3 Practices to Create Relational Tipping Points

Todd Hall
April 27, 2015

Work is hard. But it’s even harder when you feel misunderstood, disconnected, alone, and unlovable. These common feelings are often based on relational filters that can have a profound impact on our work. We all have filters in our head that say, "I'm not ______ enough." Or, "I'm too ______." Or “Everyone thinks I’m ______." Clearly, these negative relational filters can hinder your performance and sense of meaning in your work.

Joanna's Story of Anxiety, Emotional Neglect, and Negative Filters

Joanna* is an executive I worked with who suffered from anxiety due to emotional neglect in her childhood. Her filter, "Eventually, everyone will leave me," hindered her work performance and vitality in numerous ways. She froze under pressure; was too timid to speak her mind, fearful of exploration, and too anxious to tap into her creativity. She was miserable and her talents were under-utilized. Your negative filters shape your expectations and relationships in your personal and work life. They hinder your overall well-being and decrease your performance over the long haul.

The Relational Tipping Point: A Moment of Profound Impact

There are moments in our lives, however, that have a profound impact on how we feel about ourselves, sometimes changing us for good. I call these “relational tipping points”—those moments when deep change takes effect. They are the result of perfect love for the moment. These moments occur in our work context because we develop emotional bonds with our co-workers and leaders, at least symbolically. They reveal that we are loved into leading with connection.

Joanna's relational tipping point: "Perfect love for the moment"

At one point, Joanna encountered a very difficult and risky situation at work that no one was addressing. She was anxious, but this time she pushed through her anxiety, went beyond her normal scope, and intervened to get the situation resolved. Her boss called her to discuss it, and she anxiously expected to get reprimanded at best, fired at worst. Instead, he asked her how it all unfolded, and thanked her for how well she handled the situation. She was moved to tears on her way home that day because something deep inside her had changed for good. Perfect love for that moment. For Joanna, this was a marking point on a new pathway of growth. These moments somehow sneak past our filters and actually change them. Even if they are seemingly small, these changes put us on a different path.

3 Ways to Create Relational Tipping Points

Here are three practices to help you foster your own relational tipping points.

1. Show up. Relational tipping points aren't magic. But you can create the conditions that facilitate them. Individual or group coaching, psychotherapy, assessments—all of these work, but you have to continue to show up and trust that the process is working, even when nothing seems to be changing inside. Early on, you may need to borrow that trust from a mentor who is a bit further down the path. Joanna had been intentionally working with me for some time and there were periods when she struggled without seeing any change. But she pushed through the fear and uncertainty and continued to show up.

2. Engage in deliberate reflection. Part of how Joanna and I worked on her development was through deliberate reflection. High-performance experts understand the importance of deliberate practice, and this applies to personal and leadership development as well. You can develop the habit of regularly reflecting on your emotions, especially during challenging situations. First ask yourself, "What am I feeling?" Take an accepting and compassionate stance toward yourself. Next, try to understand the source of your emotions. There are always good reasons for your emotions. Instead of judging them, try to accept and understand them. Doing this will create openness to new, positive information about yourself getting in, and sticking.

3. Be the tipping point for others. Connected leaders, like Joanna’s boss, look for ways to help their team members grow. That means acting as a positive tipping point. This brings us to the triad of compassion: notice-feel-act. First, notice your co-worker’s feelings and emotions. Next, empathize with those feelings; chances are you’ve experienced them before. Finally, allow your empathy to move you to act with compassion, and speak uplifting words. You have to notice and tune into what others are feeling, and then respond in a positive way that disconfirms their negative expectation—perfect love for that moment. Relational tipping points are the spark to create more meaning and excellence in our work. What are your relational tipping points? In the comments below, describe what happened, and how it affected you and your work.

*Name and some details have been changed to protect confidentiality. This post originally appeared on the hci.org blog.

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