How To Be A Good Friend: Part 3

We all know the importance of communication in a relationship. When things are going well, good communication keeps things on the right track. When things are going wrong, you need to talk it out.  You just need to communicate more, right?

Yes and no.

When a relationship is having conflict, it’s probably not the amount of communication at issue, but the quality of both the communication itself and the internal world of the participants that is causing trouble. For example, if I think I’m right and you’re wrong, communicating that in greater quantity will not help the relationship.

What comprises quality communication in a relationship? Here are 8 components of quality communication:

  • Being present – You’re not worrying about your kids, your job, or even what you’re going to say next. You’re giving your partner your undivided attention to both their words and nonverbal communication. Being present also means being calm. If I’m pissed off or terrified, I am likely not being present.
  • Listening to understand – When you listen to understand, you’re trying to grasp the meaning of their words, not just the literal, surface content. You’re dispensing with any assumptions you may have made about their perspective or motivation. You listen with a clean slate, hearing between the lines, not taking every phrase literally.
  • No judging – Everyone has a different internal world, none better or worse than another. Respect the other’s reality, and they are more likely to respect yours.
  • Don’t take it personally – If discussing a difficult topic, this issue likely, at its emotional care, has nothing to do with you (see below).
  • Don’t interrupt – Let them completely finish what they have on their mind. You’ll get your turn, hopefully, later.
  • Reflect back – Summarize what you heard (again, without judgment or taking it personally), and ask if you got it right. Receive corrections and edit until it’s right then ask if there is anything else.
  • Go deeper – For intimate relationships and/or conversations, ask your partner to explain why this particular issue is so important to them to get to the painful (or joyous) belief behind their feelings. Try to avoid using the word “Why”: “Help me understand why this is so painful/wonderful for you.” Reflect their response back.
  • Ask – Ask if they’re willing to hear your perspective. If so, then share your viewpoint being as authentic as possible, avoiding blame and judgment on the other. Remember, your interpretation on your view of the world is your choice.  You’re entitled to your opinion, but remember that it is your opinion, not fact.  Share the feelings elicited by your partner’s behavior or words and the pain at the source of those feelings.

For example, I might say to my partner “When I was telling you how excited I was about my promotion, I felt hurt and ignored when you interrupted me and changed the subject. Giving me adequate air time, especially during important moments, helps me feel valued and appreciated.”

The deeper you can authentically go into your wounded, vulnerable place, the more impactful the communication.     In your vulnerability is where it becomes clear what is the real issue, buried deep beneath the surface argument. (Please see any of Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability if you’re unsure the benefit of making yourself vulnerable).

The quality of your internal world is also critically important to good communication. Your internal world is related to the Arbinger Institute’s concept of being in the Box and your mindset. Briefly, when I am in the Box, I am focusing on my own needs, wants and desires and justifying that position by mentally and emotionally diminishing the other to be irrelevant, a problem or a means to an end. When communicating, I’m more concerned about being right, being heard and understood, or not being blamed or criticized.   My mindset is inward, focused on my own needs.

In contrast, when out of the Box, I view others needs, wants and desires as important as my own. I’m communicating to first understand, and then to be understood. I’m deeply interested in the speaker’s needs, wants and desires so as to be helpful to them, or at least, to do them no harm.   I respect their boundaries as well as my own. My mindset is outward, focused on understanding their needs, and trying to help or support them in a way that does not violate my own boundaries.

Given that this is neither easy nor simple, I find it helpful to take a strengths-based approach to communication. I use my Relator to motivate me to deepen my relationships, and I use my Capacity to Love and Be Loved and Consistency/Justice and Perspective to maintain a positive energy during difficult conversations.   A mindfulness practice is essential for staying present. I view improving on this critical skill part of my lifelong journey where I continue to learn and grow, using large doses of Forgiveness when my partner and I fall short of our expectations.

Toxic Recycling

In this era of reduce, reuse, recycle, and combined with my Chinese upbringing, I’m loathe to actually dispose of anything. There’s always another use for an unwanted object rather than dooming it to the landfill. Yet there are certain interpersonal dynamics that probably just need to be dispensed with.

I feel almost every couple goes through this dynamic: You’re having what seems to be a perfectly calm day and then the next minute you’re sniping at each other. It’s always the other person’s fault, of course. I was just minding my own business when your attitude happened to come along.

One day during an unexpectedly turbulent moment, Chris observed that we both were noticing the others’ negative energy. Both? Negative? We were both carrying around some crap and then blaming it on the other when an argument escalated. Ohhhhhewwww.

