How to Build Positive Relationships

Happy Relationships

In my last post I talked about the relationship between positive social relationships and happiness. Unhappiness is not a mental illness caused by something mysterious going on the brain. Generally, it can be linked to what is going on in your relationships. How are you and your boss (or co-workers) getting along? How close do you feel to your spouse? How well do you and your teenager communicate? Do you enjoy being around your young children? How do you balance the needs and expectations of others against your own? Do you have friendships you enjoy? If things are going well in your relationships, you’re much more likely to be happy. If there is tension and strife, distance and alienation, control and resistance, or unrealized expectations, you’re likely to be unhappy.

So, how do we build positive relationships with other people? Of course, this is a BIG question and one that depends on the nature of the relationship as much as anything. The meaning of a good relationship differs whether we’re talking about your boss, co-workers, customers, casual friends, parents, spouse, or children. The context and expectations for each of these relationships differ. So, I don’t want to convey that building positive relationships is a simple one, two, three step formula. It is more complex than that.

However, I have observed four principles or themes that are at the heart of our relationships. Although the application of these themes differs, depending on the nature of the connection, they still apply across the widest spectrum of relationships. My purpose in this blog is to explain these principles and how they work together. None, in isolation, is sufficient for a successful relationship. It is the dynamic tension and balance between them which results in a fulfilling, even powerful relationship. However, to talk about them, I need to tease them apart, starting with empathy. So here goes.

The Heart of Our Relationships

Empathy

Empathy is the first principle. By empathy I mean my willingness to understand, respect and even value another person for who and how they are. There are many words I could use to describe this principle-respect, non-judgment, care, compassion, acceptance, love. At its heart is letting go of my need to both judge and control or change others into who I “need” or believe they “should” be.

I can hear lots of objections to this concept. Aren’t you being permissive, Roger? What about someone who is harming others or even themselves through bad habits or destructive behavior? Doesn’t empathy  condone and even encourage such behavior? No, it doesn’t. I can have empathy for someone and tell them the truth or give them honest feedback about how I perceive and experience their behavior (and its consequences). I can have empathy and still hold expectations regarding their performance or behavior (if I’m in a position of stewardship with this person). I can come from empathy and still set boundaries or teach them what I need and how I’d like them to treat me. As a matter of fact, genuine empathy (which emanates comes from deep respect, even love) impels me to be honest and perhaps set boundaries. But I don’t do so out of judgment and condemnation but from a place of respect and love rather than judgment and hostility.

A natural tendency, when unhappy in our relationships, is to assume the source of our unhappiness is the other person. We judge them–if he/she were thus and so, a little less of this and a little more of that, then I would be happy. So I either become resigned to being unhappy (in this relationship) or I set about trying to get this person to change.

There are lots of ways we try to get others to change. We lecture, criticize, compare, blame, retreat, withhold love, create distance, punish and so on. Usually our attempts are in vain. Others perceive what we’re doing and accurately interpret the message to be, “There is something wrong with you. You’re not okay.” Such messages create deep feelings of rejection. It is seldom that the recipient has the depth of self-love to say, “Thank you for taking such an interest in me and trying to help me learn and grow. I’ll do my best to be the person you need me to be.” Instead, they fight back, retreat into silence, or become distracted by other interests and create distance.

Alcoholics Anonymous has a saying for trying to get others to be different. “We don’t have relationships. We take hostages.” Sad, but we sometimes spend more time withholding love from a spouse, complaining about a boss, or criticizing a child than we do developing empathy, respect and appreciation.  Not only do we give up our ability to enjoy this person, but forfeit our ability to positively influence their behavior as well.

How do I deepen the meaning of this word, “empathy?”  Empathy is:

  • Letting go of the belief that someone needs to be different for you to be happy.
  • Surrendering expectations about who someone “should” be so you can begin allowing them to be who they are.
  • Respecting another, which the dictionary defines as “to show honor, esteem, and consideration towards.”
  • Being present so that you truly see, hear and connect with someone in the current moment (rather than from stereotyped expectations).
  • Putting aside your own agenda to listen deeply to what others have to say. Quieting the monologue in your own head so that you can hear their experience with greater depth of appreciation and understanding.

