The Challenge of Becoming An effective Thought Partner
At the beginning of every “helping” relationship, one of the important issues that comes up is understanding the ways in which the first contact between two strangers can emerge out of nothing and then evolve into a “thought partnership” that produces real value for both parties. In this regard, the key question for coaches is, “How should we go about initiating a relationship between us that will actually help us learn more about things that matter to both of us?” Another way of asking the same questions is, “What are the interpersonal dynamics we can enact that will help us build an effective thought partnership between us, especially when one person is interested in support, encouragement and challenge, and the other believes they’re capable of providing them?
“The Opening Dance”
Effective thought partnerships are born and grow. They develop over time. At first, each begins with a series of interpersonal moves that establish the context and the dialogic parameters of the partnership. These first moves can be made by the person who is “asking for help,” or by the person who is “offering the help.” Either way, years of experience and volumes of research show us that, for both parties, this “opening dance,” if it's going to be successful, is always scripted. That is, it's tied to a sequence of moves and steps that helps both parties begin to sense, at least implicitly, that they can be vulnerable with one another.
These early trust building dynamics, at base, are what lets both parties create between them the circumstances and situations that will confirm and increase their sense of self-worth, dignity and value. Simply put, when both parties “live into” the proscribed roles and scripts of their opening dance in effective ways, they eventually will be able to both share value with each other, and claim value for themselves.
How easily and effectively this kind of thought partnership gets started depends on the degree to which each party grants value to their counterpart, what Jessica Benjamin, in The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, & the Problem of Domination,has defined as “mutual recognition.” Ms. Benjamin, and others who have studied these kinds of relationships, suggest that, during an opening dance, there are six ways each party can “grant value” to a counterpart that mutually recognizes them. Specifically, they can grant them;
- Agape, and/or
Those who’ve studied thought partnerships also suggest that there are five complications that “weigh down” the chances both parties have of creating a thought partnership between them where both parties experience their “identities,” the “interaction dynamics,” and the “power balances” active between them as “appropriate” and “comfortable.” These five complications are these;
(1) Communication between thought partners is experienced by one or both as threatening, such that they respond to their counterpart with an “amygdala hijack” response (see Daniel Goleman’s article,“Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ”).
(2) Communication between thought partners carries minimal levels of “mutual recognition signals.”That is, each partner, in both explicit and implicit ways, fails to communicate messages that say, “I see you, recognize you as an independent other, and will honor this recognition.”
(3) Communication that must tentatively answer three questions -- i.e., “In this thought partnership, who is going to be in charge?”, “How honest with one another are we going to be?” and “Are these ‘answers’ going to be fixed or flexible?” (Eric Berne, Games People Play) – fails to take place.
(4) Communication between thought partners fails to acknowledge and respect the proposition that neither party can just “barge into” any subject area they’re curious about. The boundaries of the dialogue between the two parties aren’t well defined. The issue is what’s permissible to talk about, and both thought partners must know how to “ask permission,” or otherwise signal the nature of their “proposed entry” into their counterpart’s psychic space, but they don’t.
(5) Communication between thought partners doesn’t at least acknowledge, if not clearly confirm, what the other partner is claiming or requesting. Neither partner ever has to agree with or accede to the demands of their counterpart for recognition and appreciation; but they do have to at least acknowledge that a demand or request has been made.
To reduce these five propositions down to their essence, it seems fair to assert that, in the beginning, every thought partnership is all about creating a clear and satisfactory “power balance” between the partners. If this doesn’t happen, the partnership won't develop.
Dealing With Inequalities & Ambiguities
Creating this “power balance,” at least initially, is a very delicate process. This is because there are important social inequities and role ambiguities involved in the launch of every thought partnership. Without question, right from the start, these inequities and ambiguities need to be handled properly. In the beginning, thought partnerships are inherently unbalanced and ambiguous. Thus, for both parties, actually stepping into and taking up the role of “client” or “helper” is a process that always evokes feelings of potential vulnerability, loss, and struggle.
