How to tell if someone’s a “keeper” – in business and in life

 In Blog, Living Organizations, Satisfying Relationships, Teams and Organizations

(Time to read: ~ 7 minutes)

I’ve been feeling troubled lately by a video a friend shared with me of a woman with two children – an infant and a toddler – who left her husband after repeated instances of physical violence.

I wish so strongly that she had recognized the issues in the relationship at the beginning, before violence occurred – so that her children could have grown up from the beginning in an environment of love, stability, physical safety and the modelling of healthy, peacefully effective communication.

Because I believe that this kind of early childhood experience is the most solid foundation for a happy, loving and successful life – at home and in work.
And I want that for all children.

The Work Parallel

That video also reminded me of teams and organizations that have fallen apart because there was one person with a different working / communicating style from the rest – and the group as a whole did not have the skills to bridge the gap between the two styles and fulfill its objective.

I value organizational and group decision-making systems that provide a specific mechanism for a group to release a member when the group finds itself in this situation – without “blaming” anyone.

The Common Thread

In both of these cases – the woman and the teams – it would have saved so much grief if they could have

  1. Recognized early on that there was a very serious problem
  2. Known how to deal with that effectively.

I believe there are two key indicators of a very serious problem that can be detected early in a relationship that make someone not a “keeper” in that particular context.

Key Indicator #1

What happens when the person gets angry, guilty or upset?

There are two stages when someone experiences these kinds of negative reactions:

  1. What they do immediately
  2. What they do when they are out of the grip of those emotions.

Of these, I think that #2 is the more significant long-term indicator in most situations.

(The exception is if physical violence or threats show up early in the relationship. Then my recommendation is to end the relationship – with care for your safety, but as quickly as you can. And I recognize this is much easier said than done for reasons that are beyond the scope of this blog post. So if you find yourself in this place, I would urge you to get support from professionals experienced with this type of situation.)

At stage #2 – when the person is out of the grip of negative emotions – there are two kinds of reactions that are significant:

  1. Regret vs self-justification
  2. Wishful thinking about the future vs a concrete plan for change

Regret vs Self-Justification

If someone has behaved in a way that does not conform to the standards of normal human interaction (e.g., yelling, name-calling, insults, even the threat of physical violence) and does not experience regret, for me this is a key sign that they are not a “keeper” in that particular relationship or context.

If someone does not experience regret, it means either:

  1. They do not have the self-awareness to recognize that they behaved in a way that is not supportive of a positive, mutually supportive relationship, or
  2. They have such fragile self-esteem that they cannot accept that they have behaved in a non-supportive way, or
  3. At a very deep level, they do not share with you a common understanding of behaviours they want to bring to the relationship.

These are not issues that you can resolve within a team or relationship, they require professional assistance.

And that professional assistance will only be effective if the other person really wants to change their behaviour. And if the reason for wanting to change is not because they want to be on the team or in the relationship, but because they realize they have a problem and they want to change in order to learn and grow as a person.

Key Clarification

There is one other key point that I want to make before we leave this topic – and that is that it is not necessary that the other person spontaneously express their regret to you in words.

But if, in the circumstances I’ve outlined above, you come to them after you’ve both cooled off and express your regret for your part in what happened, and they don’t at some point in that conversation share some indication that they also regret some aspect of their behaviour, I would interpret that as they not experiencing regret.

Note: Sometimes people need to be heard for their pain or frustration about what happened before they can get in touch with and express their regret.

If the other person seems to have been heard fully for their pain and frustration but hasn’t expressed any regret verbally, I may gently query to invite an expression of regret, such as “I’m wondering whether you would have preferred not to have called me that name?”

Then I listen to both the words and the emotional tone of the response – and I generally trust the emotional tone.

But if you find yourself in relationship with someone who gives no indication that they experience regret when they behave in a way that does not meet your standards for normal “polite” human interaction, my strong recommendation is (to paraphrase an old saying):

“If you are in relationship with someone like this, let them go.
If the two of you are meant to be together (including on a team),
they will return having learned on their own to experience regret.”

