Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Summary of interview with Professor Janet Reibstein

Professor Reibstein, one of the UK's most established psychotherapists and a professor at Exeter University, kindly made time for me on a day when she was in London to see private patients. She is originally from the USA and has lived in the UK for most of her professional life. Through her research, clinical work, lecturing and her body of published work, Professor Reibstein has built a reputation as a specialist in relationships - what they mean, their value to us as individuals and to society as a whole, and how to make and maintain positive, constructive relationships both personally and professionally.

For Professor Reibstein, virtue is about doing good for others. She freely admits she finds it difficult to think about virtue without the context of relationships because her learning and thinking have led her to believe that constructive relationships put one in the state of being open and desirous of doing good for others. For Professor Reibstein, to be in a constructive relationship, thus to be in a state of wanting to do good for others, "feels marvelous": it is personally satisfying and it affirms her belief system. Love, for her, is the highest state of virtue and it is something she thinks about actively and consciously every day of her life because she knows that when we are in constructive relationships we feel good about ourselves and seek to contribute to the maximum of our capabilities - whether it is in our personal or our professional lives. The opposite is also true: when we have been injured or hurt - even by a stranger and even in a tiny way - it causes us to freeze up and withdraw in order to protect ourselves. Luckily, we only need one constructive relationship at any point in our lives to transform ourselves and give us some of the resilience we need to weather fear and uncertainty and withstand hurt.

Although she believes that the average person is somewhat empathic in nature, she also sees that the average person may not have the vocabulary to think about virtue in a conscious way. As a result, they may not seek to work at building constructive relationships simply because they may not necessarily understand that it is constructive relationships above anything else that will benefit them. She observes that people tend to think about themselves and their needs in terms of "this is what I want" or "why am I not getting what I want" rather than "what can I do for others that will return something meaningful to me"?

One of the barriers to embedding virtue more widely in society is that the current culture of competition fosters individualistic and singular behaviour - behaviour that is "by myself" and "for myself". At an individual level this can lead to selfish and rude behaviour where the needs of others are not considered and the "rights" of the self are paramount. At an institutional level, many leaders are emulating the culture of the "master of the universe", currently celebrated by the media, in order that they themselves are recognised as being powerful. This conflation of "power", "singularity", and "leadership" has resulted in the situation in which many people in power are irresponsible and do not reflect on the impact that their power can have on others. In actual fact, the best leaders (as measured by popularity and improved share holder value) are those who create the circumstances where good relationships are formed and fostered and who reward others for doing the same.

To embed virtue, therefore, we must all work at our relationships and seek to build more positive relationships with our intimates, and more courteous relationships with strangers. Institutions must develop leaders who wield their power in a constructive and even benevolent way by enabling and encouraging people in their organisations to be in constructive, benevolent relationships. Changing one's behaviour, she concedes, feels odd and even fake at first, but rapidly becomes a new habit which feels "marvelous". Wouldn't that be great?

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

For related links about Professor Reibstein please see:


  1. relationship building is my number one priority! I'm so glad I read this. It is very helpful and encouraging! You are doing a great thing here! I look forward to the journey!!

  2. To Rebecca: Thank you so much for the encouragement. Sometimes I get discouraged. Now, if only I could wave a magic wand and get a publisher (book, newspaper, magazine...anything) interested. Do you know anyone in that world in Canada?