Book Review-The Power of the Other

When I found out that Dr. Cloud was releasing a new book, The Power of the Other, I put it at the top of my reading stack. Why? Well, I’ve been a big fan of his work. Having read and reviewed Boundaries, and Changes that Heal, I appreciate Dr. Cloud’s ability to distill complex topics. His work here on explaining how we relate to others and how to generate better connections with others is no exception.

Connection is Core

In order to understand the framework that Dr. Cloud lays out, we have to accept that connection is essential for humans. We have to accept that we’ve been hard-wired through our DNA to need connection to others just as much as we need air, water, and food. Though connection is not as high a priority as air, it appears in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs right after safety. Spiritual Evolution introduced me to the study of baboons, whose offspring were more likely to succeed based on the social network of the mother. Others, like Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly assert the same importance of connection.

Dr. Cloud relates that in his studies he hit an inflection point. As a student of psychology, he eagerly sought the tool, technique, framework, or approach that would help him alleviate the pain and suffering of his clients. His instructor informed him that the key factor in the efficacy of psychological assistance was simply the relationship between the therapist and the patient – something that The Heart and Soul of Change called “alliance”. How could it be, given all the great minds that had been trying to learn how to improve folks’ lives, that the answer was as simple as a relationship?

Dr. Cloud wondered whether his professor was saying, “my fraternity is basically a treatment center.” Um, yep. That’s the way we’re created. We want to find someone who will understand us and who will connect with us. Somewhere buried deep within our DNA is the bias toward staying connected so that we can protect and support each other.

Discover the Truth

Limits, The Mind, and The Invisible

Elephants at the circus are tied to a stake with a large rope or chain when they’re young. As they grow, the rope that they’re tied with gets smaller. That’s because the elephants have learned that the rope isn’t something they can move, so no matter how small the rope becomes, they won’t try to break it. This results in the elephant equivalent of “the Bannister effect”, where the limits are psychological and aren’t physical limits. (See The Rise of Superman for more on the Bannister effect.) Whether it’s a high-performance athletic trick or running a sub-four-minute mile, we sometimes psych ourselves out and create the false belief that we can’t do something personally – or as a human – that we really can.

All of us face limits in our life. Some of them are real, hard boundaries. They’re true limits to what we can and cannot do. However, more frequently, the limits that we have are the result of mental constructs and false limiting beliefs. (See Sources of Power for more on mental models/constructs and The Success Principles for more on limiting beliefs.) The relationship between our mind and our well-being is well accepted but not well understood. (See Change or Die and Thinking, Fast and Slow for more about how our mind and body interact.)

The difficulty in our understanding of this phenomenon may be due in part to our limited psychological knowledge. While psychology isn’t a new discipline, it hasn’t had the benefit of the scientific rigor that other areas of science have had. As a result, we may know quite a bit about the neurology of the brain, but relatively little about the psychology. Think of it this way: we understand the hardware of the brain but we don’t understand the software. (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for more about the limits of our knowledge in psychology.)

The problem with psychology (and software) is that it’s invisible. We can typically only measure the effects, behaviors, and outcomes. While we can inspect software source code line-by-line, we can’t do the same with psychology. While we have potentially helpful models of viewing people, (See The Normal Personality
and Personality Types: Using The Enneagram for Self-Discovery) we’ve also had more than a few unhelpful models. (See The Cult of Personality Testing.)

Self and Others

The self-help movement has been around since the publishing of The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952 – or since Benjamin Franklin depending upon your point of view. No matter where you believe it started, it’s become big business. It’s defined by the “self” term. That’s appropriate in that we’re only really in control of our own lives. We can’t truly change other people – they have to decide to change themselves. If you look at Everett Roger’s work in Diffusion of Innovations, we see that people change their knowledge through mass media, their attitudes through close relationships, and their behavior through personal choice. Ultimately, it all comes down to personal choice, what we do. It’s our self-agency. (See Change or Die for more on how infrequently people change, even under the pressure of overwhelming evidence.)

However, along the way we’ve lost our ability to see beyond the self. We’ve lost the ability to see that the formula for behavior includes what Kurt Lewin called “person and environment”. The environment is less about the physical trappings that surround us, and is more about the influence of other people. Consider the Holocaust, which was a tragedy, and the part that people played in it. (See Man’s Search for Meaning for more on the Holocaust and the psychology of it.) What’s more disturbing was Milgram’s research, that showed that most humans can be coerced into doing immoral and harmful things. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) for more on this disturbing research.)

