Many of us have struggled throughout our careers and personal lives trying to deal with relationships that are conflicted at best, painful and damaging at worst. In fact, most of us know firsthand what it’s like to be worlds apart from our colleagues, team members and managers, feeling at a true loss as to how to repair the damage and close the deep divide.
Many executives I’ve spoken with have shared too that the self-help books they’ve read about this problem, and the “communications” and management training they’ve received at work simply hasn’t gone far or deep enough to teach them effective new steps to improve their communications and bridge these challenging gaps.
To learn more about what you can do to intentionally make a shift in our communication approach, I caught up this month with Jennifer Edwards and Katie McCleary. These experts have spent years researching and focusing on ways to shift our energy, listening approach, and the language we use—to communicate better with people of any level or background and navigate any emotion or situation, setting the stage for more rewarding relationships and vastly improved business results.
Katie McCleary, co-author of Bridge The Gap, is an entrepreneur and storyteller who trains leaders, creatives, and humanitarians to launch big ideas by leveraging their social and cultural capital. She is the founder of 916 Ink, a nonprofit that has transformed over 4,000 vulnerable youth into confident authors. She is also the host of The Drive podcast on NPR’s CapRadio with the American Leadership Forum-MV in Sacramento.
Here’s what Edwards and McCleary share:
Kathy Caprino: Katie, what is the role of curiosity in forming professional relationships?
Katie McCleary: We are born curious—it lives inside our DNA. We all have a desire to feel, experience, learn, and know the world around us. As we age, curiosity becomes more nuanced, and research shows that our perceptual curiosity plummets as we become patterned in our thinking and behaviors.
Perceptual curiosity is simply how we question what we perceive things to be. Putting curiosity into action (or operationalizing it) can improve professional relationships because it brings no agenda other than to hear, learn, and connect with others without judgment, bias, or assumptions. Actively working to gain awareness of our perceptual curiosity helps us strengthen it as a muscle in our communication and collaboration. Increased perceptual curiosity allows for a clean slate, along with innovation, creativity, and collaboration to emerge, as people are more open and receptive to the talents, strengths, and perspectives of others.
Caprino: Jennifer, in your and Katie’s new book you explore brain science and its role in work and relationships. Who is “Amy” (the amygdala) and how can “she” impact your performance?
Jennifer Edwards: Whenever you feel stressed, anxious, defensive, upset, angry, or frustrated, your neurochemistry pumps out a chemical cocktail and triggers an invisible yet impactful “frenemy”—the amygdala. We’ve shortened this word to “AMY” —and “she” can be an annoying chip on your shoulder that reduces your ability to be communicative, collaborative, creative, and curious.
AMY’s primary function is to keep us alive. She does this by scanning for threats, which can be actual or perceived. Unfortunately, the amygdala struggles to tell the difference between being actual threats and perceived threats. She is not helpful when we face perceived threats, like tough conversations; confessing to errors, or other “surprises.”
Essentially, whenever we start feeling reactive, AMY has crashed the party. Thank goodness she isn’t the only part of our brain. Humans are gifted with a neocortex where high-function processing and cognition happen, such as communication, collaboration, and creativity.
When the amygdala feels threatened, the stress hormone—cortisol—floods parts of your neocortex like a dark cloud. It can take up to 26 hours for cortisol to lessen its impact and leave the body, impairing your ability to be in good relationships with others. The next time you feel AMY hijacking your communication, problem solving, and decision-making skills, choose to suspend your reaction and disrupt your feelings by taking 3 minutes to breathe in your nose for 5 seconds and out your mouth for 5 seconds. The few minutes you spend to invest in disrupting AMY’s impact will allow you to respond optimally.
Caprino: What is the “Drama Triangle” you discuss, and how can we address its damaging effects on relationships?
McCleary: The Drama Triangle is a toxic relationship dynamic that Dr. Stephen Karpman explains as a set of behavioral roles people play consciously or unconsciously with others when negativity occurs. Three roles in the Drama Triangle often pit people against one another—and obstruct collaboration.
