When you treat business relationships as perfunctory or shallow, the truth us, you lose. The dynamics between business partners are no different to the ones at play between romantic partners. Psychotherapist Esther Perel’s brings relational thinking to the forefront—this mindset can take a business or creative partnership from merely surviving to actually thriving. She speaks here with Big Think co-founder and president Peter Hopkins about self-esteem, building trust, and how the myth of perfection can hurt couples, whether that’s in businesses or in love. Perel is the author of Mating in Captivity. See more at estherperel.com.
Esther Perel: What is complementarity? Look, as you probably all see, I'm not the most structured thinker. I'm an associative thinker. Did you notice? So I am clear that I need an editor, or an organizer, or a structured person, or somebody who says “Stop that.” And I can only continue to do what I do because I have somebody else who is doing that which I don't. The complementarity is the possibility for each person to be who they are.
So complementarity is your partner allowing you to be who you are at your best without having to try to do that which you can learn but will never be your second nature. And I think that when you hire new people you hire along this complementarity thing. And it's not just that the parts make the whole, but that the whole cannot exist without the parts. It can't exist. It can survive, it can hobble along because you need to so in the beginning, but at some point you really need the various pieces. A family has parents, spouses, children, friends, grandparents, schools—it's an entire ecology. Everybody understands that collective thinking. It's the same in a company.
Peter Hopkins: It sounds like you're suggesting we should be screening for some very candid sense of self. I mean it's important that people really do be able to acknowledge their fault and also be able to communicate them in order for this balance of complementarities to work.
Esther Perel: Yes. Yes. But I would go a step further. It's not just that you have to acknowledge; I think if I said that trust is probably the number one I think the number two of any relational system is the ability to take responsibility for your contribution to the pie, the good and the bad. And generally people confuse responsibility with blame or self-blame, rather then that's it the ability to own myself as a flawed person and still hold myself in high regard. “I fucked up. I messed up. I should've done this. I wished I had thought of that.”
It's extraordinarily liberating to actually not try to be perfect.
What is the definition of self-esteem? It's the ability to see yourself as a flawed individual and still hold yourself in high regard. “Flaw” is the keyword, you had it in the previous sentence. Once you can say, “I don't know,” rather than pretending or hoping—to actually take responsibility to come to the other person, or to the team for that matter, and to just to say, “I didn't to do this.” And it's an amazing thing: When you come to me and you say, “I fucked up,” generally I don't say “Yes that's true,” I just say “That's okay, we'll figure it out.” The minute the other person takes responsibility for something, you're not brandishing your flag, you're generally just saying, “Huh. I mean now what shall we do? We have a problem.”
But it's an amazing thing in any relational system when people take ownership—ownership is another word.
Peter Hopkins: There is something incredibly relieving when the person you're working with is somebody that regardless of how much they may make an error of judgment or a mistake in any given instant that regardless you're not going to question their intentions. And once that becomes resolved it just lets so much pressure out of the system, and those issues you were describing of finding flaws in their strengths and turning and becoming and nitpicky, that actually I think dissipates. And once you cross that threshold to that really fundamental trust, it just opens up a lot of potential by dialing down a lot of the little problems that pop up. The "You versus We" distinctions—You've got to have your mind set framed around "We're in this together, we're on the same team," and as long as you are pointing fingers it leads to these sorts of unravellings.
Esther Perel: Or you think like this: every relationship has three components, You, Me, Us. And the Us actually encompasses Me. So if I'm going to do something, one of the best screeners is, “If I do this now, if I say this now what will this do to Us?” Even though I may be totally right I’m not sure it will do good to Us, and if it doesn't do good to Us it then doesn't do good to Me. That's the real frame of thinking relationally. Relational thinking is not, “I think about me and I think about you,” it’s, “I think about myself as part of something of which both of us are part of and that is what I'm trying to protect.”