Founding and Managing Partner
The Arbinger Institute
On January 24, 1987 I was standing alone in a dance club. I had been at the club for about five minutes when I first caught a glimpse of the woman I would marry.
All of my senses roared to life. I watched her walk to the other side of the room. When the next song started up, I nervously crossed the floor and asked her to dance.
We’ve been dancing now for nearly thirty years. Some days our dancing has been fun and exciting. Other days there has been tension between us. Sometimes we touch, other times we don’t, but always we’ve been dancing.
In fact, the whole world is dancing. Always. Dancing in the sense that we are always in relationship—with parents, siblings, neighbors, coworkers, strangers, partners, children, bosses, enemies, and friends. All of these relationships have movement and energy; in each of them we are dancing.
Marriage is dancing. Divorce is dancing. Work, play, and study are dancing. With others or not, our thoughts and emotions remain intertwined with the people in our lives. There is no way around it. We are always in relationship. To live is to dance.
So the question is not whether we will dance, but how. And regarding how, there are but two ways: We can dance in a way that makes dancing together easier, or we can dance in a way that makes dancing together more difficult. There are gradations within each of these possibilities, but the fundamental choice is between these two options: easier with others or harder.
We retain this choice even when dancing with people we find difficult. The quality of our dancing will depend on many things—including our relative skill levels and enthusiasm. But whatever skills and characteristics we and our partners bring to our dancing, we each hold the key to whether our dancing together will be easier or harder. On this matter, we choose.
The first step toward easier dancing is to appreciate our partners—who they are, what they care about, why they matter. You can think about your own life to see if this isn’t true: Whenever we fail to appreciate our dance partners, dancing with them gets harder.
But beware a trap here. When we are failing to appreciate our partners, we typically blame them for our own ingratitude. This self-exoneration is a lie. Even if we are right about others’ shortcomings, it is false that their failures have caused our own. Whatever our partners may have done or failed to do, we still retain the ability to appreciate them. Again, consider your own life to see if this isn’t true: Every person who has ever appreciated us proves that one can appreciate others despite imperfections.
The second step toward easier dancing is to act in every moment to help the dance go better rather than to make ourselves look better. Focusing on our mutually produced dance keeps our focus from ourselves and our own merits relative to our partners and saves us from worrying about who is dancing better and who worse. When we care only to improve the dance, we naturally adjust our own steps and turns and touches in response to our partners in order to enhance the dancing.
Finally, those who make dancing easier never abandon the dance. Even when they leave a relationship they realize that the dance continues—in their own hearts and in the hearts of those they are leaving. Their thoughts and feelings about the one they are leaving (or the one who is leaving them) will influence all their other dances, and the way they leave will influence all of the other person’s dances as well—today and always. So whether leaving or staying, they continue to dance thoughtfully and helpfully.
How do you suppose the people in your life experience your dancing?
Do you make it easier or harder for the people at work? How about at home? Do you help your relationships spin with grace or grind with difficulty?
What would your dance partners say?