We have forgotten that, while we have to be ultimately responsible for who we are and the actions that we take, we equally must accept that the others around us influence our behavior very strongly. Malcom Gladwell made this point in his books The Tipping Point and Blink. We react to broken windows. We make snap decisions about the situation based on the context.

That’s what The Power of Other is all about. It’s about the environment that we find ourselves in as individuals, and how we can be attentive to our relationships to improve happiness.

Four Corners

If you accept that we’re here for connections, then there are four potential places you can find yourself in relative to connecting to others – something that Dr. Cloud calls the “four corners”. They are:

  1. Disconnected – This is the state of trying to be alone. We’ve basically concluded through adverse childhood events (ACE) that connections are bad, much like some people struggle with the life-giving need for food. (See How Children Succeed for more about ACE).
  2. Bad Connection – This is the state of being harmed. We’re connected, but the connection is life-draining rather than life-giving as it should be. This is like exposure to carbon monoxide, which prevents us from taking in life-giving oxygen.
  3. Pseudo-Good Connection – This is the state of being worshipped. While the relationship seems to build us up, it’s all positive and no (or little) reality. We all need others to reinforce reality since we have blind spots and only our own perspective. (See Incognito for more blind spots.) The Pseudo-Good connection means that someone will eventually yell that the emperor has no clothes.
  4. True Connection – This is the state of being real. Real connections are ultimately positive, but don’t avoid the negative when it’s necessary to help both of the parties grow. True connections are difficult because of the need for communication skills and internal integrity, but it’s the kind of connection that we’re all designed to make.

These are the places that we can be in relationship with others. The reality is that we’re not in a single relationship with others. We have multiple situations and those situations can result in different kinds of connections. At work we can be in a bad relationship (i.e. we need to change our job), while at home we’re in a fourth-corner, or true connection, relationship with our spouse. We can – and do – have places in our life where we’re not interested or able to connect.

In How to Be an Adult in Relationships, David Richo implores us to not get more than 25% of our nurturance from any one partner. He encourages us to seek out multiple connections so that we’re able to grow more fully through the true connections with others. Gary Keller, in The One Thing, tries to focus us in on the one thing that we can do in each area of our lives. In other words, we need multiple fourth-corner connections to become the person we’re capable of becoming.

Corner One: Disconnected

It’s easiest to think about the disconnected person as the hermit sitting in a cave or on some solitary ranch in Wyoming. However, the truth is that being disconnected has very little to do with the presence of other people. In today’s world, the remotest areas of the planet can be reached with emails, voice conversations, and even video chat. I routinely chat with my friend Paul Culmsee in Perth, Australia – just about as close to the opposite side of the planet as you can get from me. Disconnected is an internal state, not a representation of the physical world.

There are folks that have trouble connecting with others in a meaningful way. This is most painfully expressed in marriage relationships as what Doug Weiss calls Intimacy Anorexia. This illustrates the point that the problem is an inner condition and not an outer observable one. From the outside point of view, one could assume that a married person isn’t in Corner One (Disconnected), but Weiss’ work with clients indicates that this external perspective isn’t right.

I mentioned in my post High Orbit- Respecting Grieving that we’re flooded with Facebook friends that aren’t really friends at all. They’re people that we’re watching like voyeurs. While we’re wired for connection, we have a maximum number of ports, and that maximum number isn’t the thousands of Facebook friends that some have. Facebook, and other technologies, have actually made it much easier to appear to be connected, when in reality we’re quite disconnected on the inside. (See Alone Together for more.)

Corner Two: Bad Connection

Why would you be in a relationship that is bad for you? Well, there are two reasons. First, you don’t realize that it’s bad for you. Second, you are getting some good things from it, and you believe that you’re getting more from it than you’re losing.

It’s like drinking salt water from the ocean when you’re at sea. You know you need the water but don’t realize that you’re getting so much salt that it’s doing more harm than good. Or it’s like eating candy – and only candy – all day long. Your brain rewards you with dopamine because it recognizes the calorie content in the sugar. However, what your reward system doesn’t realize is that the vitamins, minerals, proteins, etc., are also all essential to your survival. You seek out the candy because of the sugar – but at the same time too much of it will create long-term problems.

Ultimately, Dr. Cloud’s previous work on Boundaries and his co-author John Townsend’s Beyond Boundaries is about removing these bad connections from your world – or causing the connections to heal and become good (Corner Four) connections. While I personally don’t have many bad connections left in my life (though there are always some), and my bad connections tend to not be of the extreme variety, I do come in contact with others who are in relationships which are bad for them. They’re relationships that I call “toxic”, because the longer the person is in them, the worse the person is.

