Every era faces a different challenge.
The solutions to the problems of one era create the problems of the next. The hunger of the hunter leads to the agricultural era. Agriculture solves immediate hunger, but brings new problems like storing food and protecting it from theft.
For most of our history our problems were concrete problems of logistics.
Today’s problems are more abstract and emotional. Our biggest killers and stressors are not starvation or disease, but suicide, depression and anxiety. At the core of this is a relational crisis.
Relationships are the basic structure that holds together our families, teams, organisations and nations and yet we are unequipped for the relationships we seek personally and professionally.
The relational mentality we have was adequate for a world of inequality where power came from force and lives were short. The landscape has changed and what got us here, is what’s stopping us from making the jump to the new world we crave. We can break our limitations until we break out of our old mentality.
Now we have to unite or our dreams (and spirit) will die a slow painful death.
Relationships Are The Foundation Of Everything
One of the longest running and most comprehensive research projects, The Grant Study started in 1942 tracking a cohort of 268 Harvard students including John F Kennedy later U.S President Kennedy.
80 years later, they are still tracking those who are alive. Every seven years they checked in on all kinds of details to give an updated snapshot of how their lives were unfolding. So they will have medical check ups to see their health, interviews with them and partners and colleagues to discuss relationships and career details.
It’s had a number of directors, but two of them have given Ted talks and overwhelmingly the conclusion is what has most impact:
- on your success,
- on your health,
- on your wealth,
- and on your happiness,
is the quality and the warmth of your relationships.
People often think some lead a charmed life, but they show everyone’s had ups and downs. Everyone’s had opportunities. Everyone’s had setbacks, no one can go through life without having any hard times. But what fundamentally matters is the warmth of your relationships.
It’s interesting to see so many chase money and success at the expense of their relationships and integrity.
Warren Buffet, at one time the richest man in the world, is someone well placed to talk on the relative importance. Here’s what he had to say…
I came to the same view on my journey. The big barrier to happiness was poor relationships, the big problem in relationships is conflict. The big problem in conflict is that we compete rather than unite.
For the rest of this post I want to share how I came to this thinking so you can see for yourself without years of study.
The Problem of Relationships
If you look at the graph of marital satisfaction, we see a graph that initially rises and then gradually dips down. In my experience relational dynamics are the same in all relationships. Romantic relationships are the most intense, but the dynamic is very similar across them all.
Really, they break at the point of conflict.
I think of there being a line. Above the line we are happy and we function at our best. Below it, we become more toxic and hostile in our thoughts and actions.
What really happened over the course of the relationships is that somewhere above the line, the relationship was challenged with differences that they weren’t able to resolve.
Often a couple are blissfully happy when they’re dating, but they settle down and when a child comes along, money’s tight and there is more stress. They find they have significant differences in how they want to parent, where they want to live, spend their money and so on. They have conflict they can’t resolve and lose their connection.
Usually, the relationship carries on because they just haven’t made the decision, but they are less and less invested in it.
John Gottman says on average, it takes about six years for someone to go from being unhappy to actually leaving. What you’re getting in those last six years are the worst of the other person, because you’re living in hostility, you’re frustrated, you feel the other person stopping you from being happy… if they would just be different.
So often the cheating, the lying and all the behaviors that break the relationship usually happen after the conflict. The conflict broke the connection and then people can justify their actions. The breakdown really comes down to not resolving the initial conflict in a way that could sustain the connection.
The Essence of Conflict
At the essence of conflict is two versions of reality.
Each person is pushing for their way and they think if the other could just see sense they’d be so happy. And so they’re trying to pull each other in different directions. This is where they get torn apart in the tension of this tug of war.
That’s where the connection gets broken because they don’t know how to get past this battle.
Conflict is natural. It’s inevitable and yet we are not set up for it. Very few people are dealing with it well, and I think it is because it is deep wired into us.
We think difference means danger.
Evolutionarily, difference meant a different tribe. I think this is the basis of prejudice today. A different tribe is going to invade us, steal our land, enslave and kill us.
The very feeling of someone’s being or thinking differently to you creates stress.
Because my tribe are people like me. Differences mean danger. And so differences trigger a stress response that closes down our rational thinking mind.
Because we don’t think logically, we react emotionally so that we react childishly.
So then we become more hostile. We become more aggressive and we get fixed in positions. So when we are in conflict, we go into fight, flight or freeze mode.
Some people will give in and they’ll just end up unhappy, resentful and bitter. Others are going to fight and become aggressive which will create hostility and destroy their relationship. And some people will just disengage, won’t talk and, and you’ll get these no-go zones of what you can’t talk about in the relationship and the relationship will lose all intimacy and passion and eventually connection.
But the key to conflict is to transcend.
That is where we get growth. And it’s where you can open up and talk about it. Then you understand what’s behind people’s positions, understand someone else’s reality and gather those two different views to come up with something better than you could have alone.
