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Magic From the Mess; Discovering the Power of Roles

Raging Water Business relationships are wonderfully interesting creatures. Sometimes a partnership will just roll along, everything progressing well, with everyone getting along. Then some situation or misunderstanding or difference of opinion will get things roiled up, and the relationship stalls for a while. Very quickly the partnership is in the middle of a mess. There are undercurrents, turbulence in the system. Usually we say we're having "people problems", and may assume that these have been caused by the other person. We may even think we wouldn't have the problem if that person was not they way they were. There are, however, other and more useful perspectives to hold in this situation.

"People problem" situations can be separated from individual personalities. We quite often personalize the initiator of turbulence; say things like "Joe is difficult to get along with" or "Maryanne is negative" to explain the situation. However, let's try on another perspective – that of the relationship as a functional system. Detach the behavior from the personality of the individual, and look at individuals as playing roles; Joe has the role of The Cautious One, and Maryanne has the role of The Skeptic. When you stand back and look around at what's happening in the system from a role perspective, other roles become apparent: The Initiator, The Optimist, The Nurturer, The Risk-taker, to name just a few. Not only is this a more compassionate perspective regarding the behavior, but it also is useful for seeing the functional dynamics of the relationship system.

Roles are important to the healthy functioning of a relationship system. There are many roles in a relationship system, so here we're exploring Inner Roles, not roles such as such as "director, or "vice president". Inner Roles are the functions that individuals take on for the healthy functioning of the system. This is as true for groups of people as it as for partnerships. The roles that get played out on a team or in a partnership, are natural and necessary to the functioning of the system. The natural give and take between roles is like the breathing in and the breathing out of a system –- as fundamental and necessary to life as that.

Two lions. And very often roles are paired, playing off of each other. The role of Cautious One gets created because the other person has taken on the role of Risk-taker. The function of the Cautious One may be to slow things down, so that things don't move more quickly down a path than the relationship is comfortable with, so things can be thought through more fully. Or perhaps the role of Skeptic is created to play counterpoint to the Optimist. The Skeptic may provide the couple a safety net for looking at the dissenting point of view and so help the couple come to a better decision, taking more into account. Even though some of these roles may be difficult to be around, they exist to serve an important purpose to the relationship.

Also roles in systems can be fluid, can move around. In a well-functioning relationship system, the roles can move from one person to the other. The person who is the Voice of Caution at one discussion might be an Initiator at another discussion. Sometimes it can even happen in the same discussion! People do not have to be stuck in roles. They can try out new ones, if they can trust that someone else will take on the role they've been playing for the relationship. Role reversal can be highly illuminating to a relationship.

Intentionally switching roles can clarify its function to the system. Try exchange roles, making sure that the hand-off has fully happened. (No taking back the role too soon!) Have the person in the new role express the function they are providing. Explore the value that point of view is providing for the relationship. What is useful about it? Whether we are talking about a team or a partnership, new understanding can emerge. Things can settle down, and start moving more smoothly. Collaboration and fun can increase. This is a great way for a relationship system to "prime the pump" of their creative problem solving in the midst of turbulence. It allows new solutions to come to the surface, deeper understandings to be created, or useful perspectives to be voiced.

Rusting fan. So think back to your own relationships. What are all the roles that you have provided for the relationship? When have you been the Skeptic, and when the Initiator? What other roles showed up in the other person? How easily did the roles move from one person to another? When might you or another been "stuck" in a role and what did that do to the functioning of the relationship? When you had the other role to bounce up against, what ideas or solutions came out of this that might not have come forward without the spark of that dialogue?

For that is when the magic happens; when all of the voices, in all of the roles, are allowed to speak and be heard. It's not necessarily a comfortable place to be when all these voices are being expressed. It's not always a pretty sight -– it can feel like it's getting awfully messy. And it can create something magical, something so much better than what can be created by one voice alone. New dreams can be created; new possibilities uncovered. This is the power of relationships, that their ability to "make something new happen" is greater that the sum of all the people in the system. Magic can be created from the mess.

And that is my wish for you. I wish that you experience magic from the mess. That you become skilled at separating the role from the individual. That you learn to see the healthy function, the usefulness, of even the roles that are difficult to be around. Learn to see past what is being said and the way it's being said, to the underlying function that a voice serves. Through doing this you will free up your ability to be in the midst of the mess and find new understanding from it; perhaps a new dream can get created. And if you want additional support for making this happen, call me; that's what I'm here for -- to help teams and partnerships move through the mess to create new possibilities together.

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