If I boil things right down to their essence, the five years of my doctoral studies were spent examining how individuals navigate difference in supportive relationships at work. Which feels quite timely right now, as harsh, divisive words are exchanged between Republicans and Democrats in the US, between the US President and the media, between Brexiteers and Remainers in the UK, between the UK and Europe - and the list goes on.
I was in the States last week when words tipped over into violence – insults traded for explosives and people gunned down while they prayed. At a time when some introspection about personal responsibility among those exerting power is desperately needed, we seem intent instead on looking to the other to attribute blame: so the mailed bombs are a Democrat conspiracy, Brexiters made the wrong choice and a second referendum is needed to secure the right one. Arguments are deployed that seek only to polarise us further. The middle ground of cool-headed debate and finding shared values has been abandoned, eipitomised perhaps by the departure of the centrist politician Nick Clegg from the toxic environment of UK politics to the relative nirvana and much bigger pay cheques of Facebook corporate communications). In the midst of this, it seemed to be a fortuitous gift that I fell upon the work of Edith Eger (“The Choice” 2017). An Auschwitz survivor left by the end of the second world war at the very boundary between life and death, she recounts her awe-inspiring struggles to rebuild her life and achieve some degree of inner peace, offering up her experiences and those of her clients later on in life as learning for her readers. And there is a lot that can be learned.
In her post-war practice as a clinical psychologist Eger was influenced by the empathetic and person-centred approach of Carl Rogers. She managed to deploy those skills in the most testing of situations. Faced with a 14-year-old neo-Nazi whose aim is “for America to be white again” and who openly proclaims that he wants to kill all Jews, she fights both her revulsion and her feeling of righteous hatred for him. Instead she looks for the bigot in herself, the part of her that is judgemental and diminishing of others, to find her connection with him. In doing so and in letting him talk in an environment where she does not censure him she is able to find the lost child in him whom she can relate to and she offers him another picture of himself and his worth. And together they make progress. It’s an extraordinary passage that offers a picture of how today’s divisions might begin to be reconciled if only we can look for our shared humanity in each other.
In a much smaller way, this was the process I observed in my PhD subjects’ experiences of their mentoring relationships. In our times successful older men are seen as unfairly hogging power and conversely sometimes feel threatened by initiatives to promote more women; women are frequently underpaid, underrepresented and mistreated – a recipe for mutual bad feeling. Against this backdrop, my male company-chairman mentors and their female mentees came together and created positive supporting, developmental relationships built on trust, connection and shared experiences. Of different genders, sometimes different generations and from different industries they established trust rapidly through the connections they shared. Their relationships provided them with what they described as a safe space for discussing difficult challenges at work and also for navigating their differences. The male chairmen began to understand better the obstacles that women can face, hearing them first hand from their mentees, and the mentees found – often to their surprise - that they shared both common experiences and values with their mentors.
At the heart of the best supportive relationships are relational models centred on trust, disclosure, mutual care, mutuality and openness to learning. All of these elements are remarkable in their absence from current political discourse.Perhaps if we each try to place relational dynamics at the heart of our own interactions, we can begin to build a path towards progress and better politics