Reflection 38: Three Dimensions of Love

As a psychotherapist in private practice, coaching couples is one of my abiding passions. Indeed, it was the transformative couples work that my wife, Dale, and I did in the 1990s that was the catalyst for each of us becoming a therapist.

Intimate romantic relationship is a recurring theme in the Reflection series. I have written about its enormous potential for healing and growth (#33), and how to fight more effectively (#53). I have also offered strategies for more effectively being with your romantic partner – at times of conflict (## 3 and 86) and, in calmer times, when things are going more smoothly (#10). I have also written extensively about the challenge of moving through the patriarchal patterns that are so engrained in our culture and so deeply affect our intimate relationships (## 57, 61, 69, and 72).

My goal in this Reflection is to pull the lens back and to describe the multiple levels at which committed romantic partnerships operate.

There has been so much really good thinking about romantic relationship in the last 20 years or so, and practicing therapists have been at the forefront. It is easy to see why. Couples therapists are on the firing line every day of their professional lives; dealing with real issues, in real time. They need to search for better ways – now.

And the feedback is immediate. We can see, all too vividly, what works and what doesn’t. In this context, the old cliché definitely applies: Necessity is the mother of invention.

But the context in which couples therapists work – helpful as it is – also has a distorting perspective. Because our sample is skewed toward couples in active crisis, we tend to become experts in relationship breakdowns. And since the urgent first priority is, so often, to re-establish a workable level of communication, our attention tends to be skewed toward those issues. The result: Much of what we therapists teach to couples focuses on active listening and other techniques to improve communication.

This, I believe, is unfortunate. Once the crisis is over, couples still long for guidance in building a more lively and joyful relationship. Getting from here to there – as Dale and I have discovered in the years since our own work with a couples therapist ended – requires far more than the communication skills that are the bread and butter of couples work.

In seeking to guide my clients as they explore this upside of coupledom, I have evolved the following multi-level view of relationship:

  1. Listening and Sharing (Communication);
  2. Loving and Being Loved;
  3. Claiming and Being Claimed.

In the discussion that follows, I discuss these factors in the context of intimate romantic partnership. Note, however, that their value extends beyond the couples context. While the levels of intimacy and boundaries you set will differ – depending on the person involved – these same principles will also enrich your relationships with other family members, friends, and members of your communities of choice.


To say that communication is only one aspect of the couples equation does not, of course, detract from its foundational importance. Indeed, living in a world that models and rewards shrill assertiveness, our engrained deficits in this area are endemic. Given this cultural context, special attention to listening skills is a vital corrective.

Good listening requires more than just hearing the words. It also requires a patient assimilation to the mood or “music” of the communication. In addition, hearing your partner is not enough. You also need to ensure, as best you can, that your partner “knows that you know.”

Still another a vital aspect of good listening is not to change the subject prematurely. As well intentioned as an “I’m sorry” can be, for example, it needs to come after your partner feels that his or her grievance has been fully heard. For a fuller discussion of this aspect of listening and sharing, see Reflection #82 Intimacy – Not Changing the Subject.

With all of our well-deserved emphasis on listening, we also need to remember that communication is two-way street; that we, in our turn, need to be open and vivid with our thoughts and feelings. A generous and patient listener who fails to disclose his or her difficult or unpleasant feelings may feel virtuous – and is often seen as the “good guy.” But if intimacy is the goal, that approach is flawed. Absent honest and contactful sharing on both sides, a true meeting of two people – the essence of intimacy – is impossible.

A final point on communication: Like every other level of relationship I discuss in this Reflection, there is a rhythm to the back and forth of offering and receiving that is, in the end, art and not science. Taking turns may work – but it may not. It all depends on the “dance” that the particular couple evolves over time. Indeed, in some of the most constructive, intimacy building conversations that Dale and I have had, one or the other of us has been a marathon “sender.” On this point, the most that can be said is this: Be alive to the issue, open to possibilities, and patient and trusting of the process.


The second level of intimate relationship – loving and being loved – is not as obvious as it may seem. One very common problem is the confusion, heavily promoted by the messages of the mainstream culture, between love the noun and love the verb.

