Behind Every Good Leader #6: Expressing Your Needs
Over the past few weeks, we've talked about the necessity of secure relationships for those in leadership; attachment theory and how it informs our underlying needs; how to gain increased awareness of our needs; and the interaction of our own emotional landscape with those of others. So now, we come full circle to the last post in this series. Today, let's talk about how awareness of these issues can help us to interact differently with others.
Let's take a look at this diagram again:
The arrows indicate that when we are interacting with others in stressful or conflictual situations, our behaviors often trigger the underlying needs of the other and vice versa. When our underlying needs are triggered without our awareness, it leads us to think and act in ways we often regret later.
For example, if one of your underlying needs is perfection and control, what do you imagine might happen if someone criticizes your work? It will likely lead you to feel afraid of failure (primary emotion). But we generally don't talk about our primary emotions with other people. If at all possible, we want to keep our fears and vulnerabilities hidden. So instead, we begin feeling angry or frustrated (secondary emotion). These feelings trigger thoughts about the self (e.g., "I'll never be good enough.") and thoughts about the other (e.g., "She is so unreasonable."). All of this internal emotional and cognitive processing leads to defensive behaviors (e.g., blaming others for the failure).
So, how do we slow down this process when our underlying needs are triggered? This begins with your close personal relationships, whether it be a spouse, partner, close friend, or family member. The cycle of interaction is often more intense in our most intimate relationships, but these relationships also provide the best opportunity for us to create a different type of interaction, one that is secure and safe. The answer to interrupting this process is actually very simple but very difficult to do. In order to slow down our rapid journey to anger, defensiveness, lashing out, and withdrawing, we simply need to express our underlying needs and primary emotions to the other.
If you're normal, the thought of that makes you catch your breath. I don't know about you, but I do not like anyone else to know how afraid I am of losing control or failing. I am very invested in appearing to be perfect, whether that's at work or at home. It takes a lot of courage to talk about our needs and primary emotions, and sometimes, I just can't bring myself to do it. But what happens when I do? How does it make a difference? When we take the risk of opening up to our intimate others in this way, it makes it more difficult for them to be defensive and critical. Someone saying, "I'm afraid you'll leave me," elicits an entirely different response than someone saying, "You're so unreliable! I can never count on you!" Expressing underlying needs and emotions elicits empathy. The end result is that you create a different sequence of interaction in which both partners are more willing to express needs and primary emotions, thereby creating an environment in which needs are met and security is present. If you can create this type of security in your intimate relationships, you will be less likely to allow unmet, underlying needs to drive you in the workplace.
So what about at work? What does this look like there? Obviously, it would be inappropriate to share your deepest needs with colleagues. Let's be honest. If you did, everyone would feel really uncomfortable around you! However, you can use this model to deal with workplace conflict differently. Let me give you an example.
Just a few months after I moved into a supervisory role, I received a complaint about an employee engaging in inappropriate behavior. This necessitated a conversation that I did not want to have. My anxiety about the situation was increased by the fact that this employee was an older man who had once been above me in the hierarchy. As I thought about my conversation with him, I was filled with dread. I was afraid I would handle it inappropriately, afraid that he would not respect me, afraid I was going to fail at my first real challenge in my new role. How would I even begin to talk with him about this complaint? I scheduled a meeting with him, and before we met, I sat down and reflected upon my internal emotional landscape. I recognized my fear of conflict and failure and the anxiety they were causing. I realized that I was thinking of myself as a failure before the conversation even happened, and I realized that I was predicting that he would react defensively. If I had let these feelings and thoughts rule the day, I would have likely behaved in one of two ways: (1) I would have been rigid and demanding with him; or (2) I would have cowered and not stated my expectations clearly. Rather than allowing these things to happen, I decided to start the conversation by being overt with him about my anxiety. I told him I was anxious about the conversation and that I felt uncomfortable given our prior working relationship in which I answered to him. But I also told him it was a conversation that needed to be had and an issue that could not be ignored. I observed him physically softening as he empathized with my position. When I told him what the issue was and told him what he needed to do in response, he was open and willing to oblige. I'm not sure what would have happened had I handled the situation differently, but I believe that my willingness to begin with an appropriate expression of emotional vulnerability contributed to the success of the conversation.
So this is where we end this series: Work on creating the secure relationship that stands behind your leadership by being courageous and vulnerable in your intimate relationships. Take the leap and give those you love the opportunity to meet your needs. Allow that increased sense of security in your personal life to provide a foundation for engaging your colleagues differently at work. This is a journey that requires work and patience. Allow yourself to try and fail (I know that's scary!). But keep at it. I think you'll find that it's worth it.
*If you need additional help in your intimate relationship because your cycle of interaction has become hostile and overwhelmed with negativity, you can visit this website to find a therapist trained specifically to deal with systemic relational problems.