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4 posts from July 2015

July 17, 2015

Why are some - but not all - relationships challenging?

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"Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves." 
Carl Jung

When relationships challenge us, it is stressful. 

It does get dramatic. 

We do lose our sanity. 

And we do wonder about the meaning of it all.

Physically we experience the sensations of tension, numbness, headaches, stomach ache, pain, stress, fatigue and illness. 

Emotionally our landscape includes drama, manipulation and conflict. Negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, contempt, confusion, disgust, depression, fear, jealousy, worry and sadness are common. 

Mentally things aren’t better. We experience sense making challenges and misunderstandings. The temptation to narrate a right-wrong victim story, be judgmental and have punitive thoughts predominates. 

And we may even lose the plot, questioning life's ultimate meaning and purpose. 

But that is really just HOW relationships are challenging.

What about the WHY! 

Why are relationships challenging?

First, a relationship is challenging because of one, or a combination of three things: YOU, the OTHER and the CONTEXT!

Second, you and the other, as humans, have limitations that can create challenges.

For one, we are far more emotional than we really care to admit. Another is that our memories are not that reliable and we remember things differently without deceptive intentions. For those that try to do too much at the same time, it is now clear that neither woman nor men can really multitask. And if that’s not enough- the placebo affect confirms just how often expectation creates our reality! There is a reason we talk about self-fulfilling prophecies!

Third, most of us lack awareness of our own challenging behaviors or attitudes. Without awareness change is unlikely and even when we are aware, we are oftennot motivated to change.

For those that are aware and are motivated, there may be capacity challenges that make it impossible.

But if we or the other can overcome these obstacles, then the focus of the challenge turns to skills. Specifically, the development of emotionally resonant relationship management skills. 

To navigate the reality of your challenges you need to be able to listen with empathy, express yourself clearly, give and receive feedback openly without defensiveness, assert collaboratively (and sometimes say NO), resolve differences fairly and at times to forgive authentically.

And what this confirms is that there is a lot that you can do yourself first, before you consider the other or indeed the context.

Jung reminds us our challenges can become our opportunities for insight, change and growth.

As we understand ourselves better, we understand others better too. 

If you are tired of being stuck in relationships that are stressful, dramatic, confusing and depressing and are interested in transforming your challenges into opportunities please get on the wait list for the next time  the six week online course Challenging Workplace Relationships runs. 

July 03, 2015

What exactly is a challenging relationship?

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“Sometimes people behave badly on purpose, but often we just lose touch with who we are.” Sharon Salzberg

The question of how best to deal with relationship challenges in our life is not new!

And as Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Happiness at Work, notes; ‘bad behavior’ can be as a result of intentional malice but most often is not.

When we perceive ourselves to be on the receiving end of what we label as ‘bad’ or challenging behavior, we are often judgmental of both the behavior and the motive (intent) of the other.

It is not uncommon for there to be blame.

And it is also not uncommon for us to also lose touch with who we are.

Just as much as the other who acted ‘badly’ may have lost touch with themselves.

That seems to be the difficulty. That as much as we want to control our external world to secure inner peace we find that there is much going on within us that is also part of the challenging mix!

So then, what exactly is a challenging relationship?

Very simply, a challenging relationship is one that you have concluded is challenging!

In other words the test is subjective and very personal.

It means that your difficult person may be liked by many. You may or may not be the only one bothered. And, you may be shocked to find that others – using this same subjective test - find you challenging at times!

This subjective approach is intentional. It avoids ‘typing’ and excessive labeling in which the identification of qualities justify a diagnosis or ‘type’.

See, for example, the book “How People Tick: A Guide to Over 50 Types of Difficult People and How to Handle Them” by Mike Leibling. How anyone can remember all the 50 different types of difficult people or indeed what to do for each is beyond me.

At the end of the day, you will know if you are at peace or not. And if your perception is that the relationship is in any way;

  • Threatening not safe
  • Negative not positive
  • Difficult not easy
  • Defensive not open
  • Hostile not friendly
  • Confusing not clear
  • Draining not energizing
  • Toxic not healthy

Then you have a challenging relationship!

Now, I hasten to add that this conclusion does not entitle you to blame or do any of the other things that will make the situation worse.

But at least you won’t get stuck arguing about whether the behavior or attitude meets the definition of challenging behavior. Or which type it is! Or what to do assuming you have the correct type!

There are 10 things that I have identified that are guaranteed to make things worse. One is labelling and typing.

Another is blame!

When things turn out differently to what we hoped and we are disappointed and even angry because our needs are not being met, we often blame the proverbial other for what went wrong.

The benefit is that we may get sympathy and care. Sometimes shared outrage! And as long as the focus of blame is more external on the other or the environment, we can avoid our own feelings of pain and responsibility. Remember, our part in the challenging mix!

When we blame we make a judgment and hold the other person responsible for a situation from the past based on our perception and interpretation of the facts. As the authors of Difficult Conversations (Stone, Patton, Heen) say, “blame is about judging and looking backwards.”

Blame elicits defensiveness. It reduces the likelihood of learning about what is really causing the difficulty or from doing anything helpful about it.

A blame conversation is not the only conversation humans can have when things go wrong. I will always be grateful to Stone, Patton and Heen who revealed a worthy process alternative: a contribution conversation.

