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Becky Norman


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Relationship intelligence: “We need to put the human element back into the workplace,” says Esther Perel


In her closing keynote session on day one of UNLEASH 2018, renowned psychotherapist and author Esther Perel warned us not to forget the value that human relationships bring to our professional and personal lives.

What better way to illustrate the importance of humans as social, collaborative beings in today’s technology-driven workplace than to have renowned relationship therapist Esther Perel talk at UNLEASH 2018 about how the quality of our relationships directly impact the quality of our personal lives and the work we do.

Below are some of the key takeaways from her session ‘Where Should We Begin? The Future of the Workplace: How Good Relationships Promote Well-Being and Success’.

Relationship intelligence

The significance of emotional intelligence at work has come to the fore in recent years. Encompassing a broad skill set in which self-awareness, control and expression of emotions is mastered (alongside awareness of emotions in others, empathy and interpersonal skills) is much desired by employers today.

As artificial intelligence, automation, machine learning and other technological driving forces continue to develop at pace – disrupting the landscape of the workforce along with it – the abilities of the utmost importance to human workers do not all fall into the digital skills bracket.

Perel touched upon this major workforce change in her keynote session. Where previously, we emphasised the importance of processes, productivity and the ‘hard stuff’, now the ‘softer skills’ that were formerly disregarded are seen to be vital. “These skills are the new bottomline”, Perel insists.

Under the umbrella of these so-called softer skills lies ‘relationship intelligence’, which is a necessity for success in our working and personal lives, Perel argued. “To become fluent in the language of relationships is critical for the quality of the world we’re living in today.”

We’re often told that our sense of wellbeing and happiness comes from within, that it’s only ourselves that can cultivate these positive qualities and emotions.

However, Perel argues that our sense of wellbeing, happiness and being is dependent on the quality of our relationships with others – relationships are what determine the quality of our lives, and we must not forget this as we become increasingly augmented with technology.

The first relationship revolution: home life

Perel highlighted two major relationship revolutions that have taken place across human history: one at home and one at work.

Looking back to when humans lived in tribal communities, there were clear, strict rules and models of relationships to abide by. Everyone knew their place in the hierarchy of the village and the family, and a sense of belonging and identity came from these simple, rigid structures.

But with our move from village tribes to cities these hard, fast rules have disintegrated, Perel highlights.

In this transition, we’ve obtained a lot more personal freedom and choice in our relationships: in most of the Western world today we can partner with and marry who we want, no matter their place of origin, social demographics, gender, race and so on. No one is selected for us in the tribe. We can go out and find a partner ourselves.   

But with this new-found freedom comes with it the baggage of more uncertainty and doubt: “Everything today is negotiated – we need to have difficult conversations which we never needed to do in the past because the rules were clear,” Perel argues.

Just like relationships can be hard work, building up your relationship intelligence is a hefty feat too.

Exacerbating this doubt is the unreasonably high expectations we place on our partners.

Marriage used to be a pragmatic institution, Perel points out, but today we expect our partner to be our best friend, lover, counsellor, cheerleader and everything in between. “We want our one partner to give us everything that a whole village used to provide,” she highlights.

The pressure we place on romantic relationships feels deeply ingrained within modern society. When chatting with my colleagues after Perel’s session, we all agreed that among other factors, Disney and other Hollywood films largely shaped our unhelpful beliefs in the role of destiny and finding ‘the one’.

And in our desperate search for an unrealistic ideal, Perel notes that we have created ‘relationship consumerism’ – we look at the outer packaging on offer and in a split second, with the swipe of a finger, decide whether or not we like the presented goods.

The second relationship revolution: work life

Alongside this shift in personal relationships, there is a parallel transition in the workplace. “For the first time, we’re talking at work with an emotional vocabulary,” says Perel.

At the same time as the role of marriage has moved from pragmaticism to romanticism to self actualisation, the world of work has become expected to fulfil Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, she states.

We need to understand that the way in which we are raised impacts our views of and behaviours in relationships.

This encompasses, first, the basic physiological and safety needs of paying workers so that they can put a roof over their heads and food on the table; second, psychological needs such as providing a culture in which employees feel like they belong; and third, the need for self actualisation, such as offering learning and development paths that help individuals reach their full potential.

“We used to leave marriages because we were miserable, but now we do so because we could be happier. We used to leave a job because there was no work left for us to do, but now we leave because we don’t feel like we belong or can reach our potential in the company,” Perel states.

How can we prosper from relationships at work and at home?

After a broad snapshot of the history of personal and workplace relationships, Perel moved on to discuss in practical terms how we can bolster our relationship intelligence.

Unsurprisingly this starts with awareness and training. In terms of awareness, we need to understand that the way in which we are raised impacts our views of and behaviours in relationships.

Perel asked the audience: “What were the messages you internalised about relationships when growing up? Were you raised for autonomy or interdependence? Self-reliance or a communal experience? At work are you competitive or cooperative? Do you hide when struggling or not? Do you ask for help or not?”

The best relationships perform a balancing act, straddling both security and adventure.

Everybody has relationship experiences and beliefs that are unique to them – and becoming more aware of these is essential for improving relationship intelligence.

We must also be aware of our confirmation biases, Perel notes. We tend to look for evidence that reinforces our beliefs about ourselves and others, so learning what our biases might be and catching ourselves when making assumptions based on these biases is key.

Another one to look out for is ‘fundamental attribution error’, Perel highlights, which is when we think of ourselves as more complex than other people.

Just like relationships can be hard work, I can only imagine that building up your relationship intelligence is a hefty feat too. And one that requires you in difficult situations with others to step back and detach from your thought processes and assumptions, pause and evaluate, before making your response.

The need for security and the need for adventure

The final of Perel’s many pearls of wisdom that I wish to highlight is that we all straddle two fundamental human needs: the need for security and the need for adventure. You will likely know and have experience of the fact that some people fear losing the other in a relationship, while some are more scared of losing themselves when in a relationship.

The best relationships perform a balancing act, straddling both security and adventure, Perel notes. In personal relationships, you want to feel safe to a certain extent, but if you feel like you’ll never lose the other then your motivation to spur on a sense of excitement hits rock bottom.

The same is true in the workplace: if employees feel like they will never lose their job they could quickly become idle. But give them a reason to be deeply concerned about being made redundant, and the anxiety this will bring will hinder performance.

Striking this balance takes work – relationships need to be actively nurtured and cultivated to prosper.

Perel concluded her point with a fantastically apt analogy: “If you treat your partner like a cactus plant that you water from time to time things won’t go so well […] if you treat your partner like your customers things would be a lot better.”

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Becky Norman

Managing Editor

Read more from Becky Norman

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