Sunday, February 24, 2008

A Bridge Too Far

Every so often, I encounter someone with whom I am unable to make a positive connection. It doesn’t happen often, yet it occurred again this winter and I’m still brooding about it. Now I’m ready to write about it. I had occasion to interact with this person (whom I’ll call Chris) many times over a two-week period and was never able to turn the corner. It was both frustrating and humbling.

As I reflect on what’s common in my experiences with people I fail to connect with, the problem typically begins with my inability to offer reflections of what the person has just said (about something important to them) that they recognize as accurate. Chris found my summaries distorted or otherwise missing important points. While it’s not that unusual for me to misread a situation or to mishear a statement (sometimes the problem is that I’m trying to do too much at once: for example, trying to reflect and bridge in the same summary, and I’ve gone too fast for the people I’m attempting to connect), most times I’m able to get back onto a constructive track on my next attempt. With Chris, I was never able to achieve that. I just kept missing.

(Part of the dynamic is that we can both get caught in a reinforcing negative spiral. It works like this: Once Chris has a few experiences of feeling misunderstood by me, they start to expect it. I make things worse by being more tentative or cautious in subsequent attempts. Maybe irritation leaks into my voice. Chris experiences my being careful as condescension. I get exasperated that Chris “always” seems to spin what I say badly. It’s an easy leap for each of us to feel that the other is dedicated to being a pain in the ass—and for reasons we can’t fathom. Pretty soon, we’re both working from scripts and there’s no chance for further attempts to succeed.)

While it’s tempting to explain this as Chris’ pathology, I’d rather explore how it might be mine.

There was a pivotal moment early on when Chris brought up a topic about which they had a lot of distress. I attempted to facilitate that moment by first naming Chris’ upset. It didn’t go well for Chris, and I didn’t respond well to their reaction. Chris didn’t understand what I was attempting and asked me to back off. I think they felt unsafe (they had no prior knowledge of how I work conflict, I had not explained ahead what I would be attempting, they had not asked for my assistance, and they suspected I had a hidden agenda). It was a poor set-up. Chris further reported a fear that my attempt to focus on their upset would hijack the conversation, steering it away from the issue they wanted to discuss. While I was intending the opposite—using recognition of the distress to create firm footing for problem solving—that was not apparent to Chris. Based on this poor start, I was chary of making a second attempt to work with Chris’ feelings (by which I mean acknowledging them). I didn’t bounce back well from this early rebuff.

On one level, I know better. That is, I know that when a person presents as being in distress—and that was clearly the case here—that the number one rule is to establish a connection with that person by bridging to their experience. That means naming their distress in terms they recognize as accurate. Why didn’t I stay focused on step one before shifting the focus to problem solving? Why did I get stupid?

Unfortunately, this examination has not uncovered a profound new truth. Instead, it has led me back to lessons I’ve already bumped into before—but which I obviously haven’t yet thoroughly extracted from the experience. Here’s what I’ve come up with, sifting through the slag heap of my past patterns (claiming the valuable ore I mistakenly discarded the last time I was working the mine of my misery):

I am heavily invested in a view of myself as capable and helpful, and it hurt to have my offering to Chris rejected. Instead of looking at how I could have handled the moment better, I focused instead on how Chris foolishly isolated themself (and cheated me out of a chance to feel useful).

Chris’ critical comments were directed at several people whom I admired and believed didn’t deserve what Chris was dishing out. I wanted to support my friends and discredit Chris. This was a reptilian brain response, and not very smart. My friends were entirely capable of protecting themselves, Chris was not being vicious, and my friends (just like everyone else) need open access to critical views of their behavior—so what was I accomplishing by trying to interrupt that?

Frustrated by Chris’ views and delivery, I didn’t pause to try on their perspective. Instead I assumed that my orientation was best and was mainly focused on how to get Chris to see things my way, rather than on how to bridge the two perspectives.

Irritated by Chris, I wanted them to be Wrong and me (and my friends) to be Right. I started to organize my statements to expose the contradictions I saw in what Chris was saying and doing, rather than focusing on what would help deescalate the situation and lead to creative problem solving. Instead of keeping in mind the primacy of building Relationship, I was actively (if subtly) undermining it. What a revolting development!

Will I ever be done with this shit?

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