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How to Build More Powerful Partnerships

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Today’s blog is written by Teresa Peterson, EdD, she heads research and development on my team!

Recently a friend shared some frustrations about work with me. When discussing a tight timeline, one of her colleagues said with a smirk, “You know James won’t contribute much. He’s so lazy. I’m helping as much as I can I guess, but it’s all going to fall on your shoulders again. Thank God you’re the office hero and you can pull it off.” My friend was annoyed and overwhelmed, but she said she knew a real “office hero” wouldn’t complain, so she kept her growing resentment inside instead.

Here’s another one I heard from a friend in the last couple of weeks—“Rebecca wants to ask questions about everything. We are having a meeting and trying to make quick decisions and there she goes again. She always chimes in with questions. She’s so annoying. The minute she starts to talk, I just zone out.” 

One thing we know about teams who function as powerful partners is that they listen deeply to one another. Listening isn’t about agreeing, it’s about hearing what your teammate is saying. It’s about  respecting them enough to at least consider what they have said. One thing that gets in the way of deep listening are the roles we assign to other people and ourselves in our own minds. These roles almost always hinder our ability to listen deeply. I’m not talking about roles as in job titles. I’m talking about roles like office hero, blow hard, complainer, meddler, or expert. When you assign someone a role, even one that seems positive, you’re unintentionally assigning them a set of expectations to go along with it. Because of how our brains function, you’ve probably done this without even knowing it.

We know our brains love to categorize and they do so naturally and subconsciously. That’s part of how humans learn, adapt, and survive. We need to challenge ourselves to think about the roles we put people into and challenge those identities and expectations. This pertains to how we view other people, but also how we view ourselves. Assigning people to roles and keeping them there doesn’t consider personal growth, perspective, or circumstance. It doesn’t allow our perception of them to evolve. It takes a lot of heavy-duty metacognition to analyze and question your own thinking about these points.

Now, James may not pull his weight on the team and Rebecca may ask a disproportionate amount of questions. Those things might be true at some level. The problem arises when we apply these roles as a constant filter—and our very efficient brains want to do just that. The danger arises when we are unable to see or hear information beyond the role we have assigned. When the role becomes definitive and permanent. When that happens, we are not listening in the moment or at the level necessary to build or sustain a powerful partnership.

So what should we do now?

Listen for language that labels—even seemingly positive language may have unintended consequences.

Are we paying attention to people in the moment or simply glossing over their words because we’ve assigned them a role we don’t value? Are we expecting more from them than others because we’ve assigned them a hero-type role? Are we giving people space to be seen for who they are in that moment? One good way to catch this is if you think or say a sentence that starts with “Rebecca is…” Is the person being labeled or assigned a role? Think carefully about what comes next.

Actively question the roles you assign others.

If Rebecca starts talking and you zone out, call yourself out on it. What evidence do you have that her questions are meaningless? What makes you uncomfortable about her questions? What would you accept as evidence in challenging or confirming the role you’ve assigned? Rebecca appears to value asking questions—do you know why? Could this be a dialogue to gain better understanding?

Actively question the roles you assign yourself.

Are you the one who never asks for help? The one who is bad at talking in front of the group? Question the story you tell yourself about your strengths and skills. Consider what behavior changes you could implement to change your role in your mind. What’s working well for you? What isn’t? What’s in your circle of control? What else might be possible for you? What resources are at your disposal to continue to grow?

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