Given this, for the person who is going to be “helped,” the first steps into a thought partnership are most often anticipated to be steps into a situation that's going to expose them to the kinds of humiliation that go with sharing one’s uncertainties, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. Essentially, there always is, for the thought partner who is stepping into the role of “being helped,” a fear that they’re going to loose personal control of the helping process. Simply stepping into and taking up the role of “client,” they feel, will require them to surrender their control of themselves and the “thought partner process.” In particular, the three role issues of top or bottom, in or out, and close or far come into play, and this fact, especially the inferred sense of permanence that comes with this early top/bottom question, is what creates the feelings of vulnerability, loss, and resistance. This makes the issue of permission key.
For the person who's stepping into the helper role, the “one upped” structure that’s embedded in being asked for help is the most significant issue that needs to be resolved during the entry stages of a thought partnership. In simple terms, it’s important for the “helper” to be aware that the implied “bestowing of power” that’s involved in becoming the one who is “on top” in the thought partnership inherently creates an imbalance in the relationship. For the potential client, it thus is the inferred passive, dependent, and vulnerable nature of the relationship they’re stepping into that is problematic.
One helpful way of framing this “entry issue” is by understanding the proposition that the “opening dance” of a thought partnership is driven by a “power paradox.” This power paradox has at least two sides: First, there is the challenge of responding to a potential client’s anxieties by defining the power that’s going to be in play between the parties as “Relational or Collaborative Power” (Bernard Loomer, Two Conceptions of Power). And second, from the very beginning, there is the challenge of acting in ways that effectively signal to each other the intention and the ability to act in flexible ways, especially ways that let the partner who is going to be “helped” know that, when necessary, they’re in control. They will not be expected to either share what they’re not ready to share or do what they’re not ready to attempt.
In short, it’s each parties’ responsibility, at least in the beginning, to be both willing and able to switch easily between the “on the top position” and the “on the bottom” position.” That is, both parties must be willing and able to be “on the top” and/or “on the bottom,” “in” and/or “out,” and “close and/or far,” whatever’s most appropriate for the thought partnership at the moment.
Thought Partnership As The Co-Creation of a New Story:
When it lasts long enough, the reality of an effective thought partnership is that it inevitably transforms itself into a process wherein both parties are co-creating a new story of understanding and action for both the helper and the client. In this regard, it seems fair to say that to be, or become, an effective “thought partner” with and for a potential client, the helper has to be a seamless mixture of four different people.
1. First, they have to be, and be seen as, a COLLEAGUE, i.e., someone who is knowledgeable about the business, profession, or discipline of our potential partner.
2. Second, they have to be a good COMPANION, i.e., someone who either has been, or currently is, “traveling the same path” as our potential partner.
3. Third, they have to be trustable as a CONFIDANT, i.e., someone with whom our potential partner could share their insecurities and doubts, and
4. Fourth, they have to be a special kind of COACH, i.e. someone who was especially adept at helping our potential partner consciously reflect on and talk to us about the ways in which they’re currently organizing their thinking about key issues and challenges.
To be, or become, adept at helping a potential thought partner "consciously reflect" on the ways in which they’re "organizing their thinking about key issues and challenges,” prospective though partners have to know how to help their client do at least six things:
- Become consciously aware of the recent events and episodes in their life that are now troubling and/or challenging them.
- Be able to talk out loud about these troubles and/or challenges in ways that make sense of these to themselves and their thought partner.
- Be able to identify and select one or two of the more important troubles or challenges and acknowledge to themselves and their thought partner that the issues chosen are those on which they need to focus their attention.
- Reflect on these challenges in ways that help them assess the significance and implications that have been, are, and will continue to be associated with these problems if they’re not resolved effectively.
- Identify and frame these challenges by (a) identifying the people who are playing significant roles, (b) defining the part they, themselves, are playing in creating and maintaining this problem, (c) defining the cause and effect dynamics that are governing their leading edge situation, and (d) developing at least three alternative scenarios that satisfactorily describe the systemic or “complex adaptive challenge” they’re facing.
- Create three or four alternative ways of taking new steps that will help them deal with these issues. In this regard it’s very important to know how to help thought partners identify the consequences, both primary and secondary, of actually implementing the next step scenarios they’ve designed. To do this they need to identify the key assumptions that are at the heart of # 3 above, and then chose two or three next steps to experiment with as an emerging alternative.