Photo by Andew Mauboussin
The Gonzola’s Family: Cuba or the US, who has the rights?
Who understands the problems?
“The human is a mixture of feelings and objectivity. He has evolved a brain that enables him to know the differences between the two, if he is motivated to know the differences. The well differentiated person knows the difference, and each can be fully appreciated when each is relatively free of the other. There is an advantage when the human can observe the automatic emotional process with his intellectual self”.
The Media Spin: The Gonzalez family is living in a media test tube. We watch as the family deals with its own inner turmoil in the glare of uncertain fame. Could their lives be better understood through the lens of Bowen theory?
Please, make your best predictions of what has or might happen. Does this tell you something about how much Bowen theory you know? Perhaps it might tell you if you are emotionally intelligent? It may even show how much differing political considerations influences thinking.
The results will soon be in. In fact the multigenerational family drama will unfold on the front page of the newspapers. Just remember that ones opinions (even theoretical opinions) about “others” reveal more than a little about us.
All of our lives reflect and test theory. So the big question, can Bowen theory be useful in defusing intense social problems?
The Political Spin: The media love it. Cuban and the USA have been at political odds for more than 40 years. This is a big political year for Congress. Media is the big player in manifesting social concerns. This can shape the way voters think. After all this is a year when a loss of six seats by the GOP changes the Chairmanship of every committee.
Think of the media as a bunch of group therapists who did not get to do real therapy. Their goal is to shape the dialogue often with the intent of raising anxiety, or was it to entertain? We see emotional reactivity in both nameless people and presidential candidates. When the media discovers deep issues in the public, the voters can be vulnerable.
What happens if people just accept the media spin? Is there an important reason to develop our own way of thinking? Is there a factual basis that permits us to develop our own ideas? I believe that if we can keep each person’s opinions as separate then we are opening up emotional space in our families and in our communities. If we can learn a bit more about families and societal process one can better withstand the onslaught of societal anxiety.
Often we learn to think differently by comparing our ideas to those of others. For some people this is a dangerous exercise as agreement is the only good state.
Only the Facts, Please: No one is real sure of all the facts surrounding the Elian Gonzalez case. But the first facts that the media picked up were not the death at sea of a Cuban mother, her boyfriend and nine other people fleeing Cuba to seek asylum in the U.S., but the survival of Elian, a six-year-old child. The two others who were rescued were also saved from the child-focused headlines.
The few facts that have emerged are that the child’s father is Cuban and wanted his son to live there with him. He had remarried and they have a young son. Since the rescue in November Elian has lived in Miami with his paternal great uncle, Lazaro Gonzales. Larazo refused to let the father, his nephew, take his son back to Cuba. The father came to the USA to reclaim his son. The INS and the Justice Department made decisions to return custody to the father.
People and Congress are still reacting. Now the courts are stuck with another unresolved family emotional problem. The slow pace of courts may tone down the family anxiety and allow people to think about what happened.
Tunnel vision and societal anxiety
Paradoxically tunnel vision begins as a relief from anxiety. The anxiety can crop up in one’s newspapers, TV and reverberate with our family history. Humans are sensitive and reactive to past hurts.
New information is folded into past memories. We tend to repeat a lot of our past difficulties. Negative, anxious stories about life and death can take most of us down the road to polarized, stressful thinking.
Such thinking digs social tunnels and before one knows it one has slid down into an emotional ditch. When tension is in the air it soon takes shape on the airwaves. Relationships then reflect the anxiety in behavior.
The calmer people are the more cooperative. The more anxious, the more negative and critical we become. At the extreme anxiety becomes a formalized split between people who think differently. How easy to take sides, to blame one side or the other and have a lot of big opinions.
John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid in the book, “The Social Life of Information” note this point. ”The way forward is paradoxically to look not ahead but to look around.” An all too common mistake is to forget the past. We tend to forget the past when we feel anxious and threatened. Our perceptual focus narrows.
The brain and reactivity: It is almost as though the human brain is unable to process more information. The brain shuts down to preserve its functioning.
When a fear response is activated often feelings get bigger and bigger and facts smaller and smaller. The more primitive part of the brain, the limbic system, is trying to figure out what is going on.
It takes an effort to reduce emotional flooding and kick in the higher cortical areas. When one is able to notice and reduce emotional reactivity, then one can begin to integrate the feelings/reactions with more factual information. Under conditions of threat such integration can not happen. We react to the threat and try to survive. Reactive feelings and polarized beliefs can leave us in emotional turmoil.
So how important is it that people agree with you? Who is on your side? Yes it’s the side-taking thing. It can tell you a lot about the degree of emotional interdependence that is comfortable.
Those who can be a bit more independent can stand apart from the need to convince others and win. These individuals are capable of emotional neutrality. People can have opinions and stand-alone. In addition some people have the ability to listen and relate to various viewpoints without seeking agreement or making an enemy.
Neutrality is the key ingredient in resolving tension between any two parties. It does not seem to be a natural ability. Rather it is a hard won ability.
Journalists, consultants, physicians, coaches and psychotherapists are suppose to practice being objective and neutral but we see its hard for most to maintain. The good news is that even if one can not do it all the time, if one just understands the principle and works towards neutrality things will get better.
The media has complex motives. They must sell papers and try to maintain objectivity. Try to sell papers with neutrality as a headline. ’The Gonzalez family hires a neutral coach.’ ’Coach sees evidence for multigenerational triangles.’ ’People in the streets begging for emotional neutrality.’
The impact of tension over the generations
Over how many generations has this split between the Gonzalez family been building? With a few facts one can start to build and then understand the predictable family dynamics. One builds by asking questions from a broader perspective.
On the other hand if one becomes polarized and operates from being hurt, sad, or mad then one can refuse to ask more questions. Understanding gives way to believing the worst. Rumors run unchecked. Fear dominates our private worlds. Eventually fear builds a righteous castle that resists all attempts to reconcile. Will this happen to the Gonzalez family?
Keeping the focus on what people feel should happen to the peopel in Miami seems to have incited riots. People are ready to react to what is seen as what should be in the best interest of a child.
This is part of our vulnerability to the future. When it comes to children it’s very easy to mix in our personal agendas with the story of Elian and his family.
Being Emotional, Overreacting and Calming Down: One method to deal with this overreaction to our feelings is to pay a lot of attention to facts. The idea that facts are central to managing reactivity is one quick way to think about the practical nature of the concept of differentiation of self. The central idea is that one is able to separate out from past patterns of relationships.
Perhaps only God knows why this is so hard. So before you begin to formulate a place where you are ready to stand to say this is what I believe about Elian or anything get ready for the reaction to your opinions. Reactions are part of what makes change difficult. People who need you will throw stones at you and your new opinions. Ready or not change costs us all.
One advantage of a broader picture is that you get more ideas on what it might take to get any situation halfway resolved. Family history in the New York Times: We can track the side taking in this generation to the past. One opinion, the family squabbling reflects the tension in the great grandparent’s marriage.
Check it out. The New York Times has a version of the three generation family history in the April 23rd edition, “Love in the Times of Castro: The intimate family history of Elian Gonzalez” by Tim Golden.
My guess was based on the tension between the siblings. If the father of Elian and his great uncle do not get along, then most probably there was a lot of tension between the two brothers in the grandparent generation. I guessed that perhaps one brother solved the tension by leaving and going to Cuba. The other brother stayed behind. Perhaps one claimed he was loyal to his family while the other claimed to be in search of freedom. Perhaps the great grandparents did have a favorite child. Side taking can begin very innocently and then escalate.
It turns out that this is a close guess. There were nine children in the family. The grandmother Georigna (Pina) Hernandez was quoted as telling her boys, “You are brothers. You are a family. Stay away from politics.” How often do mothers good intentions backfire?
The fourth brother, Delfin, was arrested on March 22nd 1962 for subversion by the Castro government. Then in April 1965 the oldest daughter left for the US. The next to the youngest son, Juan Gonzalez took a job as a police investigator in the interior ministry. Delfin criticized him for this decision. In 1979 Delfin came to the U.S. just months before his mothers death. In 1983 Luis, the oldest son, followed the others to the U.S. Two others came in 1984, LAZARO and Manolo.
Following in his father’s path Juan Miguel stayed in Cuba and became a Young Communist at the age of 15. It was then that he and Elisa Broton met. They married in 1985. He was 16 and she was 15. In 1991 they divorced. They begin to live together again hoping to have a child. On Dec. 6, 1993 Elian was born. They separated for the last time Feb. 1997. “Juan Migel said she was like a sister to me.” Eliza found a new boyfriend within two months. There is a great deal of controversy over this man. One fact is that he did save $3,000 to buy a rubber raft that took him, his girl friend and her son, Elian, his two brother, his parents and another couple to the U.S.
After the tragedy the Miami family, with Lorazo, as the head, was given custody. They had came up with an idea to keep the family together. The NYT stated that that “starting with Carida and her brother Delfin, Juan Miguel’s aunts and uncles first thought of keeping Elian in the United States partly as a way to pull the family together.”
Sibling position and triangles as a gauge to guess the future
Tension between siblings can give us a reading on the probability for future disruptions in the family. The tension can stay between the siblings or tension can be sent to children and their siblings. Tension can also erupt in physical or emotional illness, poor marriages or on an intense focus on children. Recognizing that tension and anxiety are just past of the human dilemma is so good for us. We do not have to get too serious. Its great if we do not have to really think it’s our fault or their fault. When there are no bad guys in the family just family tension then things are going to get better for the future generations.
In the best of all worlds: In the best of all possible worlds the family systems produces kinfolk that cooperate. Under stressful conditions this two-way relationship goes astray. People get mad. Relationships go silent. People cut off from one another.
When you live in a distant family you can guess that relationships in the far past have been frozen in networks of interlocking negative triangles. It starts out so simply, two are close and one is on the outside. On the positive side of triangles the two who are close are getting along. It is very expense for the third person that may be scapegoated. By being aware and less reactive even the scapegoat can tone down the process. All it takes is one to be calmer while remaining in some contact.
It sure seems unfair. After all the two who are close can bond and get away from all the anxiety. This allows the two people on the inside to go on with out as much stress; they may even live in harmony. But over the long run they are also paying a price. In the short run the closeness is comforting but there is continuing worry about the loyalty factor. The lovelock between the two can tighten. Sensitivity rises. It is uncomfortable in the agreement world. Also, it may be necessary to spend a lot of energy monitoring the other to make sure that he/she has not yet defected.
Topsy-turvy: Relationship systems are often topsy-turvy. Most of us are not very aware of our sensitivity to threats until big trouble appears. Threats take time to sort out and get neutral about. Only then can people relate on a new level.
Our bodies and brains evolved as tools to solve social problems. One can learn to use the body to a calm the brain and then use the brain to strengthen the body. The opposite is true too. The brain body connection cuts both ways. As long as people want to grow and change there is a good chance they will find a disciplined way that works.
None of us will last too long when it gets too hot in the emotional kitchen. So remember to turn the stove off when people are uptight.
One can think about relationship functioning on a continuum. At one end the individual is totally capable of self-regulation. The ideal person does not ever think a negative thought about another much less says something negative.
At the other end are those people whose lives are totally dominated by their reaction to others. If this one does that or says that well then it is awful and could kill me or I may have to kill them. That brain has no ability to self regulate. In the middle of the continuum we can see anxiety come and go as social groups enlarge or diminish.
“Nothing is more likely to help a person overcome or endure troubles than the consciousness of having a task in life.” Victor Frankel.
