Esther Perel’s Radical Workplace Empathy
“Love and work are the two pillars of our life,” says Esther Perel in the prologue of her new podcast, How’s Work?. Both give us a sense of identity, self-worth, belonging. But, adds Perel, there’s a key difference: “We all know that when our romantic relationships are in trouble, we need to invest in them; we need to put attention and effort, and sometimes seek help. Somehow, when it comes to work, we endure our relationships.”
As people increasingly put off marriage and kids, spending their twenties and thirties in the unending cycle of the gig economy or eating three meals a day at their desks, workplace relationships have higher and higher stakes. Factor in social movements such as #MeToo, which are rapidly reshaping our understanding of how we should interact, and a lot of people are looking for help navigating this changing landscape.
That’s where Perel comes in. The Belgian psychotherapist rose to fame as an expert on romantic relationships, thanks to her bestselling books on intimacy and her 2017 couples-therapy podcast, Where Should We Begin?. But when she noticed her clients using words like “vulnerability” and “trust” while discussing their work lives, she recognized that a cultural shift was afoot. “In 1960, the primary reason for work was to make sure you had food on the table,” Perel says, “not that you were going to develop, experience fulfillment, be excited when you wake up in the morning.”
With How’s Work?, Perel gives listeners a seat on the couch in her unscripted, one-off counseling sessions with people who work together, in any capacity. One episode helps two colleagues move through the trauma of being laid off by their former company before they start a new business together. In another, two business partners — best friends and Navy veterans who flew fighter jets together in Iraq and Afghanistan — are trying to learn how to move forward as, after 10 years, one strikes out on his own with a new venture. (“It feels like a breakup,” one of them says. “It is,” Perel replies.)
Over each hour-long episode, Perel, herself the child of Holocaust survivors, excavates the professional and personal histories that each client brings to the table. Are you an only child? Were you raised to value “autonomy” or “loyalty”? What makes you fearful of trusting others or taking risks? In the case of the fighter pilots, who assumed that their shared military experience gave them a common problem-solving language, the session revealed that their upbringings may have overridden their training. One was an only child with a widowed mom; the other, one of five kids. These biographies colored how each approached a challenge: One “learned to solve things alone, and [the other] learned to think about how it affects others,” Perel says. Once she helped them see and define these differences, they were able to navigate the next steps in their relationship.
The core of her work, Perel says, is teaching people that they bring not only a professional résumé but a “relationship résumé” and a “vocabulary of emotions” to the office. And refining those interpersonal skills is as important to workplace health and happiness as any professional training. “You bring your whole self to work,” she says. “Your family, your culture. So let’s put [it all] out there, because it will help people work better together.”