How to Turn an Adversary into an Ally

I have been doing a lot of thinking about — and a considerable amount of coaching with — partners, or those I describe as “paired leaders.”  Their relationships range from manager-to-direct-report, to diagonal reports, to straight-up peers.  Most are “work spouses,” but I have also been coaching some actual spouses as part of my executive coaching. These paired leaders’ relationships range from being brand new, to a little weathered, to rather strained.

Please understand that the title of today’s piece may be quite different than you think for two reasons:

  1. All good partnerships are partnerships between adversaries. There’s a spark, a difference, two individualities. The spark creates light and sometimes heat. That’s just the way it is.*
  2. The best way — probably the only way — to turn one of those (sometime) adversaries into an ally, is by becoming a better ally yourself.  

Let me explain the first point via a quick example:  In the Myers-Briggs schema, my wife is an Extravert, while I prefer Introversion.  She lives “outside” herself. She is quick with her thoughts and tries out ideas so people can respond and advance the thinking.  By contrast, Introvert that I am, I take my time, am a bit of a muller, and don’t just throw out ideas to discuss.  Thus, when we’re engaging with our kids or in a lively political discussion, I may get frustrated that I can’t get my oar in the water, before she has set the pace and direction.  I experience her as an adversary in such times.

I facilitated an onboarding session with two newly “paired” executives last week, and the two openly shared some of the ways their prior partners had frustrated them, become too much their adversaries. More importantly, this pair could see that they too had some natural stylistic differences that would likely create real tensions between them. What a benefit for them that they could see these things ahead of time – before there were the killer scarcities** of time, credit, control, and money.  What did they do with this knowledge? And how might YOU apply this knowledge with one of your partner-adversaries?

The same 5 things I am learning to do (after just 30 years!) with Jennifer:

  1. See difference as a benefit, a kind of rich biodiversity (and not as right vs. wrong, me vs. you)
  2. Openly share the differences with each other
  3. Request that the other help me with my limitation, e.g., “Jen, can you try to be a little more mindful when we’re talking with one of the kids that I take a little longer to think about things, but that my silence doesn’t mean I don’t have something to say. Can you help bring me into the conversation?”  To be clear about this:
  4. I ask for what I need, rather than blaming my (in this case beloved) adversary for how (or worse who) she is
  5. Remind myself and frequently express my appreciation for the other’s gift, talent, etc., instead of thinking there is a zero-sum, that one of us has to win and one to lose.

I worked with a couple this past week, and I was so inspired by the man who said (after over 10 years of marriage, but as though he’d just seen it): “I’ve come to see how you are so can-do, and I appreciate that.” He went on to say that he used to experience her “can do” as threatening to his sense of being careful, cautious, and thinking things through.  Now, he sees it’s not a right-wrong, but something to discuss — each tendency appropriate for different contexts — as he and she

Lead with their best selves.


*For years now, I have been searching for the source of this quote, which I read once and never forget: “What is love without the eternal, mortal enmity between man and woman?”  (I think it may have been Ira Progoff.)  Love — including the love of great and productive partners at work — is not based on the collapsing of all boundaries, but based upon a healthy interdependence.

**Humans are deeply wired as animals, and when we face scarcity, we tend not to “lead with our best self.” Instead, we become solo-survivors, first taking care of ME!  It’s when you’re short on money, running late for a meeting, divvying up the good and the hard work, that things start to get tense.  So often we miss the power of this kind of context.

  • See Narcissus and Goldman, by Herman Hesse, page 195.

    I am not liking the sentence, as it sounds so like a turn on the book of Genesis and the enmity between the serpent and the woman, so that enmity sounds far to extreme fro what might make a more accurate description of the relationship of men and women. You are looking for something along the lines of The Taming of the Shrew, or what we see in movies with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey.

    • Mark John,
      Yes, you offer a lighter touch in your cinematic examples. Your point about Adam and Eve is interesting. Didn’t they try to throw each other under the bus? And then in the very next story, Cain, jealous that God preferred Abel’s sacrifice of meat to his own sacrifice of grain, turns around and kills his brother. These myths from Genesis key us in to this built-in insecurity, our first instinct for self defense, from APPARENT threats.
      I always enjoy your engaging. It’s great to write when I know someone will take these thoughts seriously, and make me think in turn!

  • Between men and women there is no friendship possible. There is passion, enmity, worship, love, but no friendship. Oscar Wilde

    Great article – gave me much to think about – THANKS!

  • A really powerful message, Dan, relevant to all kinds of relationships. It’s not easy to put aside feelings of being threatened, of being devalued, of not being appreciated…and to avoid the knee-jerk response of blaming others.

    • David,
      I couldn’t agree more, that “it’s not easy to put aside” those feelings. I like the gentle expression “put aside.” I don’t think we are wise to deny them, nor to fight them. Instead we can acknowledge them, and gently put them aside, so that we can see others clearly and not through the Coke bottle bottoms of our insecurity.
      Always appreciate your weighing in.

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