Esther Perel: ‘Emotions used to be the scourge of the business world’
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Esther Perel takes my interview questions, places them in front of her, snaps a photo, and gives them back. “I love to see how people have organised their thoughts,” she says.
If anything will make you overthink an interview, it’s having a world-famous psychotherapist tell you that they have already begun to analyse your brain.
Esther Perel, 61, was brought up in Antwerp and moved to New York for graduate school. She still lives there, running a therapy practice and acting as a corporate consultant. She became globally famous in 2013, after her TED Talk on the secrets of desire in long-term relationships, followed in 2015 with one on rethinking infidelity.
Together, these videos have been viewed more than 29m times. She has written two bestselling books, Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs. In 2016, she invited us to hear her guide couples through a therapy session in a podcast called Where Should We Begin? Now in its third season, it has been heard millions of times.
Ms Perel’s new podcast, How’s Work?, which launched this week, moves the focus from couples to co-founders and colleagues. Its mission is to prove that the dynamics in romantic relationships also exist at work. “People spend so many hours at work,” she says. “People kill themselves because things don’t go well at work. It is such a profound source of meaning and identity for so many of us, that it demanded a podcast.”
In one episode Ms Perel talks to two men who flew fighter jets together in Iraq and Afghanistan, co-founded an oil company, grew it into a successful business, and, ready to part ways, are struggling to let go.
Ms Perel offers three reasons why relationships at work and at home are going through massive transformations, especially in western urbanised cultures. The first is that we now ask one person (our partner) and one place (our workplace) to give us what our parents or grandparents received from an entire village. Where once we had strong community ties but very little freedom, now we have freedom, but very little community. It is easy to look to our careers and our partners to provide us with all the things that we used to get from a town square, a place of worship, or the cousins who lived next door.
The second reason for this transformation is a generational shift from a production economy to a service and identity economy. In the past we didn’t need to ask “Who am I?” — it was assigned at birth. Now we “live in the identity economy”, Ms Perel explains. “In your marriage, you want to become the best version of yourself. That’s an identity project. And in work, you want a place where you can have your mental and physical health attended to, where you can experience a sense of personal development, purpose and meaning.”
She acknowledges that she is speaking about those who can afford to work for more than a pay cheque. “The identity economy at work doesn’t ask, ‘What am I going to do next?’” she continues. “It asks, ‘Who am I going to be next?’”
The third shift is that of emotions entering the workplace, and market economics entering the romantic sphere. “Emotions used to be the scourge of the business world,” she says. “The bottom line had everything to do with processes, structure and efficiencies . . . today, we are talking about psychological safety in the same breath that we talk about performance indicators. We talk about belonging, authenticity, trust, transparency, and vulnerability.”
Meanwhile, she says, “romantically we have the possibility of not choosing between two people in the village, but a thousand people [online], as part of the romantic consumerism at our fingertips. Many people go on dates that resemble job interviews.”
Listen to this interview with Esther Perel on the FT Culture Call podcast
To hear Esther and Lilah discuss the psychology of the workplace, listen to the latest episode of Culture Call on the FT, on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts
There is no judgment in Ms Perel’s analysis of these changes: when I suggest that some change must be frustrating, she reminds me that it’s also liberating, and vice versa. She does, though, offer three reasons why social change can affect our experience at work and advises what we can do to fix our work problems.
First, we should be aware that we bring our conscious and unconscious selves to the office. “You bring yourself to work in more ways than you are even aware of. Because what you bring to work is a worldview, and your place in it, and what you expect from others.”
She likes to ask her clients: “Were you raised for autonomy, or were you raised for loyalty?” Were you raised to always trust that there will be others to help you, or thinking that the only person you can rely on is yourself?
“That influences the degree to which you can collaborate with other people, the degree to which you take feedback as constructive versus responding defensively, how you ask for help, whether you can delegate . . . that’s the stuff that isn’t really looked at.” She suggests that asking this question can help us understand our own tendencies.
The second point is that there are acute systems, and there are chronic conditions. According to Ms Perel, underneath most relationship impasses lie three major dynamics: power and control (“Whose priorities matter most?”), care and closeness (“Do you trust me? Do you have my back? Can I trust you?”) and respect and recognition (“Integrity”).
There is a difference between a surface impasse, such as a colleague complaining about a long meeting, and an underlying issue. “A doctor said to me, there are no acute symptoms. There are only chronic conditions that then lead to acute symptoms,” she explains. Acute pain in your knee can only truly be solved by addressing the underlying issue in your back — the same is true with our psychology.
If your team complain that a meeting is too long, you can make it shorter, but you need to deal with the underlying issue: maybe people aren’t being respected in meetings. Maybe the priorities are set too stringently by the boss.
Her third point seems paradoxical: the person at work who seems the most unhappy in fact has the most control and it is up to colleagues to fix it. Take the example of a boss who is irritable and quick to explode. The easiest interpretation is that the boss is not a nice person, and the easiest response is to tiptoe around them. In fact the best solution, Ms Perel says, is to find a messenger, at the right level, who can speak to the boss. “In the old days, you would call the priest, the rabbi, the grandmother or the chief of the village. People with power and respect and influence.”
In a workplace, that person is a mentor, or the boss’s manager, or the boss’s spouse. Anyone with leverage to challenge and support the boss. That person’s job is to deliver “both a kick and a stroke”, says Ms Perel. “‘You’re not well, you are stressed out and constantly on edge, and it’s working against you . . . what you’re doing has to stop. It is destructive, and not productive.’”
After our meeting, I join eight of my colleagues for lunch around a long table. I come with a list of questions that Ms Perel has promised will push people to connect in a deeper way than the generic “How’s work?” The first question is “What have you been thinking about lately? What’s on your mind?” Two courses and a coffee later, everyone is still deep in conversation. We never get to the second question.
Esther Perel’s questions that will improve a work lunch
Esther Perel says: “I think a great question is very simple . . . and invites richness, complexity, nuance and ambiguity in its answer. Really, the beauty is where it takes people. And when you have 10, 20, 30 people, and it takes them in completely different directions, that’s when you know, wow, that was a good question. It’s a portal.” Here are her picks:
What have you been thinking about lately? What’s on your mind?
Tell me about a time when you changed your mind.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
What would you say to your 18-year-old self if you had a chat with them today?
Have you ever lost a friend? Have you ever rejected a friend?
Do you work in a language that is not your mother tongue? What is it like to live in translation?
If there is a choice between remembering and forgetting, do you lean towards the side of forgetting, or the side of the one who remembers it all?
Were you raised for autonomy, or were you raised for loyalty?
Was there a moment where you thought, ‘I’m giving up’ — and tell us whether you did or you didn’t?
What part of your identity was given to you, or what part of your identity was chosen?