To develop meaningful and mature relationships at work or at home we need to develop two filters.
The first filter protects you from other people. The second filter protects other people from you.
Mistake 1: Not protecting yourself from others.
I once worked with a manager who gave blunt feedback in perpetuity: “You’re not a grateful person!” and “You’re just not a great writer!” and “Well, that was dumb!” My response, at first, was to listen as if everything she said was true. On the outside, I became defensive — but on the inside, I returned home emotionally beaten up. Every night my wife, Anna, would listen to the details of the encounters and help me to discern truth from error. One day she just said, “You’ve got to learn to consider the source!” My error was not that I didn’t listen, but that I listened too much. In other words, I needed to learn to filter the feedback.
Mistake 2: Not protecting other people from you.
On the other hand, I once worked with a leader with whom I felt I could be completely open. One day she said to me, “I value what you have to say, but sometimes it feels like I’ve been punched in the solar plexus when we talk.” Clearly, I was not doing a good enough job at protecting this colleague from me. I needed to increase the filter of what I shared and how I shared it. (For further reading see Pia Mellody’s work on boundaries).
Learning to apply enough of both filters — but not too much — is tough. Too much or too little can create relationship conflict as depicted in the matrix below (with a hat tip to “The Relationship Grid” by Terrence Real).
Here’s how it works:
If both filters are low, you’re volatile. This is the worst position to be in: you don’t protect yourself from other people or protect other people from you. If you’re in this place you will act like a wounded animal. You will feel hypersensitive to what someone is saying to you but you will speak defensively. You may feel like a victim but will act like a bully.
When you find yourself feeling this way, ask, “Am I seeing the situation clearly?” and “Do I feel like I am overreacting here?” and “Does it seem like the other person is overreacting here?” Apply a tax to what the other person is saying; assume he isn’t 100% accurate. Look for one thing you agree with and discard the rest. Hold back your own words until you feel clearer. Write down what you feel like saying to him (and do it on paper so you can’t send an outraged email accidentally), then review it later.
If you have one high filter and one low filter, you’re either overbearing or vulnerable. If you’re overbearing, it’s is a tricky position to be in; you feel confident but may be unknowingly causing offense. You’re saying what you believe, but may seem too outspoken. The problem is that you may not be adjusting well to other people because you’re not really hearing them. You’re communicating like it’s a one-way street.
When you sense this situation, say, “Perhaps I am being a bit bombastic about this. Do you see this differently?” or “You know, I have been wrong before. What are your thoughts?” Hold back more than you feel like doing.
When you are vulnerable, you protect other people from you, but you don’t protect yourself from other people. You take feedback personally but also struggle to push back on others.
Remember you have the right to be treated kindly. When you find yourself in this situation, think of the words of Dr Maya Angelou: “There’s a place in you that you must keep inviolate. You must keep it pristine. Clean. So that nobody has a right to curse you or treat you badly. Nobody. No mother, father, no wife, no husband, nobody. You have to have a place where you say: ‘Stop it. Back up. Don’t you know I’m a child of God?’”
And when both of your filters are too high, you’re walled off. In this position, you are basically withdrawn. You’re being overprotective of what you say and what you absorb. You’re not going to give or take offence, but you can seem aloof and a bit cold.
Try opening up a bit. Say, “I want to share something with you, but I want you to be gentle with me on this.”
When we find the right balance with these two filters, we find the sweet spot, and become invincible. Here, we have the ability to know and be known. We can listen without risk of permanent damage and speak without risk of offending. We can navigate complex relationships because we can adapt without losing sight of who we are.
The truth is that we can be in different places with different people. The challenge is to figure out where we are in any particular relationship and then to adjust towards the sweet spot, where relationships thrive.
Greg McKeown is the author of the New York Timesbestseller, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.