Tension is a Relationship Builder

Jul 24, 2023 | All Blogs, Bias, Discomfort, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Relationships

Lately, we’ve noticed moments of growth in our relationships with each other and our clients. But these moments aren’t always happy ones. Instead, we find our relationships deepening and becoming more authentic through moments of discomfort and tension. 

These experiences sound deeply counterintuitive. We’ve been socialized to avoid tension. How often do we ignore or suppress our discomfort in order to preserve equanimity in a relationship? Instead of talking openly about an uncomfortable feeling, we try to let it go. But not dealing with it means it’s never really gone. We hold onto discomfort until we discharge it–at ourselves or others in sometimes uncontrolled or harmful ways. 

What are we really avoiding? The risk and vulnerability of naming our feelings or our needs. It’s frightening to think such an expression would be met with diminishment, ridicule, or rejection. So we try to “keep the peace” instead. Eventually, “nice,” “friendly,” and “enjoyable” are the only levels of relationships we can tolerate.

What Leaning into Tension Looks Like

Our Cultural Competency learning blocks include building a shared vocabulary among the members of the organization we’re working with. We offer definitions of challenging terms like racism, unconscious bias, privilege, equity, inclusion, white supremacy culture, and more. Then we invite discussions about the definitions, which is when differences surface. People’s lived experiences, cultures, values, and identities form their definitions of terms, and sometimes these definitions are in tension. Sometimes power dynamics add to the tension. If someone with more power speaks first, those with less power may hesitate to disagree.

We’re socialized to believe that difference equals conflict. But difference–i.e. diversity–is just a fact. These opportunities to define terms together are perfect for getting curious and asking questions, so during the cultural competency sessions, we invite everyone to speak about their perspectives. This is when connections are made–when we can see each other and when we experience disagreement as challenging and safe. When we realize disagreement doesn’t undermine our shared purpose.

Less Transactional, More Relational

Another opportunity we’ve noticed lately is talking face-to-face instead of emailing. The Leverage to Lead team meets daily and values that time and opportunity to be present with each other, listen, ask questions, and be seen and heard. 

Sometimes, clients will ask for relationship work to be done via email and we have to hold our boundary: that meeting together is how all voices get heard, how our humanity is seen beyond our work product, and how appreciation gets built. 

We say often that every conversation counts. Every interaction is an opportunity to build trust, gratitude, and safety, which in turn increases our capacity to work through the conflicts that are a natural part of every relationship.

Of course, we expect and need things from each other. But leading with our humanity means moving away from transactional relationships. None of us wants to be reduced to our work or to have work consume our lives. Our wholeness is ultimately our greatest asset, the source of our ability to connect and create.

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