As Einstein said, ‘no problem can be solved at the same level of thinking that created it’.
So you have to rise up a level. To do this, you have to be aware of your own biases, understand where the lineage of both thinking came from. And then this creates the raw materials you have to work with.
You can then collaborate to create a better model or idea with the raw ingredients you have left from dissecting both ideas.
Usually, the process of resolving conflict is usually dealt with by competing for who has the best idea. Yet, that’s the least effective approach, not just because you are rejecting the good and the bad in their idea. When you argue for your idea, and attack theirs, you strengthen someone’s resistance to your idea and attachment to their own.
Sometimes we have opposing goals which is the source of conflict.
Often though, we agree on the goal, but disagree on the strategy or tactics to get there. We all want happiness, health, peace and prosperity, but we often disagree about the best way to get it. Okay. So it’s more often about the strategy or the tactics than the actual goal.
To understand conflict and the whole dynamic of conflict, we have to understand people.
The Three Core Human Motivations
So I think people have three levels, the head, the heart and the gut.
They want legacy with their head. They want love from their heart. And from their gut, they want to thrive.
So legacy is about meaning, love is about belonging and thriving is about status.
We’re a social being that can only find meaning, belonging and thrive in a social context. Our tribe provides that social context for what we do. So being a part of a tribe is deeply rooted within us.
Relationships are the key units of connection that knit together people into a larger tribe.
We need to belong to a tribe to survive. Once we do though, we want to rise up the pecking order of the tribe. Ultimately, we know that we can’t live forever, so we want to leave something that lasts beyond us and shows our life made a difference.
At the core of being human, there are three basic motives.
To tell a story of life that makes sense of our individual experiences and gives our place in it meaning. To have a social context, a tribe in which we belong, love others and are loved. To hold some status within that pack that shows we are valued.
In essence, emotions are created as every action and interaction is held up against those three core desires.
- To belong.
- To be valued.
- That your existence made a difference.
When you look at what upsets you or others you’ll find that at the core it’s one of these. Maybe it’s something that makes you feel you’re failing or inadequate. Or perhaps you were the only one not invited to the pub at lunchtime or what you do seems pointless.
The Dual Life
Of course we rarely express events in this way.
We often aren’t even aware of it which brings up the key problem in communication. It is like we are living in parallel universes. There is what we do and what we feel.
We do things for a better life.
So we go to work for money. We spend our money on homes, cars and other things. This is the physical world we see and function in.
Yet there is another world, the world of emotions we feel.
So there’s the life of, of symbols. The things we want, like houses, cars, designer clothing and so on. We want all of these things, but they are really symbols for states we want to feel.
And so when we want a house, what we really want might be security or safety.
When we want a car, we might want the freedom to be able to go where we want. When we want designer clothing, we want to signal to people that we are important and are successful. So things are the symbols for the state we ultimately want.
Because we often confuse the symbol for the state, we get confused about the goal and this makes communication doubly baffling.
So people focus on money where they don’t actually want money because money doesn’t mean anything out of its context. They want what money means to them. So we confuse ourselves, but also when we talk to people we make it hard for them to understand our motivations.
Addictions are really when we fixate on a symbol to get a state..
So maybe we drink, do drugs, smoke, over work, play games or want sex comulsively and we get addicted. But the behaviour is something we have associated with a high. In all of these cases, the addiction is really to the high that dopamine brings from that stimulus.
This makes teams incredibly complex and confusing.
A team can have a goal and everyone agrees on the goal. But that goal means something different to each of them. To one, it means a promotion, to another it means belonging and to another a way to be valued.
What this means is we have overt and covert goals.
So conflict really happens because we are unclear in our communication. We aren’t clear because we don’t understand each other. We interpret each other and judge the other as having character deficits.
Howard Markman, talks about trivial events that suddenly erupt into huge arguments out of proportion with the trigger.
The event could be using the last of the milk, not clearing up after them or being late. It triggers an ongoing issue that has built up about money, sharing tasks, raising children or managing others. Underpinning that is a deeper issue like wanting respect, care or feeling their integrity is being challenged.
For example, someone being late might enrage the other waiting, because they feel it is just another sign of their lackadaisical attitude and it shows a lack of respect for them.
So the argument reveals what the issue is about. Underneath that, there’s a hidden issue of whether it’s about respect or care and concern or commitment or integrity or something like that. The hidden issue creates a strong emotional reaction because it probably has been a lifelong insecurity.
Typically though we don’t realise this, so we just judge that person as being crazy.
Construction of The Self
I always think people are a lot like phones in their makeup.
In a phone you’ve got hardware, which determines how good the camera is, how fast this processor is. You’ve got apps which enable you to do certain things like it does email, social media and so on. But the real key to it is the thing that we never really see, the operating system.
