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The Rich Practice of Relating to Humans
"Practice" in all the senses: "habit," "rehearsal," "vocation," "enactment"
I recently attended a Relational Gestalt Practice workshop at Esalen with Dorothy Charles. (What is relational gestalt? You can read Dorothy’s description here.) I thoroughly enjoyed it, and am just starting to process and understand all of the things I learned and felt while there. There’s much more to say, but for now, here are three of the things I’m bringing back with me, and hope to continue to apply in my day-to-day work at Proof+Geist:
Relating to other humans is what enables us to live rich, meaningful lives.
There are three foundational aspects of relating: awareness, choice, and trust.
This IS the work.
1. Relating to other humans is what enables us to live rich, meaningful lives.
Even if you don’t subscribe to that grand proclamation, a smaller version still holds true – interacting (relating) with other humans is what enables our company to exist.
Sometimes I find myself pretending that “work” is populated by rational entities, devoid of emotional experience. But that’s neither true nor desirable, is it? The things that we need rational, trained prediction engines to produce we can and should outsource to ChatGPT.
The things we have within our team are different – the ability to be creative, to learn, to grow, to change and adapt to change. These things are relational. Even when we work independently, the feedback, support, and care we receive (or don’t receive) color the outcomes and products of our efforts. The way we relate to each other, to our clients, and to our vendors is the thing that differentiates us. It is the “humanness” that we talk about, and it’s the one key factor that enables us to do so much more together than we could do on our own.
2. There are three foundational aspects of relating: awareness, choice, and trust.
This isn’t a framework that I’ve used in the past, but it was one of Dorothy’s frameworks for the workshop. It was interesting to think about my values and practices using this different lens.
Awareness refers to both knowing what is going on with myself, and also being open to information about what is happening with the others that I am interacting with. We have the joy (and sometimes, not-joy) of having a whole body full of data about our environments.
We have a fair amount of control over the opportunities to become aware of our own experiences. Practices like centering, guided or unguided meditation, chair yoga, or even quietly listening to music help us to become more aware of our own experiences. Unfortunately it’s incredibly easy to get caught up in the story-telling part of the mind… which is why I like to incorporate these practices into our regular meeting cadences at Proof.
On the other hand, awareness also refers to what is going on in our environment and with those we’re interacting with. Becoming aware of ourselves also helps us to be more aware of our environment. However, particularly since we’re a remote team, we often have to make things explicit in order to help others know what’s going on with us. This is why we do check-ins, write update docs, and it is one of the reasons that even a simple emoji response on a message is useful. These are all explicit signals that we send each other, each one a little beacon letting you know what’s going on with me.
Choice has at least two components – one, that I have options, and two, that I have the agency to act on those options. Valuing choice is one of the reasons we exist as a remote team in the first place. We value the ability for each of us to make big life choices like where to live, where to work, and how to meet our needs inside and outside of work.
But choice also shows up in the smallest of interactions. In Dorothy’s words, when I am aware of myself, I am “able to respond to what is happening in my life, rather than simply react to it.” (link) The difference between responding and simply reacting is choice. When I am “reactive,” I have not made a conscious decision about my actions, whereas when I respond, I’m able to witness what’s occurring, notice what I’m feeling, and decide if and how I would like to act.
Personally, I have hundreds of reactions on any given day, and in the vast majority of cases, that lack of choicefulness is fine. When a situation is emotionally loaded or threatening, however, I want to be able to offer choiceful and skillful responses. Unfortunately, in a remote world it can be difficult to know if a situation is loaded, so I often end up depending on trust.
Trust is complicated to build and to discuss because it involves so many factors, past and present, many of which rarely come to awareness. For instance, the way you see me interact with someone else, whether that’s in a call or in a slack message, can impact the degree to which you trust me – and I may never know that this little marker of trust appeared on your radar.
However, there are things I can do to build trust. I can be supportive, open, and welcoming. I can have a genuine, non-judgemental curiosity about you and your experience. I can be aware of the times that I am not skillful in my responses, and explicitly acknowledge them.
One of the biggest things that trust can do for us as a company and a community is to help us recover when one of us has slipped into reacting, or misjudged a situation. If we have a strong bond of trust, we are more likely to be able to stay aware of our emotions and choicefully respond. Without trust, we often default to defensiveness, a place where it’s difficult to feel safe and be in contact with another person. This is helpful for us as we work on things together, and it’s helpful when we work with clients. Misunderstandings, mistakes, oversights, and miscommunications are unavoidable. However, when we focus on cultivating a trusting relationship, we are often able to work through and overcome these threats.
3. This IS the work.
If we are serious about wanting to work together, to respond in a constructive way to change, and to be creative, we need to practice healthy ways of relating as part of our day-to-day work, not as an extra side bonus. Being an excellent software developer is essentially worthless if I’m not able to hear what my clients and teammates are saying and communicate effectively with them. Similarly, “being on a team” is just a line on an org chart if “team” isn’t a shorthand for a trusted group of individuals who support, care for, and connect with one another.
Interestingly, one of the primary conceits of the workshop is that an essential part of learning how to create supportive, caring communities is to be part of a supportive, caring community, and to be aware of what that experience is like. Because of the way I, as a human, make meaning and predictions about the world, each experience that I have of being in community is a building block that helps me create similar experiences for myself and others. It’s my hope that if we are able to build that kind of community at work, each of us will have an opportunity to carry that felt experience forward into other parts of our lives.
It’s a practice
Perhaps the surprising thing here is that it sometimes seems like “we should know how” to interact in a healthy way, or that our interactions shouldn’t require constant attention. Unfortunately (or… fortunately?), it doesn’t work that way, at least not for anyone I know. Each of us, and our environments, are constantly changing, which means that each and every relationship has an opportunity to be new again, all of the time.
The challenge is to practice – to stay curious, stay aware, and continue to relate to one another as the people we actually are, not as the models in our heads predict we will be. This is also the reward – meaningful connection with one another is what gives us an opportunity to feel whole, alive, and interconnected.
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