You may have had the pleasure of reading the novels of Louise Penny. Her mysteries provide great opportunities to be entranced, not only by the solving of a convoluted murder but by powerful insights into what makes us tick, some of us more exotically than others.
She has a repertory cast of a half-dozen inhabitants of Three Pines, a fictitious village in Quebec. They struggle to understand the human condition, especially when confronted by homicide. In The Cruelest Month, Inspector Gamache and Myrna Landers, a retired psychologist who runs a bookstore, are talking about behavior:
The near enemy. It’s a psychological concept. Two emotions that look the same but are actually opposite. Pity and compassion are the easiest to understand. Compassion involves empathy. You see the stricken person as an equal. Pity doesn’t. If you pity someone you feel superior. It looks like compassion, acts like compassion, but is actually the opposite of it. As long as pity’s in place, there’s no room for compassion. . . .
And love and attachment? It’s friendships, marriages, mothers and children, any intimate relationship. Love wants the best for others, to live wherever they want and do what makes them happy. That’s love. Attachment takes hostages.
Finally, equanimity and indifference. I think that’s the worst of the near enemies, the most corrosive. Equanimity is balance. When something overwhelming happens in our lives, we feel it strongly, but we also have the ability to overcome it — an ability to accept things and move on. The near enemy is indifference — they just don’t feel pain. They don’t care about others. They don’t feel like the rest of us. They’re like the Invisible Man, wrapped in the trappings of humanity, but beneath there’s emptiness.
The Cruelest Month, by Louise Penny, pp 197–199
What’s the difference?
The ah-ha head slap for me as I read this was the idea that as long as the near enemy is in play, there’s no room for the healthy emotion. I realized that if I couldn’t differentiate between an emotion — as it showed up in my reactions — and its near enemy, I’d be sowing dysfunction. Probably without realizing it, as the near enemy is also a near twin.
In my own leadership journey, I’ve found myself mistaking a positive practice for a near enemy. I didn’t know the label at the time — I just stumbled on this while reading through Penny’s novels. Often I would feel squirrely after an interaction and, upon reflection, realize I had been cutting a corner. I’d been acting out a near enemy because I didn’t know about the difference and because I didn’t take the time to clarify my own impulse.
Here are a few examples of the near enemy I have seen in myself and in others. I have made a list, with each positive behavior accompanied by its near enemy. I use this to help me clarify the difference and, with practice, to make better choices in how I show up as a leader.
Since I found out about this and graphed it, I find myself better able to keep to the healthier side of the equation. I need to remind myself that the near enemy is often elusive, as it feels very much like its positive twin emotion. A quick “dividing question” helps. For instance, Am I stepping up or disregarding possibilities? is my question for the first emotional pair. As leaders, teachers, parents, and friends, we can take a few moments to decipher the healthy/near enemy boundary and increase the shared power of every relationship.
Recognizing the difference
Leadership: Decisiveness — — — a willingness to step up
Near Enemy: Autocracy — — — an unwillingness to consider possibilities
Leadership: Standards — — — self-discipline, holding myself accountable
Near Enemy: Expectations — — — bias and blame, imposing my standards on others
Leadership: Supporting — — — listening and responding without judgment
Near Enemy: Enabling — — — stepping in to protect others from struggling or feeling pain
Leadership: Equity — — — treating each person as s/he asks to be treated
Near Enemy: Equality — — — pushing forward without taking individual needs into account
Leadership: Professionalism — — — role boundaries without exclusivity
Near Enemy: Disconnection — — — invulnerability without room for feedback
Leadership: Inclusion — — — evenly welcoming differences and agreement
Near Enemy: Co-dependence — — — gingerly walking the minefield of emotions
Think about having a conversation with your spouse, children, peers, team members, your boss, about this idea of near enemies. Let’s say we accept that, on good authority, people do the very best with what they have. Yet anyone can get fooled by the camouflage of a near enemy emotion. As we become more focused in our understanding of ourselves — including clarity about near enemies — we can improve our relationships by choosing more often to operate in the Leadership practice of the paired emotions above. With that clarity, we gain confidence and trust, and that helps others to their own awareness.
As Ben Zander suggests, “Once a distinction is made, we have it for the rest of our life.” How can you start this conversation? Having better dialogue starts with a better understanding of how we talk and listen, right? BTW, listening costs nothing and pays back with high interest.
P.S. If you’d like to hear the podcast of this piece, simply click here. I think you’ll love the theme music as well. You’ll have access to over 50 other podcasts, including interviews with Sonny Magana, Robert Ward, Johnny Castle, Rich King, and Sir John Hargrave.