Through the Johari Window

Photo, Bougainvillea & Round Window, 30 March 2007, cellar_door_films, Flickr, creative commons
cellar_door_films, "Bougainvillea & Round Window," Flickr, 2007.

As a child, I used to spend a lot of time with my grandmother, an Olympic-level people-watcher. While she and I shared our observations, my primary contribution to our people watching conversations was to ask, “Why are those people doing that?” As an adult, I am still fascinated by the “Why?” behind people’s actions, including, as it turns out, the “Why?” element of character development in popular romance novels.

My interest in the “people side” of the business world led me to pursue a PhD in Management. One of my ongoing interests is Organizational Behavior—which is to say, the psychology and sociology of the workplace. In one of those moments that researchers love, I realized that a model I was using to study emotion in the workplace could also be used to analyze the motives and behaviors of the protagonists in a romance.

The model is known as the “Johari Window,” so named by the two psychologists who developed it back in the 1950s: Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham. The model was designed to help explain interpersonal dynamics, and over the decades it’s been used for everything from analyzing organizational values and culture to improving supervisor-employee relations to predicting sexual satisfaction in romantic relationships.

The model has four quadrants—hence the notion of a “Window”—each of which specifies what is known or unknown to a person (the “self”) and what is known or unknown to others. This sounds more complicated than it looks, but can be made clear with an image:

Diagram, Johari Window, Center for History and New Media

The more elements of a relationship which reside in the Open Area, where things are known both to the self and to others, the more productive and satisfying the interactions between the parties involved will be.

When I first thought of using the Johari Window to analyze the character interaction within a romance novel, the relationship that came instantly to mind was Eve and Roarke’s in the popular “In Death” series by J. D. Robb (Nora Roberts). The “In Death” novels are, in part, a futuristic police procedural which focuses on the work of homicide detective Eve Dallas. The complementary story line is the romance between Eve and criminal master-mind turned (mostly) law-abiding business tycoon, Roarke. In the first book, Naked in Death, Roarke is a primary suspect in a murder. Book three of the series, Immortal in Death, concludes with Roarke and Eve’s wedding, yet Robb has sustained and developed their relationship over nearly three dozen books so far, aided by the inclusion of an ensemble cast whose interactions with Eve and Roarke also influence their evolution, as both individuals and a couple.

The Johari Window provides a framework to analyze some of Eve and Roarke’s emotional interactions. For example, in book one, Naked in Death, obviously Roarke knows whether or not he committed murder, but Eve isn’t sure whether he is guilty or not. In this scenario, Roarke is situated in the “Hidden Area” of the window and Eve’s lack of knowledge creates significant tension between the two. Also, in the early stages of Eve and Roarke’s relationship, he is unaware of her traumatic past as a survivor of child/sexual abuse and, for that matter, there is much that Eve does not know or cannot acknowledge about her own past, thus positioning that part of her life in the “Unknown” quadrant.

At thirty-four books and counting, a scene-by-scene or even book-by-book analysis of Eve and Roarke’s relationship viewed through the Johari Window is well beyond the scope of this post, but the unveiling of Eve’s personal history—by herself and others—is a good example of how a character can move from one quadrant of the Johari Window to another.

According to Luft and Ingham, professional and personal relationships have the best chance of success when the “Open Area” of the window (“known to self” and “known to others”) is as large as possible. The romance genre’s expectation of a Happily Ever After hinges, I think, on precisely this insight: relationships flourish at the intersection of self-awareness and honesty with one’s partner. The author’s challenge and the reader’s pleasure in a romance novel is the circuitous, difficult path that leads from pane to pane of the Johari Window: from “Who is this person?” and “Why do I feel this way?” to “We know ourselves and each other, and we love.”

Luft, J. (1970). Group Processes: An Introduction to Group Dynamics, 2nd ed., Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield Publishing Co.

McShane, S.L. and Von Glinow, M.A. (2008). Organizational Behavior, 4th ed., Boston, MA: McGraw Hill.

Chryssa Sharp

Chryssa Sharp is an Associate Professor of International Business in Lindenwood University's School of Business and Entrepreneurship. She holds a PhD in Management and an MBA in International Management; her industry experience encompasses aspects of marketing, strategic planning, export development, and cross-cultural communications. Find out more about Chryssa Sharp.

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