Esther Perel Takes on Workplace Relationships

Esther Perel, Photo by Ernesto Urdaneta
Esther Perel, Photo by Ernesto Urdaneta

The renowned therapist applies her gift for insights to interpersonal dynamics in the professional world.

Esther Perel sees personal and professional life as two sides of the same coin: The problems that manifest in office environments have parallels, if not roots, in experiences at home. Well- known for her powerful insights when counseling couples in distress, her new podcast, How’s Work? with Esther Perel, applies the same understanding of relationship dynamics to the corporate world. Episodes are crafted from live-recorded therapy sessions conducted by Perel leading frustrated colleagues toward a better understanding of workplace connections.

The situations discussed are far from universal; few people know exactly what it’s like going into business with their mother or their fellow fighter pilot. Yet each conflict contains themes that are deeply relatable for the average working professional.

Perel talked to us about her vision for creating a more self-attuned, fulfilled workforce.

Spotify for Podcasters: What do you think about the response to How’s Work? so far?

Esther Perel: The reception has been above and beyond what I could have imagined. People at first don't necessarily understand what it means to talk about relational dynamics in the workplace, and relational intelligence between co-founders or family business or co-workers. But once they listen, a whole different understanding opens up. Our relationship skills that we build in life don't disappear when we walk through the office door.

What do you want listeners to take away from How’s Work?

I want them to take away the understanding that relational skills are essential to success—and purpose and efficiency today in the workplace [as well as] mental satisfaction in life as a whole. We can get much better by identifying our patterns and growing a relational vocabulary. This thing that used to be called "soft skills," "relationship skills," "feminine skills" is probably the next competitive advantage in work, but it's also what really occupies people. No amount of money or free food or purpose will ever compensate for a poisonous relationship in the workplace. What I want people to take away is what they already know, because they experience it. I'm giving them a framework for it. I'm giving them tools to understand themselves and others better, and schemes to change some of the relational dynamics in the workplace.

Are there any differences between how we think about work and personal relationships?

What's very interesting is how much there are some similarities these days. I think that because of the diminishment of traditional social structures and religious institutions, we turn to work and we turn to our personal relationships for many needs. We turn—for the sense of belonging, for a sense of continuity, for a sense of purpose, for a sense of identity—to work today. And in that sense, I would say work and personal are maybe not that different.

How do you find the right stories to present, and how do you get subjects to agree to publicize their workplace issues?

They present themselves. We make one call and we get a huge amount of people. My producers do the casting. What we look for are compelling stories so other people can identify themselves with them, even if it's not specific similar circumstances, and a range of different stories from diverse backgrounds so that [the show] is rich and covers the panorama of the people who go to work. It’s less a podcast about work, per se, as about the people who go to work. Who are these people? What do they experience with each other? How do they work together? How do they collaborate? How do they trust each other? How do they argue with each other? How do they exclude each other?

[Most subjects] don't need much convincing. [They] understand what they're getting involved with, and we hope also that they will get something from it. They have a three-hour session with me, and as you can hear in the episodes, these are very meaningful conversations.

What's the secret to making an engaging self-help podcast?

Everybody has to have some conversations that are difficult to have. And when you hear the difficult conversations between other people, and how they find the vocabulary for it, you often see yourself in your own mirror…. This is the stuff that literature has been made up of. This is not the “self-help”; this is a gripping existential, emotional story of life in the context of our work.

You talk a lot about all the rapid changes happening in the workplace. How can we find our place and keep pace amid all the uncertainty that comes with it?

Uncertainty is one of the main words of the times. Once you created a society where people have more choice and more freedom, you also created situations where people have more uncertainty and more self-doubt. In more traditional societies, people have more strict rules, with clear duty and obligation and then you don't have much uncertainty, but you also don't have much freedom. What's happening today is that we for the first time have the opportunity to make all the big decisions. Do I want to be here at work? How long do I want to stay? Am I learning enough? Do I want to move to the next thing?

The set of decisions that is now in our hands means that the burdens on the self are heavy. We have to know what we want. It's great to be told, "Do what you want." But for that you still need to know, what is it that I want? And am I sure? And will I want it in the next five years? It's difficult to constantly be looking for the next thing. I used to say that people divorced because they were unhappy, and now they divorce because they could be happier. People used to leave a job because they closed the factory. Now they often will leave the job because it's not developing them enough, and giving them enough of a sense of identity, purpose, satisfaction, and promoting them fast enough.

The level of expectation from work has gone up, and the level of continuity at work has gone down. What do people do to deal with this? They try to find managers who invest in them, or mentors. The gig economy is an answer to uncertainty. "Let me just have a few different things so nobody has all the power over me, and I don't depend on anybody for everything."

Once listeners learn about the concepts you introduce on the podcast, what should be their next steps?

If I’m dealing with a situation at work, and I'm feeling intensely about something that's happening, instead of instantly going into what other people are doing to me or what they're doing wrong, I first ask myself, why is this getting to me? What does this remind me of? What does this trigger in me that I have such a reaction to this?

If I'm not feeling that people are listening to me in the meetings, is it really true? Or is it also a part of me that has lived with a feeling of being invisible? Have I been marginalized at other times, and therefore, when this happened here, I instantly connected with that path? You know, it is really what's happening in the present. [How’s Work?] gives you a framework to understand your experience, your thoughts, and your feelings, and therefore your course of action. And to also see that this is how I felt maybe a long time ago, but that doesn't mean that this is where I'm at today. It gives you a frame for understanding things, making meaning out of things, and then knowing what to do about them rather than being reactive.

—Zach Brooke