What will your task be? Send in your ideas and I will begin a feedback section for the newsletter in the next edition. Just think what would you do if you were asked to consult/advise the various parties involved? The Media: CNN/MSNBC, The US Justice Department,/Janet Reno, Juan Miguel, The Miami Family, The Cuban Family, The Cuban Diplomats.
Here are a few sites to explore for those who are interested.
Clinical Conference May 19th, 2000 ”Swimming Upstream to Develop A Self” Call GFC: 202-9650730
California Symposium on BFST June 30th and July 1, 2000 Laura Havstad call: 707-874-1227
Books of Interest
“The Scientest in the Crib” by Alison Gopnik, Ph.D., Andrew N. Meltzoff, Ph. D., Patricia K. Kuhl, Ph.D.
“A General Theory of Love” by Thomas Lewis,, M.D., Fari Amini, M.D., Richard Lannon, M.D.
“A Revolutionary Way of Thinking” by Dr. Chrales Krebs and Jenny Brown.
“Raising an Emotionally Intellegent Child” by JohnGottman
“Lincon on Leadership” by Donald T. Phillips
I write this newsletter after seeing the movie 2000 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Movie reviews, trailers …
Dec 8, 2000
Imagine what it would be like to be the child in a child-focused family. The family is deeply wired to pay more attention to YOU than to being self-aware. You might find that others expected a lot from you. You might be sensitive to what others think about you. You might find yourself going along to get along. You might get mad, feel scapegoated or know that you just did not fit in with the family group.
We are all sensitive to social cues. Extreme sensitivity can interfere with our ability to be a more separate self. The anxiety from the past will then go on into the future. If one is sensitive it’s hard to know others and it is easy to project onto children our hopes and dreams.
Not seeing people for who they are and not being able to tell people who you are is relationship blindness. Most of us are vulnerable to getting emotionally blind-sided in close relationships. But we recover. We are not impaired by the occasional focus of anxiety on us. We learn from mistakes.
Mother Nature produced the mechanism: conflict, distance projection on to children and sickness in a spouse, to absorb anxiety. Understanding how Mother Nature works might makes choices in relationships more possible. Or one can just follow the feeling of the moment. Dr. Bowen spoke of the necessary conditions for child focused families to focus most of the family worries onto one child. The prime conditions for projection between a mother and a child, is that the child fits well with the mother’s worries and that there is increased anxiety in the family.
Perhaps anxiety has no other path to take. People have often already cut off from the extended family. Neither spouse has a tendency to become sick. The child has a genetic like problem that activates an intense family worry. The mother and child accept that the problem is in the child. This is the reason that they become one in worry. “The child adapts to sort of save its own life until it has lost too much self to function.” (“Schizophrenia as a Multi-Generational Phenomenon,” a chapter in Beyond the Double Bind edited by Milton Berger 1977). The other children develop to be about as mature as the parents are. Dr. Bowen use to say that in the average family, half of the children would be more mature than the parents and half less mature.
A percentage of families maintain an unhappy marriage for the good of the child. The parents console each other but do not deal with each other. Mother Nature may have wired parents to over focus on children to preserve strength in the marriage. Perhaps projection of weakness onto one child is a good short cut to allow one child to stay home and set the others free?
To alter the wiring parents have to take back the worries and the projections. Projections can be as simple as saying “you are cold, you are tired, you do not care.” It is embarrassing and difficult to take back projections and requires a high degree of awareness. The difficult is to slow down and listen to our own voice. Remember projecting maintains strength. It’s them. But if you are motivated there are a thousand and one techniques to enable awareness. Meditative traditions, mindfulness training, journaling and coaching to name a few.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Listening to stories helps us to become aware of how automatically the child-focused family operates. If you like popcorn you can see it happen in the movies. Take the new movie, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” This remarkable story also cleverly hides the child focused family story.
There in the hidden shadows lives the family that spawns a confused young woman, the “fierce fighter,” Zhang Ziyi. Little attention is paid to the parents. Did subtle patterns of interactions shape this child?
The parents’ messages and the child’s reactions are crouching behind their everyday life. We see her as she springs forth. She is at the age to be an adult. Leaving home is the vulnerable time. One’s ability to be autonomous is tested. The ability to be more separate is influenced by the relationships. Our brains are wired in the social nest.
The world can be an emotional jungle for young adults. In the jungle the tiger waits. Making decisions as young adults reflects the best way to deal with the tiger. Good decisions give us go power in the family. Bad decisions take us backward into the family. Often there is negative attention. If the child has become a reactive pawn in the system, collecting negative energy, then the child does not fulfill or even know his or her potential. There is no separate self. The movie provides only hints about the influence of the parental interactions. Perhaps this is the only way to tell the story. Hints can be accepted. There need be no defense for either the parents or the “fierce fighter.”
In our time insights into the role of family relationships in a child’s symptomatic behavior are heard as blaming the bad family. Blame is not a systems view. Now it is politically incorrect to ask about or suggest that families play some role in problems that children have. For this reason alone people can shun the topic.
Movies only hint that parents and children effect each other in profound ways. Movies are art. They are free to attack the current political view. Perhaps they give new insight into the hidden rules of relationships.
Current social beliefs about children’s development are a strange mixture of genetics and behaviorism. The power of psychoanalytic explanations also lurks in the background. Old explanations center blame on the individual’s weak mind. The ideal solution to weakness is drugs to fix the inadequate brain chemistry. Another question asks if the major influence on people’s interactions is culture? All cultures produce symptomatic children. Some children turn inward, as in depression, while others turn against society or the parents. Who is to blame?
Each culture has its own version of “worry.” Finding ways to fix the worry may be slightly different. Stories maybe the glue that keeps society organized and they can give us clues as to the type of pressure in the nuclear family.
It is no surprise that a Chinese film informs American audiences about the difficulty that a young girl has in becoming a self. The Chinese have had a limit to the numbers of children allowed in families. This could have promoted both pressure and a real curiosity about what happens to young adults. Each culture shows evidence of how “other focused energy” goes into shaping each child. When the pressure is real intense, then the child must distance, rebel or pretend to fit in. One can see intensity build in how one wants to make others behave. The evidence in every language comes out in the over use of the word “you.”
Monitoring language helps to see how we confuse our own self with that of the other. It is happens so fast. Two “I’s” become a “we,” and the self is lost. It is challenging and nit picking to monitor the assumptions we constantly make about others. But there it is. The influence that we have on each other is constant.
Would it be easier to see if people were atoms? Would it be a different world-view if we could look at a family as though we were looking at the attraction between atoms? People could be like charged particles. The forces resulting in people being pulled towards and away from one another.
Once you could see people operating in a force field then you could ask neutral questions. After all it is no ones fault. You could wonder about attraction. What kind of an electrical charge does a woman have when she selects a distant man? What type of charge must a child have to fit well into a family nest? How will the disappearance or death of other atoms affect the atoms in the nuclear family molecule?
These types of thought experiments might help us back up and see the emergence of the nuclear family. It might be seen as an organism operating in a force field. This broader look at the forces operating in relationship systems takes understanding the family to deeper levels.
Blaming people is a poor substitute for understanding. In fact blame actually continues the projection process. There is little evidence to prove that we live in a tidy world of good and evil. Evil does exist but relationship blindness is not evil, it is just blind. Just for a moment another thought experiment: Imagine that a fox family has to move on in the cold of winter. There is no food. To move on requires that they leave behind vulnerable offspring that cannot make the trip. That such a force, to move on, should live in the human is mostly denied. All that being said, we are ready for the main attraction, the movie as a Bowen story. In the movie a famous warrior has had a bad dream and decides he must return his sword to the head monk. He asks his best friend, a woman warrior, to return the sword. They live by the rules. This requires them to let their love remain dormant for many years. What problems could that create? Well, she listens to him and takes the sword sensing that there are problems ahead. She arrives to find the head monk is entertaining the new governor.
This is the father of our child-focused client. This group of warriors protects the father. The head monk uses the sword to give the governor some useful advice about leadership. Yet one senses that the symbolic power in this four hundred-year-old sword will not give the governor awareness. The weakness in him is subtle.
One way to note weakness is when people are not dealing openly with one another. The warriors protect the governor from difficult problems. When the sword disappears he is not consulted. When the possibility exits that his daughter could be the suspect, nothing is said. Relationship blindness is respected. The daughter may have stolen the sword but no worry is seen. The problem of the child-focused families is that the young can not separate in an orderly way. We learn that the young daughter is unsure of what she wants to be. In fact her wish to be a warrior is not permitted for any aristocratic child. She is dismayed to learn that warriors live by rules. She wants freedom. This means that if she were to achieve her dream she could not live in harmony with her family or the warriors. This is part of the tragedy. The other part is how the significant people around her are forced into the transference position. Each becomes emotionally blind like a reactive parent. One can see the biological mother representing the interest of society in continuing traditions and obedience to custom. Is this a bit of psychoanalysis? It is an example of how culture can distract from seeing family patterns. And let us note that the relationship system is full of distance or blindness. By avoiding relating to each other people remain blind and thus anxious and vulnerable.
The mother, as the governor’s wife, has every reason to protect the status quo and remain blind to the relationship issues. There is no reason to understand who the child is or who the husband is; she can just reinforce duty. What type of values does a mother need to have to really know who the child is? She would have to have zero need for the child. Is it values or is it emotional awareness? All of us could learn a lesson here. There is nothing more difficult than to expect and need zero from others. With lowered expectations people are truly free from pressuring others. It is easy to think that people should do for us. It is a challenge to know where one person begins and ends or to retain a focus on autonomy. Where does caring end and manipulation begin? Every parent, friend and teacher wrestles with this question. Where is the “I”? How much life energy is devoted to others, how much is left for self to move forward? If you want to see how distance and or relationship blindness operates, pay attention to the well-mannered afternoon tea between the biological mother, the good intentioned older woman warrior, and the child. The “fierce fighter” is tricked into revealing herself. You have to know people to trick them into revealing themselves. The mother is blind to who her daughter is and dangerously unaware of the influence of her daughter’s governess. This older woman warrior may want to know this child but she too is vulnerable. Who among them knows that patterns have a tendency to repeat? The “fierce fighter” knows how to distance her mother and she has every reason to continue her pattern. The older warrior is also blind to her participation in triangles. Her need is to be close to the “the master fighter,” Chow Yun Fat. The “fierce fighter” will remain on the outside. ”The master fighter” is capable of giving up the sword and therefore capable of some change. The young girl responds. Yet, there is a small price extracted to permit the greater openness. Interlocking triangles are like relationship habits. Think of the energy that it takes to break habits, to be aware and open in relationships. Even mature people can only manage about five minutes just talking about who they are and who the other person is. Do not feel helpless. It is possible to gain flexibility just by using other mechanism to deal with the anxiety of not being able to be open. Distance, in the movie, will be overcome. These people can still fight. Perhaps more self will be revealed in fighting than through polite distance or pretending to go along. Excitement spills over as the warriors challenge the “fierce fighter” in chases across buildings and over treetops. The fighting is so surreal that one begins to think that the emergence of self is not that important, if you can just fight well. The third female, the governess, demonstrates the nasty side of symbiosis. She needs this girl for her own benefit, for her own life. The youngster knows how to read. The deal is made. She can learn how to fight and, in exchange, the youngster is to read the secret book to the governess. A projected on child trusts no one. Such a sensitive child knows about expectations of others. “You need me, you think I will function for you?” A terrible price will be paid for this intense projection. In character, she deprives this “mothering person” of the central secrets.
