The stories and personal histories we bring to our jobs inform how we feel about our co-workers, and Perel is a master at pointing out the contradictions between what people say and what they do. Her TED Talks on infidelity and the secret to desire in long-term relationships have been viewed more than 38 million times in total.
The same competing needs for security and freedom that she talks about in romantic relationships can apply to professional relationships, too. In each episode of Perel’s podcast “How’s Work?,” she facilitates a one-time therapy session between dueling colleagues, business partners or bosses and direct reports.
In the most recent season, the podcast covered what it’s like to work during an indefinite pandemic, from feelings of total disengagement to having a shorter fuse with colleagues who just don’t get it.
You are not alone, in other words, if you are feeling stuck at your job or at a dead end with your colleagues and are seeking advice right now. Here are some pieces of wisdom Perel shared in her podcast that you can apply to your next issue at work:
1. If you want to stop a blow-up from happening, remind squabbling colleagues of their shared goals.
Perel is an expert at redirecting a heated conversation onto safer ground. One of her techniques that you can steal when pulled into the next office conflict is to remind your co-workers up front of where they align and the best-case scenario that could result from a difficult conversation.
Take what happens in the episode “My Promotion Ended Our Friendship.” A community organizer feels betrayed by a co-worker who got a promotion without telling them. The co-worker wasn’t sorry to advance, but didn’t want her friend the community organizer to avoid her as a result.
It was a tense dynamic, but Perel kickstarts their session by asking each of them, “What’s the best thing that can come out of our conversation today? What’s your wildest dream for a positive outcome?”
The community organizer says their goal is to feel like they can trust their friend again, while the friend says she wants to be closer, too.
Perel points out that each person nodded when the other spoke about their goals. “So you see that you’re on the same wavelength,” she says, before diving into the sensitive parts of what led the friendship to deteriorate.
It’s a tactful way to remind each person of their shared purpose when the conversation gets hard.
2. Figure out your own conflict style so you can understand the other person better.
What becomes clear in each episode is that every person plays a role in an argument ― and that to stop “repetitive loops” and the “state of chronic bickering,” as Perel puts it, you need to find out what your role is.
In one episode, a pastry chef is frustrated by how his business partner always wants a problem solved immediately, while he needs time to process. The business partner feels that if he doesn’t address the problem immediately, it will not get solved.
Here’s how Perel describes the dynamic that these two business partners, and many other professionals, get stuck in: “Basically, one person says, ‘Go on the attack,’ and the other person says, ‘Wait, wait, wait. Let’s think it through. Let’s strategize. Let’s see what is feasible to do.’ And then one will tell the other, ’You’re way too impulsive.’ And the other one says, ‘You’re way too slow and way too passive,’” she says. “And this dance between acting and thinking is so pervasive in relationships.”
Once you can see your pattern, you can learn to observe when it’s happening and try to understand what your colleague is actually trying to say behind their hurt feelings.
3. If you push back against your boss, they need to hear more than just a “no.”
In one episode, a boss views an employee who directly reports to her as passively disengaged during the pandemic, while the employee sees her boss as someone who does not listen to her input, so she stops trying to give it.
During the session, the prospect of the employee taking the lead on a hiring fair comes up. The employee asks if the best option would be for other team members to handle it, since it’s a task she doesn’t feel engaged about.
Perel points out that her repeated no’s are being read by her manager as disinterest.
“Do you know that what she would like to hear from you is not what you cannot do, but what you would like to learn to do better?” Perel tells the employee. “You’re talking about … ‘No to this, no to that, can’t here, can’t there.’ And what she wants is to sense an energy.”
It’s a helpful reminder that if you want to decline something your boss asks of you, you should offer a solution for where your talents are better used.
4. If you ultimately quit, don’t allow it to be a negative story of failure.
In several episodes, Perel consoles professionals who feel ambivalent about leaving the fields in which they burned out.
Those who have a hard time with having quit a job in which they invested years of their life see the decision as a failure. “If there’s anyone who doesn’t have a reason to quit, it’s me,” says a doctor who feels guilty about quitting when no one else in his family has done so.
The language of how you talk about your exit matters. Before you can share the news with anyone else, you have to learn how to talk about it to yourself. Hearing self-loathing in the doctor’s word choice, Perel offers up some positive reframings.
“He could say, ‘I would like to change,’” she says. “He could say, ‘I would like to try something else that I’ve been wanting to do a long time.’ He could say, ‘I would like to take some of the skills and begin practicing medicine in a different context.’”
You cannot have a fresh start if you see your new job as a fallback plan, Perel points out to a model who is undecided about her career exit strategy of studying psychology.
“I would really hope that you not leave one ambivalent relationship with a profession to create another ambivalent relationship with another profession,” Perel tells the model in the episode. “Behind it somewhere is, ‘I couldn’t really be with the person I really wanted to be, so I married the other one.’“
By the end of the session, Perel helps the model reframe her decision in the more positive language of how she did pursue modeling, but it “didn’t fully take me to the places where I had been promised as a teenage girl.”
5. Some co-worker conflicts are not just about individual misunderstandings. They’re tied to historic injustices.
One podcast episode involves the fallout after two lobbyists and “work spouses” disagreed on why their close friendship ended. The Black supervisor believed his white employee left their company over being underpaid, while the white employee said she felt like her supervisor was asking her to step aside so that people of color could be elevated.
Both felt like the other failed them.
“You on some level want to individualize this and say, ‘But it’s me,’” Perel tells the white woman. “And he, on some level, is saying to you, ‘There is you, but then there is that bigger thing and you’re just one person in it, and I cannot just make it about you and me. I can never leave the macro frame of race, of gender, of power, of money, of double standards.’“
As the episode shows, the only way the pair can start to listen to each other is when they start to examine the assumptions they’ve each made about the other. It’s a reminder to put individual relationship dynamics in their larger social context, because those are the stories that are always present in decision-making rooms.
As Perel puts it in a different episode, “We all have a résumé that is the official résumé, and we all have our relational dowry that is the unofficial résumé, and it all comes with you.”