Corner Three: Pseudo-Good Connection

We all need friends who are willing to pick us up and help us realize that things are going to be alright. Dr. Cloud describes a bad business decision where his mentor called him and told him that, “We’ve all been there.” This normalized the situation and lifted up Dr. Cloud into the brotherhood of humans who occasionally make mistakes. We absolutely need our relationships to try to build us up and to help us become the best people that we can be. However, sometimes building someone up means giving them hard feedback. This is precisely what the Pseudo-Good third-corner connection doesn’t do. They’re too afraid of damage to the relationship, the way the other person will feel, or are wrapped up in their own insecurities to the degree that they’re unwilling or unable to have the hard conversations.

Anyone who has had the privilege of the platform – that is, anyone who has done public speaking – has had to develop an approach to these sorts of would-be connections. It’s still strange to me that people have “groupies”, but I’ll admit to having a few myself. The challenge with making space for these relationships is recognizing that they’re relational candy. They’re nice occasionally but they can’t be my steady diet of relationships.

Corner Four: True Connection

Being in corner four connections – true connections – is hard work. It requires balancing grace and truth. It requires being forthright with your feelings, perspectives, and awareness, while tempering that with your love for the other person. Love in this context is more akin to the Buddhist belief of compassion or the Greek word agape than anything else. When you can do that, you can be right with your intent for the relationship and the other person, and provide them the feedback they need to grow. Just as importantly, they’ve got the strength of character to do the same for you.

For me, the prerequisite to be in a true connection is a stable core. I wrote about this in my post How to Be Yourself. It’s about knowing who you are and having a stable and integrated self-image which can survive the outside world. (You can find more about my thoughts for integrated self-images in Rising Strong Part 1, Schools Without Failure, Compelled to Control, and Beyond Boundaries.)

Corner four connections can powerfully propel you to becoming a greater person, but they’re very difficult to find.

Trust

How do you get corner four connections? It starts with trust. For me, trust is the path that leads to our ability to be vulnerable, and this leads to the opportunity to be intimate with one another. In my post Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy I lay out this path along with references for the various concepts.

Trust exists exclusively in corner four (true) connections. In corner one, you trust no one. In corner two, you can’t trust the person who is harming you. In corner three, you can’t trust that you’ll hear honest answers, and your connection can’t trust how you’ll respond if they’re honest and real. It’s only in corner four – where trust exists – that we can choose to be honest and caring to the level necessary to form truly intimate, and therefore powerful, relationships.

Bermuda Triangles

The Bermuda Triangle is where strange things happen. Ships disappear. Planes disappear. In general, there’s just a wackiness that can’t be explained. This same situation can occur when a relationship which is designed for two people expands to three people. Instead of people having hard, but life-giving corner four relationships, the triangle drains energy from all.

The triangle works like this. There’s a victim – let’s call him Victor. A victim feels like there is someone out to get them, to persecute him. Let’s called the persecutor Paul. (If you’re up on your Old Testament Saul would be better, but it’s not an alliteration.) So Victor, rather than talking to Paul, talks to Robbie the rescuer. The problem with this drama triangle is that Robbie isn’t even involved in whatever supposed affront that Victor (the victim) feels. Instead, he’s getting a one-sided view of the story and begins to think negatively of Paul (the persecutor) when Paul may have done nothing wrong.

This triangle creates drama and heartache where there is none to start with. It maligns Paul (the persecutor) unfairly. It may be that he was persecuting Victor (the victim), but it’s still not fair because Paul’s voice can’t be heard – he’s not a part of the conversation.

Triangles happen all the time, even when well-meaning people are involved. It starts out as seeking advice on how to handle a situation and turns into an opportunity to extract sympathy and rescuing. The net effect is the destruction of trust and the erosion of connections, so a hard line needs to be taken to prevent the triangles from forming. This means outlawing gossip and encouraging direct and candid conversations.

Growing to Connect

Ultimately, the power of others to influence our lives is driven by our ability to interact with them in positive, life-giving ways. That means first seeking out connections. You can’t have healthy relationships if you don’t have any relationships at all. Second, it means limiting the number of bad connections you make and/or limiting your interactions inside of those relationships. Third, it means moving past the mutual appreciation club to a point where you can candidly support and provide candid feedback. All of this takes growth on our part to be the kind of person that not only recognizes the qualities of ourselves but also the qualities of our relationships.

If we want to transform the power of others in our lives, we have to transform ourselves so that we can be the best connection possible for them as well as for ourselves. The irony is that, by working on ourselves, we’ll transform the power of others in our lives. If you want to have better relationships and a happier existence, it’s time to transform The Power of the Other.