The operating system is what makes the ecosystem work and allows the apps to make use of the hardware.
In the same way, people have genetics, which is the limitations we have, like height, eye colour, bodyshape and all of that stuff. We learn skills that are like apps. So we learn at school and we learn to do this and we specialise as a carpenter or whatever.
What we never think about is when we operate on autopilot, what are we operating on?
We’re operating on the bakedin beliefs, assumptions and expectations about the world. This makes up the human operating system that enables us to function in the world. So unless we’re consciously overriding them,, these are the hidden assumptions, beliefs and expectations that determine what we do.
Spiritual teachers might ask who was the thinker of the thought?
And what they’re really getting at is we can think without being the thought. Yet, if we’ve never really reflected and considered what makes us think as we do, we identify with the thoughts as if it were part of our identity. So politics and religion become emotive as they are ideologies that become tribal.
Social media uses this identification with thoughts to create polarisation because it sees that this activates our emotions and so our attention.
If you look at Presidential campaigns the winning candidate creates some generic message like Make America Great Again and it triggers an identification with being patriotic. In the same way, couples get entrenched in positions because they identify with a belief and mistake the belief for an identity. Obviously this gets more complex for companies with silos, departments and political cliques.
So like the biggest myth is that I’m a self-made man.
It’s an identification that I made myself a success and I’m taking all the credit. But there’s a reason that the richest men always come from America. Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates would not have had the same opportunity if they’d been born in Ethiopia.
None of us can be self-made because we have been born into a world filled with centuries of progress and social structures that enable us to do great things.
Everything we believe and how we identify ourselves is based on where you were born. Of course within that we can make good or poor choices, but when you realise that 70% of our neurology is wired up by the age of seven, our operating system is constructed as a child, mostly by the mix of what we are told and observe. So we start with all of these assumptions, beliefs and expectations about the world that we have been given by the people around us and our culture.
Learning Is Contextual
All that we learn though comes from a social context.
Words are a good example of how we learn. No-one sits us down with a dictionary and teaches the same definition of words to everyone. We learn it from a social context and so we all have a slightly different slant to what a word means.
Yet we assume everyone means the same thing as us by a given word.
It’s relatively easy to agree on what we mean by something concrete like table, bread and chair, but love, happiness and other abstract terms are much harder to agree on. John Gottman said he stopped counting the different meanings people had for money after getting 100 variations. There has been for years the card series showing Love is… showing how people interpret love in different ways.
So communication is very difficult because words are imprecise.
As civilisation has progressed this has become more and more of an issue. 100 years ago most of the economy either farmed, mined, made things or sold them. Primary economies deal in logistics of physical things so communication only has to be fairly primitive.
As we have moved to a more advanced economy, most people are knowledge workers.
In other words, we deal in abstract concepts. This is where language becomes more subjective and so challenging to understand and express clearly. At the same time there is a vast increase in our sensitivity to emotions and so miscommunication has more and more potential to create conflict.
Allied to this there is a rapidly changing social environment where old prejudices, beliefs and ways of doing things are being challenged and people expected to show new behaviour, while their Operating System may not have kept up.
When we sum this up, we can see we have a language that is too blunt to communicate effectively. We have an increasing sensitivity to emotions and language and a rapidly changing social context. Yet at the same time we function with the nervous system that hasn’t evolved since caveman times.
Conflict Isn’t The Problem As Much As The Way We Handle Conflict
In short, in a rapidly changing environment filled with miscommunication and sensitivity we are wired to act childishly and violently to any threat.
This is why conflict is so prevalent and so costly to resolve. However, mostly we look at the behaviours and we judge people for their behaviour when we have failed to understand the context for that behaviour. Conflict is generally seen as a hassle, an inevitable problem for people working or living together.
Conflict is really either the gateway to greatness or the barrier to happiness depending on how you approach it.
To really understand we have to examine how we experience life. The default cultural view is that the world is this objective solid land and we step out into it. The reality is that we are each bombarded by 3 billion bits of data every second.
So to make sense of that deluge of data we delete, we distort, we generalize all of that data to try and fit the frame we already understand.
Where we see the world as if it’s this objective, static thing we all see, it actually is more accurately a flow of information that we are processing to create the world we see. Witness testimony is notoriously unreliable because we don’t dispassionately take in the world, we pay attention to what we agree with and disregard what we disagree with. The world of social media has exaggerated this by designing algorithms that feed us what we agree with and hide dissenting views from us.
In this way we actively create the world that we experience.
Yet we assume everyone else has the same experience of the world that we have. Because everyone’s world is actually unique and it’s constructed based on all the things that they believe, all the interpretations of experiences and events and so on. We literally inhabit different worlds and so you could give 10 people the same experience and get back 10 different versions of that event.
So we experience a world that is filtered by our family and social culture, our interpretations of our experiences and observations, plus whatever conscious efforts we have invested to deepen and enrich our O/S.
