Relationships – though it sometimes seems like we can’t live with ‘em, I doubt we’d want to live without ‘em. With their vast range of emotions, they provide the delicious texture and color of our lives.
Whether they’re providing a little too much “color,” however, or not enough, there isn’t any relationship that can’t be improved with the infusion of the three C’s: Compassion, Communication and Curiosity.
So much of the pain and friction in relationships comes from taking things personally. Sure, it’s hard not to feel the sting from a rude or critical comment. But, in fact, while someone’s behavior may have been triggered by your words or actions, it is fundamentally a reflection of their own perceptions, beliefs and state of mind – not any kind of definitive statement about who you are.
Have you ever made a sarcastic comment to someone who thought it was wildly funny, and then made a similar remark to someone else who was deeply offended? Or how about a man who customarily opens the car door for his date – on one occasion, the woman appreciates the gesture; with another woman, he is lambasted for being patriarchal or sexist and told she can open her own door, thank you very much. Same action, different response. Which one should he take personally?!
This is not to say that you shouldn’t maintain boundaries and inform someone when their behavior is inappropriate or hurtful, or take responsibility for your own actions. Still, there’s no need to create emotional pain – or spend hours seething over a perceived insult – by interpreting someone’s words or actions as a declaration of your worth.
What article about relationships would be complete without discussing the importance of communication? It truly is the linchpin to deep understanding and intimacy, but your communication style can make the difference between strengthening – or derailing – your connection.
What’s their story? Remember this radical concept: people are different. Be careful not to assume you know exactly what someone is feeling or why they reacted the way they did. Everyone has a story based on their past experience, references and how they see the world – before you jump to conclusions or discount seemingly irrational behavior, why not try to find out what’s behind it?
In their book Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most, authors Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen cite the example of Rory and her stubborn Great Aunt Bertha who sleeps on a sagging old mattress despite terrible back problems. “No matter what I say,” says Rory, “she refuses to let me buy her a new mattress. Everyone in the family tells me Aunt Bertha is just crazy, you can’t reason with her. I guess it’s true.”
Aunt Bertha is the first to agree that her mattress is old and battered. “It’s the one I shared with my husband for forty years, and it makes me feel safe,” she says. “There are so many other changes in my life, it’s nice to have a little haven that stays the same.” Ah, not so irrational after all, is it.
Here, explain the authors, is where curiosity comes in. Instead of saying, “How can they think that?!” ask yourself, “I wonder what information they have that I don’t?” Instead of asking, “How can they be so irrational?” ask, “How might they see the world such that their view makes sense?” Certainty that you’re right shuts down possibility; curiosity opens it up.
Be self-centered. On the flip side, when it’s time to tell your story, make sure it is from your point of view. My wise friend, Marion, has a proven recipe for this. Here, in her words:
Instead of tossing out accusations and criticism (“How come you never…?” “Why are you so…?”), use “I” statements to tell someone what you feel. Start your conversation with “I’m feeling _______ (disconnected, envious, angry), and I know that you _____ (have a lot of challenges right now, may be feeling overwhelmed, are trying so hard, or any other positive affirmation).
I don’t want to add to your feelings of pressure. And you don’t have to do anything about this. But I just wanted you to know how I’m feeling in this situation.” (It’s important to say it without a charge, however, so wait until you’re in control of your emotions when you “share.”)
The only other statement you might add (and this seems to work well on highly sensitive teenage children) is: “What would help me feel better is ______ (if you could reassure me that you care, knowing that you really mean to take out the trash in a more timely way, if you would kiss me goodnight before you roll over, etc).”
And then you wait. As long as it takes for them to process what you’ve said. More than likely they will appreciate that the burden is not on them to “fix” what’s wrong, and be open to discussing a compromise.
Shift Your Focus
Have you ever found yourself increasingly irritated with someone – a colleague, say, who you have pleasant chats with by the snack machine but now that you are on a cross-country business trip together strikes you as a mass of annoying tics and mannerisms that would have driven the Dalai Lama nuts?
Okay, let’s say you are justified in your irritation. But is that where you want to be, how you want to feel? It’s your choice. Because just as you subconsciously instructed your brain to collect data on your colleague’s every maddening quirk, you can consciously shift your attention to discern and acknowledge his positive traits, tenuous as they may be (“Bill really is generous in sharing his snacks.”).
As philosopher William James said: “Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.”
Why not appreciate that each of us is doing the best we know how? This will translate into gratitude, which, you’ll admit, feels better than simmering in annoyance. And who knows, your colleague’s constant chatter may be the gift of gab that gets you on an overbooked flight.
It’s All About You
So often in relationships, we become focused on the other person. What are they thinking? What do they expect, what do they want? What if instead we viewed each relationship as an opportunity to conceive of and create the kind of person we want to be. It wouldn’t matter, then, what others are doing, thinking, planning. It would only matter what we are in relationship to that.
Paradoxically, by becoming self-centered – using each interaction as an opportunity to create yourself as you want to be – you will likely receive the love and respect you desire. And if you don’t, well it’s not personal!