I found lots of tools for supporting interpersonal relationships, including workplace dynamics, at a mindfulness-based counselling workshop I recently attended, offered by Hakomi Edmonton. I wrote about one in my last blog on different staff needs, values, and motivations.
One of the most useful tools I gained at the workshop is the idea of expansive and contracted selves, or, being our big and little selves. After sharing it with my colleagues Volunteer Alberta, I thought other nonprofit staff may also find it helpful.
How to be the Bigger Person in our work
When it comes to interpersonal relationships, how do you choose to be a bigger person at work? And how can you tell whether you are showing up as a big or little self so that you can opt for being ‘big’?
Here are three important steps:
1. Understand ‘who’ is talking
Imagine your best self – the version of yourself that is kind and respectful, brave and honest, committed to your values and ideals, hardworking and optimistic, reflective and mature, fair and willing to give the benefit of the doubt. This is your expansive, or ‘big’ self
We don’t always show up like this.
We all have times when we feel hurt, confused, scared, inexperienced, tested, angry, or frustrated, and the contracted, or ‘little’ side of us bubbles up to the surface. We start to play games, point fingers, build defenses, and assume the worst of others. We act like we did when we were children, except we have the smokescreen of looking and sounding like adults.
We act like this because our ‘little’ self believes we are not going to get our needs met – whatever those needs are – and starts to use the strategies we learned when we were young to beat the system: maybe acting out, maybe making someone else responsible, or maybe apologizing profusely to cover our butts.
Is it a good idea to let a four, eight, or even thirteen-year-old try to navigate professional adult relationships? Children just don’t have the tools, so let’s kindly get them out of the situation.
2. Examine ‘how’ we are relating to others
How do you know if you are expanded or contracted? Both selves have valid needs and a wide range of emotions, but different behaviour. We relate to others from three perspectives: I, you, and we. In each of these perspectives, we have the opportunity to be our ‘big’ or ‘little’ selves.
You’re thinking about yourself when you are in ‘I’ perspective.
What are my needs, how am I going to communicate them, and how will I get them met?
Big I’s know that we have a right to our needs and that our needs are important. Big I’s are straightforward, confident, and respectful.
Little i’s don’t think we are going to get our needs met, and start using sneaky strategies to try to make sure we get what we need. This could look like playing games, lying, or being passive aggressive.
You are stressed out. Your boss has assigned you too much work and the only way to finish it all is to come in on weekends.
Big I: You tell your boss that you have too much on your plate and that you won’t be able to complete it all. You know you are only paid for a 40-hour week, and you need to fix the problem so that you aren’t working unpaid overtime.
Little i: You don’t believe your boss values your time, or maybe they are so bad at their job that the work keeps filtering down to you. You pretend to lose emails assigning you new work, or play sick to get much-needed time off.
You’re thinking about the other person when you’re in ‘you’ perspective.
What do they need and how can I help them get it?
Big You’s know that other people have important needs and that, sometimes, they are even more important than our own needs. Big You’s are helpful and supportive, as well as aware of our own strengths and limits to assisting others.
Little you’s worry that focussing on others will mean our own needs won’t get met. Little you’s help other people only when we think it will help ourselves.
Your colleague is sick and they were supposed to run a workshop today. You’ve been asked to step in.
Big You: Right now you are able to do the workshop and your colleagues isn’t. Your work isn’t as pressing, so you are able to step up and help them out of a tight spot.
Little you: You believe you’re always shortchanged when other people can’t fulfill their responsibilities. You’ll help this time because it will make you look good in your upcoming evaluation, but your colleague better pay you back or they are getting the cold shoulder.
You’re thinking about everyone when you are in ‘we’ perspective.
How do we all get what we need? What strategies can we use to take care of all of us?
Big We’s value everyone’s best interests and believe there are solutions that can work for everyone, so that you can succeed together. Big We’s are collaborative and flexible.
Little we’s have learned relationships are necessary, but believe one person will always be the winner and want to make sure they don’t lose out. This means taking turns and keeping score, with resentment as soon as something seems unfair.
Your organization needs funding and doesn’t have a designated grant writer. Someone has to take time away from their regular work to write a grant application.
Big We: This grant would benefit all of your work – you will pick who will write it based on their skills and availability, and all of you can work together to make sure any missed work is handled within the department.
Little we: You can write the grant this time, but that means another colleague will have to do it next time to keep things fair. You make sure to remind your colleague that they have less on their plate this time around as you juggle the application and your regular work.
3. Start taking steps toward being a bigger person
Half the battle is being able to recognize when you are being ‘big’ or ‘little’ with your colleagues, boss, team, clients, volunteers, and stakeholders.
As you start noticing what helps you stay expansive (so that everyone can win), see where your stumbling blocks are. Then check in – how would your best self make sure you get your needs met using all the skills, wisdom, and compassion you have as an adult?
Recognizing these approaches in other people can also help you respond empathetically and model expansive behaviour until the other person is able to meet you there, rather than taking the bait and joining them in a contracted state.