In a nutshell then we are a reflection of the lessons and messages we have internalised from our first few years making sense of the world and the extent to which we have consciously overridden that programming. Because even identical twins sit at a different seat at the table and one is served first while the other waits, resulting in a different experience, our internal world becomes unique. And through this individual perspective on the world, we function.
Other people’s behaviour seems irrational and deficient because they live in a different version of the world to us.
A phone with the same hardware capabilities, same apps and O/S and usage history will take similar quality images. Likewise, if we had the same genetics, experience, emotional state and framework as someone else, we’d act like them.
Typically though, we judge people from our vantage point, which is with different genetics, experiences, cultural programming and frameworks.
There is also another ingredient to add into this mix. The Fundamental Attribution Error. This describes the bias we have judging other people’s behaviour against our own.
We ascribe other people’s failures to character deficits, such as being clumsy, lazy or arrogant and our own to situational factors.
Other people’s poor decisions stem from greediness, ignorance or stupidity. Ours come from other people’s actions, being given flawed information or understandable circumstances beyond our control. In short, we excuse ourselves and damn others.
Conflict then presents the situation where we suffer and have our hopes frustrated due to the deficiency in decision making and actions, or lack of, of others.
The Gift Of Conflict
Typically people don’t want to change.
What makes us happy is the sense of purpose in striving for meaningful goals. Yet, at any moment the desire to be comfortable is usually dominant. Comfortable means avoiding risks and sticking to the familiar.
Procrastination, overeating and drinking tend to dominate over exercising, learning new skills and healthy eating.
This is because homeostasis always promotes comfort over discomfort. We make new year resolutions from our thinking brain. We conserve energy and avoid risk because we are built for a world where food was scarce and risks were life threatening.
We have the nervous system of a caveman in a high tech world.
Biological evolution takes hundreds of thousands of years. Our social evolution takes decades. That gap creates the problems, challenges and conflicts we face.
When you analyse problems, you can see that they happen from assumptions, beliefs and expectations.
We limit ourselves when we operate on the assumption that something is true when it isn’t. Our beliefs make us operate in a certain way, when often what we do is misguided. Likewise, when our expectations are out of line with our results, we become upset and frustrated.
For example, many people suffer from overwhelm and get burned out because they assume they can do more than they can, they believe they should be capable of more and expect more than they are able to deliver.
When we have a limitation such as attention, time or money, we have to adjust our expectations to our capabilities. Likewise, sometimes the limitation comes more from an assumption than reality. The belief that perpetuates this is the standard by which we judge whether we’re lazy or in some other way deficient.
A problem, like a conflict, shows us that our O/S is out of alignment with reality or with someone we wish to collaborate with.
When an app or some function on a phone creates a problem, it highlights a bug in the O/S. The developers identify the bug and patch it up with code to make the O/S more resilient. In the same way, when we lift heavy weights, we tear our muscles to then regrow stronger.
Problems and conflicts bring bugs in our O/S to our awareness and if we resolve them, we grow stronger.
When we realise that our neural networks are 70% wired up by the age of 7, we can see that most of the beliefs, assumptions and expectations that we have were installed before we were capable of any critical analysis. In other words we mostly operate on the beliefs, assumptions and expectations of other people. And when things go wrong we think it’s because we are deficient in some way.
As David Foster Wallace showed so eloquently in his speech, ‘This Is Water’, we take for granted what is always present.
We think every home is like our home until we have been in enough homes to see the difference. We think every school is like ours until we see each is slightly different. Whatever we understand of others comes from what we can relate to from our own experience.
We assume life is as we have experienced it until something jars us out of our ignorance.
This is why problems and conflict are so valuable. They show us where we are ignorant or flawed in our map of the world. Once something conflicts with our map, we are given the different perspectives.
This is why Groupthink is so dangerous to groups making decisions.
We all want to be comfortable. And so we’d rather everyone agree with our ideas. And everything we try would work out perfectly.
The reality is that all of us are a work in progress.
So, while conflict and problems seem to be a hassle in our life, they are actually feedback enabling us to constantly align our map of reality with how it actually works. The more conflict a group has before making a decision, the more diverse points of data they have to make a more informed decision. The key is to sift through all of the assumptions and beliefs underpinning all the perspectives to sort the true from the false.
So just as a mongrel dog is healthier due to a more diverse gene pool, so too are decisions better when they come from a more diverse meme pool.
The gift of conflict is that the friction of different perspectives challenges their assumptions. In this way, with open and honest debate, we get to see what is fact and what is fiction. Like the chef with a wider range of ingredients who can cook a better meal, with a wider range of information we can make better decisions.
So while by default we see conflict as a threat, it actually is a gift if we can detach our identity from our thoughts.
Why Conflict Becomes Emotive
When a couple is dating everything is new and novel. They see each other for a couple of hours while they are each at their best. And they are relatively unattached to the decisions each other makes.
