Work Conversations and Identity

When I think about the role of work in people’s lives, it all comes down to two factors:  What gets you out of bed in the morning, and what keeps you awake at night?  Conversely, this might be put as: What stops you going to work in the morning, and what lets you sleep as sound as a baby, satisfied in your day’s work? Philosophical these questions may be, but they are the core questions considered by workers themselves, and those who are meant to motivate them, such as human resources professionals, career counsellors, and psychotherapists.  Indeed, the great psychotherapist, Sigmund Freud (1930/2010) was correct when he suggested that work and love are the two most important things in life. Common to work and love is the substrate of humanity: relationships.  And it is to relationships that I turn for answers to those questions that afflict and inspire so many whose work is a crucible of torment or transcendence.

Work and Relationships

It is difficult to imagine any type of work that does not involve a relationship between an individual and another person.  Even the most autonomous forms of work entail at some point a moment between the individual and the other—supervisor, co-worker, subordinate, customer, client, supplier.  These relational moments may be transactional in the giving and receiving of goods and services, directional in the giving and receiving of instructions and specifications for the activities of work.  They may be fleeting, as short as an order for a coffee ended with grateful words of thanks.  They may be a once-only meeting or an elongated conversation that transpires over months.  This amounts to a relational perspective on work (Blustein, 2011).

Intrinsic to the relational moments are conversations with others.  These conversations may centre on a shared work activity or they may be totally unrelated to the work activity and instead centre on topics of common interest, small talk, or office gossip about so-and-so or the boss.  These conversations may be internalised discourses agreed among a community of workers as accepted ways of being, knowing, and doing work.  In any case, what matters is that individuals are relating to one another through conversations, regardless of the depth and complexity of the conversation.

Dialogical Self in Relationships at Work

In my psychological world these conversations may be real or imagined.  I can converse just as well with my colleague sitting next to me or by phone with another miles away, as I can imagine a conversation between myself and another person, or imagine overhearing a conversation between two others, or the cacophony of a group.  In imagining these conversations, I endow the others with voices and dialogue among them. I can rehearse these dialogues over again until they come to an end.  In reality, I am the psychological author and narrator of their interchanges and interlocutions.  And, I feel the conversations; I feel my joy, my fear; I feel their joy and fear—all the while imagining yet experiencing as if it all were real.  As I imagine a conversation between myself and an other, or a conversation between two others that I overhear, the voices, words, and deeds that I speak and act for the other in the dialogue, truly says more about me than about him.  Onto my real and imaginary interlocutors, I project my own psyche. This conversational self is the notion of Dialogical Self (Hermans, Kempen, & van Loon, 1992) applied to work and career (McIlveen & Patton, 2007).

Conversation has no boundary between the spheres of the worksite and home.  The talk of work carries over into the talk at home, and vice versa.  From the simplest of enquiry about a loved one’s day through to sharing the highs and lows, the fun and the drudgery, work soon enough finds its way into the hearth of a home.  Even powering off electronic devices is an illusion, albeit an effective illusion, for the borderlessness of conversation is intrinsic to its being the grist of identity and being.  I cannot split and dissociate my conversations so easily; the real conversations will echo years after the words were spoken; the imagined conversations play over again as psychologically real as real can be.  Thus, I cannot imagine work without conversations, without relationships.


Blustein, D. L. (2011). A relational theory of working. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 79(1), 1-17. doi:

Freud, S. (1930/2010). Civilization and its discontents. Camberwell, Australia: Penguin.

Hermans, H. J. M., Kempen, H. J. G., & van Loon, R. J. P. (1992). The dialogical self: Beyond individualism and rationalism. American Psychologist, 47(1), 23-33. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.47.1.23

McIlveen, P., & Patton, W. (2007). Dialogical self: Author and narrator of career life themes. International Journal for Educational and Vocational Guidance, 7(2), 67-80. doi:10.1007/s10775-007-9116-6