The Space Between Things

Focusing on relationships to reveal truth

This week I want to talk about focusing on relationships, not things. This is more about what you discover than about what I tell you. See how it goes!

I’ve just returned from five days hiking in the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico. It was freezing cold and wonderful, with lots of river crossings.

At around 7,000 feet in New Mexico

There were three of us on the trip. It made me think about groups of people and about Dunbar’s numbers. The number we know best from Dunbar is usually quoted as 150 - the number of direct acquaintances you can keep in your head, and possibly the determinant of ancient human group sizes.

Small teams of up to 7 have a nice stability to them - you can share a pizza.

The startup version of Dunbar is about the small groups you get in early-stage startups — e.g. the size of team that can happily eat pizza around a table together, around 7 people — which seems to be a stable size for close connections and active high-quality working relationships. When groups exceed this number of people, they tend to split into sub-groups. You see this instantly in tour groups and educational settings. These sub-groups can have their own stabilities and instabilities.

Group sizes above 8 tend to be unstable, and split off into their own subgroups which have stronger connections within themselves than with the broader group.


When hiking with a backpack, your center of gravity is high, and on rough terrain it helps to use trekking poles, which are lightweight sticks held in each hand. It takes a little while to become comfortable with the poles, but pretty soon you see them as an extension of your limbs. You can feel through them to the solid ground and you can manipulate them as easily as your thumb. The poles are a new relationship to the ground, giving you information and affordance, and their presence and how you use them changes how you move through the land.

Trekking poles in use

On flat or easy ground, I don’t use poles and I like to hold both of them in one hand. I like to move them from this position to the active position and back again in the same way every time, so that it’s a smooth transition with a satisfying speed and timing. Transitioning between normal walking and pole-assisted walking is easy and intuitive. Modes are OK.

John Vervaeke has a good illustration of our ability to shift our attention like this, and how feeling through object can create a relationship, in his video on Insight. In his example, when you tap a cup with a pen, you can focus on:

  • the surface of the pen (fingers/pen)

  • the form and kinetics of the moving pen (pen)

  • the impact of it tapping the cup (pen/cup)

  • the shape and material of the cup the pen is tapping. (cup)

Let’s take two things from this:

  • Your attention and awareness is always in relation to something.

  • Your can move that focus around easily

  • Where that focus lies  even within the same chain of objects and relationships — completely changes the experience

Relationships, not objects

In Be Like Animal, Be Like Plant, my job is to help you adopt different worldviews and experiment with your perspective, so that you can make better decisions and be a more empathic leader.

I think 99.99% of the time we are at work, we focus on individuals and objects. For example, we spend a lot of effort working on these kinds of things:

  • Goals

  • Individuals

  • Teams

  • Roles

  • Responsibilities

  • Compensation

  • Plans

  • Metrics

  • etc

Let’s not do this today.

Instead, I want to focus on the relationships between the things, not the objects and individuals themselves. Treat it as a thought experiment. It sounds really abstract but it’s actually very easy. And I think it can help you.

Bear with me a little bit. Over time I want to make it easier and easier to represent abstract things through simple drawings that anyone can make. I’m not very good at this yet, but I’m trying to get better at drawing relationships. For now, I am using a very basic system: orange to show relationships, and blue to represent objects.

Let’s look at the spaces in between.

What are your work and personal relationships like?

To start, think about your relationships (past or present) to:

  • Your direct reports at work

  • Your friends

  • People at work you report to

  • People you see every day

  • People you only see online

  • Your family members

  • Your spouse

  • Your pet

By ‘think about your relationships’ I mean examining each one:

  • What does the relationship feel like? What about for them?

  • What is the shared truth between you? How is it stored?

  • How much is the relationship shaped by you, versus them?

  • What is the power dynamic in the relationship?

  • What is your mind like in that relationship, versus others? What kinds of things do you say?

  • How does the relationship change when it is in the context of other relationships? E.g. how are you with your spouse when you are surrounded by work colleagues, versus with friends?