Yet when they move in together, the financial, social, timing and similar decisions one makes directly affect the other
Likewise, colleagues can be friends and get along amicably.They don’t mind what the other does or how they do it. Say one gets a promotion though.
Suddenly, the actions and decisions of one affect the other’s work and future prospects.
The deeper our relationship becomes, the more the decisions and actions of the other affects our wellbeing. What is at the root of our emotions is the fear of the implications of how what someone else does will affect us. When someone else’s decisions don’t affect us, we are more emotionally detached.
Conflict is therefore most emotive in the relationships closest to us where someone’s decisions have more impact on our wellbeing.
So a dating relationship is entirely different to a domestic relationship. While you are dating, you see each other when you’re relaxed and you have each other’s full attention. And crucially, you have less attachment to their actions.
As you develop into a domestic relationship, you are now more deeply involved in each other’s lives and the stakes become higher.
Likewise, when a work relationship goes from being colleagues who don’t have an investment in what each other does to more directly involved, the relationship brings up more opportunity for conflict. So we attach ourselves to people because we think they are like us or because they will bring something we need. For example, introverts might be attracted to very social people because it helps them to navigate an area where they lack confidence.
As they become more deeply entwined with the other, the relationship faces more and more conflict.
The conflict is because we have two entirely different realities that we are creating from the same event. What seems crazy or malevolent from our eyes is our partner responding in a rational way to the reality he or she sees. We always act logically based on our interpretation of an event.
The problem arises because we also judge others based on our interpretation rather than seek the interpretation they are operating from.
There’s also a twist that emphasises our differences. Our interpretation of the world is set up to make us feel good about ourselves. No-one wants to feel devalued, so we slant our construction of the world according to our strengths.
We make good, what we see as our strength and bad, what we feel lacking in.
So the kind person will judge people according to how kind they are and people who do not prioritise kindness will be judged as bad. Intelligent people will value feats of intelligence. Ambitious people will praise go-getters and see money as a mark or spiritual reward.
So our differences stem not just from different perspectives, but from a fight to not feel inadequate against others.
We try to create a world that makes us feel comfortable and valuable in it. Change is threatening and costly because it means we have to spend time, energy and attention in re-ordering the way we see the world and our place within it. To see the world from the perspective of another is to risk the cosy structure we have built.
In this light we can see that our differences are not merely weighing up equally rational views, but threats to the stability of our world.
The relationship becomes more challenged by these differences because like Bilbo Baggins, we tend to prefer the comfort of agreement to the adventure of challenging our assumptions. Joseph Campbell showed many Hero’s journeys start with the refusal of the call. So too do many relationships flounder when we are called to a deeper connection by our conflict.
Like Bilbo, we look for every excuse not to venture into the unknown.
Our partner is mad, bad or sad. It’s a passing phase. Often we’ll tell others the story and canvas for votes as if our way becomes truth if we can just convince enough people to agree with us.
Yet the critical decision we face is… do we engage with our differences and communicate to grow in connection and understanding of each other or do we blame, shame and game our partner until the relationship dies?
Everything in the physical world is made up of atoms bonded together in various formations.
A bunch of atoms bond together and something new is created. Something greater than they could be alone. If we look at the problems we have as humans it’s because as groups and in relationships we don’t bond as a unit.
We typically compete.
We are two different world views that fight for their view to be predominant. If you analyse any conflict or relationship problem, this is at the core of it. Unlike the atom, we are not as fluid in shifting our identity from individual to the collective.
Everything we want comes from uniting with others.
Success. Love. Meaning.
Yet, we struggle to unite because to really unite means letting go of the world we have built and building a shared one with our partner.
When you look at dating profiles you can see how people think about relationships. There are many references to Prince Charming and often sets of criteria as to what someone wants. The subtext to this, is that my world is just missing someone (6ft or over, intelligent and good looking, solvent and with a good sense of humour) who can sweep in and complete my picture.
Where the applicant goes from Prince Charming to discarded frog is when they stop playing the supporting role in my world and become a real person with their own view and world of their own.
The seeds of discontent are sown with the story we start from. We think someone else will complete our picture. But while we were pinning our hopes on them, the other person brought you in to complete their life. So in these two views comes an expectation for you to fulfill.
This story becomes even more complex when it’s not a relationship we’re talking about, but a team.
We all have a different belief system that drives how we see ourselves and the rest of the world. We have our own individual dreams and the path we travel to reach them. Then we see others as either allies or enemies depending on how their world view collides with ours.
Yet sooner or later, all worlds collide.
And so relationships and teams are inherently fragile. Because when your world view collides with mine, we have a difference. We can either use those differences as different data points to build a better understanding and so make better decisions or we can defend our own comfortable model.
Discomfort is inevitable, our choice only is when we feel it.
