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Mutual recognition

Author: Nuala Dent

Mutual recognition is based on the concept that each person has a need for recognition and has the capacity to recognise others in return. It is a processed embedded from infancy in the parent-child relationship.


Child: I am, I do.

Parent: You are, you have done.


The process of mutual recognition involves simultaneous connection and separation, a movement back and forth, between recognising others and asserting the self. Benjamin (1990) puts it this way:

  • In the very moment of realising our own independent will, we are dependent on another to recognise it.

  • ·At the very moment we come to understanding the meaning of I, myself, we are forced to see the limitation of that self.

  • At the very moment when we understand that separate minds can share similar feelings, we begin to find out that these minds can also disagree

It is a process which changes our sense of who we are in relation to others. A critical part of the process is working through conflicts inherent in ‘coming to know’ ourselves and others. When done well, it can lead to mutual understanding which supports trust between self and others. When conflicts are avoided or not worked through, it can lead to a sense of self that is separate from others.


Over the last two years, with many of us working from home, I have noticed that conflict seems to be missing from online interactions. It suggests that it can be difficult to express thoughts and that feel uncomfortable, because we don’t know how they will be received. Not only are we lacking the physical experience of others through closeness or distance, smell or touch, we have limited visual, oral and other non-verbal cues to guide us. And, perhaps more importantly, we don’t have the informal spaces between events to check-in with others. At in-person events, it is these informal spaces which allow us to be courageous, to offer alternative views and perspectives during meetings/workshops/seminars, knowing that if it doesn’t land well, there will be an opportunity to make amends.


I wonder whether there is appetite for our ways of online working to change? How will we know ourselves if we do not allow ourselves to be known by others? If we don’t allow ourselves to recognise and be recognised, we will be alone in our togetherness. If organisations continue to work online or in hybrid arrangements, without finding ways to foster mutual recognition, it points to the possibility of a future where people lack self-awareness, which will have a negative impact on individual growth and development, group and organisational dynamics, and social cohesion.

Maybe, it means we need to make time to practice mutual recognition in-person; to create opportunities for people to come together for this purpose; people who will then take this embodied experience back into their online spaces, where it will sustain them for a time, and then will need to be revisited. This may be the future for organisations seeking to create trust, foster resilience in their staff and create sustainable work practices.


If you would like to develop your capacity for mutual recognition, in a psychologically safe space, supported by experienced pracitioners, then I urge you to consider attending the Group Relations Australia 2022 working conference. In person, in Melbourne, 28 November – 2 December 2022: The history of now: creating meaning (in the present moment)


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