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Reserving Space for Uncomfortable Relationships

Discomfort is the price of admission for a meaningful life. Susan David, Emotional Agility

”Things” are getting better. Global hunger is down 50 percent in the last 25 years, medical breakthroughs and improving health conditions are saving millions of lives. Technology has made cell phones, flat screen TVs, internet access and other forms of information and entertainment access affordable to almost everyone. The purchasing power for households has increased substantially, income inequality notwithstanding.

Relational Inequality Grows

But “non-things” like relationships are getting worse. Loneliness, which turns out to be as deadly as smoking, is up 65 percent among adults in the last decade. Thirty-five million Americans live alone – up 114 percent since 1960. The number of close, go-to friends has decreased by a third and the number with no close friends has tripled. Today more than 50 percent of children are born to unwed mothers (under age 30) and these kids are five times more likely to grow up in poverty. Relational inequality feeds financial inequality.

At work, 70 percent of employees report they are disengaged. CEO credibility fell 12 percentage points last year; only 28 percent of us belong to groups where we feel the leader is accountable and inclusive. Only 13 percent of us trust the government to do the right thing (plummeting from 68% in 1960).

Defections from political parties doubled in the past 50 years leaving independents as the largest political segment. We have become so tribally divided that 49 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats report they would be unhappy for their child to marry someone from the other party (up from 5 percent in 1960).

Those leaving church affiliation has doubled in the past 18 years while the religious groups that are growing tend to be the most relationally “opposite” – radical Islam, hardline-conservative Christians, Orthodox Jews – and outspoken Atheists. Seculars most critical of rabid, religious zealotry now often adopt the judgmentalism they condemn in the religious.

Crowded-Out Relationships Have Rewired Our Society

We have allowed our relationships to be crowded-out and in doing so have altered and rewired our society. For many this troubled state of our relationships is personal. With kids averaging 7 ½ hours a day on their devices and adults 10 hours, people are often addicted and certainly distracted -- unable to be present and engaged in face-to-face interactions. Researchers estimate the average internet-connected family has lost about 70 minutes of their family-time per day, representing a 30—40 percent loss of time previously available for interpersonal relationships.

Leadership guru Simon Sineck laments that once upon a time before a meeting would begin, people would dispel the awkwardness by asking and answering questions like: How is your family? How is your father’s health? How was your trip? Contrast that to today where we are all glued to our devices. His point: Relationship-building before and after meetings may be the meeting’s most important outcome – crucial for the necessary give-and-take of organizational life. That sacred relationship-building space that engenders trust, compassion and relational insight is now filled with self-interactions indifferent to the people at your very elbows.

It is not just physical time and space – it is also the lack of psychological and emotional space central to relationships. In a world seduced by control, we struggle with two polar opposites.

On the one hand, out of fear of boredom we seek to be stimulated, entertained, woke or otherwise exercised. The internet is a shopping center for customized fake news, fake/real fights, dog/cat videos, porn -- whatever suits our fancy. Whether we want to feel superior, victimized, angry, entertained, sad, scared, aroused – we dial up just the fix we want. Like a sugar high, it temporarily fills the hole in our soul, but when it’s over we crash – ultimately leaving that hole further hollowed-out.

On the other hand, out of our fear of real-life pain and relational conflict, we avoid and deny. We default to “relationship-less” channels for everything from purchasing dog food to how to program your garage door opener – at our fingertips online, no relational interaction required.

We choose our news from CNN or Fox but not both. We lean on confirmation bias to distort reality and avoid cognitive dissonance: the feeling of discomfort and stress that comes from facing conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors.

We avoid neighborhoods, schools, groups that make us uncomfortable. Not only do we choose private or home schooling to protect our kids – we choose our own enlarged version of “home schooling” to protect us from life. Healthy disagreement – absent meaningful relationships with “other” – metastasizes into contempt. While we may be justifiably concerned about the resilience of our kids who prefer safe zones over dealing with adversity, speech that offends, and groups that see the world differently, what about our own resiliency as mature adults?

Building Relational Space

If we are to turn around this relational crowding-out, we must start by intentionally allocating more space – time, intellectual openness, emotional capacity – to relationships that might make us uncomfortable. Let me suggest reserving three types of relational space.

1. Interaction space. We must intentionally reserve and protect space for interacting: five minutes for pre-/post- meeting chit-chat, device-free talk-time at a meal, “hanging out.” The term “hanging out” became popular for a reason – it refers to unscheduled, unfilled space for relationship.

2. “Other” space: Allocating space for “others” not like us is like visiting another land. They know things, have insights and offer gifts not available in our comfort zone. “Other” invites innovation, learning and new reality and can chip away at our smugness. It might even enable humility and forgiveness -- a special kind of relational space. How much space are “others,” who might make you uncomfortable – black/white, male/female, conservative/progressive, urban/rural – occupying? As my wife reminds me, check the pictures and notes in your social media news feed – do they all look just like you?

3. Mystery space: Our love affair with knowing the answer and being right – in politics, faith, belief – leaves little space to discuss ever-present mystery. Mystery is a powerful catalyst for exploration, learning – and inviting relational discourse. Got mystery?

All we are say-ing…is give space a chance – especially uncomfortable space.

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