We can either allow discussions to update and disrupt the comfort of our internal model. Or we can resist and continue to operate with a flawed model. But then we will face the consequences and costs in real life.
The cost is in problems and conflict or in letting go of our beloved pre-conceived ideas.
Life Is Not A Journey Of Conquering The World, But Uniting The World
It can often seem in our hollywood blockbusters that the key to life is to win, to dominate and to conquer.
Yet actually, the key to life is really in uniting. We get everything we want in life through uniting. Uniting as a couple, as a family, as a team, as a nation and ultimately uniting with the universe.
The sense of being one with all is essentially attaining the peace and mastery of life that spiritual masters such as Jesus, Buddha and Lao Tsu have always pointed to.
The irony is that Jesus was not a Christian or Buddha a Buddhist. And the religions formed in their name followed the word rather than the spirit. Hence they created more schisms and conflict as they tried to proscribe their world view rather than unite.
Steven Pressfield talks about Alexander the Great epitomising the Warrior Archetype and shows how it contrasts with other types.
When Alexander met Porus, Porus told him he was a Conqueror, but not a King. He conquered great masses of the world, but did nothing to make life better for the people there. The King Archetype would strive to make his nation better.
Likewise, when he invaded India he met Yogis seeking enlightenment.
Alexander’s soldiers cleared most of the them from his path before they marched through. One however, refused to move and a soldier barked at him “This is Alexander The Great. He has conquered most of the world. What have you done?” The sage replied “I have conquered the need to conquer the world”.
In the same way we seek power, fortune and fame, but even when we achieve it we find peace more fulfilling.
We think we want to be the star. What we actually want is that feeling of losing yourself in flow as part of a team that together comes to become more than the sum of their parts. That is where we come alive.
Being valued within a group we belong to in pursuit of something meaningful.
Our journey is essentially the decision to fight or to unite with life. This starts with our own inner conflicts. It is then our approach to relationships, to work and life that either pits us against the world or to understand and harmonise with it.
What this creates is a series of nested identities.
We have one identity as an individual. Then another as a couple, family, team and so on. It’s still us, but what changes is how we show up in those different contexts and environments.
What makes relationships and joining a group difficult is that it feels like we’re losing our personal autonomy.
Approaches To Conflict
This is due to the frame we look at conflict from. The Thomas-Killman model has 5 approaches to conflict. In essence, we can compete, avoid, compromise, accomodate or collaborate.
While their model is to develop awareness and they fit each approach to a given context, my focus is on removing the barriers between people in order to work as a team.
Therefore, I believe the only effective approach is to collaborate.
- When we avoid, we have no-go zones of conversation that eventually breaks trust and connection.
- When we accommodate, the other person is happy, but we’ll eventually end up unhappy and bitter.
- When we compromise, neither of us is happy and so we both end up with an unsatisfying relationship.
- When we compete, we are at risk of being too aggressive and destroying the relationship. Plus in effect we are creating an oppositional dynamic vs one of working together.
When we collaborate, we show up as we are without any games or manipulation. We don’t hide our views. Instead we share what we think and why we think that.
The distinction is that while we share what we think and feel, we aren’t attached to our thinking. We approach it like we are bringing a dish to the buffet. We bring what we like, but in order to share with all.
The result is that we have a buffet with a range of dishes and delicacies that we can pick from with a fraction of the effort we would otherwise had to invest in preparing and cooking.
The problem starts when instead of thinking we’re all going to have a buffet and lay out all of our ideas and all of the possibilities, we have an investment in what is ‘Our Ideas’ and ‘Our Goals’. This creates a reflexive response to what anyone says anything contrary. This would be like going to a buffet where everyone has brought a dish and refusing anything you didn’t make.
Sometimes we like our thing the best and sometimes someone else knocked it out of the park.
But if we closed our mind before we tasted, we will never know. Conflict is the metaphorical tasting of different ideas and possibilities. If we can talk without attachment, we can see the limitations of our thinking and the possibility of horizons beyond ours.
That is how we transcend our limitations and become part of something greater than the sum of the parts.
The diversity of ideas, strengths and perspectives is what enables us to be strong in every area. This is why Marvel characters are unstoppable together. Individually they would still be Superheros, but their weaknesses would leave them vulnerable.
Leadership Is An Agreement Not An Authority
Our patriarchal system has traditionally placed men as head of the household and women were expected to obey.
So when we look at the dramatic rise in divorce over the last century, it was overwhelmingly women ending their marriage. The drive changing the dynamics of relationships has come from women. Because Patriarchy and its customs is an ideology rather than from any logical basis.
When you have a relationship or team that is dancing to one person’s tunes then in effect they are a supporting character to someone else’s star role.
Companies spend a lot of time trying to get more engagement and buy-in. They need to get people enthused to achieve their vision and goal. The problem is that it’s hard to get people enthused about your goals and vision.
