Shedding light on our most difficult interactions

Every time Peter started talking, Linda found herself getting angry. She didn’t even want to be in the same room with him. It only took someone to mention his name and she would start having a hostile reaction. Then she would start feeling upset. She hated how he judged her. She believed he looked down his nose at her all the time. He had questioned her integrity and her professional ability in the past. She was outraged – “How dare he do that!”Typical!” she would say out loud when others even remotely criticised him. She was constantly looking for evidence that would back up the view she held of him. The stakes were the highest they had ever been between them. Linda was on the verge of registering a grievance against Peter whilst he appeared to be completely oblivious and aloof to what was happening.

So, how had all this started, what was really going on here and what could Peter and Linda do to change the nature of the interactions between them?

In the past, Peter had given Linda critical feedback about a project she was leading. In passing he had said something like, “You’re never going to secure the funds you need in the time you’ve allocated for the work.”

It had been like lighting a touch paper. Her response had been explosive. “This is my project and my plan, what the hell do you know about it?”

Often when something explosive occurs in a room, we make sense of it in terms of the individual we hold responsible, attributing the cause and blame primarily to that person. What we miss in that type of analysis is the invisible impact of deep themes that can so easily be evoked during our interactions. For example:

Event 1: Peter made a statement that had called forth a particular theme – in this case, a ‘Fear of Failure’ – from deep inside Linda – evoking her explosive reaction. Neither party was aware that that’s what had really just occurred though.

Event 2: Next came the explosive response from Linda generated by the rapid elevation to an intensely High Stakes situation for her, which called forth a reaction from Peter, “Wow, what’s got in to Linda? I was only trying to help. I’d better avoid her from now on.” Again, neither party was aware that that’s what had just occurred.

The interaction, over in just a few seconds, actually left an indelible mark on both Linda and Peter that was now impacting on all their interactions. In Peter’s mind were murmurs of “I have to watch what I say around Linda. She’s obviously too territorial to ask for help.” Unbeknownst to Linda, her explosion had also triggered his own deeply held themes around ‘Exclusion’, ‘Humiliation’ and ‘Rejection’.

Linda on the other hand, was left with niggling doubts related to her ‘Fear of Failure’, which had been evoked: “Does Peter think I am incapable? Does he expect me to fail? Does he have confidence in me?” In subsequent interactions with Peter, Linda constantly heard his statements as reinforcing those doubts and consequently, the stakes were raised much more quickly between them.

Knowing that indelible marks or imprints such as these can be left behind on the ‘other’ who we perceive to be the “provocateur” of our anxiety in high stakes situations helps us to see why an initial explosion between two people can have catastrophic implications for their relationship.

It may not feel easy to work with behavioural dynamics of this kind but the reality is that it can be pretty simple. Neither party has any clue about what is essentially hidden behind one seemingly irritable interaction between two people. All of this gets amplified as the behavioural pattern gets laid down and becomes entrenched. Left alone, eventually Peter and Linda would most likely end up in some kind of grievance procedure or at its worst being forced to leave their position or job.

The work to do to prevent this happening, to call a halt to any further impact on each other, their team and the organisation is to shed light on the invisible themes evoked in high stakes that are leading to this imprint taking hold and causing such damage. We use a process involving behavioural coaching individually and in the pair to attend to these dynamics. The results are astounding. Pitched battles come to an end. There is greater understanding and empathy between both parties. No-one is forced to leave. Working relationships and productivity improve.