Right then we realized that we have a tendency to recycle our internal garbage/unresolved issues between us. When Chris is feeling peaceful and tuned-in, he will realize that I’m just having a bad day and give me space, and/or he’ll let it roll off.   But when Chris is having his own stress or unresolved issues, the dynamic turns into fireworks. And visa versa.   If I didn’t initiate it, then I did escalate it, so we’re both responsible.

Awareness of our dynamic means that now, when things start to get touchy, usually we can stop and acknowledge that we’re recycling our garbage. That’s usually sufficient to stop the dynamic in its tracks so we can return to what we want to grow, recycle and regenerate: love, gratitude, affection, interest, warmth, kindness and compassion.   You can never have enough goodwill in a relationship, and it should not be squandered with mindless bickering and arguments. After all, waste not, want not.

Recycle

Finding the Sweet Spot: Assertive vs. Pushy

Though assertiveness versus pushiness can be a fine line for everyone, I feel this is a particularly tough issue for women. We are more inclined to try to get along compared to men. Often when we do assert ourselves we’re called the B word.   If we take the softer approach and talk from the perspective of our feelings, we’re accused of being overly emotional.

Ladies, sometimes it feels like we just can’t win. It’s no wonder we sometimes just don’t do anything at all. Am I right?

I try not to shy away from topics that I struggle with, else I’d have nothing to write about. I can only reflect on the hard-earned lessons I’ve learned over the years. Thankfully there are more lessons to come, many of them from you!

In my opinion, there are three main ingredients that are key for a successful discussion of a sensitive nature. First, you must stay calm.   Staying calm means that even if a situation upset or hurt you, you enter the conversation with peace and serenity. You are a still pond. You are a rock. You are a loaf of French bread. For example, I can be serene talking about something that happened in the distant past compared to just moments ago, or talking to an objective third party compared to someone who caused my pain. You can have emotional distance, even while talking about your feelings, so have the conversation only when you are calm.

Second, while being calm, assume that the other person is reasonable at heart.   Thus, your chosen words are not judgmental, but neutral. You are open, listen and try to understand what belief is causing this behavior. Becoming judgmental or defensive will only undermine your cause and you will be called the B word.

Finally, be succinct. Rambling, justifying, bemoaning, judging, and elaborating will make you lose your audience. And you’re serene, remember? State:

  • The fact – “I saw you leave out My Little Pony toy”
  • The way it makes you feel or the consequence – “It makes me feel like you don’t care about my stuff” or “I can’t find it when I want to play with it”
  • Your request – “Could you please put my toys away where they belong when you’re done playing with them?”

Bam, bam, bam.

An observation: this might be a huge deal to you. You might’ve cried about this for days and are trembling inside when having this conversation. The other most likely doesn’t even have this on their radar, and will just be like, “Okay.”

If not, be prepared to listen to their reality. You’re serene, right? So you’ll let their emotion wash over you so that you can listen deeply and objectively. If you really try to understand, you’ll find that their emotional reality will make sense to them in the same way that your emotional reality makes sense to you. In other words: it makes no sense except to the one experiencing it. And then you can find a sensible middle ground, laugh at how silly/human you both are and have a hug.

Ha ha. Not really.

Or maybe so?

Resources: Crucial Conversations and The Power of Positive Confrontation

Dealing With Haters

I know you’re awesome and amazing. So am I! Problem is, not everyone sees it that way.

Or so we think.

But maybe we’re wrong.

On the other hand, there are those out there that we love. Sort of. Well, they’re terrific in some ways, but if only….

In other words, we often have ambivalence about our relationships. In addition, an element of uncertainty and subjectivity is ever-present in our interpretation of our and others’ feelings and intentions. There’s always that yin to the yang, our like/dislike, our love/hate, our approval/disapproval.

Thus, when it comes to haters (and lovers, for that matter), circumstances are rarely black/white. First, you may think they hate you, but unless you talk to them, you just don’t know for sure. It’s possible you’re misinterpreting their words or actions. For example, they might be complaining about you or what you do, but they may just be a grouchy, negative person in general, or they may think you’re fundamentally OK but need a change in behavior or attitude around a certain subject. Think about all the people you know and love or respect, and whether there are certain behaviors or attitudes that you’d like to change. Likewise, you could be that person for your hater wherein they may not be handling their frustration constructively.

Second, your belief that they hate you may be fueling what might be an otherwise benign dynamic. You may be reacting to perceived judgment with your own hard energy, aggression, martyrdom, or need to control. They are not going to respond positively to your negativity, which further reinforces your perception of their dislike. And so on. How would the dynamic shift if you reached out with compassion and empathy and/or solid boundaries?

