Book Review-The Dance of Connection

It was through reading Brené Brown’s work Rising Strong (See my posts Part 1 and Part 2) that I came across the reference to The Dance of Connection. The reference was to over-functioning and under-functioning in stressful situations. Having seen different strategies for dealing with stress in my family, I was intrigued as to what Harriet Lerner would have to say about this. What I found is more than I expected about how to connect with other people. Having recently read The Power of the Other, I was reminded about how connections are important and how we can have no connection, bad connections, pseudo-good connections, or true connections.

Right or in a Relationship

In my review of The Titleless Leader I mentioned that you can either be right or you can be in a relationship. This is at the heart of the “dance” of connection. That is, the dance is about being able to speak our true, authentic voice and at the same time to do it in a way that honors other people and allows us to stay in a relationship with them. When we hold on too tightly to our righteousness, we are unable to allow space for the other person. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more about the need for allowing.)

Kids on a playground can be mortal enemies one moment and favorite friends the next, because they’re willing and able to let go of their righteousness in order to live in a relationship. This can be healthy or unhealthy depending upon the degree to which we’re bending. Cloud and Townsend spoke of the need for boundaries in Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries. There is a certain amount of give that we should have for others, and a certain limit to which we’re willing to bend. Getting clear on where this is can be very healthy.

Discover the Truth

The Screams of Silence

Connection happens through conversation and dialogue. (See Dialogue for more on what makes dialogue special.) As we try to connect with one another, we need these conversations to help bring us closer together – to form a connection. While most conversations can be positive, there are times when conversations may be difficult– which, admittedly, most of us would like to avoid if we could. (See Crucial Conversations for more about the hard conversations that people want to avoid.)

While there may be times that we want to avoid conversations, that doesn’t mean we should. John Gottman’s work makes it clear that, in intimate relationships, avoiding conversations isn’t a good thing. (See The Science of Trust for more on Gottman’s work regarding communication in couples.) Stonewalling – or preventing conversations — is one of the “four horsemen” of the relational apocalypse. Intimacy Anorexia calls upon the weapon of stonewalling as a way to prevent further communication and can rip a marriage apart.

The silence of one person in a relationship or in an attempted relationship, may yield screams on the part of the other party; in either case, the result of silence is a lack of connection.

The Gap Between Same and Different

One of the great challenges in America is the conflict between our rugged individualism and our innate nature as social creatures in need of connection. We believe that we’re “self-made” and “original”, and at the same time deny the love and support poured into us by others. (Even if it wasn’t enough.) We long for similarity and connection, and at the same time seek to be different, unique and original. In our quest for being different, we deny our need for connection, that anyone could possibly understand what we’re going through.

Whenever I can get honest in a group – whether it’s a church group, a recovery group, or a mastermind group – I find that the other folks in the group can identify with what I’m going through, what I’m feeling, and how I’m struggling. On the one hand, we are unique and different; however, on the other hand we’re all made up of the same elements. We’re a different organization of protons, neutrons, and electrons – or a different organization of atoms – but at our hearts we’re all made up of the same stuff. We all have fears. We all have dreams.

We connect to others through our similarities. We connect through common activities, interests, and beliefs. We need to set aside our belief that we don’t need anyone, that we can be “self-made,” or that we can survive by ourselves. If we want to be happy and fulfilled, we need to accept that we’ll need some other people. (See Spiritual Evolution for our need to be in relationships.)

Logic and Intellectualizing

I’m sometimes accused – rightly so – of not being in touch with my emotions enough. When I hear this, I think of the Rider-Elephant-Path model that Jonathan Haidt discussed in The Happiness Hypothesis. In the model, our rational rider sits on top of the emotional elephant, firmly entrenched in his mistaken belief of control. I think about this because, in my own experiences with horses, I know that there’s a point when the horse and the rider have such a relationship that the rider can lean down and effectively hug the horse to say thank you for the ride or for the companionship.

The visualization I have is that my rational rider is reaching down and patting the elephant on the side of the neck to say thank you. Occasionally I visualize the rider off the elephant resting a hand on the elephant’s massive upper leg. In both of these cases I’m visualizing the relationship between the rational, logical rider and the impassioned, emotional elephant.

