Conflicting needs and desires are an inevitable part of life. Here is an excellent case that Peter Koestenbaum, an executive coach with a background in philosophy, recounted to Polly La Barre in an interview in Fast Company magazine. He tells the story of a young couple. The husband was promoted and transferred to Cairo. He goes home and excitedly tells his wife, but she is not so positive. She tells him that she is not taking her new baby to Cairo. If he wants to go, he will have to go alone. It was a serious conflict. If he gave up his promotion, he would be forever resentful of her for destroying his career. If she went to Cairo, she would be forever resentful for his insensitivity to her and her baby. The only solution was to ask very fundamental questions. Is it my career or our career? It is your baby or our baby? Are we individuals, or do we operate as a team? What are our values?
Such questions are transformational. In asking these questions, each of them came to a new awareness. His career was important to her. His role in the family was important to him. Once these answers became clear, a change took place. Each one had a new definition of self. They went to Cairo, but they were able to make the decision without resentment because they were operating on a new and surer foundation. The what of the decision was less important than the how of deciding. The couple returned to their purpose — not their individual purpose but to their purpose as a couple. If we are a team, why does our relationship exist? If we have a greater purpose than self, what does that mean for this moment? What is our purpose? Are we committed to that purpose? If the answer is yes, how does that fact change our perspectives when it comes to differences? What kind of couple, group, or organization are we? What kind do we want to be? What individual changes are we willing to make for our collective purpose? Such questions lead to the further clarification of values and purpose that can improve the quality of our lives.
The conflict over Cairo could be any conflict faced by people in any personal or work relationship. Life is full of such potential conflicts. We normally react to conflict by withdrawing. But we sometimes engage in arguing the facts and then start to use leverage, power and domination. This only contributes to sick relationships, haunted by power struggles and bad feelings. Each person sees his or her own needs pitted against the needs of the other person. Each assumes that the only solution is for one person to win and for the other to lose. To get to win-win requires you to recognize differentiations as legitimate, and to see and value the connections between them. It requires a deeper level of understanding and a change in perspective.
My first year of college I kept asking what I should major in. I kept trying to solve that problem and kept getting nowhere. Then the question changed. I began asking, “Until now, what was the most meaningful thing I ever did?” That’s when my problem disappeared. I instantly moved to a deeper level. I moved closer to my fundamental values and purpose. When we clarify our purpose, progress is inevitable.
We must recognize that the emphasis is not on solutions, but on how we are. Our attitude, our outlook, our being state. We begin to see that we exist only in our relationships and that the quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives.
There is so much in our lives that call on us to see the world selfishly. From the middle of the bell curve we see a Darwinian struggle. By that I mean that we see everything in terms of competition, illusions that are arrogant and self-indulgent. We want to win at all costs. In that state we are externally driven and self-focused. To move beyond these self-indulgent illusions, we have to grapple with polarities, and that is hard work. It means consistently redefining self, clarifying purpose, and looking at why each relationship matters. It means recognizing connection. It means recognizing the foolishness of self-centered behaviors. Our selfishness is a joke — a deadly serious, self-destructive joke, but a joke nonetheless.