As social beings, we are hardwired to live with and be with others. It is vital for our mental health and emotional fitness. Isolation and loneliness can literally be deadly. But dealing with others, especially in the work context, can be difficult. Communications misfire, land badly, and this inevitably results in conflict. The very thing we were trying so hard to avoid.
Bessel van der Kolk, in his book The Body Keeps the Score points out that our brains are formed to operate as members of a community. Our most significant survival strategy, and what has made us successful as a species, is the ability to collaborate in social systems. So why do we find it so hard?
In order to connect with others we need, first and foremost, to feel safe. When we feel safe, we make eye contact, get physically closer, are more expansive with our body language and use a tone of voice that is modulated and steady. At the same time we regulate the emotional state of all of those in our immediate environment too.
Our adeptness at and type of social connections are established when we are born. Our very earliest relationships, those with our caregivers, and more importantly, the coping strategies we developed to preserve them, lay the foundation for all our significant relationships going forward. This is attachment theory, something most of us are unaware of and even if we are, we possibly think it doesn’t apply to us. We just get on with making or messing up relationships unconscious of the deeply embedded drives developed when we could barely speak.
So in order to connect and collaborate we need to feel safe, and our ability to do so adequately is stuck in past, often unconscious, experiences. Is it no wonder that many of us find it challenging being part of a team in a work context that is often alien and complex?
Who can say with absolute honesty that they feel safe in their work space? Safe here meaning, being comfortable to trust and be open and vulnerable with others. There are many obstacles, traps and hurdles, real or perceived, that make life in the work world quite intimidating. Not that we would ever admit to this, though. That would call for us to be vulnerable.
Diversity, which used to mean race, religion and culture, now has so many layers and is so much more difficult to deal with, especially when we don’t feel comfortable talking to each other openly. Every time we open our mouths to say something, have an opinion or, heaven forbid, disagree, it has the potential to blow up – badly.
The economic and political climate has drawn the strings of tension even more taut. Stress and anxiety levels are ramped up with concerns about job security (an oxymoron in current times), ever increasing prices of everything, and the roller coaster energy and power worries.
With all our competing interpersonal and personal concerns feeling safe is not an easy box to tick. When we don’t feel safe the antennae are up, the mayday signal starts to beep, and our entire system is on alert to fight or flee. Or freeze.
Conflicts will occur in this situation. It is almost inevitable. It is also human, useful and can result in deeper connection once the misunderstandings have been cleared. If, of course, we are open and aware of what is really going on.
If we can remember that we really do need each other, that we are better together, and that how another person reacts is more often about them and therefore not to take it personally, relationships will improve. Being able to take responsibility for our own actions, behaviour and responses and to be okay with getting it wrong sometimes. A sense of humour is a real advantage that goes a long way to support a more robust relationship space.
Smiling more. Yes, even if you are a lawyer, or an accountant, or just part of a staid, stuck up, stuffy corporate. Smiling tells your body and anybody else that can see it, that things are okay. Laugh more, not at, but with, others. Smiling and laughing connects us, relaxes our nervous system and allows us to play a little. An energy of play allows for better collaboration, keener communication and conflict is dealt with on a lighter, less personal level.
Life doesn’t allow for us to stick only with those we are familiar and comfortable with. Work demands we engage with others, lots of different others. Having a spirit of curiosity rather than contractedness, and a willingness to see the humanness in all, could result in some surprising connections, a deeper understanding of our differences and an appreciation of what that diversity offers. After all, we really are better together.