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Relationship Trouble? Try Another Perspective

Periods of crisis and testing are helpful for what they bring to our attention. When things are going well it is all too easy to ignore the hard issues we would be better served by addressing. Times of testing show who we really are.

Diana Smith identifies one such issue in The Elephant in the Room: relationships. “No longer,” Smith writes, “can we count on slow markets or sloppy competition to make up for the inefficiencies poor relationships create. We face a crisis not only of leadership but of relationship.”

When faced with a relationship problem, there are two ways we can look at it:

Individual Perspective: Based on the assumptions that there is one right answer, people either get it or they don’t get it, and when they don’t, their dispositions are largely to blame.

Relational Perspective: Based on the assumptions that different people will see different things, that solid common ground can only be found after exploring basic differences, and that the strength of a relationship will determine how well and how quickly people can put their differences to work.

“The assumption that ‘you alone are responsible’ and ‘you are either mad or bad’ lead people to locate the cause of problems in individuals and outside their own influence.” The relational perspective actually puts you in the frame of mind to take responsibility for any part you may have in the difficulty. Reflecting on the relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt she observes that “they looked to the other’s circumstances, not his character, to find out why” they did what they did.

Karl Popper wrote in Conjectures and Refutations, “While differing widely in the various little bits we know, in our infinite ignorance we are all equal.” Smith says that understanding this “leads people to assume that we all see things others miss, that disagreements are inevitable and valuable, that those disagreements will at times cause frustration, and that people will be better off if they help each other build relationships that can handle those differences well, especially under pressure.

While it makes sense to take the relational perspective, it can be hard to do especially when we are in the heat of the moment. One reason for this is that it is hard to step out of the moment and reflect on and reframe the situation in a productive way. And when we do reflect it’s easy to get sucked into what Smith calls “armchair reflection.” This is reflection that is really nothing more than gossip, blaming, imputing motives and conclusions like, “He just doesn’t get it.” It doesn’t lead to understanding and a forum for the other person to fill in what is missing from the picture.

Not all relationships are created equal and Smith offers techniques to sort those out too. But when we want to improve a relationship, if we are waiting for the other person to change, she says we’re in for a long wait. “To improve a relationship, you need to focus on changing the relationship, not just yourself or the other person.” Smith offers tools and practices to do this.

Before you even begin to work on a relationship, there is an interesting paradox to think about: “They know each other so well, they no longer know each other at all. All they see are the caricatures in their heads—he’s so sensitive, she’s so competitive.” Smith adds that despite the “very efficiency these caricatures give, they also take away because they make a person’s underlying complexity—sure to emerge under stress—harder to handle or to understand. That’s why, early on, the single most important thing people can do is slow down and take a closer look at each other and how their relationship works.

Your effectiveness as a leader depends on your relationships. The Elephant in the Room highlights a better perspective to take than the standard individual perspective we usually employ in dealing with our relationships. A relationship is a system of behaviors that can be analyzed and understood. Smith’s insights will help you to productively influence them.

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 03:50 PM
| Comments (0) | This post is about Communication , Human Resources



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