By Judith E. Glaser | Leadership Excellence
Published October 2004
Practice letting go and releasing.
Our least developed skill is the ability to confront each other face to face, say what is in our hearts and on our minds, and at the same time build and strengthen our relationship with others. Confrontation takes most of us to the edge of our comfort zone, and so we tend to avoid it.
Having difficult conversations scares most people into thinking they will lose a friendship, and so they avoid confronting the truth. When we feel frustrated or angry at someone who we feel has stood in our way of success, or undermined us and caused us to lose face, we get so upset we just can’t find the words to express ourselves. We end up pushing, not pulling, expressing our worst behaviors, or we may hold it all inside until we boil up with frustration and then blast someone.
Much of what goes on in situations with high emotional content takes place primarily in our minds. This is our “story” and how we put words to the drama of our experience. Much of our frustration comes from the words we use to tell the story. How do we communicate with each other when we feel pushed to the edge? How do we deal with these challenges in a way that builds relationships rather than erodes them?
How do we masterfully walk ourselves down the ladder of conclusions instead of climbing the ladder of assumptions, inferences, and stories about each other that only serve to reinforce our separateness rather than our connectivity?
Living Your Worst Nightmare
Imagine that you have just been recruited onto a project team, only to discover that among your team members is someone you worked with in the past and did not get along with at all. She was one of those people who talked about people behind their backs and couldn’t hold confidences.
You start to remember what it was like working with her, and your blood starts to boil. You wonder how she could have been chosen for this project. You know it’s not healthy to carry baggage, but you just don’t trust this person. You feel that she’s out to win for herself at all cost. Your dreams about being on an exciting project team, and working with people who will work creatively with you, are crumbling.
In an ideal world, we get to choose the people we want to work with. It starts with choosing a company, a boss, and teammates. Yet today, as teams are formed, we are often dropped into an ongoing drama where there is baggage to deal with. You may know some people from previous situations or heard about them from colleagues and friends. They may remind you of your father who you never got along with or of your roommate from college. You have so many memories to connect with that you rarely enter a team environment with a clean slate.
Searching for Comparables
When traveling from one situation to the next, you bring your past along to guide your way. You tap into points of view, know-how, rules of conduct, likes and dislikes, giving you the conceptual tools to decide what to do and why.
Rather than entering a new situation with an unbiased and open mind, you search for comparables. You go into your memory bank of similar examples and bring them up to uncover the rules, interpretations, and understandings you need. You have a dialogue with yourself, and perhaps others, about what this new situation will be like, drawing on your past knowledge, insight, and wisdom to help you out.
Your self-dialogue takes you down a path of familiar streets and signs, telling you what you might expect will happen. Your mind can process the situation faster than you can put words to it. Patterns from the past invisibly surface. You may call upon comparables from your experience or from things you’ve read or heard to help you navigate new terrain. Data from the past can either be valuable or get in the way.
For example, following an acquisition, one leader wanted to launch his team with the best resources and wisdom possible so that his team would be a model of success. Yet, it’s hard to predict how individuals will respond. Acquisitions and mergers trigger every territorial instinct we have— from who will get the best and biggest office, to who will be promoted, demoted and let go. We quickly shower the new situation with baggage from the past.
So, the leader decided to run a Team Journey to ensure that the team members brought forward the wisdom they needed, and let go of the past that was standing in the way of their success. He designed a Learning Journey to preserve the best of what their team had been, and let go of the obstacles and limiting beliefs that would no longer serve them in the future. Within seven months, they produced results that exceeded their year-end expectations.
Holding on and Letting Go
The consequences of your interactions are filed daily in your memory bank, either as “feel good” or “feel bad” experiences. You file memories in mental buckets from which you can later retrieve points of view, opinions, and interpretations that help you to navigate the terrain. Memories with strong emotions linger, since the brain more easily files and calls up memories attached with strong sensory data. Smells, tastes, and emotions attached to a memory give it distinctions that enable you to call it up more easily. And these experiences are hard to control. With little provocation, we can call up a bad experience in a moment’s notice.
Haven’t you ever had a bad experience with a boss—an experience where the boss wouldn’t leave you alone about something you did? If you’re really upset, you’ll talk about it forever, complaining to your friends and colleagues, whoever will listen.
Emotional trauma or experiences that threaten our ego, well-being and self-esteem, or just push our hot buttons tend to linger and create toxic effects that, over time, become the stories everyone wants to tell.
Culture develops through story telling, and stories are a primary “currency” for entering each other’s space of intimacy. We exchange stories about who did what to us, and become part of our inner circle. We share our wounds and hope for a compassionate response back. On the other hand, letting go of the past and embracing the future frees energy that has been bound up in feelings of the past that are creating patterns of behavior that negatively impact relationships in your environment. Letting go of the past is freeing yourself to forgive others and yourself for what happened. Harboring bad feelings about others, and building cases about experiences long gone, only limits our ability to experience our own vitality. Bad feelings bring us down. Negative spirals produce more negativity in our lives. Letting go is the ability to interrupt and let go of the past and embrace the future.
What About You?
Think about the people on your team. Think about emotions that you experience when you’re with different team members. Based on how you are feeling, are you encouraging engagement and healthy conversations— or territorial or unhealthy conversations?
Mark the relationships in which you may be participating in triangulation and case building. What tools and resources can you draw upon to give you insight and clarity into how to work more productively with team members?