Often when we experience relationship problems we conclude it's the other person who's "touchy," "unreliable," "critical," etc. Operating from this premise, you may unwittingly attempt solutions that reinforce or even exaggerate the perceived problem.
Let's say Anne and Bill have a family business and Anne, a perfectionist, thinks Bill gives employees too much autonomy.
Anne presses Bill to be more hands-on, questioning him frequently and in detail. Bill doesn't keep her posted on the ways he is hands-on because "She'll just nit-pick anyway." This confirms Anne's belief that Bill isn't paying enough attention to details, which leads her to follow up more frequently. Bill responds by retreating even more, leading Anne to check in even more, and so on.
Instead, they could reframe the situation as an interaction problem:
- Problems that occur between people are situational difficulties -- both are doing something to maintain the problem.
- It's normal and appropriate to resist attempts by another to "fix" us; such so-called resistance is more usefully labeled as a source of energy when released for positive purposes.
- It may seem paradoxical, but going with the other person's energy is much more likely to make a difference than lecturing, advising, or scolding.
This approach requires relationship partners to develop the ability to:
- focus on observable behaviors in the interaction (vs. only the behavior of the other person),
- do something to alter the interaction (as opposed to trying to change the other person).
A particularly interesting application of this concept relies on the paradox of going with a behavior in order to change it. Following this premise, Anne could release the positive potential of Bill's management style by saying something such as "I respect your value of trusting our employees to do their jobs well. Let's talk about how we can help them be more autonomous." This is a win-win situation:
- If Bill "resists" Anne's suggestion, he becomes more "hands-on," increasing his oversight of employees and eliminating her basis for criticism.
- If they work out standards that ensure employees do their jobs without frequent follow-up, again there is no longer a basis for Anne's complaint.
For more about this approach, read The Tactics of Change, by Fisch, Weakland, and Segal.