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  • Meg Mateer

Evolving-in-relation Part 1: learning from opposites

Updated: Oct 1, 2019

This post is part of a series that focuses on exploring how people develop through relationship with others. Relationships are constant opportunities for growth and development. People do not have to wait for a leadership seminar, a therapy appointment, or a personal development retreat to evolve. All we need is at least one other person, to co-learn and co-develop.


We at Empatiko believe that people’s ability to co-learn and co-develop is underutilized in organizations and society. As such, we deliver programs that unleash the power of learning through relationship. This way, organizations and individuals continuously evolve, using their environment and experiences with each other as catalysts for doing so.

**We credit a lot of the concepts from this post to Hal and Sidra stone, developers of Voice Dialogue, a framework we use as part of our programs. If you would like to learn more about Voice Dialogue, check it out here.**


You may know the phrase “opposites attract”.




It’s something we often think about when it comes to romance. But the phenomenon extends beyond the bedroom and enters the boardroom. And believe it or not, this simple impulse is a natural way of helping people develop. Develop through, you got it, relationship.


Opposites attract because our opposites help us become more balanced and flexible, they can get us out of your default mode.


How does it work?


Each of us develops a “default operating mode” - one that we learn gets us what we need, makes us feel safe and consistent, that is supported by society. But this way of operating is rigid, inflexible, and often gets us stuck.


Let’s take a look at an example: we once worked with a manager, George, who tried to take care of everyone. He was constantly scanning the environment for opportunities to help, and wanted to be well-liked and appreciated for his efforts. He was praised at the office for being kind, generous, and thoughtful. But often in the midst of his “caring” default mode, he would forget about himself. He would often say yes to everything he is asked to do, even when he was already overwhelmed. George’s caring "default mode" functioned well for him as a manager, but when it became his only way of operating, he became stuck, stressed, and frustrated.


Stuck in a default mode...Have no fear!


Our subconscious is here to help us achieve a state of balance. It is not that our default mode is bad - it is just overused. It is the imbalance that is the problem, not the way of operating.


In order to achieve this balance, we are naturally attracted to people who possess characteristics that we reject in ourselves. We either are drawn to these people or repelled by them. We either find them fascinating and want to learn more OR we find them repulsive in some way. This means that we can learn from our colleagues, whether they are our friends or our enemies.


The parts that we’ve rejected or denied in ourselves actually have value. They are balancing energies, usually opposite to our default mode. By integrating them into ourselves, they make us whole - by rejecting them, they often manifest in aggressive, unexpected ways. By being in conscious relationship with people who possess opposing characteristics, we can begin to move outside of our learned patterns.


Let’s return to our example: George, our responsible, helpful manager described his working relationship with, Tina, a very assertive, team member. Tina spoke up about what she wanted to do or did not want to do, was clear about her boundaries, and said no to projects that were not interesting to her. George found this woman selfish and not a team player. He resented her.


In this case, George, from an unaware state, could continue to get angry at Tina and exclude her from his new projects. But we helped him realize that in his judgment of Tina, he resented something in her that he had denied in himself: the ability to say no and to be “selfish” - to put himself first. To be a successful manager, it was important that George not only paid attention to his team and his company but had his own self-awareness and knew his limits. It was important that George was not just taking care of his team, but taking care of himself.


Tina and the resentment that George harbored against her was an opportunity for more awareness of George’s default “caring” mode and an opportunity to balance this out by being a bit more selfish and assertive himself.


From the state of awareness of this fact, we can begin to learn from everyone that we surround ourselves with. Their behavior and approach to life brings us new perspectives and new opportunities for experimentation. If we can let go of our “default mode” of operating, we can try out new things, constantly able to find new balance and flexibility.


BUT BEWARE of polarization.


Often what can happen in relationships between opposites, is that the polarities become more extreme, because instead of stepping closer towards each other, balancing out our ways of being, we move further away, resenting the other’s differences.


If George does not realize the balancing nature of Tina’s opposing energy, he may actually end up becoming more giving and caring. He hates Tina’s assertiveness so much that he is determined never to act like her. In response, Tina may resent George’s self-sacrifice, and his demand that she be more attentive to the team. She may become more “selfish”. And BOOM, all of a sudden, these two opposites become polarized, rather than balancing.


What makes the difference between healthy balance and dysfunctional polarization?


Awareness & distance.


If you are aware of the opportunity that opposites present, you can use your attraction or repulsion to other people to develop balance in yourself. When you encounter someone who has opposite qualities, you can ask yourself “What about that person is something that I’ve denied in myself?”


You also need to have enough distance from your own default operating mode so that you can see other possibilities of operating. If people are overidentified with a certain way of being, it can be very hard to step outside of this.


How can you begin to experiment with balance?

  • Raise your awareness about your “default operating mode” - how do you describe yourself? What parts of yourself are you proud of? What ways of being may you be overusing? Make a list of your top ten qualities and ask a colleague to also make a list of your top ten qualities. Those that overlap are most likely part of your “default operating mode”. Then think about the most extreme version of those qualities to see how your default mode could be dysfunctional.

  • Become aware of your rejected selves by observing people that you are attracted to or repulsed by and clarifying what characteristics are triggering your attention. Think of the most extreme version of those qualities and ask yourself what you’re “not allowed” to do.

  • Recognize opportunities for balance - when someone behaves opposite to you, is there a possibility for you to be a bit more like them? Write down 5 tangible things you could do to be a bit more like them...

  • Remember that all of the parts of yourself are VALUABLE, they deserve to be heard and paid attention to. This philosophy is a foundation in building compassion both for yourself and for others. It can be helpful in this situation to make a map of the parts of yourself that are part of your “default mode” and the parts that you’ve denied - the opposites - and see how you can listen to all of those parts.


Our relationships catalyze new awareness and opportunities to see the many sides of ourselves, as well as to recalibrate and listen to these parts. In this way, we stay connected with the many parts and can use them depending on what a particular situation calls for, rather than being fixed to a rigid self-image. In this way, we become more flexible and agile.


Want to learn how to use these methods to develop emotional capacity in your organization or community? Reach out to us at hello@empatiko.org




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