Wishful Thinking vs Concrete Plan

One of the themes that runs through literature on domestic violence is “I’m sorry. I love you. I’ll never do it again.” And then it does.

Because the best predictor of the future is what happened in the past.
And changing our behaviour is hard work.

So my strong recommendation is, don’t count on any intention not to repeat a behaviour that is not paired with a concrete plan that you believe will prevent a recurrence.

If they don’t offer you a concrete plan, you might gently query about one.

For example: “I really hear that you don’t even want to do this again. And I believe you. (pause)
At the same time, I think it’s really hard to change our behaviour. I think doing something different, like taking a course or working with a coach can help. I’m wondering if you’d be willing to consider something like that?”

(If you’d like support to prepare for this kind of very delicate conversation, contact me)

And then pay attention to whether the other person is implementing the plan – without your urging, reminders or encouragement.

For example, if the concrete plan is that they will attend an anger management program, then notice if they are going – but don’t comment on it either way.

If they are not following through on the plan, and they aren’t noticing this and coming up with a new plan, then it is extremely unlikely that their behaviour will change in the near future.

Because their behaviour is indicating that this particular change is just not important enough to them at this time. And nothing you can do or say is going to alter that at a deep enough level for real change to occur.

Instead, you will likely experience an escalation over time of whatever the unwanted behaviour is.

One other note about this:  Training programs can be very helpful. But one problem that can occur is that the unwanted behaviour may start to creep back in over time after the training is over.

So following up a training program with periodic coaching or check-in sessions for one or more years can be important in creating permanent change, especially in a long-standing behaviour or one that appears only under significant stress.

Summary of key indicator #1:

A relationship or team is unlikely to be successful long-term if anyone involved:

  • Does not experience regret after behaving in a way that is outside standards of normal human interaction, or
  • Does not make and follow through on a concrete plan to change this type of behaviour in future, including ongoing check-ins to support the change in becoming permanent.

Key Indicator #2

Do they change their behaviour at least some of the time when you let them know that something they’ve done doesn’t work for you, and you make a clear request for a different behaviour?

I call this the “caring and learning” indicator.

For successful and productive teams and relationships, it’s important for everyone involved to:

  • Care about each other’s well-being
  • Be willing to learn how to support one another so each person brings the best of who they are
  • Be willing (and able) to modify some of their behaviours to accommodate the preferences and comfort zone of other people.

If someone is not demonstrating these qualities, particularly if they respond to requests for support by:

  • Making fun of or “joking” about the request, especially if this is done in the presence of other people, or
  • Demonstrating a permanent increase in the frequency of the behaviour (a temporary increase may simply demonstrate a desire to assert their freedom of choice – which is something we all want).

it is unlikely that the people involved have the resources to have a successful, satisfying and productive relationship.

The cost to a team’s productivity and effectiveness will be enormous and the most capable team members will often leave.

In a relationship, the cost in human misery on both sides will increase over time. And, as we saw in the case of the woman in the video, can spread to and damage other lives and relationships – which is especially sad in the case of children.

Are You a Keeper?

This is a question I ask myself every day.

Am I behaving in alignment with what I teach?
Am I doing my part in creating a positive, mutually supportive relationship?

Because most of the time a relationship is like a dance. And often the other people involved feel that they are just responding to what I’ve said or done.

This means that the most effective way to get someone else to change their “steps” is to change mine first.

So if there’s something you’re not satisfied with in one of your relationships, review this article with a view to seeing what you can do to be more of a “keeper”.

And if that doesn’t seem to be enough to create the change you’d like to see – or if you’d like to learn how to communicate in a more peacefully effective way, then
book a free consultation to talk about what you’re looking for and see if what I offer is a good fit.

Here’s to peacefully satisfying relationships everywhere!


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