Saturday, December 3, 2016

Alter the Interaction, Not the Other Person

How often when you're having relationship problems, do you focus on how "touchy," "unreliable," "critical" etc. the other person is? 

Operating from this premise, you may have unwittingly attempted solutions that continue or even exaggerate the perceived problem.

Let's say someone sees her spouse as not hands-on enough in their family business – she thinks he gives employees too much leeway.
She questions her husband frequently and in detail.
As a consequence, he doesn't tell her about what he does that's hands-on because he believes She'll just nit-pick anyway.
This confirms her belief that he isn't paying enough attention to details, which leads her to follow up more frequently.
He responds by retreating even more, leading her to check in even more, and so on.
In contrast, you can reframe the situation as an interaction problem. A fundamental premise of this approach is that problems in relationships persist only if maintained by both people – not only the one identified as having the 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 can become a source of energy with positive potential.
  • 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.
You can shift focus from what's wrong with the other person to how you both contribute to a self-fulfilling problem. To do this requires two critical skills: 
  1. Focus on observable behaviors in the interaction (vs. only the behavior of the other person).
  2. Do something to alter the interaction (as opposed to trying to change the other person).
Ideally, both partners in the interaction would talk about the self-fulfilling pattern and decide together how they can interrupt it and do something different.Sometimes, though, one of the partners isn't willing to do this. It's still possible for one of them to break the cycle.

Paradoxically, changes we seek in other people are more likely to occur if we first accept those people as they are. A particularly interesting application of this concept relies on the paradox of going with a behavior in order to change it. 

Following this premise, the person above could reframe the negative connotation of "not being hands-on enough" and say something like this: "I like the idea of being able to trust our employees to do their jobs well. Let's figure out an approach that gives them more autonomy and doesn't require our checking in on them."

(For a full description of this approach see The Paradoxical Approach to Problem Solving)

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