Complex Relationship

We all have a number of relationships that don't fall neatly into a category: "good" or "bad".  Frequently, a relationship can be quite complex, a back-and-forth of good, bad, and ugly.

This often occurs in the office.  For example, you may be friendly with your boss, but she may be forced to give you feedback as part of her job.  Of course, you throw a tantrum, and these "difficult" interactions can add stress to a relationship that, in other contexts, may be perfectly easy going.

A typical interaction with colleagues

Personally, I can think of a number of instances where I acted like a brat during a tough interaction with a superior or a colleague because I was thinking in a selfish and short-sighted way.  This typically occurs in scenarios where I feel like I have been working very hard and the discussion highlights room for improvement or where more work needs to be done.  In both cases, I have gone defensive before I even think about why the conversation is happening and before I try to empathize with the other person.  In most cases, when I take time to put myself in the other's shoes and remind myself that we are a team working toward some common goal, I become much more open-minded.

Dreamworks Pictures' representation of me getting feedback

From these experiences, I've tried to adopt an empathetic stance as a default in complex relationships, but this has taken conscious practice and I'm nowhere near perfect.  Ultimately, though, I think this approach is the healthiest and will probably lead to the best outcomes for everyone involved: when I respond positively, that will increase the likelihood of future positive interactions.

For today's challenge, we're going to practice empathy while considering a complex relationship:

Complex Relationship

Task: Contemplate a complex relationship for 10min

Info: Find a quiet place to sit and think.  During the session, think about the relationship you've selected - choose a relationship that isn't all bad but has a decent balance between good and bad.  Try to imagine what it must be like to be the other person.  Here are some questions you could ask yourself:

  1. What are his goals? 
  2. What are his responsibilities?  
  3. What are the external factors that might be influencing his decisions?  
  4. Most people are not bad people out to get you - why might this person have initiated a tough conversation?

Normally, just assuming that the person wants the best for both of you is enough to approach tough conversations in a more positive way.  During your session, also remind yourself of instances when this person has done good things for you.  These instances are proof that the person has been on your side in the past.

Goal: Foster a positive, empathetic approach to your complex relationship.  Spend more time considering positive rather than negative characteristics of the relationship.

Of course, this exercise doesn't mean you have to always turn the other cheek.  Not at all.  However, by approaching relationships with empathy, you will be more likely to react in the most positive way possible, no matter your opinion.  And, that will serve to keep the relationship running as smoothly as possible.

Links: Return to the Week of Empathy - Continue to the next Daily Mind Game


Joe Shonkwiler said...

Very interesting, especially in light of having recently seen the Oscar-winning documentary on former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and his discussion of the Vietnam War. The documentary is divided into "11 Lessons," and the first lesson is to "empathize with your enemy." McNamara has realized that the great failure in our diplomatic relations with the Vietnamese was our failure to empathize with them in the way we had with the Russians during the Cuban missile crisis.

Vince said...

That's a fascinating observation Joe, although I must point out the ethical implications of "empathizing with an enemy". Empathy can be a very powerful tool in relationships, but like any tool, if misused it could backfire. Perhaps I'm naively operating under the assumption that mutually beneficial outcomes are most likely possible. If that is the goal, empathize away; but empathizing with the aim of destroying seems icky :) Thanks for the input - very interesting!

Joe Shonkwiler said...

I totally agree Vince. I guess I should have been more specific in my observation. I saw the McNamara quote more as a way to reach diplomatic understanding without needless bloodshed. I always see the Cuban missile crisis as one of the great diplomatic successes of the 20th Century as we were able to avoid certain nuclear destruction.

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