Unlearn, to be able to learn

The ability to deal with everyday difficulties and hostile attacks, like a sneering remark at an important meeting, is an indicator of what we call 'a low centre of gravity'. This is a characteristic of people who can maintain their balance, resourcefulness and creativity in difficult and unpredictable circumstances. It is typified by top tennis players who are always ready to respond effectively, whatever direction the ball comes from, and with whatever speed and spin it has been hit. Psychological attitudes that maintain this kind of low centre of gravity keep you mentally alive, on the move and constantly creative. If you become rigid, you lose the capacity .

Another vital quality for coping with the unexpected is the capacity to learn effectively from failure, as well as success. Learning has many inbuilt inefficiencies, people don’t often talk about unlearning as an important skill. In order to learn new things, you have to give up the past. It is impossible to learn without first unlearning.

Either in the family, school or any other organisation, individuals form different levels of relationships, which themselves form regulating systems. Those systems determine a large part of our daily lives. People are born within a system (family, community etc) or choose to become a member of a system, for example, when joining a club or starting to work for an organisation. Once part of a system, regardless of your opinion, you are also part of the dynamics within that system.


Psychological research has found out, over and over, that human beings live and breathe relationship. They learn and unlearn in relationship, not independently as isolated individuals.

Relationship needs to be understood as being fractal across scale. At a microscopic level, the fractal relationship takes place intra-psychically, in terms of how we relate to our selves and manage the internal objects within us. At a macroscopic level, relationship is factually concerned with interpersonal, organisational and cultural dimensions. The shape of a relationship identified at one scale might very well reflect relationships at other levels. All levels should be implied whenever the notion of relationship is used.

The five key relationships at work

To highlight psychological disciplines which are relevant in trying to understand human behaviour, the ‘5 relationship model’ of professor Petruska Clarkson forms a good fit with important pre-existing sorting systems in the management literature, organisational theory, psychology, marriage guidance and many other activities. Derived from this model is a framework that summarises five dimensions in relationships as they contribute to the organisation

The framework is structured around five different kinds of human relationships. These are classified as:

Working Alliance: The basic contract by which people agree to work together within an organisation.
Distorted Relationship: Known in some psychological disciplines as 'transference', in an organisational context it is best understood as the human relationship equivalent of 'unfinished business'.
Path for Development: This is where an organisation's human resources are built in an incremental, linear way using conventional training and developmental psychology approaches to learning.
True relationship: The person-to-person dimensions of human interaction, which are the glue of social interaction in the working community within an organisation.
Ideal Relationship: Concerns the organisation's wider mission and purpose. Unlearning is particularly important here because these relationships are likely to involve unpredictable 'step changes', rather than a gradual incremental evolution.

The five dimensions are in all our relationships, but this shouldn't lead people to whoosh the relationships together, into one big bundle. Each relationship has its own characteristics and requirements for terms of the optimisation of human potential in complex adaptive systems.

An enormous amount of benefit can be gained by taking a more considered approach to untangling the relationships to find out precisely when, where and how different relationships are used, and the distinct issues and problems relating to each. Many problems are caused by failing to identify whether, say, people are currently working in developmental relationships or the survival mode of the working alliance. Very different approaches would be needed to overcome difficulties in each of these. :

The survival skills necessary for developing aspects of the intra-psychical, interpersonal, organisational relationships of the working alliance are completely different to those needed in other relationships.

"In some meetings, some people are forever putting up barriers to things that inhibit the creative process."

Prejudice based on a stereotype can be part of the distorted relationship because it is not connected with the here-and-now of this person, in this particular work environment. Instead, the stereotype is derived from an accumulation of information, mis-information, emotions and images drawn from the past.

People with distorted relationships can free themselves to respond effectively and creatively in the here-and-now only if they can unlearn their previous negative and dysfunctional strategies. Once confidence has been established, individuals can do things differently, and do them well. In some cases, however, distorted relationships are so crippling that they cannot be resolved within the working environment.

The focus of the developmental relationship is on establishing the adult professional. This is done largely by providing the information, support and challenge which helps individuals to learn in an incremental, linear way through the conventional training and developmental psychology methods.