We are all familiar with the first, that feeling of being powerfully drawn to another person. But all too often in our culture, the declaration – “I love you” – is offered as though it answers all questions.

It doesn’t.

In the movie Chasing Amy, the Ben Affleck character, gripped by that “in love” feeling impulsively turns to Amy and declares his feelings. Amy, with remarkable clear headedness, is furious calling him out on the thoughtlessness: “I am a lesbian. I have a life. And you are messing with it.”

Her point: A feeling (love, the noun) does not negate an insensitive act (love, the verb).

Seeking to love your partner, in this action-oriented sense, is a skill that needs to be cultivated. Growing up, we are habituated to a particular style of loving and offering love in that way – the one you know best – is important. Since your partner’s “channels of love” are typically different from yours, you are in this way acting as his teacher, expanding his repertoire for loving. But to be fully effective, you also need to offer love on your partner’s channel as well.

The second aspect of “love, the verb” – one that receives far too little attention – is to warmly accept your partner’s acts of love. Indeed, many people instinctually see aspect of loving as an act of selfishness and self-absorption; something to be soft-pedaled, even avoided.

What you need to remember, at these times, is the wonderful feeling you have when you successfully love your partner. Recalling these moments, the importance of being a warm and active receiver of her acts of love – allowing her to experience that same feeling in return – will become obvious.

A significant challenge, here, grows out of a key difference between loving and being loved. The first is an active sport. You do something. You initiate an action. Being loved, on the other hand, is more passive. You need to be open and receptive to what your partner offers. Implicit, then, on the being loved side of the equation is the challenge of trusting and letting go – no small thing for many of us.

Finally, remember this: To accomplish this vital goal of a mutually loving relationship, an essential precondition is to consistently ask for what you want and need. Why? Because offering this vivid roadmap for how you want to be loved, sets your partner up for success as your lover. The key, however, is to avoid any sense that your “asks” are veiled (or not so veiled) “demands,” since the joy of loving only comes when it is offered as a gift.


The final level of intimate relationship, “claiming,” typically shows up as a visceral, passionate, take-no-prisoners declaration – expressed verbally, energetically, and through bold acts:

You are mine, fully mine, no matter what.

Our longing to be claimed is inextricably bound up with our need to cope with the realities that frame our existence as self-conscious beings, aware of our fate. Simply put, we are here through no choice of our own; we, and everyone we love, will leave, again through no choice on our part; and there is no roadmap for what to do, while we are here. Given these unalterable facts, we long for a feeling of belonging that – in its sheer passion, power, and completeness – can offer psychic surcease from these grim existential realities.

Needless to say, claiming is an aspect of relationship that lends itself to abuse through domination and control. But if I am are right in assuming that it is a deeply engrained, human longing, the appropriate response – faced with these risks – is not to avoid claiming but to manage it with maturity and wisdom.


Being more fully aware of these different dimensions of love expands our view of what is possible. It also allows us to better name our varying skills – his at claiming; hers at sharing; his at listening; hers at being loved. Doing so, we are better able to see our partner, not as an adversary – to be challenged when he fails to do what we do so instinctually and well – but as a teacher who brings his own special aptitudes and skills to the relationship. And with this growing awareness, we increasingly become partners in creating a relationship that nourishes and soothes both partners’ deepest needs and longings.

Reflection 37: Challenging Our Comfort Zones

I vividly remember my first encounter with Howard Lesnick, over 40 years ago.

Pacing ominously (to me) behind a podium, starring threateningly at a seating chart (“please God, don’t let him call on me!”), Professor Lesnick intoned “Hall, Horton, Heck.” Sitting, alphabetically, a couple of seats down – in my first class, on my first day of law school – I could feel the tension jumping off of Terry Hall’s body as he reluctantly struggled to his feet: Our first encounter with the Socratic method.

When I was re-introduced to Howard, years later, I found that he was no ordinary law professor. An original and iconoclastic thinker, he is one of those rare people whose insights are balanced, fair-minded and, at the same time, unsparing in their directness.


