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  • Doug Robinette

What’s Your Relational “Go To”?


A few years ago I learned something at a coaching conference that really caught my attention. When we are working with other people, and there is not agreement, we are at our best when we are able to approach others with both high backbone and high heart.


High backbone involves being able to state my position clearly and concisely, but to hold my position loosely. If I am able to have an open hand, new information can come along to possibly reshape it, or change it.


High heart is being able to listen to the “other” well, able to state their position as clearly and concisely as they can, even understanding the reasons that they hold that position. It means having plenty of empathy for myself and for the other person.


What happens when we lose either backbone or heart?


First, when we lose one, we tend to lose the other as well. Second, we often develop a pattern – a “go to” behavior, when we are unable to hold both high backbone and high heart.


In the session I attended, the speaker had the audience separate into 4 quadrants of the conference room based on their “go to” behavior. These quadrants were based on the “strategies” people chose when they weren’t able to hold both high backbone and high heart in an interaction, especially when the interaction was about something important to one or both parties. Here are the strategies:


1. People who can’t hold high backbone. This happens because:

  • The person can’t articulate their position clearly - let’s call that VAGUE

  • They hold the position with a closed fist rather than an open hand –let’s call that RIGID

2. People who can’t hold high heart:

  • The person can’t maintain empathy for the other – let’s call that DISCONNECTED

  • People who are too invested in the relationship – let’s call that OVER-ATTENTIVE

That means there are four different behavior patterns that we can adopt when we’re unable to hold high backbone and high heart.


1. We can be rigid and over-attentive – I call this combination “obnoxious”. What this “go to” behavior sounds like is:

  • My position is “right” and if you don’t agree with me, then by definition, yours is “wrong”

  • Because our relationship is really important to me, I will keep working to get you to agree with me until I am successful

  • I may adopt tactics such as:

  • Speaking ever more loudly, since clearly, you don’t get it, or you would agree

  • Bringing out more and more data, and rationales for my position to help you get it

  • Repeating arguments over and over in hopes that the more you hear them, the more you’ll get it

  • Using more and more “J” words (“J” words are words that imply strong judgment, like “always”, “never”, “a million times”, and so on)

  • People in this quadrant reported feeling frustrated

2. We can be rigid and disconnected. I call this combination “passive-aggressive” What this “go to” behavior sounds like is:

  • My position is “right” and if you don’t agree with me, then by definition, yours is “wrong”

  • Because our relationship is not that important to me, I will nod my head and listen (often giving the mistaken impression of tacit agreement), and then go do whatever makes sense to me regardless of what I heard that you wanted

  • Folks in this quadrant reported feeling OK (after all, they ultimately get what they want)

3. We can be vague and over-attentive. I call this combination “people-pleasing”. What this “go to” behavior sounds like is:

  • I don’t have a position or cannot articulate it clearly and concisely

  • Because our relationship is important to me, I will let you have what you want

  • Folks in this quadrant reported feeling resentful

4. We can be vague and disconnected. I call this combination “whatever”. What this “go to” behavior sounds like is:

  • I don’t have a position or cannot articulate it clearly and concisely

  • Because our relationship is not that important to me, I don’t really care much what happens

  • People in this quadrant reported feeling ashamed – that they knew they should have a position and they should care, but they didn’t

Why is this important to you in your healing journey?


This presents us with a window to what is going on inside us. These unhealthy (and frankly, ineffective) “go to” strategies are dysfunctional behaviors. And the emotions we feel when we are employing these strategies are alarm bells that can signal us to stop, notice, and eventually allow us to make a different choice in the moment.


In my own case, I realized that I most often went to the obnoxious strategy when I wasn’t able to be at my best – ugh! There was undoubtedly a lot going on underneath the behavior. It enabled to me to ask questions like:

1. What lies might I believe that are causing me to react this way?

  • Like, “I have to be right or I am not performing”, or

  • “If I am wrong then I am worthless”

2. Is this an identity issue?


3. What wounds may sit behind the lies, emotions, and behaviors?


4. What if I am wrong? For example:

  • Does it really say anything about me?

  • Might I lead us down a bad path?

5. What if both of us are partially right, and the best course of action is a combined one?


6. I know the “other” is smart and has good intentions – why don’t I really LISTEN to what they have to say and why they believe what they believe?


As you can see, these questions can lead not only to putting myself in a position for some understanding and even healing of my own “stuff”, but to a potentially better solution to the “problem” as well as a decidedly better relationship with the other.


One last point – the dysfunctional behaviors I’ve described above can create all kinds of issues, as you can well imagine. But, they are especially damaging when the person employing them is the “boss” – the leader. For example – “obnoxious” leaves very little room for other views to even be expressed, which means that the group or team is only as good as the leader is alone. A “whatever” from the leader can leave the team dispirited and hopeless.


In the years since I learned this, I’ve used it often, not just in coaching and caregiving, but in being positioned for healing, freedom and wholeness myself. It is my hope that you find this useful as well.


In an upcoming post, we’ll go into a bit more detail about how the stories we’ve lived shape our responses in relationships, and what we can do to create new neural pathways that are more effective for us.


After spending over 30 years in the corporate world in various executive roles, Doug began a new career as an executive coach and consultant. He was introduced to Healing Care Ministries in 2008, and is now on a lifetime healing journey. His current role as the COO allows him to share the amazing transforming power of Christ with others. He lives in Westerville with his wife of 41 years (Sally). They have 2 children and 2 grandchildren. He loves to travel with Sally, and spend time with the grandkids.

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