There is a problem that you and I share.
It is the human problem. That is…
Aside from the deep peace the monk gets from meditating deeply, everything we seek comes through other people. Achievements, things and emotions. Yet often our relationships are frustrating and disappointing.
For three decades as a Psychologist and Mediator I have been trying to unravel the problems my Clients came to me with.
Overwhelmingly the problem that were eating them up, were involving other people. I kept seeing the same patterns again and again. Most people will experience only a few significant relationships, but when you see them close up and aren’t personally attached to them the patterns become easier to recognise.
Relationship dynamics and principles are universal conceptually, but when we look at the content of them they look unique..
The thing about problems is that they are caused by the blindspots of a different solution. We solve one problem and create another. While people often want to rush a quick fix, if we really want to solve the problem we have to understand it deeply first.
As David Foster Wallace showed in ‘This Is Water’, like a fish cannot comprehend water because it has never felt an absence of water, we have never not been in relationship and so we often overlook our concept of relationships.
So let’s start from the beginning to understand what the problem really is.
Without being the strongest, quickest or biggest we overpowered all other species through our ability to collaborate and develop our intelligence. Yet we have hit an inflection point. Up to now we mostly needed to solve physical and logistical problems.
Now our biggest problems are emotional and psychological.
The nomad needed to find food. The farmer needed to store and exchange food. The industrialist made his money by enabling new possibilities.
Every generation grows in a world that is more complex and has more possibilities because the generation before solved a different problem.
Primary economies are simple. We mine, farm and cut down trees. The communication we need is basic.
Miners and farmers typically are interested in maximising their yield from crop, livestock or mine.
Secondary economies are slightly more complex. We make stuff from raw materials. Building and making needs slightly more communication, but it is still concrete conversations about logistics.
Construction and manufacturing companies are focused on maximising the value of raw materials.
Tertiary economies move from things to services. For example, teaching, transportation and financial services are tertiary economy activities. Here we start to talk about non-physical concepts and so our communication becomes more complex.
Service based activities are based on creating emotional responses and/or enabling and empowering their customers.
Much of our economy has moved beyond these into ‘knowledge’ activities or even beyond. Here we are no longer dealing with physical things, but processing information and dealing in abstract concepts. This requires a much more evolved and refined level of communication.
The more an economy advances, the deeper into the psychological and emotional world we have to go.
When you shift or make stuff, the driver for efficiency is removing friction from the physical process. The success of service and knowledge work is subjective. How healthy, educated or entertained do we consider adequate?
Subjectivity means that we have to dig much deeper into defining terms and communicate with more precision to share our thinking, feelings and beliefs.
This is a qualitative change in human interaction. It has driven the change from grunting exchanges, to deep abstract conversations, about the nature of the world and our place in it. Those conversations, one by one, change us.
When we connect deeply, and honestly, with someone else it means we see the world differently and we start to see the structure of our operating system.
Computers are made from hardware and an operating system and apps. In the same way we have genes that determine our limitations and skills that we develop. But what mediates between those is our operating system, the set of beliefs and ideas that we operate on based from our cultural exposure and experiences.
Like the computer that runs until a bug crops up, we are not aware of the structure of our operating system until we are challenged through reaching a limitation.
More sophistication in our psychological and emotional awareness has been the increasingly predominant driver of the 20th and 21st century. We have moved beyond slavery and subjugation to more equality and sensitivity. This has changed the dynamics of our relationships.
In the workplace and especially in personal relationships we demand emotional satisfaction from our interactions.
Henry Ford could afford pitched battles with unions as long as the line kept running. Today’s workers don’t have a line to keep running, they create value from their brain and emotional state. Marriages are no longer economic unions, but emotional ones.
Yet here is where we’ve reached the bug in our operating system.
At least half of our most committed relationships, marriages, end in divorce. That isn’t individual error. That is a systemic problem in the relational frame we operate from.
This applies to all of our relationships, the difference is only in degree of intensity.
Just as people are struggling in their personal relationships, at least as many are struggling in their professional relationships. Conflict alone costs organisations £28.5billion a year, let alone miscommunication and teams underperforming through lower quality relationships. Research indicates that only 25% of executive teams function at an optimal level.
The biggest barrier we have now, is in our ability to communicate in a more precise, refined and clear way so that we can collaborate at a higher level.
The ultimate goal of professional relationships is to create an organisation that moves as one towards its goal. Equally, when we talk about our romantic relationships we want to feel a team. That someone has our back and will support us in our goals.
Just as we aren’t aware of a computer bug, until a program stretches the O/S capabilities, so too do we not notice our O/S bugs until we hit greater challenges in our relationships. One hundred years ago people’s expectations and aspirations for personal relationships were lower. Professional relationships were less demanding.
Today the demands are far greater and yet what has changed about our understanding, awareness and ability to have higher quality relationships?
