Helena Clayton | What do we mean by love?



What do we mean by love?

12 Aug 2019, Posted by Helena Clayton in Work as Love in Action

Last year, I started exploring love in relation to our organisations and their leadership. I want to know what might help to make our organisational cultures less damaging and more (re)generative. Less fearful, more hopeful.

I started with a piece of research, asking questions like ‘how important is love in the workplace’ and ‘what leadership behaviours demonstrate love’. In the research and in conversations I have as part of my ongoing inquiry, people often say ‘but what do you mean by love’.

I have an odd response to that and sometimes experience the question as a form of denial or distancing, a way to make it safe and manageable (and understandably – love is a provocative topic) that also can feel reductive and diluting – as well as the genuine curiosity it almost certainly is too.

Because I think we know exactly what love is. We know it when someone is loving towards us. And we fully recognise when we have not been loving towards someone.

And yet maybe we do need to find a definition that’s fitting for the workplace if only to immediately rule out any talk about romantic love and how that’s not what we mean in our organisations. So could it be … brotherly love, affection, good will, benevolence, selfless, unconditional, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, sacrifice, care, empathy, compassion, listening, altruism, generosity, acceptance …

I intentionally didn’t provide a definition in this particular piece of research, preferring to build a picture from respondents. This is what emerged:

• Care was the word used most often, by a long way.
• Listening came a close second with and the ability and willingness to put aside your own stuff to really listen and give people the gift of really being heard and ‘giving people undivided attention’. This isn’t leadership as a performance art but as genuine interest in others.
• Then empathy and compassion and the ability to see something through someone else’s eyes and experiences. Even ‘hyper empathy’, for one respondent.
• There was a cluster of words or phrases that equated to really seeing and accepting people for who they are, warts and all, no matter what. No matter what.
• And finally, setting high standards – holding ‘yourself accountable first’ and also holding high expectations of others …having the courage to hold them to that, and having the difficult conversations when necessary. This is the part of love that says no, holds boundaries and is clear, direct and challenging..

I think it’s all of those while also having a strong sense that love is also something more – something ‘other’, something mysterious, something that we can’t deconstruct in order to understand.

The writer Charles Eisenstein shares my reluctance to define things, noting our desire and tendency to reduce something, nail something down. He feels that defining usually means simplifying and simplifying often means simplifying the mystery – and we lose something in doing that especially when exploring a topic like love. Defining shears off nuance and ambiguity and when we are precise it often means exclusion. So over August, my posts will be about looking at different aspects of love – dancing around the edges of love, as Eisenstein might say – and will include: love as verb where we’re required to act and not only feel; love as radical acceptance; love as a choice and an internal act of intention; love as a sacrifice; and love as moments of biological ‘positivity resonance’. All of these are explored too in relation to organisations and leadership.

In the meantime, you can find my original research report here, plus a 5 minute video clip covering similar ground, and also follow me on Twitter using @HelenaClayton.  You can also subscribe here to a monthly-ish Newsletter exploring similar themes.

Please do pass this on to anyone you think might be interested and I’ll be back soon with the first post.

The Charles Eisenstein words come from his online course Living in the Gift, which I started this week and which will keep me company through the rest of August.

H x

  • Stefan

    Hi Helena
    I have been following your ‘love’ inquiry with interest. Thank you for your work. My answer, unpopular though it maybe in some corners of our secularised society is that we find an understanding of love in Jesus Christ . In His work we find that love is not naturally resident in our hearts and that we need a transformation –to shift from self-centredness and towards God:
    1 John 3:16-20 New International Version (NIV)

    16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

    19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: 20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

    A couple of quotes from the New Testament are not really enough of course. From my own experience I know I can only love others because I am aware of God’s love for me and indeed for them as well. God is Love–in every sense–so when I try and extract the construct of love and loving from any sense of where love originated in the first instance I end up in a blind alleyway which inevitably leads me to focus on self and others with no reference to the person, God, who actually enables and sustains true love whether that is in the workplace or elsewhere. Ultimately I do not think it possible to completely ‘secularise’ love–and I think your interesting inquiry is confirming that. In a secularised world where no God is creator love per se makes no evolutionary sense and is an ‘anonmaly’ or exception to rule where the survival of the fittest is what really matters. Thats not to say that we don’t see glimpses of Gods love in a secular context–we see self-giving, empathy, care, dedication etc–and we see these because God has planted them in us–but they can only be made full sense of in the light of who God is ( Love) and how he in love has acted to restore our relationship with Him in Love ( back to the life and work of Jesus Christ). We all long for deep love at work and outside of work. It is found in Christ and once found can be reflected throughout working life and in wider society. A few thoughts on a Saturday morning! Warm regards Stefan

    • Helena Clayton

      Thanks Stefan.
      I have a suspicion that folk with a Christian or faith-based leaning or practice find it much easier to talk about love. Those of us who don’t, and I include myself in that, I suspect find it more difficult or problematic. I wonder if that’s true? This is now making me wonder if I should find a way to do the next phase of my survey/research asking respondents to identify if they have a religious faith or not. I probably won’t but I’m now a bit more interested to understand what impact a religious background has on degrees of comfort in talking about love.
      Your comment also reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend many years ago, but it’s never left me, where she (a practicing Christian) said that without her Christian framework she didn’t know how she could be ‘good’ in the world. And I often wonder what it is that helps me be a good person. Something does, although I have written elsewhere about those (many) moments where I choose a response that’s not loving despite my commitment to choosing love. Funnily enough, this inquiry into love is really helpful in keeping me loving because it keeps the notion and the practice of love front and centre.
      And of course, in response to you wondering if love can ever be fully realised outside of a relationship with God, I can see that what I’m trying to do, in some ways, is to find a ‘way in’ to love that doesn’t require a religious doorway or entry point. Of all the sources I’m exploring the religious ones are the ones I’m leaving until later because I know how much material I’ll find when I get there 🙂
      Anyway, delighted to be in conversation with you, and here’s to more of it! H x


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