Fight, Flight or Unite?
By Andy Howie
How do we maintain our own individuality when building and maintaining a good working relationship with another person?
It is something I have been thinking about, particularly while Rob and I have been reflecting on our working relationship with each other. There is a lot to keep an eye on: respect for one another, our purpose for working together and ensuring we each nurture our own creativity, to name a few.
If one of us enlarges our self, our own needs, our work, what is the impact on the other? If one person grows, does the other person reduce? In family therapy dynamics, this could be seen as one person over-functioning, leading to the other person under-functioning. In our work with others we sometimes hear about issues with delegation, managers doing the work of the staff they manage, people feeling limited in their role and responsibilities, etc.
Workplace relationships are complex and intricate, and I feel it is good to be aware of this while considering how we can look after ourselves as we work at relating to others. Not everything is about the present and we are not always conscious of every influencing factor. The past can often come into the present. If there is stress, tension or friction between two people, it may not necessarily be about now or the relationship. It could be linked to past experiences. How we relate to others in the present is influenced by how we have related to others in the past.
Occasionally something Rob may do can trigger something in me and vice versa. For example, I may begin to feel a bit more controlled or a feeling of being overwhelmed with the pace of work and start losing my sense of self as I go at another person’s pace. That’s not all down to the present relationship, but also the impact of remembered experiences and feelings from childhood, perhaps. My responses can then be similar to those of the past and I can move away emotionally or retreat from communication. My intention is self-protection, but this may be inappropriate. For the good of the relationship it would be wiser to stay in the situation and for us both to try to understand each other.
‘Stay’ and ‘understand’ are good watchwords, but it is tricky because workplaces are task focused and there is work to be done. Time and energy are limited, but there are moments, such as those of possible tension and conflict, when it is good to stay with the process and try to understand each other’s needs.
Conversation is healthy and it can leave me with the realisation that I have to consider who Rob is, how he works and what his needs are. It’s okay to go with these considerations, but it’s also acceptable to think of myself as well. Rob and I examine our own parts in this process, trying to avoid playing a ‘victim’, but instead shining a light to see what is going on for both of us. We try to analyse facts and feelings. And how do we avoid one person backing-off? When one speaks, the other listens – not to prepare a reply, but to gain understanding about the other’s habits, past history and what could be influencing present feelings. We deliberately try to avoid the fight/flight response that is inherent in all humans and choose to unite in enquiring about what is going on for us both, but we have to stay there.
Not all workplaces actively work towards this level of understanding amongst people and maybe it’s not essential for some organisations to be able to function successfully, but in others – perhaps particularly those that exist to serve people, such as medical centres, schools and other educational settings, care homes, social services and family support – the relationship theories we aspire to be present in our dealings with clients could also be applied with more intentionality in colleague to colleague relationships.
What do you think?