The dance


The more he talked, the more disinterested she seemed. The more disinterested she seemed, the more he talked.

He seemed to be trying so hard to explain something important to her, and yet it wasn’t working. The harder he tried, the less he was succeeding. And she was probably trying hard too – trying to wrap up the conversation, get to the point, finish and move on.

As I stood and waited for my coffee order, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by this conversation happening a few feet from me. The woman appeared to be in her 50’s and the young man in his 20’s. They were both wearing suits.

Colleagues? Employee/manager? Vendor/client? Friends?  I don’t know. But watching the interaction between these two reminded me of a relationship dynamic that’s often discussed in couples therapy. The “pursuer-distancer” dance.

It’s a simple and useful concept to help people (not just couples – all people) look at their role in a relationship, or even in a single conversation, and ask “Am I pursuing or distancing here?”

So in the case of the coffee shop pair who seemed to be stuck in a very unproductive and unpleasant exchange, he was pursuing and she was distancing.

We’ve all been there.

We’ve all been in the pursuer role when we were trying too hard to prove our point. Trying too hard to get someone to understand. Trying too hard to connect and build the relationship.

And we’ve all been the distancer at times too. When we intentionally or unintentionally pushed away from someone, didn’t listen well, didn’t show that we valued the relationship.

Neither role feels good. When we catch ourselves in this dance and identify the role we’re playing, neither side of it makes us think, “Ah, yes… I want to keep being like this.”

Not at all. The pursuer typically feels needy, insecure, flustered and frustrated. While the distancer feels annoyed, confused (why is he/she going on and on?!) and frustrated as well.

Those were the looks on the faces of the coffee shop pair.

I had to suppress my desire to walk over and say, “Wait. Stop. Don’t keep doing this dance. You’re not getting anywhere. Let’s do this a better way!” Because unsolicited intervention and advice are rarely wanted.
But hey, maybe they’ll somehow stumble on this article.

So, for them. And for you. And for me.

Here’s what we can do when we catch ourselves playing those roles…

When distancing:

  • Stop. Take a deep breath.
  • Ask yourself what your goal is for this conversation. Is it to gather or exchange information, as efficiently as possible? Is it to put a check mark in the we-need-to-talk column? Is it to honor a commitment? Is it to show care/concern?
  • Realize that each one of those goals can be met more easily with less distancing (that thing that you’re inadvertently doing) and more presence.
  • Notice what might be getting in the way of being fully present. Are you feeling impatient and annoyed? Do you believe that you already understand, and yet the other person is continuing to try make the point? Are you in a rush? If so, you’ve probably checked out and are already looking ahead to the next thing you need to do. Your conversation partner can sense – trust me, they can – that you’re not engaged/interested, and so they’re going to try extra hard to get you engaged/interested (pursuing). Lose-lose.
  • Take another deep breath. Tell yourself that you have the power to both shorten and improve this interaction.
  • Show that you’re present by asking a curious question. “I can see that you’re upset/excited/invested/determined/struggling, etc.. Tell me more.” or “I’m curious – what’s that like for you right now?”
  • Really listen to the answer. With your ears, eyes, mind and heart. Show, don’t tell. Saying, “yes, I’m listening” is pointless. Show that you’re listening.
  • Be clear about time boundaries. “Look this is really important, and even though we could probably spend quite a bit of time talking about it, I have exactly 30 minutes right now. But for the next 30 minutes – I’m all yours – I’m completely here and very interested in having this conversation. Is that ok?” (9 times out of 10, you’ll get an ok. For the 1 out of 10, strongly consider scheduling more time.)
  • Resist your urge to pull away, and instead step towards the conversation and the person. Be there. Be present. Be curious. Be caring.
  • End on time, with an expression of gratitude and agreed-upon next steps, if necessary.

When pursuing:

  • Stop. Take a deep breath.
  • Acknowledge how crappy it feels (yet again) to be in this frustrating place where you’re not feeling heard or seen or valued.
  • Decide to do it differently this time.
  • Start small. A little bit of information. A part of the story. A small sharing of thoughts/feelings. And then pause. Allow the uncomfortable silence to just be there. It’s ok.
  • Watch carefully what happens in this space. Is there curiosity, engagement and reciprocity? Can you sense that your conversation partner wants more?
  • If yes, great. Keep going. Repeat the last two steps – share a bit, pause and observe.
  • If not, make a decision to: a. wrap it up as quickly as possible or b. course correct by asking for some guidance (There’s more I can say, but tell me what specifically you’d like to hear more about. Is there anything that I’ve shared so far that’s of particular interest? Should we table this for now and talk about something else?).
  • Remind yourself that there a million reasons why someone may be less than interested in a conversation. They could have something else on their mind. They could feel “talked out.” They could be tired. They could be hungry. And countless other things. It’s probably not about you. Really.
  • Allow space, allow grace, allow distance. Give yourself the welcome relief to stop pursuing.

Relationships and conversations within those relationships will continue to serve up challenges for all of us. Some moments will leave us impressed with ourselves with how well we do. And others will leave us wondering what the heck happened to our game plan, maturity and wisdom.

And yet others will be served up like a delicious steaming latte, ready for us to savor – to not rush through – to wait to cool off a bit – to gently, carefully drink in all the challenge has to offer. Including maybe even a quick recognition of when we’re stepping into a pursuer or distanced role, and consciously choosing a different way of being.

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