This Reflection series, I know, violates a number of rules that the mainstream experts insist are pre-requisites to success as blogger, not the least of which is that I don’t limit myself to one page and a single, easy to digest idea – per Reflection. For this reason, I have enormous respect for my readers, imagining that you are people who deeply care about issues of decency, equity and justice – just the kind of people I most like and respect.

For this reason, I know that, at times, I pull my punches; joining with you in decrying the culture’s obvious excesses but, then, glossing over the ways in which you and I – deeply affected by the problematic values that surround us – also fall short.

But decency is not a comparative sport. If we hope to live up to our ambitious goals, we also need to name and challenge our own shortcomings, blind spots, and fears.

One of Howard Lesnick’s special virtues is the forthright way in which he raises uncomfortable issues. In the examples set forth below, he directly challenges people like us to do better.

  1. To my final “hopeful thought” in another Reflection – that we have the power to change what history has created – Howard adds this: “In the meantime, each person has the responsibility to decide for himself or herself whether . . . to act on the recognition that there may be some significant room to make life choices that are not dictated by ‘historical choices.’ ”
  1. In Listening for God: Religion and Moral Discernment (1998), Howard cuts to the heart of the moral and intellectual challenge, implicit in this responsibility, “cautioning against” “taking the rightness of parental preference for granted” in a society where “the degree of parental preference is far too extensive to be morally justified.”
  1. Finally, there is Howard’s skepticism toward a “do your own thing” approach to social justice: “I do not belief in the avalanche theory of change; that individual choices by millions and millions of good-hearted people will alter the world.”

In what follows, I elaborate on each of these points.


As creatures of habit, we humans are deeply wedded to a wide variety of engrained, taken-for-granted outlooks and behaviors that allow us to move through our days more easily. These comfort zones are our unconscious ways of adapting to what is: To our family, community, culture, and innate disposition.

At one level, these adaptations are positive. They orient us in life, play a key role in defining our place in the world, and simplify our choices. But if meaningful change is the goal, they are inherently problematic, for two reasons.

First, because the culture’s pervasive indecency is the context within which we live, most of our comfort zones – crafted to fit in and get by in that world – are complicit with those values.

In addition, our comfort zones are instinctual adaptations that emerge over time, with little or no conscious intent on our part. As a result, the choices they dictate don’t feel like choices at all. They are, instead, the “right” or the “only” thing to do. Other choices, if they are considered at all, automatically register in our gut as wrong, inappropriate or, simply, uncomfortable and far too risky.

The result? We wind up making choices that thoroughly enmesh us in the culture’s mainstream ways of operating – with far too little control over the process.

This, I believe, is the issue Howard addresses in the comments cited above. He is challenging us to do the uncomfortable work of naming these unrecognized comfort zones and, doing so, to “make life choices that are not dictated by” the mainstream culture’s predominant values.

And Howard, being Howard, he does not temporize with his examples. Instead, he speaks directly to two of our most prevalent comfort zones; instinctual adaptations that – while seldom seen as such – are instrumental in short-circuiting the efforts of otherwise well-intentioned people, like us, to make the difficult choices that a committed Radical Decency practice require.


Howard’s first example is an over emphasis on childrearing. While recognizing it as a legitimate priority, he forthrightly points to the high price we pay when the focus on our children becomes excessive and unbounded, calling it “morally unjustified.”

The point he is making plays out the lives of the many well-intentioned people. Relentlessly focused on what is “best” for the kids, bolder choices – choices that meaningfully diverge from our conventional ways of living – become impossible.

  • We “have” to live in a more expensive neighborhood, with better schools – for the kids.
  • We “have” to keep working long hours at spirit deadening jobs to buy “this,” to join “that,” and to pay for the best college – again, for the kids.
  • And in whatever spare time exists, the children’s homework and overstuffed extra-curricular schedules are our unquestioned priorities.