Third, it may be that your hater is actively trying to get you fired, break up your relationship or has told you directly that they think you’re pond scum. Just because they feel that way, doesn’t make it true. It also doesn’t make it false. In other words, explore whether there’s a grain of truth to their criticism, but know that the intensity of their reaction says more about them than it does about you. How can you look past the delivery to the wisdom within the message?  Why are they taking such a destructive approach to the situation? Likely, they are not coping well with their frustration.

Likewise, your own reaction says more about you than it does about them. Do you retaliate and go on the offensive, get depressed, quit or break-up, bury your head in the sand, or do you rise above and take the high road? If your hater brings out the worst in you, then you’ve just – to some degree – validated their complaints. If the hater brings out the best in you, then you’ve risen above the pettiness and shown yourself and others the quality person that you are.

The latter is easier said than done. I know. But this is your growth opportunity, isn’t it? While you’re calm, determine your strategy for dealing with a hater. Ask yourself: What is the best possible outcome for this? How would your role model or best self react to this situation? Your main hurdle is your own feelings about the situation. They’re not easy to manage, but managing them is easier than getting someone else to do the same, right?

Happy Birthday America!

Seven Rules of Engagement and Marriage

Eat your vegetables. Brush your teeth. Get plenty of sleep. Wear your seatbelt. Pay your taxes.

These are the lessons we learn from our parents and teachers about how to get by in this world.

Advice about relationships? [crickets]

Yes, the former are important, but beyond our basic physical and financial needs, what is more important than relationships? Relationships give our lives meaning and purpose, and failure to have successful relationships makes success in the other domains of our lives very difficult if not impossible.

The permanent nature of marriage makes that relationship all the more important. I’ve struggled as much as the next gal when it comes to relationships but I have learned a lot in the meantime. This is what I’ve learned so far about the ingredients for a successful marriage:

  1. There is no Win-Lose – If you’re fighting to win, you’ll ultimately end up in a Lose-Lose. Aim for a Win-Win instead. Win-Win requires you truly try to understand and accept the other. If you just assume your partner is crazy, immoral or stupid, you’ve headed into the Lose-Lose even if you may feel like you’ve won the battle.
  2. Relationship first – Sometimes the relationship must take a back seat to other priorities like kids or job, but that should be the exception rather than the rule. Also, you should both agree on the rules or circumstances when those exceptions are mutually agreeable and necessary.
  3. Learn to balance needs and boundaries – We all need to have our boundaries – knowing what absolutely will and won’t work for you mental and emotional well-being. However, we also have to be able to step up, be flexible and stretch for what our partner needs.   For example, is that a real boundary, or just an assumption you have not revisited in decades? The conflict in your relationship is natural and necessary. It does not mean that something is wrong. Rather, it is your opportunity to find the path through it and the growth opportunity in it – together.
  4. Don’t keep score – We don’t always see or remember what our partners do for the sake of the relationship, but we tend to remember the sacrifices we make. Therefore, don’t keep score; it just builds resentment. Instead, find new ways you can be a better partner.
  5. It’s not your job to fix someone else – As glorious as you are, you have your own growth to attend to. Focusing on someone else’s mistakes and necessary growth only highlights your own needed development.
  6. If your partner is not happy, you’re not happy – Treat your partner’s happiness, satisfaction and success like it’s as important as your own, because it is.
  7. Remember, you’ve made a promise to be in it for the long haul – If you only had one pair of shoes to last you until you die, how would you treat them? (no offense for the old shoe comparison) You would clean and condition them daily and be vigilant about repairs before irreparable damage occurs. You wouldn’t use them to kick rocks around or play in the mud. Treat your relationship like the precious gem that it is and it will last a long time.

These have been hard-earned lessons for me. What is missing from this list? Share your wisdom.

Depositing Into the Relationship Bank

Sometimes I feel powerless to change or improve a relationship because of my tendency to assume that the other should change. However, every relationship takes at least two people, and therefore I have control over at least 50% of it. Therefore, regardless of whether the relationship is strong or needs improvement, I always have a choice as to whether to be proactive or passive in the dynamic.

Studies show that relationship resilience depends on how much goodwill and positive emotion has preceded a setback. In other words, I can strengthen a relationship by building positive emotion proactively. According to marriage researcher John Gottman, a successful couple has at least 5 good events/feelings to offset every 1 bad event/feeling.   Willard Harley, author of He Wins, She Wins describes this balance as a Love Bank, whose balance, whether positive or negative, determines whether one pursues a relationship or avoids it. Though less commonly described in terms of the workplace, the Love Bank can apply to colleagues and whether we decide to work with them or work to avoid them.

