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Reverie and the Key to Engagement

By Laurence Barrett


When we are very young, the foundations of our psychological health are laid in what the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion termed, a "reverie". Here we interact with our parents in a free-flowing conversation, without any defined outcomes or goals. We can express our thoughts and feelings and in an open exchange of ideas and associations, we begin to make sense of the world around us. Reverie is a creative and emergent process where new ideas are explored, and meaning is made. We develop a shared language, not just of words, but of emotionally charged symbols that define our relationships.


We know that another person notices us, cares for us and is responding to us, and in this response demonstrating that they understand us. We are 'held in mind' by another and we know that we exist. We learn that we can then influence another person, shaping a mutual dialogue with them, and we develop the self-confidence and resilience we need to face life's challenges. In reverie we learn how to build relationships and to explore our potential. Without reverie, we experience the world as a confusing and dangerous place where we are alone and without influence.



"Reverie is a creative and emergent process where new ideas are explored, and meaning is made. We develop a shared language, not just of words, but of emotionally charged symbols that define our relationships"


The habit of reverie ideally then continues on into adolescence and adulthood. Here, in a shared experience of humanity, we learn about the world by exchanging stories, asking questions, and creating new perspectives from a jumble of answers and ideas. The quality of the reverie defines the quality of our relationships. From the campfires of our ancestors to the coffee shops of modern cities and the chat rooms of the internet, human beings look for reverie. In reverie we discover who we are, what we believe in and where we belong. Above all we discover that we are a full participant in the conversation and that meaning is not made for us by others, but by us with others. The meaning we make through reverie is then both an individual and a collective possession. We are responsible for something we have been involved in creating, and our relationships are strengthened through the process. We are engaged and aligned.


However, many organisations, encouraged by traditional theories of charismatic leadership, often seem to prefer a one-way process of top-down instruction flowing from senior managers to an increasingly dehumanised and alienated workforce. Employees are expected to be inspired by a vision that they have not been involved in creating and may which bear little relation to their day-to-day reality. The leadership philosophy at play is too often reminiscent of Henry Ford's apocryphal quote: 'Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?'. The inconvenient truth of organisational life is that each member of that organisation has a brain filled with own hopes and fears, and a very human need for relationship and significance. In pitching a relentless cascade of top-down 'vision-statements' and goals, managers are in effect emphasising that thereis no reciprocal relationship and that employees' opinions are unimportant. Disengagement is then inevitable. The resistance to reverie in organisations is perhaps understandable. The process of reverie is ambiguous and open ended and may be threatening to managers who are narcissistic or lacking in self-confidence.



"The meaning we make through reverie is then both an individual and a collective possession. We are responsible for something we have been involved in creating, and our relationships are strengthened through the process. We are engaged and aligned"


Executives may fear that employees will create their own meaning and begin their own initiatives, which may be better than anything the manager can create alone, and which may undermine the existing structures of authority and control. They may be concerned that the reverie may surface competing interests or bring about conflict, as people decide to openly express their views. While this conflict exists anyway, appearing as organisational politics, it is often more comforting to keep it in the shadows so management can at least pretend that it doesn't exist and address it indirectly or through others. Managers may also be anxious that employees may not approve of their vision, directly challenging their image of themselvesas leaders, and again, it may be more comforting to keep any disapproval in the shadows.



"The resistance to reverie in organisations is perhaps understandable. The process of reverie is ambiguous and open ended and may be threatening to managers who are narcissistic or lacking in self-confidence"

However, what matters most in a reverie is not that our ideas are acted upon, but that attention and respect is paid to them. When we are listened to and play a part in the creation of a conversation, we become vested in its outcomes, whatever they may be. The value of reverie lies in the exchange of ideas and the creation of something new. To enter a reverie, we must be prepared to let go of our own needs for certainty and learn to collaborate, entering a conversation with no expectation of a predefined outcome. To engage others, we do not require vision or charisma, but the courage to listen and perhaps have our own minds changed.


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