The child aggravates and frustrates one and all. The child flies away. The “fierce fighter” tricks people. Call it “no self,” call it revenge. Perhaps these parents should have taken their daughter to a therapist when first she left the caravan to regain her comb? Her side adventure with the “young robber” may have been her first real love, but love is not strong enough to save those who have a weak self. The young girl’s lack of self is so mixed in with her stated desire to become a warrior without rules, that this paradox itself draws one into the story of intrigue. The movie is nominated to win ten Oscars. Here we see the three dynamics that absorb anxiety. Will we see the emergence of a more separate self? Well, this is the movie. So to reach out, to break the spell of the past is to be expected. But risking all to deeply communicate neutrality with the central core of another human being, this is the test that can cost your life. The movie may make the biological family members into the hidden players but in the retelling of the story one can focus on the effects of relationship blindness. Blindness occurs when one is not able to see the impact of how people are relating. It is similar in both adults and children. However the parents may stabilize their relationship by having projected the worry more into the child than into their relationship with each other. The parents avoid each other and agree that the problem is in the child. Problems are everywhere.
The Family Projection Process
The strong parental instinct to bond and protect can easily lead to the devilish problem known as “the family projection process.” The projection process is where the “who” of the child is lost. The child may be unsure of what they want or who they are. In the confusion the child may agree with the worries of the family. The worries have been in the family for generations.
Here is the proof that the process is genetic. Familiar symptoms seem to appear out of no where. Or maybe the child has become a wired vessel to absorb multigenerational anxiety, perhaps allowing a bit more freedom for the parents. Relationship blindness is a double-edged sword. It produces some good, some bad. Hopefully we can see that Mother Nature’s ways have some unintended consequences. There is an old saying, “We have eyes and we see the problems in others, not in ourselves.” This is the formula for projection. Most mothers know there is little time to question and reflect on how and what one says. One is busy with the thousand and one details. One has to attend to the now in raising small children. When is their time for deep reflection? We are built to react and to fix problems. No wonder that the habits of the past have such sway over us. Dr. Bowen wrote about the problem in the child as the” family weakness.” Still people hear this as blaming. For example, in the case of violence against society it is easy to blame the child. In the case of incest it’s easy to blame the parent. However, few notice for how many generations there has been a failure within the family to relate person to person, between and within the generations. Over time the network of relationships is diminished. As the roots dry up, the intensity and therefore the vulnerability, to symptoms, between the remaining players, increases. Think of increasing intensity as taking the form of fear. The parents are not physically sick they worry. Either father or mother can be afraid. One backs down from dealing with the other. They are unsure of where they stand. They hide or seek comfort. One can often feel this negative worried energy in the presence of anxious parents.
Many people have tried to understand what is so difficult about being intimate. What is the ultimate fear, rejection? Who knows? One needs a strong sense of self to handle increasing anxiety and not blame others. People are vulnerable when they are dependent.
Children feel the parent’s unsureness. There are mixed messages. The child is confused, more confused than the parents. There is little ability to monitor the intensity. It comes out in one’s voice, in words or one’s ability to talk openly with important others. It is then that the child steps in to fill the gap between the anxious parents. There may be genetic or biological reasons why it is difficult for a child to manage to grow away from the parents. Whatever the reason, worry does not help. Parents who are more isolated worry more. The child picks this up and the symptom may become fixed in the child. The degree and intensity of worry may be one explanation for the variation in the intensity of any symptom, be it a learning disorder or asthma. The most focused on children will tell a neutral outsider that they are willing to give 100% of their life for their parents. The parents do not want this but it is too late. The deal was struck in the past. It is not that anyone asks. It is simply that the child feels what the mother or father requires and the deal is struck. Anxiety is absorbed. It may seem backwards to those of us who want to fit in, to be obedient or to tell others what to do. But the forces for diversity exist in all families. There must be risk-takers. There must be disobedience. There must be revenge, for asking too much, for demanding too little, for being preoccupied or stressed out. There is no relief from life. For the fortunate mother, who has a good marriage, open communication with the past generations and relatively low levels of current anxiety, there may not be much family weakness to project onto the child. But when there is emotional cut-off from the past generations, when anxiety is high, when the child is born with some weakness, then problems intensify. Someone will be blamed. The child can become the wired vessel for great anxiety.
At times anxiety in one person can produce immediate symptoms in another. This is a fusion state. It is the collector’s evidence for the existence of a connecting emotional process. People deny that they are linked through their behavior. One has an accident and so does the other. One gets better and then the other gets sick. There is an observable linkage when people are intensely responsive to one another. Some families produce children with more inward symptoms. Children stay home or are depressed or use drugs. At the other end of the spectrum is the acting out family. A good example of abuse, from the child’s viewpoint is described in Richard Wertime autobiography, Citadel on the Mountain. Here the child sees the parent’s role. There is no blindness to the negative interaction between parents and child. There is still reactivity, which we see expressed when he momentarily becomes more like his father. He describes his authoritarian father, and the violence in the family, as an example of a political state where the leader is entitled to take violent action to preserve his state. The instinct for tow to function as one is called symbiosis. Is it useful to take a more neutral view so that one can see symbiosis as just one way for organisms to adapt? If so can you see symbiosis leading to fixed side talking in the family triangle? Do understand how side taking makes triangles rigid? Side taking makes it more difficult for people to think, and to be free. Symbiosis is the mechanism that Lynn Margulis has put forward to account for the evolution of new species. Perhaps violence between the parents and the child is a very intense variation of symbiosis. The parents need the child in order to survive. The child can NOT escape. The child is beaten into the form necessary to stabilize others. Society steps in to save the child.
Therapy or other interventions that interrupt automatic tendency to focus on others destabilize the family. Seasoned therapists know to expect and therefore are careful about the anger, which may appear when one is trying to be more open with a child-focused family. Rage can be directed at the therapist for opening up such a Pandora’s box. If you want love show no interest in truth. To the degree that the two parents remain totally focused on the child, they stay connected, without having to be work out their differences. The movie “Traffic” shows the parental avoidance of each other. The symptom in the child works to bring the parents back together. We see the costs for the father to function as a more separate person. Remove the child-focusing mechanism and the couple will face each other. For some this is worse than death.
If parents can accept that they play some part in children’s symptoms, then one parent can make the effort to stand-alone. If one is calmer in relating to the others, then little changes in the process between people will occur. Eventually this may alter the expression of genes. Even in the most motivated people there is one step forward and one or two blind steps back. Steps back are automatic. Eventually there is a lack of energy to move forward. Peopele fall into togetherness. If people can be a bit more separate they can function in a way that makes it possible for each to take responsibility for problems. Fear in parents is the big issue. If it is too costly to be separate and to let the child grow away then it is up to the child. There are cases where the “child” breaks free before the parents. This can create sickness in the parents. Is the “child” strong enough to tolerate that? One can remain a “child” even as an adult.
When I did research on families where one person was diagnosed as HIV positive, often one of the parents would become symptomatic, as the “child” was better able to be open and to live a more separate life. The “child” must value their own life as much as the life of the parents. The parents may and often will suffer as the “child” breaks free. Is the therapist aware of the risks in enabling a “child” to be more for self then for the system? Therapists see adolescents or younger children whom they help with techniques like neurofeedback for attention deficit disorder. The family will still pay a price for the child to do better. Does the therapist have an obligation to tell the parents this fact? Most parents are willing to suffer to give a bit more freedom to their children. But to protect the blindness of the parent and to pretend that the parents do not have to change is to participate in emotional blindness.
Bowen use to suggest that one could change more by getting to know all of one’s family members. This would have to occur neutrally or without judgment. This has its own set of issues and problems but it’s a good workout in the relationship gym. Emotional energy will follow a path. Can all people choose where to direct emotional energy? If one has a choice then choose your own path. It is the only way out. There is no right way that a therapist can tell you about. It is deep inside each person.
There are only general paths that one can follow. For example it may be possible to enlarge your family relationship system and to know the extended family. But for some it may be impossible to do more than to continue focusing energy on the child.
We are not totally in charge of Mother Nature. Each of us has some freedom but it is not unlimited. Hopefully freedom will be informed by knowledge of relationship rules. Dr. Bowen noted that, “The child-focused family is one in which sufficient family anxiety is focused on one or more children to result in serious impairment in a child. The child focused energy is deeply embedded, and it includes the full range of emotional involvement from the most positive to the most negative. The usual approach in family therapy is to soften the intensity of the focus on the child and to gradually shift the emotional focus to the parents, or between the parents and their family of origin.” He noted that, “There is no single road to success in these families. Finding a way through the problem depends on the therapists concept of the problem and his skill in keeping the family motivated.” (Family Therapy in Clinical Practice: Page 297)
1) Child focused families live with high degrees of anxiety and relationship blindness. The “I” of the individual is confused with the “you” of the child. 2) Family members automatically feel others pain and take steps to change the other. They spend more time thinking of others than defining the part they are playing in the process. 3) Anxious people can learn but they have difficulty calming self and relating to others neutrally and playfully. 4) It takes generations for this process to become so fixed that a child can not separate out a more mature self from the family of origin. 5) Child focused families may preserve the marriage at the expense of the child. This automatic focus on the child may serve as a protective mechanism for the parent’s marriage. 6) There may be genetic factors involved but the resolution relies on the strength of one individual to change the part he or she plays in the process.
December 20, 2006 Newsletter 36
Leading by Seeing Relationship Patterns in the Social Jungle
Ideas by Andrea Schara and editing by Judy Ball and Deborah Schwab
You can’t be a sweet cucumber in a vinegar barrel.
Philip Zimbardo (Stanford Prison Experiment)
Long-term commitment to new learning and new philosophy is required of any management that seeks transformation. The timid and the fainthearted, and the people who expect quick results, are doomed to disappointment.
W. Edwards Deming
From Chapter 6 in The Mindful Compass
Habits of Interacting and the Forces
In the first chapters of this book I encouraged you to reflect on the habits of interacting and thinking that you learned in your family, using your own family stories as a guide. I also introduced you to The Mindful Compass, and asked you to think about what it would take to alter old, useless patterns of behavior. Because our behavior is regulated by our social situation, as Philip Zimbardo showed in his research, we’ll spend some more time in this chapter looking at how the social system, or the above mentioned vinegar barrel, is wired.
It is in our best interests to be aware of the signals that are influencing our behavior, be they from our family or from our organization. How we “see” our social situation and its influence on us can, in and of itself, alter the social situation. One way to “see” our social situation is to listen to ourselves telling our own stories (as I noted earlier). If we are willing to be honest, we might be able to thoughtfully consider what continues to influence us to behave in certain predictable ways. We might also pick up some useful information about our own particular sensitivities to people and the systems they inhabit.
Only you can answer the questions about your level of sensitivity at home and at work. Only you know if you are you more or less sensitive after considering your life stories. But those stories will help you see how you interact in family relationships and with people at work. By spending the time to write up your early family experiences, you will be better able to see how those early relationships and events imparted a certain spin and/or level of intensity to you and your life�a condition that is reflected in your current world view. The big question is, do you really know how you affect others?
If this book has helped you answer yes to that question, then it will have succeeded.
In these first chapters, you also learned about the togetherness force and its opposite, individuality, the force that drives each of us to stand alone and be ourselves. Those two forces, which every one of us struggles to balance, help shape our perception of reality and therefore our actions. These forces are impersonal and knowable. Knowing their various manifestations requires time to reflect. In order to see these forces operating in the moment, we have to develop a greater ability to recognize the patterns.
Pattern recognition takes time (think how long it takes to become an expert in anything), and learning to manage self is no different. We are often subject to automatic ways of being in our relationship world. The ongoing presence of these forces requires us to use something like a Mindful Compass to increase our knowledge and build our inner courage as we navigate our various relationship systems.