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with any of these choices. It’s just that, with this relentless focus on the kids, there is, quite simply, no time, money or psychic energy left over for study, personal growth, community and political activism, or other possibilities that might lead to a different kind of life and a more meaningful contribution to a better world.

The unacknowledged driver of this process is a deep ambivalence, on parents’ part, toward the mainstream culture. By their choices, they are implicitly saying this: While alternative ways of living seem sensible in theory and may be ok for me, they are just too risky for my beloved children.

For them, better to play it safe: Top grades at the “best” schools and gold plated extra-curricular records – leading, hopefully, to prestigious and highly paid careers. In effect, these parents are seeking to have it both ways: To raise the kids with better values but also to make them into successful competitors – just in case.

This approach is fatally flawed. A relentless focus on competing and winning works no better for kids than it does for adults – as the explosion of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and suicide among children and teens attest. So sadly, with all of the parents’ well-intentioned sacrifice, the children wind up living the very lives the parents long to escape.


Howard’s second example focuses on our tendency to uncritically applaud change oriented activities that grow out of a person’s special interest or passion – organic gardening, meditation, animal rescue work, and so on. Once again, the problem is not with the choices themselves. Standing alone, they are entirely commendable. It arises, instead, from the fact that we too easily accept the culture’s invitation to view these activities as fully adequate responses to the culture’s endemic indecency.

Meaningful change requires attention to many issues, at many different levels of living. For this reason, these single-issue responses inevitably fall far short of the mark. A fundamental shift will never occur unless we join with others, making a sustained effort to understand their initiatives and to coordinate and integrate our activities with theirs.

In other words, if we are serious about seeking change, good old-fashioned organizing and collective action are indispensible parts of the equation. As Howard points out, the avalanche theory of change just doesn’t work.

Recognizing this reality, we need to understand that, in far too many cases, “do your own thing” initiatives – while not intended this way – actually represent a retreat into an unproductive comfort zone; a way of operating where, feeling like we are doing our part, we avoid the hard, unpleasant, and thankless work that is the meat and potatoes of effective organizing.


My intent in raising these issues is not to beat up on the good guys. I do, however, want to encourage a fearless inventory of the places where we fall short.

Becoming an effective agent for change is exquisitely difficult. But, because the change we seek is so important, we should never settle for simply doing better. Our noble goal deserves the very best we have to offer.

Reflection 36: Indecency – A Historical Overview

Through virtually all of our 6 million years of existence as a distinct line of primates and 300,000 years as Homo sapiens, the rhythm of our lives was dictated by the physical world. We foraged and hunted; in the winter we sought warmth and shelter and, in the summer, shade. Daily chores started at sun up and ended when the sun went down.

As Jared Diamond points out, however, a dramatic turning point occurred about 10,000 years ago with the domestication of crops and animals. What we call civilization – the history of the last 5,000 years or so – is a direct outgrowth of the exponential increase in the food supply and population that these innovations made possible.

Two powerful trends were unleashed by these events – that continue into the present:

  1. The ability of one group of people to dominate another through control of the food supply and, with it, the growth of nations, empires, religious movements, and other complex hierarchical and – more typically than not – authoritarian organizations; and
  2. An accelerating ability to harness nature to our purposes.

Given these extraordinary developments, major shifts in our traditional ways of being were inevitable. But because the catalyst for change was technological – and not moral or spiritual – there was nothing to guarantee that these cultural adjustments would be wise and humane.

In fact, they have been anything but. Instead of using these evolving technologies to meet our emotional and spiritual needs, we have moved in the opposite direction: We have subordinated our needs to the demands of the increasingly powerful authoritarian organizations that the technological advances have spawned. And those organizations have, in turn, spurred additional technological advances used to further entrench their authority.

A prime example is our response to innovations that improve productivity. While they could be used to reduce our workload – thus freeing time for family and leisure – they almost never are. Instead, the time they free up is used to work even harder in service of our culture’s singular obsession with more and more productivity and material wealth. We have, in short, been indoctrinated into a way of living that makes us cogs in an enormous, endlessly voracious “productivity machine.”

