"I had no idea how I was going to live in this place. I couldn't believe that I'd packed myself up and moved to a strange country where I barely spoke the language and didn't know a soul."

–Mary Morris, "Nothing to Declare," 1988

How to Talk to Each Other About Each Other

Over the years, work­ing with both indi­vid­u­als and teams, the chal­lenge recre­ates itself again and again: we fail to talk to each oth­er about each oth­er. We’d rather han­dle what­ev­er dif­fi­cul­ties we face in our rela­tion­ships at work in almost any oth­er way. “Sep­a­rate the prob­lem from the peo­ple,” says the guru, yet I’m here to say there are times when the prob­lem is the per­son — in the sense that it is his or her behav­ior, actions, or state­ments that cre­ate “unpro­duc­tive cir­cum­stances,” if not out­right pain. Even worse, this “per­son” might be you. In orga­ni­za­tions of all kinds our pen­chant is for talk­ing about peo­ple behind their backs rather than to them and this gen­er­ates a whole class of busi­ness per­for­mance prob­lems that are more or less impos­si­ble to resolve. We want to trust and to be trust­ed, we tell our­selves, but that’s actu­al­ly less true than we sim­ply do not want to deal with trust issues at all.

I can­not tell you the num­ber of times in my work some­one in pri­vate has shared a per­spec­tive on a cowork­er that is neg­a­tive, a the­o­ry of the oth­er par­ty’s self-inter­ests or caus­tic nature, for exam­ple, their incom­pe­tence or unre­li­a­bil­i­ty, yet when giv­en the straight up oppor­tu­ni­ty to tell that truth will not do so direct­ly. It comes out all hedges and excus­es. “Well, it’s bet­ter this week” or “I’m not angry with you. I’m just a lit­tle frus­trat­ed with the sys­tem” or “It would be great if we could talk more often” are a few of an unlim­it­ed num­ber of cod­ed state­ments that mean “I think you’re incom­pe­tent and should be fired” or “I went home and was mad for hours and hours about your sex­ist behav­ior” or “I would­n’t trust you far­ther than I could spit.”

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And then, too, I’ve lis­tened to all the defen­sive rea­son­ing about why we can’t be more “hon­est” with one anoth­er — like fear of reper­cus­sions, the cyn­i­cal belief that it won’t do any good or the sup­po­si­tion that “it will just make things worse” — that seals us away per­ma­nent­ly from the act of real, vul­ner­a­ble, prob­lem-solv­ing among people.

The point is that we don’t real­ly know how to talk to one anoth­er about each oth­er in a way that is humane, that accepts defen­sive­ness, that actu­al­ly works. We’d rather believe that if only every­body fol­lowed their job descrip­tion, played their role, did what they are sup­posed to do and stayed in their silo, fol­low­ing the deci­sion-mak­ing pro­to­cols and the val­ues on the walls or what­ev­er oth­er unspo­ken ground rules the com­pa­ny had set up, every­thing would get done just as it should. The idea of actu­al­ly talk­ing to each oth­er about each oth­er in order to bring peo­ple clos­er togeth­er nev­er actu­al­ly seems to be con­sid­ered. If peo­ple do try to talk, the makeshift mask of hon­esty peo­ple exhib­it too often quick­ly turns into a judg­ment fest that just makes peo­ple feel crazy.

When these embed­ded con­flicts reach a pitch where some­body calls in a facil­i­ta­tor or coach like myself, what I find is that the stuck­ness isn’t because the roles aren’t clear enough or the val­ues aren’t on the wall or that how deci­sions get made has­n’t been clar­i­fied. Oh, prob­lems with those things may be involved and absolute­ly may be worth address­ing, but I also con­tend that’s not like­ly to be enough. No, the deep­er down real issues are the chal­lenge, the issues that have to do with who we are as peo­ple, our pri­vate sub­jec­tive selves, espe­cial­ly those judgments.

The real issues more fre­quent­ly are about our neg­a­tive views of one anoth­er, views that cre­ate ongo­ing anx­i­ety and anger. My neg­a­tive assump­tion that you are incom­pe­tent dri­ves my desire to “teach” you in such a way that you see me, unsur­pris­ing­ly, as patron­iz­ing. Your neg­a­tive assump­tion that I am only out for my own inter­ests dri­ves me to argue con­stant­ly and annoy­ing­ly for them. We don’t think to break it down accord­ing to the needs peo­ple have and find ways to meet as many of those needs as pos­si­ble, includ­ing intan­gi­bles such as pos­i­tive regard, belong­ing and recov­ery from our mis­un­der­stand­ings and seem­ing betrayals.