“A contribution conversation is about understanding and looks forward.”

Instead of asking whose fault is it, we openly ask how we each contributed to the situation in question:

What is my contribution to the situation?

What did we each do?

What can we learn?

Instead of defensiveness and concealment that prevents learning when we take the blame route, we discover through our candid revealing that we can learn from our individual and collective mistakes.

Here’s how the two approaches look side to side. Where the blame cycle grows and leads to more of the same challenge, the contribution conversation is balancing and reduces the problem.

Blame

We all experience challenging relationships and as the wise Sharon Salzberg cautions - most of the time it is from good folk, like you and me, losing touch with who we really are.

How positive do we need to be in our relationships?

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According to evidence based psychologist, John Gottman, “the ratio of positive to negative affect during conflict in stable relationships is 5:1; in couples headed for divorce, it is 0.8:1!” 

As Gottman points out, this does not require that we declare war on negative emotions.

All emotions have value when we view them as sources of decision making information to navigate life. In fact, without them, we would be rudderless! 

Take anger, as an example of a negative emotion. 

Anger arises when someone or something is interfering with the attainment of our actual or expected needs. There is a sense of being powerless about the situation. It burns a lot of energy and is ultimately tiring. There is a danger of impulsive and premature decisions.

Importantly, emotions are not the same as the behavior that follows. Slamming the door, shouting and acting out is the behavior. Not the emotion! 

These graphics give us a window into what is occurring. In the healthy couple on the left we see that the trend is generally upward despite moments of rupture and contraction. On the right, the trend reflects the downward spiral of poorly managed conflict.
 
GottmanPositiveRatio
 
One practical application of this insight (where I have had great success) is with email. As research by Kristin Byron, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2005, shows, regardless of the sender’s intention, recipients interpret the impact of emails to be:

• Neutral when they are positive
• Negative when they are neutral

I was coaching a client recently. He told me that he had just received an email from his boss, and needed to respond. His concern about what he was going to say was preventing him from focusing, so I asked if he’d like to draft his reply during our session. 

He said yes, and I gave him a moment to write something out. We then took a look together and I asked him to indicate – sentence by sentence – whether his boss would perceive the statement as positive, negative or neutral. His score: 5 negative, 2 neutral and 2 positive sentences!

As a result of this review, his changes and additions, we were able to significantly shift the tone and tenor of the email from negative to positive. We removed ‘unnecessary story’, negative leaks, and outright threats while also adding more positive statements. 

We didn’t get to the gold standard of 5:1 and his score after our process was 3 negative, 4 neutral and 4 positive sentences. Still way better!

He sent it, and we got back to focus on our session goals. And here is the best part: before the session ended he had received a positive reply back from his boss. The relief was palpable.

And now he was struggling to focus because he was so happy!

Challenging relationship are a reality. We all have them. And there are things that we can do to change the quality of our experience as we navigate our challenging relationships.

So the next time you have to send out an important email, take a moment to review each sentence and determine your score. See what you can do to clean up your message and give yourself the best chance of being heard.

What's the difference between Mediation and Toxic Triangulation?

"We are always 100% responsible for our 50% of any relationship." 
Source Unknown
 
And yet in life, when things are challenging, we often observe how humans focus on the other's 50% while ignoring their own. 
 
This tendency to deflect responsibility is common in the workplace with employees blaming others while ignoring their own contribution to a problem.
 
And when they are unable to address their challenge directly themselves, they often turn to third parties-typically those with some power to address the situation in their favor. Their narrative may reveal a victim mentality. Regardless, they want their perspective validated and something done.
 
If your company has an 'open door policy' employees may go above their supervisors head to address their concerns with someone higher up the chain of command. And from time to time employees do go to HR.
 
This is where you have to be careful, as there is a thin line between actions that are helpful and those that are not! 
 
Triangulation occurs when a third person gets involved in the relational dynamics of two others. Toxic triangulation occurs when the third person doesn't restore direct communication, and instead distorts it and either unwittingly or intentionally colludes with the person who complained.
 
Here's what author's Wilmot and Hooker (on page 226 of their book, Interpersonal Conflict), have this to say about toxic triangulation:

"When people perceive that they are the low-power person in a conflict, their typical response is to try and form a coalition with another person....Three people find it difficult to maintain balance in a conflicted relationship. Usually they become structured as a "dyad plus one. Communication triangles are unstable, leaving one person out."
 
Ideally, employees who have a functional interdependency, address their issues directly, and find working resolutions themselves. 
 
When you become the go between for communication and use your influence or positional power to address a challenge on another's behalf, not only do you make it difficult it for yourself, but you support toxic triangulation!
 
This is what toxic triangulation looks like. B who has less power than A goes to C for support. C takes B's side and communicates with A on behalf of B:
 
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As always, in challenge, lies opportunity!

The potential to take more of a mediative posture arises when we are that third party. You can support direct communication and restore responsibility for decision making to the two involved.

When you do that, and don't take sides, you are effectively mediating. You are equally there for both of them. Instead of contributing toward toxicity, you foster conditions for peace and harmony.
 
This approach is exactly what the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) expects as per their 2014 competency certification model. Here is a link for those interested in a short summary of the relationship management competency, which expects among other things, that senior HR managers "will mediate difficult employee relations as a neutral party."
 
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