From the book RECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES: Connecting in a Disconnected World by Dawna Markova, Ph.D., and Angie McArthur. Copyright (c) 2017 by Dawna Markova, Ph.D., and Angie McArthur. Reprinted by arrangement with Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. Available on Amazon.
Clients and friends have openly asked us how we do it—how two women who are so very different can be so in sync. We have come to respect and recognize that each person possesses many kinds of intelligence, including rational and relational. The former divides information into discrete facts, processes, and logic. Try to use your rational thinking when relating to someone who thinks differently than you do. You’ll find yourself overthinking, trying to figure out whether you should say this or that, be this way or that way, do this thing or that thing. No matter how smart you are, your mind can become like a frustrated kitten tangled in a ball of yarn. The more you try to unravel the mess, the worse it gets. You become lost in your limited capacity to know or grow or re- late to the mystery of your uniquely different ways of thinking.
Relational intelligence, on the other hand, connects things, creates meaning, and offers understanding about how to relate one thing or person to another. Most of us have been schooled in rational intelligence, but have never had specific formal training to foster relational intelligence. This is the bone the two of us have been digging to discover for twenty years, the answer to our clients’ and friends’ questions about how we do it: We have grown and never stop growing our relational intelligence.
The more wonder and discovery that are present between you and another, the higher the chances will be of that special kind of intelligence growing. Think for a moment about what it’s like to sing in harmony with another person. Each of you allows your voice to come forward, fall back, and then merge to create beautiful music. It can be the same when we relate. If you know how to discover it, there is a palpable energy, an intelligence between you that can facilitate each of you achieving far more together than you could alone.
When people want to cultivate skills and talents such as playing the piano, solving complex mathematical equations, or hitting home runs, they can draw inspiration from and model themselves after great artists, athletes, and respected thought leaders. But we don’t have ways to do this relationally. Just think for a moment: Who were your relational role models? If you’re like most of us, you modeled your relational habits after those who raised you, for better or worse.
But even if you had the most loving and compassionate Nobel Prize-level people as your parents, you still have been bombarded daily in politics, on reality shows, and on the nightly news with examples of how not to relate to someone who thinks differently and how to run from them as fast as you can. Who has modeled for you how to dig-in? Who are the relational geniuses you’ve learned from and how did they practice?
Thirty years ago, Dawna first witnessed a relational genius in action:
I was backstage about to speak to a crowd of several thousand about my first book, The Art of the Possible. I noticed another woman sitting in a red leather swivel chair reading The Boston Globe and sipping tea from a thick, white, steaming mug. She looked up and grinned at me in such a way that I was speechless. I felt totally recognized, and at the same time recognized her as Maya Angelou. Evidently, we were both going to give keynote speeches within the hour. A copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings lay unopened next to her tea. She went back to The Boston Globe and since I had no idea what to say to the great lady, I tried to ignore her, pacing back and forth as I flipped through my stack of note cards to review the key points for my talk.
Maya Angelou, on the other hand, flipped through the newspaper and did something that I thought very odd. She paused at several pages with photographs of a person on them, rested her left hand on her heart, and stayed like that for a few moments. Each time, her face lit up in a grin as if she held the moon in her mouth. When she had gone through the entire section, she thumbed back to the beginning, and started the process again; only this time as she paused at different photographs and placed her hand on her heart, she shook her head sadly.
I couldn’t resist asking her what she was doing.
“I am practicing,” she said. “Yes, this is my practice. At first, all of these people seem very different from me. The first time I go through the photographs in the paper, I pause at the pictures of people who have done remarkable things—built skyscrapers or discovered a cure for a disease or negotiated a peace settlement—and I say to myself, Well, if I can recognize that in them, it must be in me somewhere too or else why would I even be intrigued? So I just wonder for a moment, What does that remind me of in myself that I’d like to grow?” It took a minute for her words to really sink in, but when they began to sprout in my mind, I responded, “That’s lovely. I get that. But then why, if you don’t mind my asking, do you go through the paper a second time?”
She looked up at me from under her eyelashes and said, “That’s the hardest part of the practice. The second time I scan for people who have murdered or raped or destroyed something precious. This time when I pause again in recognition, I say to myself, Oh yes, that’s in me, too; there is a dormant dark part inside. How can I delve in to discover the need under that destructive behavior so I can find a positive way of meeting it before it erupts?”
Then she placed both of her palms gently on the newspaper and tilted her head as she explained, “You see, I am learning something from each of these people parading across the pages of The Boston Globe, Dr. Markova. Each of them is teaching me to meet some aspect of myself that I might have ignored otherwise. This is what makes the bird in my heart sing.”
Maya Angelou’s “practice” was to constantly dig in as she learned to reconcile the needs of all the different aspects of herself—the best and worst. It also prepared her to relate to the multitude of those she encountered outside of her heart’s cage.