We may contribute to the creation of a bad relationship when we lack self-awareness of our role in the problem or are closed to our partner’s view of reality. Instead of trying to understand the perspective and viewpoint of the other, we often begin by blaming and needing to be right, then justifying our behavior. As mentioned above, my tendency is to assume the other needs to change rather than examining my own behavior, a habit that I’ve learned to consciously challenge.

Harley sheds light on this interplay by explaining that we tend to cycle between a giver and taker mentality in relationships. Being in the taker cycle may be natural but it is also potentially destructive over time. Blaming the other for being in a taker mentality helps us to avoid our own taker behavior. An honest appraisal of one’s own role in relationship dysfunction takes courage but can make all the difference in moving the relationship forward constructively.

Becoming more aware of such habits and tendencies can be difficult, especially if we are, on some level, trying to avoid the painful admission of our culpability. Regardless of where we are on the giver/taker cycle, every one of us could do a little better in terms of spreading positive energy and emotion to others. How can I cultivate my own positive emotion? How can I more effectively spread that to others? What can I do to help others be successful or feel more appreciated? What can I do to deepen my relationship and build trust and respect? How can I better the world, just a tiny bit, today?

Toxic, Disruptive People

My inner toddler

My inner toddler

When working or living with toxic, difficult people, our tendency seems to be to use labels (b*tch, pr*ck, evil, toxic, etc.) as a shortcut to understanding them. Though convenient and expeditious, not unlike a handful of trail mix for dinner, the problem with labels is that we stop seeing the other as a complex person who is struggling, just like we are. Instead, the label tends to homogenize and minimize their essence to nothing but negative. The extreme ‘evil’ label implies that the other is irredeemable and is deserving of whatever ill fate that may befall them, intentional or otherwise.

I haven’t had enough coffee this morning to debate whether evil exists, or whether evil is more appropriately viewed through a mental illness lens. Most people that we encounter in our daily lives fall far short of that diagnosis, though it is often tempting to box someone in with that label.

Here’s what I do know about difficult people. Remembering these concepts helps me to deal with them and my reaction to them more constructively.

  • Difficult people are our teachers. We learn patience and perspective by being in their midst.
  • No matter how sure you are that they are to blame, we always have some responsibility in a failed relationship.   Explore flipping your story to gain some useful perspective. For starters, we are often blind to our own need to be right or lack of forgiveness which tends to invite bad behavior in others.
  • Everyone has a valid perspective, even if you disagree with or can’t understand it. Remember, disagreements often stem from different ethical priorities, not from an absence of values or a moral compass. Learning anothers’ perspective will help you understand and forgive while also making it more likely that they will be motivated to understand yours.
  • We often confuse being lenient or soft on others with doing the right thing. Martyring ourselves or our team to accommodate the perceived needs or demands of a toxic person is not doing anyone any favors in the long run and is not likely to keep the peace for long.   Behavioral issues should be dealt with early, firmly and with compassion.   For example, despite repeated interventions, some students continue to have performance or behavioral issues.   They are not unintelligent or lazy; instead, they are often a poor fit for the program. Helping these students to find the right academic environment will allow them to grow and shine. In contrast, enabling them to persist in a program that does not match their strengths or interests only prolongs the issue for them. Avoiding the problem for extended durations can result in incalculable losses of time, money, energy, productivity, and peace of mind for both the student and those around them.
  • A therapist I know once said that everyone is always trying their best. I did not believe her at the time, but I believe this statement to be 100 % true. Laziness is synonymous for lack of engagement. In the work environment, lack of engagement is strongly associated with being ignored or getting negative attention. Conventional wisdom concurs with respect to children that act out at home because they are being ignored. It’s easy to blame the child or lazy employee but the root cause is usually the parent or manager (see bullet #2 above).

It’s not easy turning the lens from the difficult person back on oneself. When tired or stressed, this task seems pointless or nearly impossible.   But here are your options: allow someone else to make you feel frustrated and emotionally out of control or by take constructive action that will help improve yourself, your family or you organization.   The latter may seem harder, but consider how uncontrolled emotion is the adult equivalent of a temper tantrum, even if you think you’re controlling it externally.

Don’t feel bad. You’re not alone. However, finding someone else who agrees with your or is in the same boat is not a good excuse to avoid dealing constructively with that difficult person in you.