A Review of the Basic Ideas
- Bowen theory offers a way to see how individual functioning is derived from relationships with other members in the group, or system, and is an ongoing balancing act between the individuality and togetherness forces.
- Humans have instinctive ways of functioning in a group that are similar to but not the same as behaviors found in other mammalian social groups.
- Mechanisms in the brain influence people to go along with the social group.
- During times of stress, many individuals’ ability to function degrades. The balance tips toward more togetherness with others, and less ability to be a separate self.
- Awareness of past patterns of behavior gives individuals greater ability to define a self based on knowledge and principles.
Creating a “Thinking Space”
Clearly, learning how relationship systems work and how best to manage your self in them is extremely useful to developing and enhancing your leadership skills. Different people will have different levels of need to understand all this, however. Some will want to know more; some will want to know less. I am always curious and a searcher by nature. Therefore, I’ve been working for 30-plus years and am still learning how families and businesses function as emotional systems. You, however, don’t need to work that long or hard, unless your interests take you there. “Good enough” knowledge about how systems work can you create more mindful relationships with important people, be they in your family, extended family or organizational environment. Just having this goal in mind will help your leadership backbone become stronger. And P.S. You can never predict just how building and strengthening your relationships with people in your family and at work will result in the larger family and business systems becoming more mindful, calmer, and more productive.
As a family systems coach, I saw the complexity in relationship systems being addressed in startling ways. The people I was supposedly coaching often surprised me by tossing my best ideas in the trash and making their own strategic moves. Time and again, they would find unexpected ways to work through their emotional jungles. How does this happen, and what is the coach’s role in making it happen?
People create “thinking spaces” with their coach. To break up old ways of thinking, we often need an infusion of new ideas. Not all ideas need be directly useful. Some can be funny or even off the wall. Ideas are simply stimulants for the thinking and feeling systems within your brain. Exactly how the cognitive system functions to influence feelings and automatic ways of dealing with others is complex, and our knowledge about it primitive. We do know, however, that thinking differently about our feelings often has a better result then just expressing our feelings as though they were facts.
I have seen time and again that when one individual takes responsibility for deciding just how to lead through a crisis, that individual has a better chance of succeeding. Successful coaching relationships contribute to another person’s ability to think broadly and to function in more thoughtful ways, though it�s not always clear how this happens. I believe, however, that expanding knowledge (in one’s head and gut) by outlining the impersonal forces at work in a system is a central factor in helping others develop their capacity to think more broadly and function more thoughtfully.
In our information-filled society, with its high demands for solutions, people must become aware of interpersonal boundaries and the more subtle influences at work in relationships with important others. As I’ve noted, often the biggest challenge facing people is to grasp how they affect others, especially when there are problems brewing. The difficulty is that when things are not going well, it often feels just too complicated to slow down (or stop) and identify the problem. So we just keep going in the same (mis)direction. When something feels or goes terribly wrong, however, stopping to ask “Hey, what the heck is happening here?” is a good strategy.
Sometimes sports analogies are an easy way to see how one person affects others. If you drop the ball or the person next to you drops the ball, the rest of the team has to respond, but it there are a variety of forms that response might take. Social relationships are the same. We are constantly being affected by changes in others with whom we interact. People around us are always influencing us, even when we are not playing in the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, how we are tied together, and how we are programmed at a cellular level to react to one another in our various social systems, is not part of our daily awareness. With effort, however, this knowledge can be brought into consciousness and used to build our leadership skills.
Perhaps in our evolutionary past, when the world was less populated, noticing all the subtleties of how we function in a social system was less important. Running on automatic was perhaps less of a danger. Today, however, we will be better able to manage our selves if we are more aware of our impact on others and their impact on us. The point is that increasing our awareness affects our ability to lead or be led.
Physiological Feedback between the Leader and the Group in the Emotional Jungle
As I was gathering basic knowledge about how to understand social systems back in the 1980s, I saw very little about how anxiety in the larger system leads to variation in performance among leaders. The exception was research from Robert Sapolsky, who studied stress on the leaders of troops of baboons in the wild. After reading his article in Scientific American, I saw that there were different types of leaders who managed the diversity in groups either well or poorly. (Individual rank was determined by the use of approach-avoidance criteria of individual baboons, defined to indicate active avoidance on the part of the loser rather than overt aggression on the part of the winner.)  Then I had an “Aha!” moment. Stress and anxiety in the troop formed a feedback loop, and the leader’s physiology was affected by the group’s reaction to the leader, just as it does in human groups.
Leaders obviously can affect the physiology of the followers. This is easily seen when the leader threatens the group or threatens an individual in the group.
Since 1978, Sapolsky has examined the relationship between health, behavior and rank in a population of wild baboons in the Serengeti ecosystem in East Africa. He noted that the troop leaders, as long as they remained in leadership roles, often had stronger immune systems. Sapolsky sees applications of primatology in everyday life – for example, in the struggle for dominance at faculty meetings. His strategies for academic survival borrow from the baboons’ diplomatic skills: “I’ve learned to make coalitions and occasionally stick my rear in the air in a subordinate manner,” Sapolsky says. He has also taken to heart his finding that the healthiest, least stressed baboons have strong social connections.
Evidence showed that troop leaders were motivated to retain their functional roles in the hierarchy in order to maintain their healthy immune systems, even though this led to many a nasty fight and other aggressive behaviors.
In recent studies, Sapolsky found that, males with the lowest levels of stress hormones also spend the most time grooming and being groomed by females who are not in heat (and so not of immediate sexual interest) and playing with infants. Second, monkeys who cannot gauge the seriousness of a threat have stress hormone levels that are twice as high as those who can distinguish real danger from histrionics. Similarly, baboons that wait for a fight are more stressed than animals that take control of a situation and strike first. In other words, make friends and keep things in perspective.
Baboons’ pecking order is based on who can beat up whom. Weaklings are picked on, they are the last to get food and they stand little chance of winning mates�all of which contributes to high stress levels. Working at the cellular level in his Stanford lab, Sapolsky has shown that chronically high stress levels weaken immune systems and can harm or destroy other cells throughout the body. His team was among the first to show that elevated levels of stress hormones can kill cells in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for forming new memories.
In his clever book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Sapolsky clarifies what happens when we worry or experience stress. Unfortunately, our bodies automatically turn on the same damaging physiological responses and unleash the same stress-related hormones that animal bodies do, even though we do not resolve conflicts the same way that animals do. We do not automatically lunge for the jugular when a potential enemy encroaches on our territory, or initiate aggressive posturing when a perceived threat approaches. Instead, we seem to worry a lot more and have peculiar ways of internalizing stress. Over time, the repeated activation of a stress response, without any accompanying coping behavior, makes us sick.
There are many things we can do to minimize or neutralize the automatic nature of the stress response. But first we have to become aware of it�at least until the day we each have that nice watch that emits warning beeps when we enter stressful situations. Then maybe we could just put an electrode on our head to give our brain/body enough information to redirect and regulate the release of cortisol, thereby dodging the deadly cortisol bullet.
Being healthy can mean more to leaders than stock options. If you need an example of this you might look at Ken Lay. The one-time president of Enron who was convicted of fraud and conspiracy in the Enron collapse, Lay had a heart attack and died just as he was about to go to jail. Of course, not all bosses/leaders want positive relationships with their followers. If the leader knows that the followers will dislike him or her, a different dynamic is set up. Sapolsky simply showed us that the feedback loop, which operates at a physiological level between the leader and the group, works both ways.
My hope is that, in thinking about the evolutionary roots of psychological blindness and how it manifests in relationship systems, you will find information to help you build your leadership skills. How far outside the box you choose to wander in search of clues to puzzles inside the box is your choice. But the overall goal is for you, as a leader, to acquire the insight and skills you need to tackle head on, with eyes wide open, the most difficult problems you face. To do that, you will need to figure out how to take responsibility for self, because above all, leaders know that each of us has some part in every problem we see.
Having Fun When the Anxiety Goes Up
If I cannot make a problem fun, I am not going to do well with it.-Murray Bowen
We might accept that there is wisdom in trying to address our part in any problem (serious hard work), but isn�t it great to know that having a sense of humor about it, and about finding the answers to the following three questions, means that we are likely to do a better job?
- How do I spot anxiety in relationships?
- If I feel anxious, can I still be loose in the moment?
- Can I develop new strategies to have fun with people rather than react and be uptight?
This idea of having “fun” is a simple guideline that lets you know if you are “in the zone” or not. If you are not “in the zone”, you are probably trying too hard and could pass on stress to others. And if stress is regulating your performance, your team or your family will feel it and react poorly or automatically.
Here’s an example of how stress can regulate your behavior and affect those around you: An employee thinks that his boss has given him a look that translates, “No promotion for you, buddy.” This employee, stressed, goes home and becomes upset with his wife. Perhaps he gives her the look, as she is busy working on a project for the kids and forgot to (fill in the blank). The father leaves and goes off somewhere to relax. The wife/mother then becomes more and more upset with the whining child. Meanwhile, and seemingly out of the blue, the youngest child is bitten by the family dog.
In the almost too perfect, loose relationship, the man would ask his boss, “Is there something in your eye?” Or, “Is there something you would like to talk to me about?” This somewhat negative feedback from the employee is followed by the boss’s positive comment on his position on x, y, or g. The employee then goes home, gives his wife credit for managing the whining child, and takes his children and the dog outside for a brisk walk in the woods. Both he and the family need the cooling down time.
In summary, these are the principles that one can use.
- Try addressing problematic issues lightly,
- Be positive.
- Spend low-key time with the important people in your life.
- Never run from problems. (Run for the joy of it, or for cardiovascular improvement, or stress reduction, or when you need time to think.)
As leaders, we are all well advised to take the time to find ways to stay cool and manage ourselves even as we learn and try out new ideas. New ideas will inevitably challenge old beliefs and values, both ours and those of the groups we lead. New learning always increases anxiety and makes us just a bit less sure of ourselves. One of the hardest tasks is to tolerate our own and others� anxiety as we examine and perhaps even throw out some of our cherished old beliefs about the “right” way to be with others.
That wrong-headed “right” way is often the automatic way that feels better, or at least feels familiar. A new way may feel uncomfortable and create some uncertainty, but at the same time it will (hopefully) be based on principles and rational thought and perhaps even create opportunities for higher levels of functioning in self and, over time, in the group.
Do We Inherit A Little Bit of Our Relationship Bias?
For any of us to successfully manage our way through the emotional jungle, we need to know something about the automatic mechanisms in both our brains and social systems. It can be a challenge to understand just how deep the “ingrained rules” in our social systems and brains are, but thinking about such difficult topics is better than being stuck in a relationship ditch.
Often people ask me, “What is so important about understanding our past? That is just old stuff and means nothing.”
I could just reply that it’s extremely hard to live in the here and now, separate from both past and future, but most people don’t like that answer. They want more proof of why it�s important to think about the how the past can rule us. So I point out that at one level, the stories people tell us about themselves and their lives contain experiential proof of the automatic nature of the social system.
In the interview chapters, you have read how each person continues to learn from considering their past relationship history and its affect on them. Some people, like Gary Resnick, wonder if there is a causal relationship between their family dynamics and how they manage themselves at work. Resnick used his scientifically trained mind and began to find useful the idea that he could be compensating for his early experiences by over communicating at work. Not a bad problem, but one that might use a little tweaking here and there. Each person can gain insights into automatic behavior if they care to put in the time and effort to learn by reflecting.
In addition to learning from stories about real people, I have also found it very useful to consider social proof offered to us by researchers working in various fields. Both ethnologist Frans de Waal and the already mentioned Robert M. Sapolsky have focused on primate behavior. They, like Darwin before them, are aware of the implications their research has for us humans. Darwin suggested 100 years ago that we have a lot in common with our primate cousins.