Very little. Psychology itself is less than 150 years old as a discipline. The study of relationships has only really developed in the last couple of decades.
If we compare relational/emotional health to physical health we can see that we are operating on a long outdated frame.
Three or four hundred years ago medicine was as likely to be treated by a priest or witch as a trained Dr. A simple wound could often prove fatal. Since then we have developed antibiotics, antiseptic, anaesthetics and so on that have revolutionised our health and life expectancy.
When we look at the field of relationships though the mentality is closer to sixteenth century medicine than modern medicine.
Daters hope to find their Prince. Couples ‘work’ on their relationship without any solid body of knowledge underpinning their ‘work’. There are lots of books, courses and coaches operating on nothing more than opinion and personal experience.
It is analogous to the prayers, spells and potions that we often took to cure infections and diseases that we thought were curses or punishments from God.
The worlds Shakespeare and Homer wrote from had an entirely different medical, technological and social frame, yet we can identify with the same relational frame. Speak to most people about their relationships and you’ll still hear them blame their ex, talk about being incompatible and growing apart. The truth is we have so little understanding of relational dynamics that we can’t see the problem.
The problem isn’t male or female energies, incompatibilities, attitudes or modern life.
It’s much simpler than that. We just don’t know how to deal with conflict. Because we either break the relationship when conflict arises or we stop honest communication until we gradually lose interest.
That is the core of the problem.
Conflict has traditionally meant danger. So it excites our nervous system. When we’re stressed we act crazy.
It’s usually not that people are bad, but that the relationship had already died and so the couple spent the last few years of their relationship emotionally starved and so they lie, cheat and generally behave at their worst.
Yet because the frame of relationships we have been given says what’s important is who you’re with, we look to blame the person.
Google made the same basic error when they researched what makes a great team. They started looking for what blend, mix and elements you needed to have to make a great team. Sports teams often do the same spending fortunes on stars that might not raise the team level.
But it’s not who you have on the team, it’s how they interact with each other.
People have gotten so blinded by who, that in a time when we have access to more single people than ever before, daters still moan that there’s no-one out there for them. Likewise companies try to screen for the perfect hire with personality profiles and interview processes that are based on a flawed idea of who, not how. Someone’s dating or personality profile might match your criteria, but if the relationship and environment brings out the worst in them, they’re still a bad match.
Someone who feels loved, believed in and supported will perform at a much higher level than when they feel belittled, rejected and sabotaged.
The Olympic gold medallist can lose their mojo and underperform. Just as your partner can. And your colleague.
The crisis of emotional and mental ill health is really a deficiency of connection.
Humans are social animals and need to feel they belong to thrive. The core human craving is to be a part of something more. That more can be a couple, a family, team or nation.
The secret to great relationships and great teams is to become one team.
The basic building blocks of society are individuals. The basic building block of any physical object is atoms. Atoms bond to create something greater.
We have to bond with others to come together to create anything we want.
The problem we have with our relationships is that we don’t bond as one. We come together with different goals, values, beliefs, temperaments and emotional intensities. Sometimes we want different things and sometimes we just want to take different routes to the same goal.
It is these differences that break relationships.
Couples argue about sex, money, children and so on. They argue because money means security to one and they want to feel secure and it means fun to another who wants to spend and enjoy it. These innate differences are built into any relationship, personal or professional.
It is what determines what the future problems and conflicts in their interactions will be.
In the same way colleagues can get along great until the decisions of one affect the other’s well being. Relationships are easy until it seems the choices of another affect you. The challenge to making more resilient relationships is how do we handle disagreements about goals or how to reach a goal.
In the past this has been seen as a leadership issue.
Patriarchy is built on the conception that men lead and women follow. Class and caste systems and monarchies likewise assume that some are built to lead and to follow. And this works, functionally if not optimally, in a world with a power imbalance.
But our challenges today need to go beyond force and subjugation.
We need wholehearted commitment and engagement. That doesn’t come from being led or from being humoured to get buy-in to someone else’s plan. It comes through being involved in the decision making.
There are three drivers of emotional wellbeing. We need to feel like we have status, that we belong and that we matter. Every incident and event is judged against that internal standard.
How connected and engaged a partner or colleague is with you is dependent on how well the relationship meets these needs.
Football teams, influencers and pop stars become famous because people identify with them. We choose designer clothing, phones and music that demonstrates our status. We join groups that meet our needs for status, belonging and/or meaning.
Great relationships and teams are the result of providing a unified goal that everyone finds meaning in and each is recognised as adding value towards its attainment.
It is on this path that we truly become one and act as one.
As an individual we have many identities. Us as an individual, us as a couple and family. Us as a part of a greater team, nation and planet.
The secret is in not losing our individuality in those identites, but all of them nesting like a set of Matryoshka dolls.
So we are one alone. We become one with our partner or family. We become one with our teams, nations and ultimately with the universe.
This is how we live in harmony.