There is a Buddhist text called the Sedaka Sutta, or The Bamboo Acrobat, in which the Buddha presents the analogy of the exquisite balance required by two acrobats to perform a complex act. Each performer must be firmly rooted in their own center of gravity, while simultaneously staying attuned to the subtle adjustments of their partner. In the same way, healthy relationships strike a delicate balance between autonomy and compassion through sensitivity, awareness, and on-going investigation. If we err on the side of autonomy, we can become cold, indifferent, or self-centered. Yet if we put all of our focus on others out of fear, habit, duty, or self-deprecation, we neglect our own needs, build resentment, and burn out.
In short, to maintain balance in a relationship, or as text itself says, in the effort to be mindful, we need to look after both ourselves and others. Without one or the other, what is analogous to an acrobatic feat falls apart.
Communications in the workplace came to mind.
How many times have you not listened in a conversation? Or come with a closed mind, hellbent on sticking to your own agenda? Each time, you were not caring for the other.
On the other hand, how often have you deferred to someone else because of their position when you knew what they were saying was incorrect? Or “rolled with it” when doing so conflicted with your values? Each time, you were not caring for yourself.
It’s true that not every communication requires the close attention and nimbleness of an acrobatics act. But many do, and participants rarely view them as complex, collaborative, and potentially dangerous.
To be transparent, and keeping to the acrobatics analogy, my bouncy net is pretty much worn out.
So my takeaway. Think of a workplace communication as an acrobatics act. If you’re too focused on yourself, you fall. If you defer too much to your partner, you fall. What’s needed is an intentional exchange in which each individual gives and takes while listening closely to the other and watching their moves.
If all else fails, make sure there’s a net.