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Five natural human responses that disrupt partnership: in our organizations and our lives

The work of Barry Oshry, the author of several books and a man who has spent a lifetime studying systems (i.e., organizations), constantly comes to my mind when I work with various groups at Cornell University and in the other aspects of my life.

Barry has created an Organizational Workshop and an even more-intense workshop called the Power Lab, for those of us who want to explore what happens when we are in a system: e.g., our workplace, our place of worship, our family, or even our group of friends. And in those simulations, Barry also introduces some strategic frameworks that are strangely accurate, no matter what system we are talking about.

Before I describe one such strategic framework, allow me to get to the heart of Barry's work: partnership. Barry shares a particular definition of partnership that really resonates with me: "A relationship in which we are jointly committed to the success of whatever project, process, or endeavor we are involved in." Just think about that definition--and about the possibilities that open up in systems that have partnership. How amazing would it be if most--or even some!--of our relationships were, more often than not, filled with that sort of partnership?

Early on, Barry shares with us a natural human response that prevents, inhibits, or even destroys partnership: the stories that we craft. Think about it: when we are in a relationship (at work, at home, or elsewhere) and when something that we don't understand occurs, we make up a story. In these five steps, allow me to paraphrase what Barry's work helped him to realize and to share with us about what we do so naturally:

  1. Make up a story: Barry would say that, not everyone, not every time, but with great regularity, we make up a story, when we don't understand something or someone. And in those stories, what role(s) do we typically reserve for ourselves: hero, victim, innocent? And how long does it take us to craft these stories about others? Seconds?

  2. Evaluate others: In our stories, many of us likely evaluate others (or even ourselves): that person is incompetent--an idiot!--malicious, or insensitive. (Feel free to add your own evaluations to this list.) We cannot believe how someone could do such a thing--or how we could so such a thing.

  3. Take it personally: The funny thing about our stories is that, regardless of how many facts we really have--we commit to these stories. They are our stories. And isn't it interesting that anytime we put the personal pronouns of my, mine, our, or ours, we become quite attached to whatever we label as ours--in fact, we will defend our stuff: our ideas, our conclusions, our feelings around an incident. After all, we must ultimately protect ourselves, and so anything that we deem ours becomes a piece of us: we feel threatened when someone attacks us (or our stories).

  4. React: As we continue on with our story, we react to it: we get mad, we get even, or we withdraw. We might focus those feelings on others or on ourselves, depending on our story. Why should I even try to deal with such a person, or how could I be such an idiot?

  5. Lose focus: And as we are in this downward spiral, we might find that we lose focus on why we came together, on what we are in a relationship to accomplish. Has something ever happened that you didn't understand, that really irked you, that you kept dwelling on long after it occurred? Could you think clearly about whatever else you needed to do at that time, or did you--like many of us--keep think about (and trying to figure out) why someone would do such a stupid thing?

Barry calls those five steps a "door-A" response: a response so natural that, like a reflex, it occurs without us even realizing that we made up our story. As we lose focus and get caught up in our stories, we really fall out of partnership. We are no longer jointly committed to the success of whatever project, process, or endeavor that brought us together in the first place--and sometimes, we may wonder how in the heck we ever even came together at all.

Jorge and Jess.JPG

In my work, I see these door-a responses so often that I find myself sharing with many individuals and groups some of the frameworks that Barry discovered from his research.

And now, I now invite you to be aware of those times when, in the absence of information, you make up stories about others--and equally, if not more, troubling, how often others make up stories about you. (We are typically fine when we make up the story, but often, we dislike the stories that others make up about us.)

I also encourage you to read Seeing Systems by Barry Oshry, and if you ever have the opportunity, I invite you to participate in one of Barry's Organization Workshops: What I described here is only the tip of what Barry's remarkable work explores.

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