave some of those feelings in the background, enabling you to mentalize better in the session or, at the very least, be mindful about your lack of mentalizing ability in the situation.

Exercise 4: Creating a backdoor

You can use this tool by yourself in relationships where you know you have conflicts or have a history of conflicts. You can use the tool in relationships where you wish to advance the trust and the mentalization between you – where you want to rebuild a healthy and trusting relationship.

Creating a backdoor is a proven tool with kids with developmental difficulties (centerformentalization.dk), but you can use the tool in the workplace equally as well.

The basic idea behind the tool is that you agree with the other person on a back-door policy. When in peace, you sit down with the person in question and together you acknowledge that there is indeed a history of distrust. Discuss whether there is a genuine wish to rebuild the relationship, and if there is, discuss how you might both work on your ability to mentalize to rebuild this (if there isn’t a wish, the dialogue becomes much more complicated and the back-door policy useless).

The idea with the back-door policy is that when you recognize these feelings, you call a backdoor/time-out. By having this agreement up front, you are able to say: “Hey, I can feel my ability to stay on topic and mentalize is drifting right now, I think we need a time-out from the topic.” You can then either step away from the conversation for a little bit or, if you both feel like it, take it to a meta-level and discuss: “Why do you think that you are experiencing mentalization failure at this very moment?”

This tool can also be used in a group / team setting as a call-out option that the entire team agrees upon.

Exercise 5: Conflict mediation

If a conflict has arisen, Mediating Mentalization can be a strong tool. This tool requires a facilitator to engage, and the facilitator must have strong mentalization skills to do this properly. It can be someone within the organization if you don’t have the option of external consultancy, but make sure it is someone both parties in the conflict feel safe with.

In short, the mediation consists of six steps (www.kursuscetersputnik.dk):

  1. Let the persons involved cool down. Conflicts are best resolved when feelings are less strong – typically the day after the event.
  2. Gather the people in a room with a whiteboard and explain how the mediation will work. Introduce the rule that people cannot interrupt each other.
  3. Split the board into two sections and let each party present their view of the situation, covering aspects such as: Who is involved, what happened (facts), who did/said what. Write notes on their side of the whiteboard as they speak.
  4. When both are done, it is the facilitator’s task to bring the stories together. Circle the places where they agree on the situation and acknowledge that there are aspects they agree upon.
  5. Now, underline the places where they do not agree. Don’t necessarily chase the “right” answer but invite to reflection on why their stories differ.
  6. Ask questions such as:
    1. What do you think was the intention behind the action?
    2. What was your intention behind the action?
    3. What other actions would you have preferred in this situation?

Rounding off

These five exercises are just some of the tools you can start implementing to enhance mentalization in your workplace, thereby increasing psychological safety, trust and, ultimately, growth.

Here are a couple of other examples of exercises I have used:

  • Retrospectives in the agile world, where you reflect, together with the team, on what was learned, how it was experienced and how to do it better next time.
  • Evaluations with “hot-chair” settings, where individuals learn more about how others see them and how they see themselves.
  • Frustration exercises with purposefully challenging games, where employees only get half-truths/information and, in a very frustrating exercise, have to collaborate to succeed, which inevitably leads to conflicts. You can then mentalize upon the exercises together.
  • Self-reflection on your own can also help to advance your own reflection and understanding of System 1 using System 2.

Really, the possibilities and exercises are endless. However, if you want to continue the development of mentalization in the workplace, it is important that you link the exercises you use back to the ability to mentalize and use them to challenge your own and others’ System 1 biases and assumptions. By doing so, you enable the development, the trust and, ultimately, the growth of your entire company.


Maria Ebro
Engagement Manager,
Implement Consulting Group

With a master’s in psychology and in Philosophy, a coaching degree, and a number of certifications within people assessments, organizational development and project management in her backpack, Maria Ebro Andreasen has combined theory with real life experience. Through her past 10 years of working as a leader and with leaders from various global large-scale companies, Maria Ebro Andreasen has tested out different psychological leadership theories and manages to bring the world of psychology into the everyday life of practical leadership. Original article published here.

Maria Ebro is a Presenter for IIL’s upcoming Online Leadership and Innovation Conference! Register here.

Browse IIL’s Leadership and Interpersonal Skills courses here.

Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.