In his book Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, Frans de Waal shows how the traits of fairness, reciprocity and altruism have developed in humans through natural selection. In addition, his initial work gives us specific examples of political behavior in our close relatives. We have probably seen examples of this behavior in both our families and in organizations.
Think about the inevitable power plays you’ve witnessed or experienced in your life, or the forced role of diplomacy in interactions with actual or potential enemies, or that great year-end bonus that seems to go only to a very few at the top of the hierarchy. Would it surprise you to know that these kinds of interactions also happen among the chimpanzees? The chimp at the top usually gets the biggest bunch of bananas and access to sexual partners. Such rewards can drive a lot of behavior that is not ethically kosher. Humans have desires and needs not that far removed from their chimpanzee cousins. In addition, our social structure seems to have derived some rules of conduct from the chimpanzee social structure.
Ultimately, the question becomes how to distinguish behavior in ourselves and others that is thoughtful from that which is simply automatic and returns us to functioning in the more instinctively determined, chimp-like group. Chimps are smart but are limited in their ability to rise above their emotional reading of the system. They can still be altruistic and, as Frans de Waal has shown us, there are other behaviors – such as conflict resolution, cooperation, and inequity aversion�that we humans can learn from our cousins.
De Waal has documented the evolution of morality and gives easy to understand examples of how this works in a social group. Chimpanzees are more favorably disposed to others who have performed a service for them (such as grooming) and are more likely to share their food with these individuals. We can learn from how cooperation works in social groups and be humbled by realizing we have most of the same brain structures that chimpanzees have. Our cortex, if we can get it to function over the automatic, provides greater ability to develop principles. Operating on principle may be beyond the chimp group, but is available to those who are disciplined, willful, rational and long term oriented. However, operating on principle is not easy to achieve, as the automatic is triggered by a mere hint of a threat in the shadows.
I wish our Mindful Compass had an alarm that would beep and say, �You are now operating on excellent principles that are helping you adapt to the latest challenge.� Or, �Warning, you are now reacting based on preprogrammed needs and desires that may be detrimental to your long term goals.� Since this technology is not yet developed, our best approach is to strengthen our intellectual brain to deal with our more emotional self.
Understanding the nature of the automatic social pressures that can influence us to go against our best long term interests may enable us to recognize more quickly the automatic processes within and between us. The intellectual system is not as fast or as powerful as the emotional part of the brain. But the intellectual system can influence the automatic response by learning to recognize and respond to patterns. Our brains need a good storage center for pattern recognition. Think about the top chess players or great, great football coaches. Think about the years of practice in noticing subtle tonal differences that go to making a superb musician. People who are experts have become adept at pattern recognition, at least within their area of interest. Leaders, too, can accumulate experiences and become able to recognize patterns.
Management Gurus and Brain Mechanisms that Guide Us
People like Peter Drucker, the famous management guru, have observed how the automatic process of over-rewarding leaders can lead to severe dysfunction in organizations. His notion was that a 10 to 1 differential between the highest and lowest paid workers would lead to a more rational way of developing people and measuring performance. Drucker thought that management had not yet faced up to the fact that it represents power, and that power has to be accountable and legitimate. In observing the relationship process at work, Drucker noted that the average manager thought his or her boss was like the parent of a small child and knew it all. The know-it-all attitude can be wired into a family or organizational system.
Drucker also noted that executives spend more time managing people than doing anything else, yet executives make poor staffing decisions. Their batting average is no better than .333. That is, only one-third of staffing decisions turn out right, one-third are so-so, and one-third are horrid. This may also be true of search committees looking for new company leaders, and points out how challenging it is to know the �tells� of a good to great leader. Why do we have so many problems making good decisions about people?
Robert B. Cialdini, author of The Science of Influence, writes about the shortcuts our brains use to make decisions. Shortcuts are good ways to save energy, and certainly our brains want to be energy efficient systems. But these shortcuts are also often used by others to manipulate us, and it is the manipulations that shape the system (or the vinegar barrel). As Philip Zimbardo pointed out, under the wrong influences we can turn from free, sweet cucumbers to pickles in brine in a matter of days. Fortunately, there are just a few states that engender automatic responses in the face of social clues. Once you understand them, you will be ready for friends and foes alike. Cialdini�s list of those social clues includes the following:
Reciprocation: Doing unto others as they do to us.
Commitment: Tricks to get us to say yes once, and then we must continue to commit.
Consistency: The force of our prior commitments.
Social proof: All our friends are doing it.
Liking: If I like you, I do what you do.
Authority: Parents and others wearing the correct look.
Scarcity: A belief that there is not much left.
These automatic states are like fallback positions. They convince us to buy this, or hang out with that group, or go along with the political beliefs of our friends, or accept the rulings of the authority du jour.
These automatic states, which are triggered in relationships, are also are alive and well in families and make the nuclear family a powerful social group. Of course, there are differences between the social group and the small family group. Members of the family have ongoing interactions and far greater sensitivity to one another, the outcomes of which can be over involvement with one another on the one hand, or great distancing on the other. The reactivity to the over- and under-involvement can result in greater degrees of dysfunction and unhappiness.
Relationship intensity surrounds us from birth and often impinges on our ability to think well as we grow. Sometimes there can be funny memories stemming from over influencing. I bet you have your own funny stories about influencing others in your family. Did your mother, the authority figure, tell you to finish your dinner because children all over the world were starving? Maybe your father told you that if you took out the garbage, you’d get an increase in your allowance. And you, of course, you might have told your parents that all your friends were going to the big party, and you should also be allowed to attend.
This brief explanation should show that susceptibility to social pressure lurks in the brain�s basic orientation to shortcut thinking. Whether in the family or at the office, we all share the automatic tendency to go along with others. We are all influenced by the togetherness force. Unfortunately, this influence degrades and erodes our ability to think well and to function more for our selves than as members of the social group.
If you are still worried about relationship blindness (and who wouldn’t be?) the research of another knowledgeable man, social psychologist Lee D. Ross, can help. Ross knows enough not to blame the social system or the individual for our relationship blindness. He understands how we misread others. He shows us the details of how we project onto and blame others, how we read them inaccurately, and how all this leads to increasing conflict between individuals and groups. He demonstrates how our vulnerability to social pressure and our need for approval from others only goes up as anxiety increases.
When we don’t “fit” with others in our group, there is a serious reaction: isolation. But let’s not get uptight about the million and one things that can go wrong in our relationships. All we have to do is acquire some basic knowledge, be a bit vigilant, and weigh the risks of our plans, actions and dreams.
Next, let’s explore a few ideas from those who have studied organizational behavior. They can give us some more ideas on what a leader can do to make the pickle barrel a more productive place for all of us sweet cucumbers.
The Influence of Fear and Solving “Wicked” Problems
Questions are frequently my best friends. People often ask me, “How did you move from being a family therapist to consulting to people in organizations?” Here’s my story, simplified.
Dr. Bowen died in 1990, and that motivated me to learn about leaders in other areas. My own family was a natural place to start. There have been several generations of business people in my family, and at that time my uncle had a large family-owned business. His wife (my aunt) wanted me to talk to her husband about the future of the business, which I did. From there it got much more complicated, as do all stories, but my aunt�s request marked the simple beginning of my disciplined effort to understand how a family-owned business works, and how leaders emerge from families.
When I first began consulting, I used the ideas in Bowen theory along with the works of W. Edwards Deming and Chris Argyris. Both Deming and Argyris believe that defensiveness and fear impair an organization�s otherwise rational modus operendi. Thus, I knew that my first task upon entering any business would be to look for the slight (or intense) sense of fear. This initial look at an organization would be the key to determining my future relationship strategy. I needed to think about how people were allied with one another, and how I could remain at least slightly outside the pull of the people inside the organization and maintain my own independent thinking.
Fear is a basic “tell” in both families and organizations. (In poker, a “tell” is what you get from reading someone’s body language – it helps you understand the hand the person holds.) Fear and anxiety are the markers of an uptight system calling for help. And when the consultant arrives, the fear can increase. Because fear makes people look for someone to blame, it was essential for me to keep clearly in focus the knowledge that there is never one person or group to “blame”, never just one source of the problem. The dancing and demanding players can make one feel as though others should be blamed, but a thoughtful consultant (or leader) knows that the challenges are in the whole system, not in just one or two individual members.
What happens when an organization begins to get the help that someone in it has asked for? People in the organization respond in many ways. Some think they might have to “tell” on others or be “told” on. Some worry that they might have to change in ways they are not prepared to do. Many are scared by the idea of change (change is a challenge and can increase fear), while others, paradoxically, are relieved because they believe that through change, the consultant will “fix” other people for them. It�s clear that all these reactions create reciprocal reactions in others. The fear in one can generate the blaming in another. And the relief in some can generate fear in others.
Deming believed that reducing fear is the first step in promoting productivity. He felt it should be possible to design a system that takes fear out of the workplace. Doing so would lead to self mastery as people began to take more pride in their contributions, and this, in turn, would lead to a more productive workforce. Although the leaders in such a system would assign people roles and responsibilities, there would be no blame if one or more of those people failed. Instead, failures of individuals would be viewed as a failure of the system to find a proper niche for those individuals. Deming suggested that where people are placed in the system (or the system’s structure) dictates how the whole system functions, including the individuals in it.
Not all structures are alike, of course. Social systems can be more or less mature. That is, some groups have less reactivity to change and are more thoughtful about change, while others seem to be tightly wired systems that react to changes so fast, no one has time to think and consider options or consequences. A well-functioning structure cannot be too tightly wired. Can organizational systems be designed to give the individual some degree of freedom to think and cooperate? If not, there will be a predictable reaction or resistance to the message or the leader, and to any proposed changes. The result, of course, will be that the system returns to the way it was.
Unless people are very mature, they react to change as though it were a threat. Change initiated by someone else (either inside or outside of the system) that requires them to behave in a new way often stirs up the system. Some people feel that if they go along, they will be over-adapting to the system or the boss and will lose their grounding. These people often complain, but do not talk openly about the problems. Others react to having to change their behavior based on what someone else wants them to do by rebelling.
The more mature a system is, the less reactive it is. In mature systems, people are more able to be open about their fears and concerns. Diversity is a hallmark of emotional systems and all systems are subject to being impacted by the changing environment. Some systems can become stressed, but rebound when the anxiety is lowered. Others have little ability to rebound because they have no guiding principle upon which to build a better functioning organization.
The earliest researchers found that all organizations are highly charged emotional systems. Frederick Winslow Taylor, born in 1865, was the father of scientific management. He saw that if the factory worker was forced to contribute different kinds of thoughtless labor, he or she would be less productive. Tailor had no way of measuring people’s stress level.
Taylor’s core values: the rule of reason, improved quality, lower costs, higher wages, higher output, labor-management cooperation, experimentation, clear tasks and goals, feedback, training, mutual help and support, stress reduction, and the careful selection and development of people. He was the first to present a systematic study of interactions among job requirements, tools, methods, and human skill, to fit people to jobs both psychologically and physically, and to let data and facts do the talking rather than prejudice, opinions, or egomania.
Deming enlarged on Taylor’s more humane management ideas by, among other things, identifying fear as the kingpin of all workplace problems. His systems approach worked well when the individuals involved were able to function as team members, and when the system was tightly structured only to prevent abuse. His findings were based on unemotional statistics that de-emphasized the star system. Deming believed the star system was based on luck and not real ability. He also believed stars tended to get too much special treatment, which tended to throw the system into an emotional state. With his engineering mind, Deming compiled statistics to show how the decrease in fear correlated with the increase in production, and went on to turn post-World War II Japan from a depressed economy into a powerhouse.