HR [human resource management] is to deal with the whole person. We have a much bigger obligation to enable people to go through their continual development, inclusive and exclusive of work.

For education to be effective, the desire to learn must ultimately come from an internalised motivation, as anyone who has battled to teach people who don't want to learn can testify. There's a world of difference between people who come eager to learn and find out new things, and those who stubbornly don't want to budge from their current state of knowledge.

If the true relationship is based on trust, but not unconditionally, and respect for a person's self-worth, it can act like the oil in the conduct of effective working relationships in organisations. This can result in a working community with a healthy culture, based on the support of shared tasks, shared experiences and shared values.

Human relationships that extend beyond the people that any one individual knows to encompass the organisation as a whole are what we classify as 'ideal'. The most tangible form in which this has become acceptable in organisations is the growing preoccupation with organisation cultures, mission statements and corporate visions and values. These are all ways in which connections between people create something more than the sum of their individual selves.

Living on the edge of chaos

'Things may still seem to be chaotic, but they no longer feel so awful' - This indicates why acknowledging and dealing with uncertainty can be better than trying to pretend everything is going fine, even when the outcome is intrinsically unpredictable.

The ideal relationship involves factors at the far boundaries of what we know, which is why it is often called a state of 'bounded instability' or 'the edge of chaos'. This relationship influences efficiency and effectiveness because it always involves an erring in one direction or another and whichever one is fully developed brings with it a new problem. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who said the world is in a continuous state of flux, pointed out over 2500 years ago that whatever we succeed in doing contains the seed of the next problems. This means that ideal relations require individuals and organisations to unlearn what has worked well previously. This is very different to, and even trickier than, unlearning in the unfinished relationship, where it is necessary give up things that have not worked in the past.

An important motivation for unlearning what has worked well is the jouissance, the fun, the liveliness, the exhilarating excitement engendered by a change which could enable us to do something that seems completely impossible. One of the aims is to achieve the business drive towards ever-upward performance graphs by trying to establish, through non-local interactions, something which breaks the bounds of causality. Jungian psychology is particularly relevant here. Jung called people's need for causality a neurosis and said they get sick always wanting to know what caused an event. As one study respondent asserted: "I have given up … the assumption that if something is logically correct then it must be the right answer." Logic is good and needs to be followed, but it can sometimes be exactly the thing that can stand between you and a golden new moment.

Other examples of Ideal relationships

"I decided to take the jump [to a people management role] but it was counter to my model of success previously, so surprised me."

"Living with chaos feels comfortable now."

"[giving up things that were right requires] A mindset acknowledging what we don't know, both to ourselves and to others. It's not always easy to do that. In some ways it is counter to traditional attitudes."

"… trying to understand whether natural systems were random or chaotic … challenges the competencies of people … issues of confidence, the need to depend more on our intuitions rather than on deductive logic, and it requires us to have a deep understanding of what makes people tick … a deeper understanding of oneself."

"…Not a comfortable place to be. It is breaking from the more linear paradigm … its more intuitive … there is a much larger degree of inclusion, bringing the fringe closer and taking the benefit of those thoughts and intuition. That too is uncomfortable, because the reason those people are on the fringe is that they are different from you."

"As a creative individual I admire Bill Gates. He appears to have those qualities: coming up with wacky ideas, some of which may not work, though some which do. Richard Branson is another."

Knowledge, skills and attitudes for turbulent times

The five relationships all exist inside us, and between us and others we work with. They all have something to do with certain kinds of learning, but only the distorted and real relationships provide the right climate for unlearning. In distorted relationships, unlearning is necessary to change behaviour which has become stuck in unproductive patterns. In ideal relationships people need to give up on previous clamouring making way for new music.

This framework of relationships can help to provide valid insights to help individuals and organisation to identify the strategies which are likely to be most effective in particular relationships, The framework also reinforces a key finding from the sciences of complexity (chaos theory, Gleick 1987): for an entity to survive and thrive it needs to explore its space of possibilities and to encourage variety; complexity also indicates that the search for a single 'optimum' strategy is neither possible nor desirable. This framework highlights the space of possibilities for human relationships in organisations.