Watching other people’s journeys is entertaining, it’s what we do when we read, watch tv and scrol;l through social media.
It’s something we do passively. If you want people to be engaged and passionate towards reaching a goal then you need them actively involved. We are only actively involved in our own story.
Great leaders are the ones who excite us because they expand our vision.
We aren’t excited because our company beat their earnings per share target or cut their budget by 25%. We aren’t excited about achieving sales targets or making our Owners richer. We might want a bonus or promotion, but it’s not what really drives us.
We get excited at a level that drives real enthusiasm, engagement and passion by only three drivers.
When we feel the work we do directly contributes to us leaving a legacy beyond us. When we feel a part of something bigger than us. And when we feel we can enhance our status within the group.
Great leaders tell us a story that makes us feel this is a team we want to be a part of.
Steve Jobs was rude, demanding and volatile as a Boss. Yet, I suspect he was able to build Apple and Pixar because he had a vision for a better world that his colleagues could believe in. People building the Ipod, Iphone and Ipad could see they were creating devices that would change the world.
No-one can motivate a team for their own ends.
Alexander the Great was perhaps the greatest conqueror of all time. In little over a decade he had conquered almost all of the known world at that time. This was only possible because the love and devotion his men had for him.
They were only so invested in him because his drive was not about personal gain, but the glory of being the most powerful empire and their story being told through history.
Someone who has united a team and led them to glory is Jurgen Klopp. Liverpool had been a shadow of their past glories when he took over as manager. It wasn’t that the players, staff and club wasn’t skilled and capable of success.
The problem was that they were divided.
They all wanted success. But they were pulling in different directions to get there. Klopp succeeded where other managers failed because he was able to unite everyone and harvest their energy and passion in the same direction.
The reason Klopp was able to unite everyone was because first of all it wasn’t about him.
He knew his job was to unite the club. So where Jose Mourinho declared himself the ‘Special One’, Klopp called himself the ‘Normal One’. The difference is one wanted personal glory, the other wanted to bring along the whole club on the journey.
Football is a good place to look because it is a team game, many times the lesser players can beat the stars because united a team is greater than the sum of its parts.
This is how teams like Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest and Celtic came to win the European Cup. Great managers can forge a team together to perform at a higher level. To sustain success though they have to be able to maintain strong relationships as dynamics change.
The key to Klopp’s success comes from strong self-awareness, humility and strong principles.
Sarina Wiegman had a similar impact on England women’s football team uniting them to win the 2022 Euros for the first time. Her players talked about how she brought them together by talking openly and honestly and building connection. They also talked of the clarity she gave them of what she expected of them and the role they had to play.
The result was England winning their first major trophy in over 60 years and Sarina winning back to back Euros trophies.
The key lesson is that the vision can’t be a personal one. It’s one that encompasses everyone and so everyone feels a part of the vision and involved. In sport it’s easy because everyone knows what the goal is, whereas in everyday life it’s more nebulous.
It isn’t the leader’s job to devise a vision.
The leader’s job is to sense the general mood, feeling and from the collective intelligence understand the problem better than anyone else. We unite to solve a problem to create a better life in some way, whether that’s a couple starting out or a company changing the world. The key task of the leader is to articulate the problem we need to solve, the outcome we’ll get when we solve it and then a strategy and tactics of what we have to do to achieve it.
This is what all great leaders from Alexander the Great to Sarina Wiegman have done.
What Jurgen Klopp understood when he took over at Liverpool was that the problem was a lack of belief from players and fans. He gave them a vision and worked on building the mentality from the players and built unity with the fans. Behind the scenes he enabled everyone to contribute so that he had the best ideas and information to support his decisions.
The leadership role is essentially to unite and organise everyone in pursuit of a common purpose.
What leaders like Klopp, Jobs and so on recognise is it’s not about power in itself. Nor is it needing to control everyone. It is simply organising people in the most effective way to get the job done.
The Alpha Myth And The Stress Response
There has been a lot of rhetoric about alpha males as being a certain personality type that leads.
The problem is that it is built on a misunderstanding. The original work of the Alpha male taken from wolf studies was later realised to be a mistake by the author who has spent years trying to reverse the impact it has had. And so generations of people have been taught that they need to act in a certain way to get all of the position, power and rewards.
Because after all, isn’t that just a natural phenomenon that the Alpha male wins, while the Beta starves.
Despite the hollywood movies that tell us that narrative, it isn’t true. First of all, wolfs live in families, not in large packs. When children are old enough they leave the family to create their own pack.
So there is no fighting for alpha status because there isn’t any alpha… just parents and children.
The fighting for resources and status comes in artificial situations where wolves are captured and forced to live in the same space. In Chimps and other species, the leader is not the strongest, but the best able to knit together the group. It is the skill of collaboration that makes a leader.
