A colleague recently likened building relationships to a dance – we try out some tentative moves and see how they respond, then let them do the same, hoping to find some common ground so that we can eventually achieve some level of synchronicity and joy. He was talking about client relationships but it could just as easily apply to relationships with colleagues or personal relationships for that matter.
It reminded me of my experience of salsa dancing many years ago – albeit without the happy ending!
A friend of mine persuaded me to take some salsa lessons with her. With a little trepidation I agreed and we set off each Tuesday night to a church hall near St Albans to begin our training. The format was good for beginners in that we all gathered in a large circle around the teacher and we followed his lead to practise the basic moves on our own to gain some degree of efficiency. Immediately after the beginners’ class, the advanced dancers would come in for free-form dancing to which we were welcome to stay. For the first few weeks my friend and I would put on our coats and creep out in awe watching the experts moving fluidly in pairs around the hall. After 5 or 6 weeks we decided we had mastered the basic steps sufficiently and plucked up the courage to stay. It wasn’t long before we had both acquired partners and were making our first forays on the dance floor. However, without the teacher to remind me of the steps, I was soon out of my depth. I could manage the basics but as my partner (let’s call him Eduardo) started adding in twirls and sashays I started stumbling and treading on his toes apologetically. Within a few minutes Eduardo stopped, let go of my hand and said something like “I never, ever, want to dance with you again!” Mortified, I gathered my things, fled the hall and waited for my friend. I never went back.
Reflecting on this, there are lessons for approaching relationships of any kind (not just the dance partner variety).
1. Maintain an underlying belief that we all have the capacity to learn and grow
It is as important to have faith in our own ability to grow as it is to believe in someone else’s. As soon as we start assuming that our skills and characteristics are fixed we deny ourselves (and others) huge opportunities. My big mistake was not returning to the class.
2. Meet people from a position of equality – two human beings on this planet
Most of the inequality that we feel comes from the assumptions that we make in our minds, and feelings of inferiority or superiority are not conducive to building rapport. When we approach relationships with a sense of equality we are more likely to feel safe, confident and connected. You may have heard of this as part of the theory of Transactional Analysis (or TA). Adopting the “I’m OK, You’re OK” life position gives us the best chance of communicating clearly and achieving a positive outcome. I was clearly in “I’m not OK, You’re OK” position with Eduardo the Salsa ‘expert’ which immediately put me on the back foot, literally and metaphorically!
3. Stay curious and look for common ground
We are often thrust into relationships at work and in life by circumstance or chance. It is difficult to build a successful relationship without a common goal or shared values. The goal could be something short term and specific such as the success of a project, or it could be long term and all-encompassing such as the vision of a romantic future together. But these are not always immediately apparent. By staying curious and interested in others we can sometimes expand our common ground and build a deeper relationship. Discovering a shared passion for cat videos or historical fiction allows you to connect and appreciate each other more. My salsa experience was over before it even began…my failed footwork was the dealbreaker for Eduardo so I didn’t even get a chance to reveal my sparkling wit and intellect!
4. Keep an open mind
We all have a unique (and narrow) view of the world based on our upbringing (culture, family, values) and our experiences (all the different twists and turns that our life takes, and the different people we encounter along the way). When we encounter someone for the first time, we would like to think that we are open to them and that our interaction and experience of them will help us to make our minds up objectively about them. However, this cannot be farther from the truth. Our brain has already absorbed lots of information from their appearance alone and is making hundreds of micro judgements about how they stack up compared to our own experience and compared to stereotypes we are fed from TV/films, the media and advertising – for example, not least their age, gender, perceived sexuality, the colour of their skin, their accent, the way they style their hair, the list goes on and on. We unconsciously process these cues and our brain jumps to conclusions about what the person is like, how intelligent they are, how friendly or personable they are, how we will get on with them and ultimately this is what feeds into our judgement or ‘gut feeling’ of them. This can lead to errors of judgement which can take weeks or months of direct experience to reverse. People have a tremendous capacity to surprise us. Perhaps my appearance belied my competence, although I doubt I looked like a typical salsa dancer!
5. If you don’t know for sure, assume best intentions
Errors of judgement can also occur in the way we react to others’ communication or behaviour. We get offended by the ‘tone’ of text messages and emails. A recent article in the Times quoted “young people increasingly see the use of full stops in online communication as abrupt, angry or passive aggressive”. We read malicious intent into someone’s non-appearance at our social gathering. My teenage son gets angry if I look at him with a mildly troubled expression! My point is that we read meaning into transactions that simply isn’t there. We would save ourselves a whole lot of angst if we suspended judgement or assumed a more positive outcome. Maybe I misheard Eduardo. Ok maybe not …but this leads me on to my final point.
6. No one has positive relationships with everyone they meet
One disastrous date does not mean we should give up dating. There will be times when we meet someone with an open mind, we give them the benefit of the doubt and still find no common ground. And that is absolutely fine. We move on. Perhaps I’m more suited to a good Ceilidh?