The magic of taking a step back

Imagine how much easier your life will be if you can change the atmosphere of some of your most challenging relationships? What will happen if tension, criticism and mistrust can change to collaboration, gratitude, trust, respect and creativity? I am sure you can feel the difference between a heavy and light atmosphere and the effect it has on you.

I have recently been in a meeting with great people where we tried to design and re-design training material. After several work sessions, in spite of our best intentions, we were still mis-aligned and had far too little to show for all the hard work done together. We were discouraged and frustrated. Then we realised we have to take a step back before going forward. Just trying harder won’t work anymore.

I often see the same with organisations, especially on board and exco levels, and between boards and their executive team, or organisations and the labour unions. We talk in circles. And if you add an atmosphere of distrust, frustration and hurt, disruptive interactions follow, causing more noise and pain than progress. You need to stop before you proceed.

Not too long ago we sat together as a family (now much smaller after some of the adult children have left). “You did – I did”, “you said – I said” conversations got us nowhere. So, we asked the question: how do we want to “be” in each others’ presence so that we can “do” things happily together. We decided to make an “Atmosphere Agreement” and put it on the fridge. We now have a secret key-word we use if anyone oversteps the boundaries, and every Sunday evening we have a short meeting where we measure our behaviours to our “Atmosphere Agreement”. Things are still not perfect, but improved 300% (I guess).

In psychology we refer to this phenomenon as meta-skills (“a skill before or next to a skill”). It is a set of skills that enables you to use the other skills. Put plainly in the form of an example: if we do not have an agreement to show respect and love to each other, it is very difficult to have tough conversations about what to do during our next holiday or Christmas, or who will wash the dishes.

So, how does the process of an “Alignment Agreement” (or what you prefer to call it) practically work at home and in business? The following might help:

  1. Awareness, Honesty & Vulnerability: Be honest and vulnerable about where you are, e.g. “the way we have tried to work together so far did not work” and acknowledging your part: “I admit I am part of the problem”.
  2. Intention: Clarify what it is that you all want out of the relationship, or what it is that you as a team are trying to achieve together.
  3. A step back: Ask for a bit of distance and put the common goal and the interferences aside for a moment. Then discuss: what kind of atmosphere, what kind of relationship will help us achieve what we want and need? What should be the way we are around each other and the “rules of engagement”.
  4. Commitment: Make sure everyone is on board and buys in. If not everyone is happy, keep talking. Or take a breather and come back to smooth it out. Don’t force it.
  5. Practice: Live the agreement, remind yourselves often, improve it if necessary, celebrate it and cheer each other on.

The principle is “Relationship precedes Results”. And “relationship” includes alignment, trust and unity. When we get that right the rest is so much easier. Then we can also collaborate, differ, dialogue and create far better, and break away from primitive fight and flight reactions.