Persecutor — First, we have the persecutor who conveys: It’s all your fault! The persecutor uses blame and criticism to control, manipulate, and/or gain power.
Victim — Second, we have the victim who conveys: Poor me! Theysee life as happening to them and often feel stuck and unable to change their circumstances.They often feel powerless to stand up for themselves and tend to be overly sensitive.
Rescuer — Third, is the rescuer who conveys: Let me help you! They often act as an enabler who feels it is their job to rescue those who can’t fulfill their duty. Rescuers often work hard to save people at the expense of their own health and tend not to allow others to figure it out.
For better, more collaborative, healthier relationships, become aware of how you participate in a Drama Triangle. Instead, choose a “circle of choice” where you access personal responsibility and curiosity, and seek to understand the issues to find better solutions.
Here is what you get to be when you are in the Circle of Choice:
You are the author of your reality. You have a choice about how you interact with your stories. You can evaluate how you have shown up in the past and reflect on when your relationships and communication failed and when it thrived.
You are “response-able.” You can extract yourself from toxic relationship dynamics by refusing to play one of the 3 roles. You can choose to move closer and be curious with the person you struggle to understand, like, or respect.
You can step up and bridge the gap. You don’t have to wait for permission or for the boss to tell you to do it. You can think clearly and productively, and use curiosity as a lens to understand anything that may feel threatening to you.
Caprino: What’s the role of our presence and behavior and how does that help us connect with others in more positive ways?
Edwards: We live in the pressure cooker of life: stress, anxiety, and pressure are constant in our work lives. It’s easy to be hijacked by negativity, potentially several times a day. Learning how to be present and open is a game-changer in a world of non-stop noise, distraction, to-do lists, and competing agendas. Honing in on our presence is key to helping us show up less reactive.
Presence is twofold. First, it’s the act of being truly present without internal or external distractions. It’s listening without opinions or biases. It’s speaking to an issue without adding any unhelpful details or stories. Second, presence is also the attitude, personality, and energy that we display to others. Tying our presence to how we show up is a behavioral choice. We can code-switch, i.e., become more malleable in how we show up with others, to better communicate and collaborate.
Caprino: How can we have more curious conversations and why do we need to?
McCleary: There are several key ways we can engage more curiosity in our conversations, which in turn builds deeper and more positive connections.
Show Up as an Explorer (as one who is interested to understand new ideas) — First, stop asking questions. That’s right, curiosity doesn’t start with questions. Curious conversations start before words leave your mouth. Curiosity is an energy that fuels communication. Choose to show up as someone who is eager to learn and connect. Invest in understanding their perspective at a different level by being open to what’s important to them.
Have a One-Way Conversation — Most of us have been taught that conversations are a ping pong game, which can easily turn unconsciously competitive. You say something. I say something back that shows how I relate and matter. You respond back with words that show how you relate and matter.
Restructure this “one-upmanship” type of conversation into a more substantive dialogue by leading with curiosity and staying curious. Don’t jump in with your own ideas, stories, knowledge, or opinions. Keep asking questions that are open-ended and follow their energy. Listen for words that light them up or shut them down.
Use “Tell Me About” as an Opening Question — There is a famous Jewish proverb: “Words build worlds.” They shape relationships and outcomes. People interpret words differently depending on what they are experiencing at that moment. Tell me about is a question that safely opens a curious conversation. It is malleable and simple enough to convey different tones. Examples are:
“Tell me about your weekend.”
“Tell me what has you so angry with your manager right now.”
“Tell me what I have done to contribute to this gap we have between us.”
When you start using this technique, it may feel awkward if you were accustomed to a two-way conversation, filling silence with your own thoughts. As you sharpen your skills, it will feel more natural.
Caprino: Any last words on how anyone can bridge the gap and make relationships less challenging and more collaborative?
McCleary: Take responsibility for how you’ve shown up in relationships where gaps exist. Look in the mirror and assess if you’ve been present and have listened to understand. Choose to bring more clarity, and transparency to the conversation. Loosen your jaw, relax your shoulders, and say, “Hey, can we talk? I’m curious to see what we can do to bridge this gap. I’m ready.”
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