Almost all of us have to grapple with important professional relationships in which 1) the lines of authority are complex and tangled, 2) the emotional signals and other interpersonal cues are hard to decipher, and 3) there's an interdependence between the two parties that can generate both excitement and resentment, depending on the circumstances.
One process that I've found useful in helping my coaching clients decide how best to manage these difficult relationships is clarifying how they might both connect with the other person and, in contrast, control the other person. I'm not suggesting that it's a 50/50 alternative: In my experience as a coach and certainly in the annals of management literature (cf. Daniel Goleman's Leadership that Gets Results, just as one starting point) connecting with other people is a far more productive and sustainable approach. That said, the ability to control others effectively is a critical managerial and interpersonal skill, particularly in a crisis.
I'm also not suggesting that we face a binary choice: We typically need to make use of both approaches in any given relationship to meet our goals (and a failure to meet those goals may suggest that we're relying on one approach at the expense of the other.)
There's a temporal dimension to these choices as well. Sometimes we're faced with an opportunity to act in-the-moment, and we need to be prepared to quickly employ a range of tactics suited to the situation. And no matter what the present situation, we should also take the long view, considering what strategies to apply over time during the course of the relationship.
The 2x2 grid above is an admittedly oversimplified depiction of this interpersonal landscape ("A map is not the territory it represents"), but I find it a helpful way to convey these concepts quickly. The examples in each category above aren't intended to be definitive or exhaustive; they're simply ones that come up frequently in my discussions with clients and students.
So when considering how to improve a difficult relationship, we might start by asking ourselves...
- What steps could I take to connect with this person?
- What could I do in-the-moment in a given interaction that might develop or strengthen the connection between us?
- What long term strategies might I apply over time that would create further opportunities for connection?
But it's also important to ask ourselves...
- If need be, what steps could I take to control this person?
- If need be, what could I do in-the-moment in a given interaction that might tilt the balance of power between us?
- If need be, what long terms strategies might I apply over time that would create further opportunities to do so?
I want to re-iterate that this isn't a 50/50 alternative--in most relationships, most of the time, we'll be most effective at achieving our interpersonal goals through connection. But it's magical thinking to believe that all difficulties can be resolved that way, and we put ourselves at a serious disadvantage if we can't exert control when necessary. It's also magical thinking to believe that control will yield sustainable success--with the requisite power, authority, oversight and time, we can extract compliance from anyone, but it'll last only as long as our stores of those precious resources.
So it may also be worth asking...
- Which approach feels more comfortable or natural to me? How do I feel about the alternative approach?
- Do I feel capable of switching between approaches as needed, or do I overuse one or the other?
- If I tend to rely on connecting strategies and avoid controlling ones, am I failing to step into my authority, make use of my power and assert control when needed?
- If I tend to rely on controlling strategies, am I failing to acknowledge my vulnerability, build trust and connect with others when needed?
Our ultimate goal should be not only the ability to draw upon both approaches, but also the ability to do so dynamically, so that we're not stuck in one mode or the other in a given interaction (or in the relationship as a whole) but can shift as needed, adjusting to changing circumstances.