Deming left us with three very important lessons: (1) reduce fear, (2) depersonalize achievement, and (3) always experiment by giving people different roles in the system.
After Deming came another master of rationality, Chris Argyris. His approach was to construct a feedback system that would allow people to deal rationally with the heightened emotionality that can occur between individuals in the workplace.
Most of the organizations Argyris saw were already operating on a feedback system, but one whose goal was to encourage people to suppress conflict and emotions. Argyris knew that for those who could see beyond “peace at any price”, suppressing conflict and emotions was never going to result in rational solutions to organization problems. Freud himself had given repression a bad rap 100 years earlier, but due to its emotional nature, repression lives on and on and on. So, Argyris created another feedback model in which leaders view great difficulties as an accepted fact of business life. He knew that these difficulties must be brought to the forefront. Leaders who understand the long term price of suppressed conflict encourage individuals to talk about real difficulties, viewing such discussion as the pathway to finding solutions that are rational and not emotionally based.
From my experience, Argyris’s way of opening up the system is one that few are willing to embrace because it runs counter to our automatic defensive mindset. Argyris himself said it well:
“Most human beings are acculturated early in life to use a defensive reasoning mindset when dealing with the challenges of handling difficult, “wicked” problems and changing the status quo.”
Argyris also had the research evidence demonstrating how most of us automatically create community rules and norms that inhibit and suppress inquiry. But a few, Argyris noted, are not caught in the blindness.
Individuals seeking to learn mindfulness exhibit a preoccupation to learn from mistakes, a reluctance to simplify, a sensitivity to operations and a commitment to the resilience.
 “Stress Management Tips from the Serengeti”, by Kristin Leutwyler, published in Scientific American, 2/20/2001
 Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky
 Personal communication
 Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (The University Center for Human Values Series) (2006) by Frans de Waal, Stephen Macedo (Editor), Josiah Ober (Editor)
 The Essential Drucker by Peter F. Drucker 2001
 Robert B. Cialdini,, The Science of Influence,
 The Emotional Side of Organizations, Applications of Bowen Theory: Papers Presented at the Conference on Organizations, 1995 Cooperation, Leaders and Anxiety by Andrea M. Schara
 Out of the Crisis, W. Edwards Deming; Knowledge for Action, Chris Argyris;
Theory in Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness, Chris Argyris
 Frederick Taylor’s Apprencticeship. The Wilson Quarterly Summer 1996: 44
 First- and second-order errors in managing strategic change: The role of organizational defensive routines. In Pettigrew, A. M. (Ed.), Management of strategic change (pp. 342-351). New York: Basil Blackwell.
 Research as action: Useable knowledge for understanding and changing the status quo. In N. Nicholson & T. D. Wall (Eds.), The theory and practice of organizational psychology (pp. 197-211). London: Academic Press Ltd.
Newsletter 37 Part Two
Leading through the Relationship Jungle
Followers and Reactivity and Rationalizations
Legitimate leaders help find solutions more by being who they are than by doing any one thing. Prescriptions from others are especially dangerous, whereas ideas from others can sometimes jog the brain into new thoughts. Much of a leader�s success depends on how he/she can enable the thinking of others without stifling, controlling or creating nasty reactions. Even charismatic leaders have challenges in enabling others to think rather than blindly follow. Leaders focused on creating learning spaces in relationships with others are different. They may have been born different or have learned over time to see the total environment with great clarity. Some people have an incredible ability to monitor their reactions to signals coming from the relationship system.
The hallmark of these leaders is that they create open systems that are not uptight. They know that mature functioning leads to more cooperative ways of being. The goal of promoting mature systems is to decrease reactivity and automatic functioning. If most individuals in a system are working toward being more thoughtful and respectful of others, there is a chance that the more biological, reactive nature of humans in hierarchies will not dominate the organization, and that a rational approach will prevail.
Argyris has three suggestions for minimizing fear and boosting rational thinking. I�ve changed these statements into questions that you can use as tests to see how well you are doing in this endeavor:
- Do I encourage people to say what they know, but fear to say?
- Do I minimize what would otherwise be subject to distortion and cover-up of the distortion?
- Do I advocate my principles, values and beliefs in a way that invites inquiry into them and encourages other people to do the same?
Fear and the Sticky Stress Response: Run, Fight or Befriend
Could it be that people who end up working for and then staying in fear-based organizations come from fear-based families? Maybe this would be a good research project. We do know that people can be bent by the rules of the organization, as in the Stanford prison experiment (see page XX), and that people can bring their fears and worries into work. If, at the other extreme, the family thinks you have great potential and always gives you positive feedback, it may be difficult to sustain self under negative comments from the larger organizational group.
Doing well even when there is not a great fit with the group may be another hallmark of a great leader. Standout leaders have to deal with uncomfortable times and subjects. It is not too great a stretch to say that most great leaders have had to be able to be alone for long periods of time, especially when formulating new strategies or when opposition arises. Point four on The Mindful Compass describes to the importance of time alone. There are many reasons, in addition to the stressful cost of leading, for us to spend time alone. But for leaders the ideal would be to use time alone as a way to sort out our strategies and personal feelings so they can communicate our issues clearly.
Imagine a day when human resource people could ask for a family history to find a �better fit� between the organization and the individual. This is one area where both human resources and organizational consultants fear to tread. After all, family is private, and contains lots of personal information. That means it�s up to each of us to become fully aware of how our personal lives are reflected in or interact with any organization where we work. It is our responsibility to figure out what kind of group we are joining and how these relationships will affect our stress levels, and how if there is stress we can cope well by befriending rather than by running or bullying.
Unlike the fight-or-flight response which allows one to fight against a threat if overcoming the threat is likely or flee if overcoming the threat is unlikely, the tend-and-befriend response is characterized by tending to young in times of stress and befriending those around in times of stress to increase the likelihood of survival. Since a group is more likely than an individual to overcome a threat, this response is a protective mechanism for both the female and her offspring. Basically, befriending other females is inherently necessary for the protection of offspring since pregnancy and nursing make a female even more vulnerable to an outside threat. Forming a network not only allows the female to have added protection and help with the raising of offspring, but also serves to secure resources such as housing and food. Although the threats mentioned are assumed to be external to the female home environment, this female network also serves to protect the females from the males even within the home environment.
Sometimes we cannot be careful. We have to work, and sometimes we don�t have much choice about where. In such a case, we can help ourselves by �seeing� how our families� dynamics contribute to our frustration at work. Where are we overly sensitive? Did we over-learn that we must do something now? Is urgency an illusion? It is often difficult to alter our functioning in organizations. But it is useful to remember to override fear responses, and return to stabilizing our self by building integrity in our relationships.
Fredrick Taylor, genius that he was, ran into such intense opposition in his work that he retired from the consulting business. People just did not want to see how one thing was related to another (process). They wanted to see how one thing was the cause of another. So he quit.
Yes, strong and smart people encounter fear in organizations, and the harder they try to get others on board the �solution train,� the harder others push back and the more exhausted the leaders can become. If even leaders like Fredrick Taylor find themselves pushed off the organizational train for having a better solution that the group does not want to implement, then it can happen to anyone. If it happens to you, then you as a leader have a choice to make: stay and do battle or wait on the sidelines until the time is better for your ideas. Either staying or going can be stressful. So let�s hope you are making your decisions based more on principle than for comfort.
To lead, one has to understand how to position self to make a difference. In this process, which includes managing self in relation to others, leaders encounter more than their fair share of stress. If you are the leader, very few people will understand what you are doing or see what it is you are trying to accomplish. Leaders are often underappreciated and under duress.
Other Ideas on Managing Stress and Conflict
There are a number of people thinking about how stress affects behavior in organizations. Mark Gerzon, for example, is dedicated to finding ways to mediate fear and serious conflicts in organizations. In his book Leading Through Conflict, he describes conflict as natural in all families and organizations. His view is that there are three possible paths for a leader to take: the Manager, who over-identifies with his role and cannot see the whole; the Demagogue, who does not care about the whole but will do whatever it takes to make his/her way the only way; and the Mediator, who is aware. The Mediator is mature enough to see manipulations and to understand that the central thrust of leadership is to deal well with difficult issues.
The first two types of leaders, the Manager and the Demagogue (who live in each of us), use fear of differences to gain control. Divide and conquer, or the oldest strategy, �us against them,� is a part of our biological vulnerability and another mental shortcut. Corrupt leaders often use mental shortcuts to manipulate the group, so be aware! Once people invite you into the gossip network of blaming others, you will be manipulated to take their side, unless you are able to comment neutrally to keep the gossipers at bay and yourself from being confused by the latest gossip.
Gerzon provides evidence of the incredible power that arises as one leader focuses on being respectful of other individuals during a stormy environment. He also points out that conflicts can make us sick, so be prepared with your handy-dandy stress reduction kit as you enter a conflicted system. If you are a consultant, you can use my motto, “Be calm, be cool, be thoughtful, have fun and be aware – things are changing.”
Slowly we see the trend for stress reduction hitting the new, best management theories in the popular press. In a Business Week piece, the authors describe another attack on automatic thinking and reacting. They tell of the message of Swami Parthasarathy, who is modernizing an ancient school of Hindu philosophy. Parthasarathy is now 80 but continues to present the keys to better management around the world. Those keys are individual willingness to embrace the well-known and tried values of the past. According to Parthasarathy, it’s all about ” . . .concentration, consistency, and cooperation. You can’t succeed in business unless you develop the intellect, which controls the mind and body.”
The article�s authors quote Parthasarathy in a talk he gave at the Wharton School about controlling your thoughts. He presents the easy answer with the hard discipline behind the goals unspoken. Every generation will probably find more and more techniques to accomplish these goals. And during an auditorium lecture at Lehman Brothers Inc.’s lower Manhattan headquarters, a young investment banker sought advice on dealing with nasty colleagues. Banish them from your mind, advised Parthasarathy. “You are the architect of your misfortune,” he said. “You are the architect of your fortune.” 
Rewiring Relationships Patterns
With your relationship-savvy head and your Mindful Compass in hand, you may have a few more options for dealing with nasty colleagues than just ignoring them. You can look at your relationship history and understand that your sensitivity is based on old patterns. The assumption is that rewiring these patterns in your brain requires practice in real relationships, where you can define your self. Over time, this practice will allow you to function at higher levels. Ignoring colleagues, by itself, may not lead to success, but managing the impact of the overall messages by calming self and rethinking how we communicate on many levels, will. People find it hard to recall all the levels we communicate on: breathing, body language, and then words.
The point is that we are endowed with many automatic responses/processes that we do not have to think about. They just happen. The problem is that this is not always a good thing. But by building a knowledge-filled Mindful Compass, we can become more aware of when we enter the danger zone of automatic thinking and body reacting. This awareness should give us the space to carefully consider our direction and our deep impact on others before we make any moves. This is the least I would expect from a legitimate leader.
All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness
to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time.
This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.
John Kenneth Galbraith
Optimal Functioning in an Emotional System
Both humans and animals need the social group, with all its associated positives and negatives. And both face challenges in managing the stresses and strains of social relationships. But humans are the only ones trying to do more than simply survive. We have deep instincts to find meaning and something we call freedom.
Research shows that individuals who come from families that are in good contact with at least three generations of people and have open access to the world function with more autonomy (freedom).
Individuals whose families are over-controlling of its members, have expectations of its members that do not fit with the members� abilities or interests, and are characterized by great distances between people, seem to have the greater percentage of problems in relationships. (In this case distance is measured emotionally, not just by the miles traveled.)
