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Being approachable doesn’t mean being a pushover.

Being approachable doesn’t mean being a pushover.

The art of exhibiting receptive attributes without inviting trouble from others is a balancing act. Exhibiting powerful presence requires us to hold disparate energies in one posture if we want to create healthy interactions. Of course, we want to be approachable as leaders and influencers so we don’t get isolated from the problems we need to be apprised of when it’s important. It is imperative that our teams and colleagues feel like they can bring us their most gnarly situations so we have a chance to help them think wisely. But if they mistake that openness for gullibility then something else altogether arises and it’s called “politics”. For example, if we are too approachable to the point of helping someone excuse themselves from doing the right thing, then we become complicit in their guile-laden actions. When someone says “hey, I know this wasn’t the right thing to do, but I hope you’ll overlook it this time” they are stepping over a boundary and are now taking advantage of your approachability. How will you know when it crosses the line and they’ve started manipulating your receptivity?  It feels “off” or yucky. It feels confusing and confounding. It may even cause anger to rise inside you which is justified. Your gut is telling you something feels amiss, even wrong. In psychological terms, this dilemma is called a “double-bind”. And it’s frustrating, to say the least. 

The Double-Bind
The double bind is, very simply, a no-win scenario that comes from conflicting messages that are posed on two different levels of communication. It happens when you are presented with a situation that has no good response. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. When another person pulls you into a situation like this, they may or may not be conscious of doing so, which means it’s important not to blame them, but you definitely need to know how to respond very clearly and decisively so they can see the error in their “ask” and help them understand you’re not playing that game. 

Let’s refer to the example above. Your colleague approaches you in the hall and puts a friendly arm on your shoulder (this may be an implied gesture, not physical) and this gesture implies on a conceptual level “hey, we’re friends, right?” There are some implied expectations that go along with the verbal commitment to the friendship that are unspoken, but it comes with a “get the drift” implication that the camaraderie could also end if you don’t also go along with the tacit approval requested in the secondary “message” that is about to come next. And it’s in direct conflict with the conceptual message about friendship. In cases like this, there is always a conceptual message at one level and a tactical message at another level and the two are in direct conflict. This is what makes it a “no-win scenario” for the receiver. But what should be clear to you is that “friends” don’t act this way. They are not really your friend, so be smart. 

What to do

The good news is that most people don’t put us in these situations, so being reasonably approachable most of the time works nicely to support open communication. But we must also be alert to the fact that if we are ALWAYS approachable no matter what is presented, then we are sending the wrong message. Being receptive to good ideas and lending a helping hand in problem solving, should never mean you are seen as a pushover and open to bad ideas. This requires balancing openness with reasonableness - without letting yourself go all the way to critical judgment. The right response to a double-bind is therefore, to simply say no. Kindly chuckle at their foolish request and say “wouldn’t that be nice?” as if to say “it would be lovely to have your cake and eat it too, but I’m too smart to go along with nonsensical reasoning”.  In other words, your implied message needs to convey that “sure, we can continue to be friendly, but I’m also clear about what you’re asking here...and the answer is no”. Or “If you want to bend the rules, someone else might be a better ally, but I’m no fool” is the unspoken message you offer in return by returning the “ask” with a simply, respectfully uttered “no”. Then take action in alignment with your own good timeless principles. If they still don’t understand, the best solution is to turn the tables on them and offer an example of their “ask” that puts it in their own context and pose it back to them, asking “what would you do if someone asked you to do such-and-such. Make sure your example is one that would hit home with them, and you’ve done them a favor by teaching them how to use good judgment. At least with you! 

The lesson? Being approachable is important. As long as it’s balanced with healthy boundaries that prevent others from using it to their advantage at your expense.