Effective approaches are available to develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to support vital aspects of these relationships, such as intuition, establishing a low centre of gravity, understanding how to use working groups, even learning how to laugh.

'Void skills' are used to enable people to deal with situations where the world seems to be collapsing beneath your feet, you don't really know what is going on, and there is no light in the enshrouding darkness. Void skills will be ever more important in our fast-changing world, where we can no longer expect things to continue along a predictable linear path for ever. People who take a fixed position in marching ever onwards and upwards along the same path are likely to be faced with more cyclical growth paths containing unexpected discontinuities, which could pitch them into the void.

Given the accelerating pace of business life and the growing flood of electronic and other information bombarding us, the ability to have a low centre of gravity and an intuitive sense for getting to the heart of the matter is essential. It is not possible any more to keep ahead of developments in most fields, even if you are a fast reader and sleep very little. Nevertheless, if you prepare yourself by formulating precise and relevant questions and objectives, and you maintain a low centre of gravity, then you can relax into relationships where you begin to trust that you will find the right information, at the time you need it.

Understanding the vital part played by myth in our relationships is another skill of growing significance. We are increasingly being affected by the millennium archetype: of things ending and new things beginning. However much we may think we are not influenced by advertising and the mass media, we are all creatures of culture. And culture is a complexity field in which myth gives us a way of knowing our freedom within some bounded instability.


Bohm David "Wholeness and the Implicate Order" London: Routledge and Kegan Paul (1980)

Gleick James "Chaos" London: Heinemann (1987)

Lovelock James "The Ages of Gaia" New York: Norton (1988)

Maslow Abraham "Motivation and Personality" New York: Harper & Row (1970)

Maturana Humberto R and Varela Francisco J "Autopoiesis and Cognition" Boston: Reidel, 1980. .

Slocum Kenneth R and Frondorf D Scott "Developing Knowledge Through Dialogue: The SENCORP Management Model" Warwick: ESRC Business Process Resource Centre, Warwick University, 1998.

Teubner Gunther and Willke Helmut "Can Social Systems be Viewed as Autopoietic?" Warwick: ESRC Business Process Resource Centre, Warwick University, 1998..

The Therapeutic Relationships (2003), P.Clarkson: Whurr Publishers

Dr E Kloprogge and Peter Gleeson “Constellations - A diagnostic tool for creative strategic development” a Mind Gliding publication (2005).

Dr E Kloprogge “Relationship Constellations” a Mind Gliding publication (2006).

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Author's Bio: 

Eddy Kloprogge (born 1951, The Netherlands) is an international accredited research scientist, who has lectured at international symposia (Brussels, Utrecht, London, Stockholm, Minneapolis, and San Diego) and universities (Groningen, Utrecht, Oxford, Paris, Munster). Initially trained under Professor Jan Sixma and Professor Jan Willem Akkerman in Biochemistry and Medicine in Utrecht (The netherlands), he moved to the Island of Jersey in the eighties to become an entrepreneur and business manager. After a short period working in the voluntary sector in Kent (UK), Eddy became Managing Director of Mind Gliding. As a researcher and business developer, he contributes to the ever evolving management and growth of Mind Gliding. He acts as a project manager, initiates structures and strategies. As a quality controller, he contributes to the monitoring and evaluation of the specially designed programmes, which can be tailor made for the individual or for the corporate world.

Peter Gleeson (born 1953, Isle of Wight, UK) is an international accredited facilitator in personal and organisational development, ranging from conflict resolution in South and East Africa to lecturing at the " Regina Mundi " university in Rome. He is trained as a psychotherapist in Bristol and London and developed his skills as a gestalt psychologist under Professor Petruska Clarkson in London. He is an expert in cognitive behavioural group work for which he introduced programmes for the criminal & justice system and the psychiatric health care. Mind Gliding has given Peter the opportunity to contribute to the success of business organisations: The programmes he develops focus on people's inter-action in their relationships with each other and in the systems (organisations) in which they operate.