More mature families have more thoughtful interactions. Criticism, blaming, attacking and seeking others� approval are minimal, and there are fewer defensive maneuvers, such as engaging in peace agreements, distancing, fighting, illness or running away. But even in the more mature families, people are more dependent on others for approval and attention than is ideal.
Dependency on others creates resentment, and eventually people move in on one another, attempting to manipulate them, to minimize their own levels of discomfort. All this happens without awareness, of course.
Look at a troubled marriage. There both spouses can be so needful of the other to make each of them �happy� that their tolerance for differences is almost nil. As soon as differences emerge, the conflict or distancing begins. In many cases the individuals reject each other for the very behaviors they trigger in the other.
An identical process happens in work environments. There the dependency develops when someone needs a job done. As pressure and stress build, both boss and subordinates start criticizing and blaming one another. As this conflict escalates, mixed messages fill the airwaves and gossip abounds. (How would we know there was stress without the gossip network telling us whose fault it is?)
Storms are a part of life, and we will always have that initial fear reaction as a storm approaches, either at home or at work. When it�s really stormy, so many conflicts and misunderstandings occur that no one can see his or her part in the interaction. Therefore, it�s hard for anyone to make the responsible choice to separate out and work on his or her part in the conflict. That�s where the leader should step in.
If one person is willing to examine his or her behavior objectively, without blaming the other, these almost perfect storms of conflict and need can be weathered. Someone�the leader�has to know how to put a damper on his/her own stress. The amazing thing is that if the leader can lower his/her stress level, it�s likely that the stress levels of others will drop too. Until the stress level drops, the others will be unable to see what is really happening and little forward progress will be made.
When you get through the perfect storm, the sky is clear, the troubled waters calm, and people relate respectfully to one another again. In any storm, the one who can see the big picture and manage self is the leader. Leaders see how the family or the social situation generates pressure, and how that pressure forces others to accept a decision or react negatively. Fearless leaders can calmly take a stand, trim the sails, and enable the boat to sail safely once again.
Engaging Your Family And Building an Emotional Backbone
Most people don�t learn enough in their families about managing stress, dealing with authorities and becoming self-reliant, objective observers. Because they didn�t learn much on the first go-round, most people have a hard time believing they should re-engage with their families to upgrade these skills. This is true even though individuals knowledgeable about family therapy have known for more than 40 years that re-engagement is the proven path through the relationship jungle.
One good reason to learn more about self and family is that it gives you a stronger emotional backbone. Building a stronger emotional backbone at home will give you greater courage to take more responsible stands at work. Taking a responsible stand is not child�s play. But it does help to take a good look at our childish sensitivities. Anyone can do this. Just go home, take a stand on something important to you that others do not understand, and write down what happens. The family is an emotional gym where you can go to work on being less sensitive and less critical of self and others. And who knows, you might have fun learning some arcane family history from that deadbeat uncle of yours.
When we leave home, each of us will have to find ways to manage life stress without the cushy comfort of family love and approval. Of course, not all families will have offered love, and any approval may well have been conditional. Nonetheless, managing our continuing sensitivities to others�especially those others who remind us of our pesky siblings or our parents or that irritating deadbeat uncle�remains a vital task. Learning and understanding the history of the organizations where we work can be just as complicated as understanding three generations of relationships in our families. We can start anywhere to build more strength and greater awareness, but most of us will need a plan. We will need a method to help us see the impact of relationships and to make our pasts more available to our conscious minds. One of my first methods for establishing a thinking space was journaling. Somehow my brain could read about my life and I would become more objective. I could see and not just feel the impact of relationships on me.
Life is often confusing. And our minds are not capable of recalling the past just as it happened�as though we had an installed movie camera to play back events. So how do we learn more about how our relationships and memories are affecting us?
Thinking about the big questions can help: (1) What is interfering with my living in the moment? (2) How can I learn to see, without undue fear, what is going on? (3) How can I become more aware of the impact I am having on others? (4) When does my objective, rational thinking fall away and my need for others� love and approval kick in?
For most of us then, telling the stories of our early years can be more like an unfolding dream than a tightly constructed, fact-filled journey. The important events have been selected for viewing or deletion by our brain’s emotional system. Ho-hum events lack sufficient emotional charge to generate a signal telling the brain to highlight and retain them. Being able to recall a moment is, in itself, testimony that the moment is special�or at least just different enough to deserve keeping around for further analysis. The human brain is a learning machine. Emotions or feelings are the brain�s clue that we need to pay attention.
If you try journaling, you can look at your own story as you would any other leader’s story. So far, you have read the stories of several leaders and seen the various ways they have handled life situations. Whether you liked the individuals or not, only one question counts: Did their stories reach you emotionally? If any story connected with you personally, there is the distinct possibility that you are learning something important�something your brain has chosen to highlight.
One point that should be clear to you now is just how many barriers our brains have to overcome to find and use new ideas. If it is not our vain brains tricking us, it might be the deeply ingrained sensory, or gut, reactions to others who need us to be or do something for them. These automatic reactions to important others can and do override our more self-directed goals. We can be thankful that our brains are receptive to stories (including our own) as one way of learning to see the hidden relationship processes.
Becoming a separate, highly functioning individual requires more than just telling our own stories, however, because simple story-telling can turn into an endless loop of mulling over the past without any forward movement. Those of us who can reflect do not keep repeating the same mistakes.
Much of our day-to-day behavior, which we share with other mammals, has been shaped by millions of years of natural selection. Animals also daydream and reflect�perhaps on that maze they just ran�because they, too, have to learn from experience. Animals may need to think only about how to get to the food source faster, but reflection serves a higher purpose for us humans:
Earlier this year Dr. Wilson reported that after running a maze, rats would replay their route during idle moments, as if to consolidate the memory, although the replay, surprisingly, was in reverse order of travel. These fast rewinds lasted a small fraction of the actual time spent on the journey. This research showed activity in the visual neocortex, which confirmed that rats had humanlike dreams with visual imagery, a possibility some researchers had doubted.
Writing, as well as dreaming, helps us understand our lives and reorganize our memories to be user friendly. As I�ve said, our memories are not perfect, and for good reason. First, we have limited short term memory space. Long term memory is more about �meaningful� information. We seem to �need� our lives to be meaning-oriented. When we recall a memory, we remember what makes sense to us now. We recollect the “facts” only by working at it. What is easy to recall is the emotional-feeling state we were in when something happened. That is what is important to our biology, and that�s why we remember it.
Many of us have a fantasy that we are being objective. Often it takes someone else to make us question our own assumptions. As a therapist, I often wondered why family members had such differing memories of family life. After a while I understood that each member sees through his or her own prism. I almost wrote �prison,� and sometimes that is not too far off. Our perception highlights negativity when we are stressed out, locking us into a narrow perspective hindered by relationship blinders.
Journaling tells us how we have forged a life that is really ours, fact or not. Once we write and read our thoughts, we can begin to sort out where we got hooked and what might still be hooking us. One example: Remember all the shoulds from your childhood? Which ones did you think were important enough to live out? How does the commanding you should, you must influence your life?
Some of the deeper biological imperatives often ride on the “should�” of memories. For example, the biological imperative “eat!” might well be accompanied by a “should” that sounds a lot like your mother telling you to eat your vegetables. Or perhaps it’s a “should not�”: “Don’t eat; you’re too fat already.” How you are shaped to respond to a primitive need like eating becomes a building block for the way you feel/think about others telling you what to do, and how you will try to influence others throughout your life.
Journaling also helps individuals get new information about how they react to people and the world. And I know from years of experience that listening to others� stories can trigger our own forgotten memories of similar events and times. When this happens, we have an opportunity. We can integrate these recovered old memories with new ideas and thereby see new ways to give deeper meaning to our lives�as they were, as they are, and as they might be. Meditation and various forms of visualization also show that we can re-create useful emotions and even activate motor neurons in our brains by integrating memories and goals to better our performance on the field of life.
The road you walk to become a leader is paved in part by how others have shaped you and how you responded to the shaping process. If you want to, you can decide to recall these significant experiences, reflect on them, and then decide if it make sense to continue to allow those old emotional habits that underlie the way you lead now. Emotional habits are essentially automatic ways of being. They include, for example, the particular way you walk into a room, how you figure out where to stand, who to talk to and when, the kinds of questions you will ask, and the kinds of answers you will give. I will go out on a short limb and say that one common emotional habit is to react to people who are challenging you by excluding them. That is, if something about a person is not �right,� we cut them off. We do this in families as well as in the workplace.
The work of James Pennebaker, author of Open Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, shows that journaling is a kind of feedback that gives us insights. Pennebaker is now at the University of Texas at Austin where he explores the links between traumatic experiences, expressive writing, natural language use, and physical and mental health. His findings show that physical health and work performance can be improved by simple writing and/or talking exercises. The research focuses on the nature of language and emotion in the real world. He has highlighted the fact that the very words people use are reflections of both their unique personalities and their particular social worlds.
If you want to take a side trip into diaries and journaling, you have lots of choices. The oldest extant diaries come from East Asian cultures, going back to the 9th century. They include the work of Japanese court ladies, as well as the journal of Li Ao (c. 772 – 836 A.D.). He detailed his travels through southern China and, because of the thoughts expressed in his essay �On Returning to One�s True Nature,� is seen as the forerunner of Neo-Confucianism. It is said that Freud remarked that writing about your life for five minutes a day you will teach you more about yourself than anything else you can do. But it was Carl Jung who became better known for stressing the importance of keeping a journal. Other important figures in the resurgence of personal reflections through writing include Ira Progoff, an American psychotherapist who developed the Intensive Journal Method, and Anais Nin, writer and author of The Early Diaries of Anais Nin.
Remembering our own stories, listening to others� stories, using neurofeedback, or starting and keeping a diary, are all ways to learn about ourselves and become stronger, more autonomous beings. This kind of reflection can also lead to greater empathy. When we are more aware of our own life’s meaning, we can listen less critically to others. When we are less critical of self and others, we are more comfortable remaining in the �now,� in the present moment, listening. This, in turn, allows us to notice a kind of seamlessness as the past and future blend together�listening and remembering, remembering and listening and, most important of all, being present in each and every moment.
Motivation and the Influence of Others
You have probably also heard or read stories of individuals who were helped or encouraged at some significant point in their lives and now want to return the favor to others. For better or worse, we are highly influenced by the ways others have treated us. What�s important now is to remember those influences and then decide which makes sense to continue. Our pasts will continue to influence our futures in automatic or unconscious ways unless we make serious efforts to build on our relationship strengths and recognize our weaknesses. How can we see what is emotional habit and what is a reasoned response to what’s happening now?
Memory and motivation are essential to designing this better future. Memory gives you a powerful window to another moment in time, both time past (what you remember) and time future (how you envision the future based on memories of the past). And memories absolutely influence how you perceive your immediate environment.
Consider the story of the dog that caught his tail in a revolving door while visiting a friendly neighbor. Afterwards, the dog’s owner noticed that his dog would not go anywhere near that awful door. He even refused to walk on the same side of the street. This funny/sad story demonstrates how the dog’s response then limited his future choices. The dog�s memory of the past began to dictate how he would behave in the future. You can see that the particular pain and indignity suffered by the dog was emotionally important to him. But how did the dog’s owner react? Will he try to force the dog to use the door by whipping him, or will he have compassionate insight and make appropriate adjustments, perhaps with the carrot and a kinder gentler stick.
Think about this story in the context of a work situation. Do you know people who have had bad experiences at work who don’t feel exactly thrilled to go to the office each day? And you might guess that people who whip their dogs might not make the best bosses.