There are times when my rational rider has to tell my elephant that it will be OK, and for the elephant to trust the results will be OK, even if the current circumstances feel very awkward or bad. The rider has to tell the elephant that the only way out is through. And, more importantly, the elephant has to trust that the rider is right. That’s the power of logic: to work with the feelings – to accept the emotion – and move through them.

This has a very different feel than intellectualizing (which I do as well). Intellectualizing denies our feelings. It’s whip that the rider uses to snap the elephant into submission – at least for a time. Men are typically better at compartmentalization than women. However, compartmentalization isn’t a skill to be lauded. It’s one that comes with very dangerous consequences if it’s used for too long. Our health and our relationships with others can both suffer if we lean too hard on compartmentalization and its larger cousin “stuffing”. (See I’ll Have Some Emotional Stuffing with That.)

Relationships are emotionally-laden constructs. Every relationship has some level of emotion attached. It’s foolish to believe that we can logic our way through emotions. However, it’s equally foolhardy to believe that we’re able be completely emotional without applying some level of logic.

Stepping in, Stepping Back

As we “dance” with our connections with others there are times when we need to step in. That is, we need to do our absolute best to create the best circumstances for a healthy relationship. This is particularly true of family situations where the other person “isn’t going anywhere.” We sweep our side of the street and clean up all our garbage. We approach the other person with as much respect and dignity as we can. While assuming the best possible posture doesn’t ensure that the other party will definitely give us the response we want, it is the part of the equation that we can control.

In this stepping-in process, we have to let go of our expectation that the other person will change. In truth, people rarely change substantially. Our goal can’t be for the other person to suddenly start responding in completely healthy ways; instead, our goal can only be that we’ll respond in healthy ways.

The opposite of stepping in is quite obviously stepping back. However, stepping back isn’t running away or leaving the relationship potential behind. Sometimes stepping back is giving the other person room to grow. If you’re never allowing them the space to behave in better ways and to grow, then – well, they won’t. There are times when it’s appropriate, and even necessary, to expect more of others than they can do today, and to create the additional space they need to grow.

Safety

In today’s society it’s obvious that, if a relationship isn’t something that’s physically safe, then it shouldn’t be pursued. It’s obvious that we need physical safety to be in a relationship lest it become abusive. However, the lines are much less clear when it comes to emotional and mental safety. We tolerate negative people. We accept insensitive comments. However, when we do this we don’t feel emotionally safe.

Safety is critical for our leaning and growing. (See the role of safety in Play.) Ultimately, we have to be safe to feel vulnerable so that we can build intimate relationships. (See my post on Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more.)

Anatomy of an Apology

When we’re in a disagreement, and when we’re faced with people we don’t trust, it’s very hard to apologize. Apologies, we believe, show our weakness, and we don’t want to expose our weak spots to our adversary. It’s a natural response, but it’s also one that isn’t based on our best thinking. It’s based on an earlier, dog-eat-dog world, when showing any kind of weakness might mean extinction of our genes.

The problem is that apologies are “a regretful acknowledgement of an offense or failure.” There’s no admission of weakness in an apology. There is only regret. The twist here is that too many people believe that a failure means that they are a failure. As a result, apologizing means they’re a failure. It means that they’re imperfect and weak. (See Find Your Courage for more on ascribed meaning to failure)

Apologizing falls into two categories. The first category are those things that are under our control or influence. That is, we have some responsibility for the outcome. This might take the form of “I’m sorry I forgot about your piano recital.” In this case we’re wholly responsible for our inaction.

The second category of apology is compassion or sorrow. It involves things outside of our control. It might take the form of “I’m sorry your dog died” (given that you weren’t personally involved in the death). This still takes the form of “I’m sorry”; however, the context is different. In this case, we’re not accepting responsibility for the situation.

Over the years, I’ve had people who have felt me as insincere, because I would apologize for things that I couldn’t control. They discounted my regret because they didn’t understand that there are two different kinds of apologies.

There are two very liberating thoughts here. First, that just because you failed, you aren’t a failure. Second, I can apologize even if I couldn’t have had a direct responsibility. When these two are put together, they form a powerful combination that helps me be less resistant to apologizing to others. This is the first step on the road to repairing a relationship with them.