Yet, the flawed narrative of the alpha myth has led to the story that we have to compete for resources by being more dominant.
This leads to stupid people like Donald Trump who think that you have to always be strong and have all the answers. Because a lack of humility we then make stupid decisions as we think we have to have all the answers. So much wasted effort and hurt happens when we don’t use all the brains at our disposal.
The secret to engagement and buy-in is not in what do you have to offer to get people’s co-operation, but what can you build and collaborate to achieve.
The alpha myth was an observation of an unnatural social structure. A man-made captive civilisation, which is not dissimilar to our modern social structure. The Industrial Revolution completely changed the social structure and with it the behaviour and emotional landscape.
So in the same way wolves fought for resources and status, so do humans in the modern environment.
Yet this doesn’t mean it is optimal. It is what we do under extreme stress. And the statistics for mental health show that we are a species under stress.
The stress comes because our biological, psychological, social and emotional need to unite is being diverted to meaningless goals that provide little emotional return on our investment.
The Problem Of Power and Relationships
When we look at the reality of our relationships and unions what we can see is that many have a power imbalance. Traditional marriages had men as the head of the household. Likewise companies have been run on hierarchical lines.
Today both of these structures are under immense pressure and are breaking.
The Gottman’s research shows that many relationships fail because the man is not able to accept influence from his wife. The wife feels unheard, devalued and becomes critical or even contemptuous of him. In the same way, employees who feel disregarded and ignored become disengaged.
When we don’t have a role in the decision making process it is hard to feel enthusiastic and passionate about achieving the goal.
Companies have traditionally run on clear organisational chart structures. This made perfect sense for a manufacturer like Henry Ford. He re-designed the car industry through the logistics of his assembly line.
Because the value Ford brought was in his assembly line process he could afford to fight pitched battles with his workers.
In many industries today though, the variables are dynamic and we have to adjust with more sensitivity and intelligence in how we respond. More and more, we are solving bigger and bigger problems with our work, and so our value is in how we work as a team. The more enthused, engaged and connected we feel, the more we show up and the better we perform.
In other words, relationships are key to how we work for how it makes us feel, how we perform and to knit us together into an intelligent and responsive team.
The reality is that we can’t run a 10,000 person business with everyone having a say in decision making. However, when we have a few who make the decisions and the many who have to act on the decision we have introduced a power dynamic. The problem is not power, but the legitimacy of the power and the integrity with which it is used.
Power is defined as the ability to get something done and the authority, influence or control over others.
Few people are leaders. And most will happily accede to someone they trust can get the job done and will act with integrity. The problem is that positional power or authority confuses the authenticity of power.
Power should be a naturally shifting dynamic that is held by the person most capable of getting done what needs to be done.
The illusion of the organisational chart is that the people at the top are better and therefore make the decisions. The reality is that each position in the organisation requires a different skillset. Power is a dynamic that shifts from one to another depending on who has the best ability to get the job done at that moment.
Likewise, in a healthy couple, power will shift constantly depending on field, mood, situation and many other dynamics.
In an unhealthy relationship, power is held by one partner to control the outcome. This results in a one-sided relationship that means the other partner gets little from the arrangement causing them to feel devalued, uncared for and dis-respected. The relationship might persist because they feel unable to leave for whatever reason, but love won’t persist.
It becomes a relationship of toxicity where both become diminished by their participation in it.
In a negotiation depending on the variables we can get our own way at times. When we hold a good hand, or the other feels their hand is lacking, we can push for an unfair deal. However, this only works in transactional interactions.
When we do this, it comes at a cost to any future relationship.
Many fields and industries work on this transactional nature. However, when we bring this dynamic into a relationship. Whether that is personal or professional, we suffer a loss of trust, respect and status.
Within companies because of the nature of the evolution of our society and the dynamics within it, there has to be someone that has the final say.
Communism doesn’t work because the nature of life is to have inequalities and inequities. People always appeal to fairness, yet nowhere in the universe is there any observable law of fairness. So at some point, someone has to be the Boss and have the final say.
Yet, the health of the organisation, team or nation depends on the legitimacy of the power of that Boss.
When power is legitimately, when in service of the whole and by the person best qualified, most people will happily follow that leader. When it is used for personal gain, as a badge of status or to impose personal opinions, people will rebel. In other words, the person best placed to lead is the person who is most secure in themselves and concerned with the wellbeing of the group.
This is why in animals, we find that the Alpha of the group is not necessarily the best fighter, but usually the one who can best look after the needs of the group.
What best needs the needs of the group is constantly maximising the value of the production of the group.
Fighting, and other so-called ‘alpha’ behaviours, don’t maximise the value of the group. So what they create is a tension because consciously or not the leader has broken the mandate they had to lead. This creates a dynamic where the team become divided in their goals and actions.
And of course this applies to all teams from couples to organisations and nations and upwards.