Have you got a stuck relationship?

23 Jun 2023
Carrie Birmingham

Share article:


Over the last few months, I have been supporting a number of clients where work relationships feel stuck and difficult.  Their experiences inspire me to keep learning and writing in my blogs.

In many cases, things have deteriorated by the time they call me, because they have often been “hoping” things will get better.  I find crossing your fingers is rarely a great strategy when partnerships start to slide.  But it’s so tempting! Because relationships at work are tricky, we tell ourselves “its just work, so we don’t have to bessie mates.” Yet we are biologically wired to belong and hence naturally avoid exclusion, and by extension conflict, that can cause it.  

When I am working with conflict, here are some things to look out for:

The Drama Triangle

So often our focus is on the “other” and what they have done, and creating a story that supports this.  After all “perception is reality.  But in doing this we absolve ourselves of any responsibility for the relationship being stuck.  We become the ‘victim’ in the Drama Triangle (see diagram below) and of course once we have formed the view that they are the ‘persecutor’, we then collect more evidence of that perception, which then gets reinforced (in scientific circles this is called confirmation bias).

I have written a blog about moods before and described them as the “inner source” which we act from.  When it comes to a relationship that is feeling “stuck”, we can find our mood naturally shifts towards irritation, defensiveness, and anticipating a ‘difficult’ response.  So we approach the person slightly on edge, tense: our mood and bodies are primed for “a problem”.   

In this hyper connected world, our brain is required to process 34 gigabytes of data per day and given this task it looks for opportunities to shortcut by making assumptions and generalisations.  This includes some pretty helpful things like breathing without needing to consciously think about it and also some less helpful things like assuming that a delay to an email reply means the person doesn’t rate you.  

All of these human realities means that a “stuck relationship” becomes a co-created vicious circle.  By asking for help from a friend, coach or advisor, we are able to break this circle because we are acknowledging that something needs to change.  

My starting point when supporting clients to improve a relationship is to start with why this relationship is important.  This is because it is hard to actively work on a stuck relationship and so I want clients to know “for the sake of what” they are doing it, as this will help them when it gets really uncomfortable.

Impact and Intention 

For many, conflict training is the exception rather than the norm and so within the workplace people don’t have a toolkit for stuckness.   One of the tools I often share with clients is differentiating between impact and intention.  

Impact is what we feel when interacting with someone else. Impact is when we feel frustrated when they highlight what is wrong with our presentation, or when we feel disappointed that they ignored our third email even though we told them it was important.  Underneath this feeling is usually the assumption that this impact is also their intention i.e. they want to frustrate or disappoint you.  But that is rarely the case.  Intent is what your colleague has in mind when they decide to do something.  It reflects the type of impact you want to create with your actions.

In truth there is often a difference between your intention versus the actual impact action you have on your colleagues. That is primarily because we are subjective beings.  Understanding this difference gives us the frame and language to describe how something has landed with us (i.e. “I felt undermined when you corrected me in front of the client”) and to explore their intention (i.e “Help me understand what was going on for you”).  This helps us step out of the drama triangle.

Work it Baby 

The third thing that I notice is that we assume that good work relationships are easy.  In fact, I have found the best partnerships are where people have worked at it.  This means taking time and space to talk honestly about the relationship itself (not just the work you do together).  In his book Liam Black describes, “If co-founders don’t develop & sustain their habit of talking regularly and honestly about what is going on in their minds and hearts they will grow apart. The risk of breakdown mounts”.  This means time for an active habit of action learning; reflecting on what has been happening, understanding latest events and experiences (maybe by exploring intention and impact) and then planning experiments on how your partnership can evolve.  The irony is that the more important the relationship, the less likely you are to risk doing this and so it takes bravery.  

So What?

As you read this blog, ask yourself:

  • Where have you got a relationship that is feeling stuck?
  • Which position in the drama triangle can you see yourself in? 
  • What impact are they having on you and what stories does that create in your head about their intention?

Curious then give us a call!