Clearly we can re-experience anything through memory. But to use memory to overcome or profit from past mistakes, we must find ways to “witness” our memories. One way is journaling, another is neurofeedback. With neurofeedback, we can detox from many “bad” experiences while in an altered state. The literature on post traumatic stress and neurofeedback, for example, shows that people have greater access to �forgotten,� painful memories when they are in a very relaxed alpha/theta state. Some neurofeedback practitioners (like Val Brown, whose equipment I use) believe that by renormalizing the brain by training both sides of the brain to be in greater balance, the individual will return to a balanced perspective.
Psychological Blindness and Seeing in the Jungle
It sure seems like we are learning from one another whether we know it or not. When we bump into one another, what happens? Clearly, to develop an awareness of the learning process, we need some degree of objectivity, some ability to suspend judgment and some ability to recall what it is we are observing. With these ideas in mind we can create a learning space where we can listen, watch and learn with less defensiveness. We need a few reminders about boundaries to become good observers. It is too easy to accept our reactions to what we see and feel as the gospel truth. When under stress I try to recall these three questions, which are very useful: (1) Am I looking at others as separate from me? (2) Are my reactions instinctively automatic or on the more thoughtful side? (3) Can I talk to them about it?
Some refer to this as having an observing ego. Your ability to separate yourself from the emotional reactivity stirred up by life itself is what enables you to get past psychological blindness and into valid assessments. If you do not have this skill, your automatic reactions to tension can lead you to typecast others as less than or better than they really are. This response is an automatic mechanism embedded in our humanness. But by recognizing this automatic tendency for what it is, you will develop the objectivity to stop reactively labeling others as jerks or heroes.
Exercises in Listening in the Jungle
As you interact with others, listen for your one-sentence comments that highlight how you are judging the other�s thinking.
- Consider just how the other�s thinking is affecting you.
- Consider how agreeing with the other, even for a moment, might affect your/their future functioning.
- Create a learning space for others by listening for the “I” word. (“This is what I will do”, or �”This is what I will not do.”)
Imagine yourself, as the leader, in an interview with someone who is having difficulty with some part of his or her job. When I am in a similar position as a therapist, I try to be verbally separate from the individual. I watch how many I�s and how many you�s pop up in the conversation. It’s so easy just to tell others what to do to fix the problem and lower the level of frustration. But it’s better to remain curious, open and separate. Separating out from people who are seeking agreement from you creates a little tension, as point four on the Mindful Compass tells us. This tension promotes thinking and the taking of personal responsibility, in both yourself and the other. It�s not quite Zen like, but being separate while staying connected is going in that general direction. I have seen, time and again, that if I can be separate but connected to any individual, young or old, at an emotionally positive level, the individual will be better able to take personal responsibility and move toward a positive solution for him or herself.
When people tell you stories from their pasts, you can hear how deeply the players and events involved continue to influence the people’s decisions in the present. This is true on a corporate level as well. Often you will hear that the present is just a shadow of past decisions. I have heard these kinds of comments so many times, I think of them as shortcuts to avoid taking responsibility. This is the way our organization works� We do it this way in this company�.. There is no room for differences here�.. Go along to get along�. This is what you need, must, will or should do.
It can happen so fast. Snap and we are in a �fusion� with others. Whether the conversation is about the budget, who to vote for, or who to invite for dinner, most of us have to work hard not to be in total agreement with others. Total agreement is the good-looking handmaiden of fusion. Remember from cell biology what happens when two cells become one? Well, this can happen between people too. You know, two hearts beating as one, and then how does one heart become just a bit more separate?
A really funny movie demonstrating this point is Woody Allen�s Zelig, produced in 1983. In this movie, the main character, Zelig, is so anxious to fit in that he literally fuses with the people he is with. There is no separation. He stands next to a Chinese person and becomes Chinese. He chats with a group of doctors, and suddenly he�s a doctor. He stands next to a fat person and, you guessed it, he gets supersized!
Verbal Fusion Leads to Confusion
It’s easy to agree and not challenge the other�’s thinking, especially if the “other” is a demanding boss. But if you, as a leader, want to encourage independent thinking, then create learning spaces. Creating a space might be as simple as saying, “Can I see you in your office or mine?” rather than “Meet me in the conference room in 10 minutes.”
Creating a more neutral learning space allows you to hear different kinds of responses from people. If people are not afraid to speak up, you the leader will hear the best of the group’s creative thoughts and assessments and maybe a few brutal truths that sting initially, but ultimately work to the good.
Responsible people do not jump into the reactive swirl of negativity. They are able to avoid blaming others and instead say such things as, �I will go in this direction, not that,� or �You have skills that people value, and I would like to see you succeed at __,� or �When I do this or that, it�s worth doing well for the long term payoff,� or �I have to manage these difficult relationships, and probably I will just have to tough it out,� or �I need to find the courage to tell these people, “No. I cannot do this.” �
Statements such as these (“I” statements) are made by people whose relationships with important others instill confidence in self and others and enable them to think and act independently.
On the other side, people who have had difficult or even negative relationships with important others can also learn a lot about managing self. They just learn from another direction. �I will act/feel this way because you acted/felt that way.� These people are wise enough to not repeat the past. They saw what didn�t work and have found ways to be more emotionally separate without putting others down.
Most of us experience a mix of these two environments. Some people make life more difficult and others make life more positive. We need both to keep learning.
When you listen carefully to people�s stories, you will see that some still have to struggle against automatic tendencies, perhaps the tendency to rebel against authority figures, for example. Another might have to work hard not to discount the too nice woman who reminds him or her of Mom. Then there are always the problems with the seductive man or woman at work. Others realize they are vulnerable to automatically distrusting any authority because of the way authority was exercised in their families. Still others feel the sting of criticism. Their families tended to be non-supportive and to blame them despite all the good or great work they did to make life a bit better. Criticism is a sneaky mechanism that can make even very successful people work harder to gain that elusive, never-given approval from others.
However, while one-sentence �take-aways� might be what we get from listening carefully to someone�s story, please remember that the bottom line is about the process of leading and the importance of understanding the other person. The big question is, how do we acquire information about other people that has real meaning? For better or worse, our valuable brains are organized around social clues, which can lead to a positive, rational path of increased wisdom, or to a negative, reactive and emotional path of judging others. The choice is yours.
Going Against the Group: Research Examples: Berns, Taylor and Fiske
Hopefully the above examples of verbal confusion warned you of the power of the group. If not, please let me lead you to the research world of social influencing. In less than a second, our brains can be so influenced by the social group that we will misperceive something as obvious as the length of a line. Let down your guard for just a moment so that you can fit in with and be appreciated by a group of others, and your humanness is exposed.
In an earlier chapter we saw how Solomon Asch pointed out in his 1950′s research that there is, even for “normal” people, a downside to being part of a social group. His groundbreaking research was the followed up by Gregory Berns, a psychiatrist at Emory University in Atlanta. In 2004 he used functional M.R.I. scanners to reveal just what part of the brain receives and processes influence from the group. His study detected the brain regions that are active when people carry out various mental tasks and are then subject to social pressures. Berns�s scary finding was that average participants went along with the wrong answer 41 percent of the time. And the �wrong� answer that participants accepted was not given by their valued friends, family or loved ones, but by individuals they had met just an hour earlier.
Here�s an excerpt from the study: People who went against the group showed activation in the right amygdala and right caudate nucleus�regions associated with emotional salience. We tend to over-estimate the causal role (salience) of information we have available to us.
Much research is still being done on this problem. In an experiment by S.E. Taylor and S.T. Fiske, two people having a conversation sat facing each other, while other individuals sat in a circle around them. Afterwards, those who had been sitting in the circle were asked to attribute cause for several incidents that occurred during the conversation between the two individuals. The surprise finding was that those sitting in the circle attributed responsibility for the incidents to the individuals whose faces they could see best.
These experiments make the downside of social relationships clear: Social relationships can cause us to doubt our own ideas and even our own perceptions. And they cause us to overvalue certain people for reasons that are not at all clear. Could it be that we overvalue some people�s ideas only because we can see their faces? I am pretty sure we can make both good and bad use of such information. Think of the shamans, the teachers, the preachers, the therapists, the M.D.s, the boss, and the crying child. They all spend significant time in front of us, showing us their faces as we listen patiently to their words.
Bowen theory calls the pressure to go along with others without rational or logical reasons “the togetherness force.” Each system applies pressure in order to maintain a cohesive membership. Each nuclear family has its own set of rules, derived from some consideration of the positive or negative influences of the past generations and some awareness of the changing landscape created by it own time in history. It seems plausible that families organize to enforce good manners and strive for a better education, but the more subtle influences behind the ability of individuals to be more open and less reactive are little known. There is plenty of evidence in the literature of family psychotherapy to demonstrate that the unexpected results of too much pressure can be over compliance and then the acting out behaviors, distance, conflict and or sickness in some person in the group.
Understanding of the connection between stressful interactions at work and the impact on the individual and or in the family is growing. The relationship jungle is filled with all kinds of temptations to lure us off our willfully determined course. To the extent that we are aware of both our ability to define a self and the tricks from the togetherness people, we will be fit to manage self in a changing environment.
No use getting too upset about the way the world is. Nature has its ways that have worked for millions of years.
Yes, for better or worse we do frequently change our minds when someone is influencing us to do something for another. But if we are aware of these subtle and not so subtle attempts to influence us in social settings, we are less likely to become a casualty of the social group. In fact, you might still emerge with your mind intact and your ability to question and think in social relationships unimpaired. This is very important because (1) social relationships are everywhere, and (2) relationships and managing self in them is the very essence of legitimate leadership.
Another point to keep in mind about relationship systems is that they are often in flux, meaning that while we attempt to avoid being overly influenced by the system�s members; we must also be primed for needed or inevitable changes within the system itself.
When the boss is ready to retire, for example, or when your father is critically ill, the system itself may �sense� that something is up and begin to send you messages that are anxious but not specific to any one event. Fear is just in the air. It takes time to listen and really understand the messages that people are transmitting. But when you hear the messages and see and understand what is going on, you will be ready to act independently of the group for the greater benefit of the group and you.
Research suggests that the times when we must learn and adapt often occur during significant life-stage changes, either in our private lives or within the organizations where we work. Tough as these times can be, the good news is that higher emotional learning is available as we enter new developmental stages. Emotions are very useful in priming the change pump, as you will see as you continue to read the stories from leaders profiled in this book.
 Argyris, C. (1993). On Organizational Learning. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
 Taylor, S. E., Klein, L. C., Lewis, B. P., Gruenewald, T. L., Gurung, R. A. R, & Updegraff, J. A. (2000). Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: Tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychological Review, 107, 441-429.
Taylor, S. E., Klein, L. C., Lewis, B. P., Gruenewald, T. L., Gurung, R. A. R, & Updegraff, J. A. (2002). Sex differences in biobehavioral responses to threat: Reply to Geary and Flinn (2002). Psychological Review, 109, 751-753.
 Evolutionary and Biochemical Explanations for a Unique Female Stress Response: Tend-and-Befriend
Lauren A. McCarthy, Rochester Institute of Technology
 Business Week by Pete Engardio and Jena McGregor, �Karma Capitalism� (10/30/06)
 In Memory-Bank �Dialogue,� the Brain Is Talking to Itself New York Times By Nicholas Wade:Published: December 18, 2006
 The Healing Power of Neurofeedback by Stephen Larsen, Ph.D.
 Neurobiological Correlates of Social Conformity and Independence During Mental Rotation
15 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 439 – 445, 1975