Our com­mon excuse is that we fear that we will hurt each oth­er, so we hold back talk­ing about the very beliefs that we know will hurt each oth­er. We do this “hold­ing back” in a way that leaks, unfor­tu­nate­ly, thus guar­an­tee­ing we do hurt each oth­er. The hurt cre­ates anx­i­ety and the need to pro­tect our sense of who we are. We feel mis­un­der­stood, wronged.

How on earth, then, can we untan­gle the mess?

Think, now — instead of the fan­ta­sy put-downs and one-ups that win con­trol and our exon­er­a­tion through clever “gotchas” — think of a con­ver­sa­tion that actu­al­ly enables us to talk to each oth­er from the heart. Imag­ine that this is an act of human­i­ty that brings us togeth­er rather than a con­fronta­tion that dri­ves us far­ther into our psy­cho­log­i­cal cor­ners. How, as an alter­na­tive, would we think about com­pas­sion, about kind­ness? About bar­ri­ers? Imag­ine if our hon­esty was gen­uine, that it was not about lying to each oth­er or our­selves, about cov­er­ing things up, such as the hurt we felt or the fear. What could that look like?

If you can imag­ine this, then you also can ask, “How would we cre­ate such a con­ver­sa­tion with the peo­ple who mat­ter, who must be involved?” This means the peo­ple who are the prob­lem, not just the ones who like to talk about those peo­ple in their absence. You could ask, “What would that demand of us? How would we behave, talk, care for each oth­er in such an envi­ron­ment? Could we do it? How would we han­dle the emo­tions, the anx­i­ety, the frus­tra­tions? And you could espe­cial­ly ask “Who would we need to be in order to pull this off?

Our prob­lem all too often is fail­ing to ask that last ques­tion in any mean­ing­ful way. Instead, we spend way too much time fan­ta­siz­ing about who the oth­ers should be, and it just does­n’t help. We don’t even take the time to con­sid­er deeply how best we can invite oth­ers to be real with us. Instead we stay angry at them for doing what we do, which is to not hon­est­ly dis­close what’s in our hearts.

I think we have to spend time with that ques­tion of who we need to be, awhile any­way, at least until we’re ready to act in faith and take the plunge, know­ing we can’t know every­thing, includ­ing in the end even who we tru­ly are.

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8 Comments

  • Great post Dan.

  • Dan, you know I am an on-going fan, but I real­ly love this piece and plan to share it widely.

    And although on one lev­el it seems remark­ably sim­ple, a “flaw” of human nature towards its pre­dis­po­si­tion to self-pro­tec­tion, it real­ly gets to the heart of what is urgent­ly need­ed for us as con­scious, col­lec­tive beings to address or con­tin­ue to sink into tribes or loners. 

    Best, Louise

  • Rei­der~

    Thank you so much!

    Best
    ~Dan

  • Hi Louise~

    Beau­ti­ful­ly said, this “flaw” with its “pre­dis­po­si­tion for self-pro­tec­tion.” We’ve kind of gone into a cave, I think, and that cave is very dark. What will turn us around except fac­ing our situation? 

    Ah, the wis­dom of no escape.

    Thank you so much for leav­ing your kind com­ment, Louise!

    Best
    ~Dan

  • Well-stat­ed! I work with peo­ple encour­ag­ing them to con­sid­er new and dif­fer­ent approach­es to dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions, espe­cial­ly chal­leng­ing boss­es (or co-work­ers). Hav­ing a heart-to-heart dis­cus­sion is also a wel­come addi­tion after break­ing the ice. Some ini­tial fears still need to be dealt with first. Kudos for your article!

  • Mari~

    Thank you, and its always a plea­sure to meet kin­dred spir­its help­ing peo­ple have those heart-to-heart con­ver­sa­tions. Kudos to you, too!

    All the best
    ~Dan

  • Cathy Raymond wrote:

    Beyond a doubt, the hard­est thing I have ever done is to tell the truth to myself and to oth­ers- allow myself to be vul­ner­a­ble enough to not care what oth­ers thought and instead care what I thought. I wish I’d fig­ured this out ear­li­er in life. I’m grate­ful for the gift of wis­dom that comes with aging and life expe­ri­ence. Thanks for your post, Dan. It is filled with truths.

  • Cathy, my friend~

    Such a sig­nif­i­cant shift of mind and heart to learn to express one’s own truth. We have been so con­di­tioned to not do that so much that we some­times do not know any­more what our truth is…unless we begin to own that under­neath the fog, we actu­al­ly do. To me, you exem­pli­fy that kind of inte­ri­or courage. With­out it, the exte­ri­or kind will be impos­si­ble to find.

    All the best
    ~Dan

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