  • How does the relationship change moment-to-moment when it is in the context of a specific topic, e.g. money, or performance, or responsibility?

What does it look like, if you were to draw it?

Maybe you have a strong, solid relationship with A, and an online-only one with D. Maybe you have a vibrant relationship with C, and a straightforward one with B.

Focusing on relationships reveals truths:

As a general habit, by giving focus to relationships-between rather than just objects, you may understand more of what’s going on. When we focus on team culture, we are often focusing on improving the quality of the relationships. Some of the truths we might find are below.

None of these truths are important as and of themselves — they are just abstractions. But they allow you to problem-solve specific situations with more information and empathy.

‘You’ are less permanent than you think. Who ‘you’ are is more dependent on relationship than you realize. In some situations we are a sibling, in others a child, in others a parent, in others a helpful stranger. Who we ‘are’ is strongly context-dependent. Existing in relation creates a specific meaning. If you are having problems understanding an individual’s motivations, try examining the ways in which their context is affecting their actions.

Who we are in a group is different to who we are alone, or 1:1. We deal with this most clumsily in school - e.g. when a popular kid hangs out with you 1:1, they might be nice, and when they see you when surrounded by their friends, they are mean. Their group relationships are more salient than the permanence of their personality, and their relationship to the group is more important to them than their relationship-to-you.

It’s hard to capture the full truth and meaning of a relationship in a contract.

Real truth is not stored in documents, it is stored in relationships. The documents we create are artifacts of shared understanding. Just think how easy it is to tear up a contract when both parties don’t need it anymore. In fact, most of the time, when both parties are done, we don’t explicitly terminate contracts, we just ignore them - they are that powerless.

Trying to capture a relationship in a contract can instantly create a new dynamic - the relationship between the parties and the contract, which is a low-resolution representation of the relationship.

In contrast, strong relationships can outlive the existence of any specific company or contract, and relationships can be destroyed by one party hanging on to their version of a shared contract. Try to think about whether you are hanging onto a disconnected truth, or a shared version of reality.

Obsession with ‘objective’ reality in an organization is a fool’s errand. In school and at work we often work under the assumption that subjective reality is unreliable, shifty, untrustworthy, ‘unscalable’. And objective reality is pure, trustworthy, replicable, ‘data-driven’. Actually, they are both limited. But most importantly, you can’t force an ‘objective’ reality to be adopted — it has to be in line with the subjective reality shared among everyone’s relationships. Are you trying to create an objective reality where none exists?

Some people are more interested in transactions than relationships. It’s a truism that in Japanese business culture, relationships are fostered over years and decades, and are less contingent on quick transactions. In contrast, I have found that many business folks outside Japan are so obsessed with a transaction that they spare no thought to a relationship. Just as your oldest friend will forgive you for being late for lunch, the more a relationship is based on other things outside of any specific event, the more resilient it is. How focused are you on relationships versus transactions?

Relationship only exists in relationship to other things and relationships. Your relationship to a co-worker exists in relationship to the company’s ideas and goals, to the other people in your team, to the norms in society about those relationships, to your own past experiences. When we get in the habit of examining relationships in this way, we place more value on context and conditions, which are just as powerful as individual actors and actions. How much are you thinking about conditions, versus outcomes?

The relationship can be as complex as the person. Just as people take on new influences and change according to circumstance, so can relationship.

As the person on the left changes, the relationship changes. In response, maybe the person on the right changes too, which changes the relationship again.

Try to think about the nature and quality of your relationships at work, and how these change over time as you change and as other person changes.

You do not need to forget about any other way of knowing. Just as your attention can shift from cup to tapping pen to finger, you can change your focus to relationships and back again to objects. Having both at your disposal gives you the freedom to examine problems and opportunities more deeply.

See how it goes! I am very curious to hear what you uncover.


I coach CEOs, founders and executives on how to reach their full potential, become great leaders, and scale strong, impactful companies. Find out more.

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