What do you do if one of your partners in a personal or business relationship does something reprehensible? Something unforgivable? What if you are the person in the partnership that did something hurtful to someone close to you? How does a partnership recover from an apparently unrecoverable injury?
The psychological researcher and clinician John Gottman gained fame within the relationship therapy community with the uncannily accurate divorce predictions he made by viewing short video clips of couples interacting. He went on to codify his observations into what he called the “four horsemen”–toxic communication styles that indicated that an intimate relationship was in the process of floundering. These are well known to anyone in a relationship: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and the big one–contempt. Once contempt sets into a relationship, according to Gottman, it’s pretty much a goner.
The mechanic at the heart of the relationship system is a “bid”. This is the gesture or iniatiative of one partner towards the other to connect. A smile, hug, kind gesture or request for support are all bids. If the other person accepts the bid, they connect and if the other partner rebuffs the bid there is a moment of contempt generated. The quality of the relationship is a function of connection versus contempt and I think business relationships function along the same principles. Betrayal, disrespect, abuse, neglect-all grind the hole of contempt deeper until, seemlingly it’s too deep to crawl out of.
I’m not writing this from the relationship perspective per se. What I’m more interested in is the relationship between contempt, stakeholder engagement and ultimate performance. Contempt is a drag factor that inhibits growth, impedes innovation and stifles productivity.
Gottman, whom I respect, in time seemed to have developed the opinion that substantial contempt is unrecoverable. He might be right, or rightish, but I don’t like the finality of that proclamation. What I’ll say is that, at the very least, recovering from contempt, when a partnership or team has sustained substantial relational injury, is really hard.
The only pathway I’ve detected to rebuild a seriously damaged relationship or team seems to be the one of forgiveness and grace. The aggrieved, injured or abused party can choose forgiveness as one of the supreme acts of grace and personal growth. It’s a hard sell but I’ve been party to a few of these apparently impossible reconciliations. The harder case is for the alleged perpetrator who might have caused the damage (perhaps consciously but more likely by a nonconscious means). Asking for forgiveness is also an act of grace and personal growth and is itself a bid for greater connection. The grace part is this: no one is obliged to forgive me for being an asshole, but true contrition on my part might lead to a second chance in time. Or not. Grace in the end is “underserved favor” and functions on faith. While it might benefit both parties it is still an act of leadership (and courage) for the person making the bid. Maybe there’s a bid in your future?