The system’s self-perpetuating momentum is then sealed by our induction into the culture’s equally voracious “consuming machine.” Conditioned to always want more, we are driven in our jobs to produce (and earn) more, which in turns feeds our addiction to wanting more, and so on, in an endless cycle what chews up our days and leaves less and less room for the expression of other aspects of our humanity.


While this trend has been gathering steam for thousands of years, I want to call special attention to the last two centuries. As recently as 200 years ago, our lives were still largely rooted in the rhythms of nature.

Then, our accumulating technologies reached critical mass. Massive reality-altering change swept the world:

  • Electricity eliminated night as a meaningful limit on our activities.
  • Central heat and air conditioning eliminated summer and winter.
  • With the advent of modern travel and instantaneous communication, time and distance – to a hitherto unimaginable degree – ceased to be limiting factors.

The result? The physical environment is no longer a defining factor in our lives. We can now work and consume day and night, 365 days a years. Remote locations and private moments – something we used to take for granted – are rapidly disappearing. The Internet instantaneously connects a missionary in Borneo with his or her family in Phoenix, and computers and smart phones keep us fully connected during the morning commute – as we sit on the beach – even when we go to the bathroom.

The scope and magnitude of these changes is, of course, very important. But so too is the speed with which they have occurred. In my lifetime, for example, the implications of the telephone, car, radio and television were barely digested, when jet travel was introduced, followed by the pill. These changes were then followed by a revolution in office technology (Xerox machines, word processors, email), and the arrival of instantaneous access – to virtually everything – via computers and smart phones.

Why is this acceleration in the speed of change so important? Because it hampers our ability to craft reasoned and humane responses. We scarcely digest and adjust to one seismic change when another and, then, another is upon us.

As the scope and pace of change has accelerated, so too has the corrosive impact of our obsessive, work and consume habits of living. In earlier Reflections, I discuss some of their consequences:

  • A massive decline in communal connections (#29 Losing/Revitalizing Our Communal Roots) and intellectual vitality (#21 Theory Matters);
  • The pain that comes from perfectionism (#31 Perfectionism);
  • A denial of vulnerability (#14 Dying – and Our Epidemic of Immortality);
  • A marked shrinking of the intimate connections we share with one another (#22 Consumerism — and the Passivity it Breeds).

But these examples do not tell the full story. The cultural adaptations of the last 200 years have also fundamentally distorted our most basic neurobiological wiring.


Across millions of years, we humans have evolved as profoundly affiliative beings, the result being that our emotional and intellectual growth – and continued vitality – depends upon ongoing, intimate contact with one another.

According to Daniel Siegel, one of our leading neuroscientists, the brain is a complex nonlinear system that exists within a larger complex nonlinear system consisting of it and other brains. In other words, thinking about a single brain – a single person – makes no sense. We only exist in connection with others.

But nature has also provided us with an auxiliary fight or flight brain. Designed to deal with danger, it’s fast – 10 times faster than our thinking brain – and powerful in its effects. Energy chemicals (cortisol and adrenaline) are pumped into our system, blood rushes to our large muscles groups, and the activity of the thinking brain shrinks – in order to avoid indecision at a time of crisis. Faced with a potentially life-threatening emergency, we are ready to act quickly, forcefully, and instinctually.

When the natural world dictated the rhythm of our lives, a natural balance was maintained between our fight/flight and thinking/affiliative brains. Most of our hours and days were spent in a nonreactive emotional state as we went about the highly routinized chores of daily living. Then, occasionally, there would be flashes of danger – a predatory animal, enemy, or natural disaster – that would activate our fight or flight brain. When the crisis ended, we would return to our normal, more relaxed state of mind.

But in today’s world – after 200 years of momentous change – everything is different.

Groomed to be competitors and “winners,” we are “on,” more or less constantly – both because we can be and because an endless stream of cultural cues, incentives, and sanctions tell us that that is what successful people do.

To get ahead, we move through our days anticipating danger; striving for a competitive edge; viewing setbacks as unacceptable and traumatic; exhausting ourselves, physically and emotionally. In other words, we have taken fight or flight – an auxiliary system, designed to deal with isolated moments of danger and, to truly unprecedented levels, made it our base-line operating system.

