Recently, a co-worker was telling a story about a former mentor of hers who once said to her, “You know why I like you? Because you and I hate the same people.” We had an awkward chuckle over the shock and aggressiveness of that statement, but, it reminded me of Brene Brown’s concept of Common Enemy Intimacy.
Common Enemy Intimacy is when our closeness (intimacy) is built on talking badly about other people. For example, I start a new job at Work Wisdom and desire to get to know my new team members. I invite my colleague, Sarah, out to lunch. Somewhere amidst our conversation she begins sharing negatively with me about other team members, Kate and Kedren. In my desire to connect with Sarah, I engage in the conversation and perhaps even add my own negative observations and opinions about Kate and Kedren. Through this conversation, we have just built Common Enemy Intimacy. The unkind things we have said about Kate and Kedren have now become the invisible thread to our connection/intimacy.
Unfortunately, what Sarah and I have built in this Common Enemy Intimacy is not only unkind, it’s also not real. The intimacy we have just built is on hating the same people and that is not real intimacy. It is false and counterfeit. True, healthy intimacy is not built on talking about others.
I have seen this dynamic play out in almost every work environment I have ever been a part of, myself included. I believe each of us has a deep desire to connect and to belong in all arenas of our life. Common Enemy Intimacy is a temptation to quickly, cheaply, and falsely fulfill these desires to connect and belong.
How then do we become aware of disengaging in Common Enemy Intimacy? One practice that works for me is a form of mindful communication I call, “True, Kind, Necessary”. I keep these three questions written on a note card on my desk. Before I enter into a conversation with a colleague, I internally check-in with the following questions. Even checking in with myself after the conversation is helpful.
1. Is what I am about to say true? And if it’s not, why am I saying it? It can be so easy to unintentionally spread rumors, perpetuate gossip, exaggerate, or simply talk in ways that are not authentic to who I am.
2. Is what I am about to say kind? When I take the time to pause and check-in, there is a deep down knowing in me that what I am about to say is either kind or unkind – is it taking into account how it would make some else feel? Is this a life-giving or life-draining comment? At times, I can find ways to justify unkindness but when I am truly honest with myself, it’s often best to refrain from speaking at all.
3. Is what I am about to say necessary? When I stop to check-in with this question, I am almost always surprised that often what I have to say is not necessary. It isn’t unkind, or even untrue, but it simply is not necessary to the work or relationship I am creating. Sometimes, I realize that what I want to say is necessary just not at this time or with this person. This question has helped me get more comfortable with silence, specifically silence between others, and myself and how that, too, can be a rich and intimate space.
Unnecessary dialogue often shows up for me in the form of complaining to a colleague, typically about a difficult interaction I just had. At times I like to disguise my complaining as processing. However, when I’m truthful with myself, it’s usually not productive or helpful or appropriately timed processing. It’s unnecessary. If I do find that I need to process an interaction or meeting, a more appropriate way for me is to meet with my counselor, a mentor, or trusted friend. Additional questions I ask here are, ‘Is this necessary right now?’ and ‘Is what I have to say improving upon the silence?’
Asking myself these three simple questions – Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? – is not always easy. Following through with actions that align with my answers can be even more difficult and takes courage. However, I can tell you the great benefits it has reaped in my work life, not least of all creating a trusting environment that yields more productivity, compassion, and collaboration.
Kimberlee Peifer works at Work Wisdom LLC, an organizational behavior practice in Lancaster, Pa. Her focus is on the Enneagram, Contemplative Leadership, and building trust in the workplace. You can contact her at [email protected].