Social Norms

In every Cheers episode, Norm Peterson (George Wendt) would walk into the bar and be greeted with everyone shouting “Norm!” in unison. That’s what I call a social norm. While begging apologies for the pun, it was the standard. When Norm walked into the bar everyone shouted Norm! Though it was a fictional TV show, I’d expect that in any bar where that actually happened, eventually people who didn’t know Norm would start to shout out his name as he entered. That’s because this was established as the social norm. It’s just what you did.

Imagine your confusion if you and your spouse walked into a bar in their home town and suddenly the assembled masses would should out his or her name. In your world, no one knows your name when you walk into a bar, much less calls it out when you enter the bar. Your spouse would be unfazed because it was the norm, while you’re sitting there trying to figure out if you’ve just slipped into the Twilight Zone, and Rod Serling is about to jump out from a dark corner and talk to you.

However, that is what relationships are – the blending of social norms. One family might watch TV during their once-per-week family dinner. The other family might ban all electronics and require attendance at nightly family dinner. Neither are right or wrong. They’re just different. There is so much of our experience that we simply take for granted. Take, for instance, a simple question. What side of the mall do you walk on?

Without being told or instructed, you’ll instinctively walk on the right side of the mall if you’re raised in any of the countries that drive cars on the right side of the road, and on the left if you were raised in a country that drives on the left. Certainly there’s no right or wrong to which side of the mall you walk on. However, if you make the wrong choice you’ll feel like you’re having to swim upstream.

The social norms within someone’s family of origin are unique to them and their family’s function. There’s nothing right or wrong with everyone planning on hunting or fishing after Thanksgiving dinner, unless you’ve grown up where you (like most) watch football after Thanksgiving dinner – or fall asleep pretending to watch football. These different expectations can be the source of frustration or potential amusement. More importantly, they can often come between people when not seen for what they are.

Defined by Dysfunction

Holding folks accountable – including oneself– is tricky business. On the one hand, you have to acknowledge the fact that you missed a goal or expectation; conversely, you have to acknowledge that it doesn’t define you. Someone who is struggling with an addiction through a 12 step program is encouraged to identify themselves as an addict. However, once you get past the introduction and the start of the program, these same addicts are encouraged to acknowledge the parts of their personalities which are positive and life-giving to others. It’s not that this excuses their behavior. Instead, it’s designed to create an integrated self-image that acknowledges that everyone has good and bad parts of their personality – even non-addicts. (See Part 1 of my review of Rising Strong for more.)

When you’re under the weight of feeling defined by a dysfunction, it’s hard to see your value – and therefore the reason why you should change. If you’re focused only on your dysfunction, it’s easy to lose hope. (See The Psychology of Hope for more on the importance of hope.) Being focused on dysfunction is focusing on the shame that you’re not good enough to conquer your dysfunction. (See Daring Greatly for more on the impact of shame.)

Balancing or Dancing?

One of the interesting messages embedded in the title of the book is the idea of “dancing”. Dancing is about being in a relationship with another person. It’s about managing the gap between you and being connected to the music.

Often when we’re speaking of multiple conflicting ideas or priorities or needs we talk about balance. The only thing I know about balance is that you never keep it. There are always forces that are trying to pull you from your balance and there’s constant work to keep in balance. When I speak of balance, I speak of it in general. It’s not so much the question about whether I’m in balance right this moment, but whether overall I’m maintaining a balance. You can’t measure one moment in time because you may be relaxing with family or at work slaving away. It’s only when you take a step back from it that you can see if the ratio of one to the other is appropriate.

I believe the metaphor of dance is a better one than balance, because it provides a perspective of the entire song –measuring across time, as well as the awareness that you’ll be at different places at different times. Sometimes you’ll be very close and other times relatively far away. It’s only in looking at the whole dance can you say how good – or bad – it was.

There are times when it’s appropriate to hold people’s feet to the fire and label them with their dysfunction. There are times when you need to allow grace for failings and to build them up in their understanding of their inherent and apparent worth. Relationships are a dance.