Some of the fallout from this seismic shift in consciousness is easy to identify: Heightened levels of stress and anxiety, drug abuse and alcoholism, verbal and physical abuse. But the damage goes further.

Fight or flight is specifically designed to neutralize or “annihilate” the will of the other – either through aggressive force (fight) or withdrawal (flight). These choices are, however, the antithesis of intimacy, a pattern of interaction that requires a willingness to engage others with empathy and curiosity.

So, it is no accident that so many couples and families are locked in an endless cycle of criticism, counter criticism and withdrawal – or that self-criticism and judgment (indicating a fight/flight stance with our self) are so pervasive – or that combative/attacking behaviors have become ever more dominant in our politics. The disquieting reality is that the cultural choices of the last 10,000 – and, in particular, the last 200 – years have led to a marked deterioration in our intimacy instincts and skills.

Compounding the problem is the fact that fight or flight is highly infectious, with attacks provoking counter attacks even from ordinarily more conciliatory people. For this reason as well, overcoming this “new normal” state of conscious is a huge challenge.


Radical Decency – decency to self, others, and the world; practiced at all times, in every area of living, and without exception – is an approach to living that, at a personal level, can make a real difference as we seek to diverge from these increasingly engrained, fight/flight habits of living.

At a societal level, a perceptible shift in ways of operating that have their roots in 10,000 years worth of history is a long shot, to say the least. But the future is inherently uncertain. And the hopeful thought, implicit in this analysis, is this: Because our current situation is the result of historical choice – and not the inevitable product of our inherent human nature – it can also be undone by the choices we make going forward.

Reflection 35: Salaried Workers – Realities and Possibilities

Work is so important. For most of us, it takes up the best hours of the majority of our days. And most everything else gets organized around it.

When it comes to Radical Decency – being habitually decent to our selves, others, and the world – this is a big problem. Why? Because, at work, the culture’s predominant values – compete and win, dominate and control – are typically rehearsed with unrestrained virulence. There it sits, at the center of our lives, a constant impediment to our ability to give ourselves over to more decent ways of living.

The result? Most us end up squeezing the most profound expressions of our humanity – relationship and community, leisure and private passions, social justice and service – into the relative corners of our lives.

  • Time with our spouse and children is consigned to nights and weekends.
  • Social events tend to be isolated and episodic.
  • And little or no time is left over to tend to injustice and the suffering of others – even those within our immediate social and religious communities.

While no one is exempt from this unforgiving equation, it is, without question, much tougher on people with salaried and hourly jobs. In this Reflection, I address the special challenges these people face and offer a number of strategies to deal with them.


The problem for salaried and hourly workers begins with the most basic notions of freedom. While we seldom think of it in this way, they are, effectively, indentured servants. They work from 9 to 5 – or longer if the boss demands it – get an hour for lunch, 2 vacation weeks, and “x” number of sick days. That’s it. No choice.

Moreover, in contrast to 200 hundreds years ago – at least for white people – most salaried workers have no extended family or stable geographic homesteads and communities to fall back on. In other words, there is no way out. Work or die.

Compounding the situation is the highly authoritarian nature of the organizations for which they work. Supervisors control what they work on, with whom they work, and the environments in which they work. And so long as they are making money for the company and are not causing problems for their bosses, supervisors’ powers are virtually unchecked.

There was a time when workers had some ability to fight back. But over the last few decades, the laws protecting workers’ rights have steadily eroded. Today, most unions and human resource departments – if they exist at all – are paper tigers, with little or no power to enforce effective solutions. Too often, the net effect of raising a grievance is this: No relief, plus the animus of your boss. The result? Most workers suffer in silence.

Since all that really matters in business is profitability, companies do actually support good bosses – so long as they are making money. The problem, however, is that this good boss will eventually move on, or change his or her ways when shrinking profits demand a more bottom line oriented approach. And because decency is never a high priority, the next boss is unlikely to be similarly enlightened.

Recognizing that fortuitous exceptions can actually exist, it makes sense to look for a job with a good boss – and to enjoy it while it lasts. But be very cautious in assuming that “this department” or “that company” is a permanent exception to the rule. Bad bosses are not bad luck. They are the expectable result of an authoritarian business culture, dominated by the ethos of compete and win, dominate and control.


What follows is a discussion of key initiatives that individual workers can take, based on principles of Radical Decency, to deal with these realities.

Note, importantly, that the interpersonal approaches I discuss are only one piece of the puzzle. A true transformation of the workplace will also require initiatives that allow workers to collectively assert their rights more effectively.

On the other hand, the strategies discussed below are not pallid substitutes, to be pursued only in the absence of a revitalized workers’ movement. To the contrary, lasting change can never occur – in the workplace or in any other area of living – unless we also challenge and change the authoritarian ways of operating that are so pervasive in our one-on-one relationships.


As Philip Lichtenberg explains, the characteristic dynamic in an authoritarian relationship is for the dominant party to project his anxiety, frustrations, etc. onto the subordinate. So, for example, the boss – getting ready for a meeting – barks at his assistant, “where’s the file,” and the subordinate, internalizing the boss’s anxiety, scurries to find it.

The key to creating a different and better interpersonal environment at work is to consistently act in ways that subvert this dynamic.

This is no easy task. Authoritarian interactions are deeply intertwined with our fight or flight brain, and that part of our brain is highly infectious. The uncomfortable truth is that we are biologically wired to respond to a bullying boss with anger (fight) or sullen silence (flight); behaviors that only encourage a further round of bullying by the boss. In other words, just as it is exquisitely difficult for a spouse to remain calm and composed in the face of his or her partner’s attack, so too at work.

The starting place, if we hope to undo this pattern, is to consistently cultivate mutual and authentic contact – the antithesis of the workplace’s fight or flight mindset. Dealing with the substance of the boss’ “requests” calmly, and with curiosity and respect, we put ourselves in the best possible position to interrupt and subvert the biologically engrained rhythm of reaction/counter-reaction that fight or flight sets up.

Unfortunately, this is no magic pill. Even when we fully commit ourselves to this approach, we cannot expect a magical transformation. As Steven Stosny points out, a nonreactive response reduces the likelihood of further attack – but only from 98% to 70%.

Still, it’s the best available option. Consistently applied, it offers the best hope for turning you into “that” person in the office who, inexplicably, is spared the boss’ most unpleasant excesses.

It is also important to note that, as challenging as this step is, it is only step one in the process. Fully transforming your relationship with the boss into one based on trust, ease and shared respect requires mutuality. In other words, you need to work toward an environment where you can express your legitimate needs and desires as well.

Meaningful progress toward this second goal is a tricky and uncertain proposition. It is likely to depend on your ability to establish yourself as a competent and valued employee and, therefore, as someone whose needs matter. It is also greatly facilitated by success in implementing step one: By your boss’ growing perception of you as an empowered listener.

Even with all of this in place, however, the only reliable way to get reciprocal respect from your boss is to ask for it. At some point, you need to say: I need “x” to do my job more effectively – or, I am not getting the support I need from your executive assistant – or, I need to take Thursday afternoon off to attend to a personal matter.

In asking, you need to be clear and assertive. If you need to be home by 6, the message the boss can’t be: I need this – unless it really bothers you. If your request is equivocal, the boss, steeped in authoritarian entitlement, is primed to ignore it.

In addition, having established this ground rule, act on it. If you ask for something, get it and, then, continually make exceptions – to please the boss or out of fear irritating him – you can be sure that his commitment to it will recede as well.


A final note: The strategies I describe operate in a deeply authoritarian environment. Even if they are employed with impeccable discretion and judgment, nothing may change. But that does not mean the effort shouldn’t be made. Hopefully, as a wide variety of complementary change initiatives take hold, a deeper shift will occur.

And, without regard to their ultimate effectiveness, always remember this: More decent choices grow the best part of our humanity and are, therefore, their own reward.