Let me state a few things empathy does not mean. It doesn’t mean that you like everything about another. (You might hate your daughter’s tattoos; or the way your boss plays favorites.) Nor does it mean you always have warm and fuzzy feelings towards another. (Sometimes you’re indifferent to your spouse; sometimes just plain aggravated.) And, it doesn’t mean that you are powerless to influence another through requests, sharing expectations or dialoguing to arrive at agreements. What it does mean is that you appreciate who they are and that you show them honor and consideration in the way you interact with them.

Now I do have to say that some people (at least for some people) are easier to appreciate and love than others. (In part, this is the “grass is always greener” phenomenon. From a distance, we don’t see all the imperfections of the people we don’t live or associate with on a daily basis. It is easy to over-idealize them while taking for granted the people with whom we do associate.)

Nonetheless, it is still true that some people are easier to appreciate than others. This fact means that the challenge is not the same for everyone or within every relationship. But alas, no use comparing. What works is to inventory your level of empathy within your relationships, those real human beings in your life with whom you associate daily. Your happiness, as well as ability to be a positive influence on them, is greatly related to your ability to accept them.

I recently heard an 82 year old man, married for 60 years, give some advice to a beautiful young couple during their wedding reception. “Lower your expectations.” I laughed out loud and gave the older gentleman, a friend of mine, a thumbs up. It was great advice. However, I would add a twist. “Lower your expectations and (and this is an important “and”) trust what is in them.” It is through the climate of respect, acceptance and love that empathy creates that others can grow into who they are truly capable of being (and that is not up to you.)

Honesty

Whereas empathy is about how I care for and honor others, honesty has much to do with how I care for and honor myself. It is about speaking the truth. Now, of course, that is a big statement because “the truth” is actually quite subjective. In fact, it may be better said “speaking my truth.” Each of us has a rich, even complex inner experience that includes physical sensations, thoughts and perceptions and feelings. Speaking my truth is giving expression to my inner experience.

However, let’s take a step back. Honesty with others begins with honesty with self. How can I let others know what I think, feel, need, and want if not clear myself? Self-honesty is clarity, and clarity is enormously healthy. It means I am aware of my experience. I know my thoughts, feelings and needs. From this self-knowledge I can make conscious choices. If unaware of my experience, I’m likely to be reactive and act out my feelings and needs in negative and weakening ways. In fact, the more drama in my life, the less clear (honest) I am about my inner experience. I need to take time to slow down, become more self-reflective and understand my thoughts and feelings before acting them out.

This is not easy. It requires the ability to not just go through daily experiences but to be present and pay attention to what is happening (inside and outside) during these experiences. It requires the courage to tolerate (rather than blame and act out) the emotional discomfort of many experiences. And, it takes great personal responsibility to make new, better choices during these moments. Sometimes it simply seems easier to sleepwalk through life.

As I become more honest with myself I can become more honest in my relationships. How can I find mutual success with my boss if I cannot be honest? How can I find fulfillment with my spouse if I cannot be honest? A healthy relationship requires that I be able to speak my truth.

Many folks are hesitant to be honest in their communication. They are afraid that their truth will hurt others feelings or perhaps meet disapproval, argument, or even worse, indifference. Speaking the truth makes us extremely vulnerable. It sets us up for potential conflict, or to be scrutinized, criticized or rejected. So we keep our deepest thoughts and feelings to ourselves. We “retire in place” at work. We avoid deeper conversations with our kids. We are silent (or drop hints) with our partner, hoping they will figure out what we feel and need.

This is true because we’re so into protecting and defending ourselves and fixing and changing each other. We haven’t learned the empathy necessary to simply be with someone as they express themselves, without the thought that we have to do something about it—make them feel better, set them straight, persuade them to our point of view. So we are quiet about expressing our thoughts, feelings or sometimes making requests, at least when it comes to matters that matter.

Sometimes we use honesty to bully and get our way. We say things or do things that don’t show acceptance and care for others because it is “true” for us. This is not to say that we should sweep sensitive issues under the carpet in order to keep the peace. The quality of a relationship is directly related to the degree to which people can have open and even difficult conversations with each other. However, healthy honesty requires that I do this in a way that takes into account the other principles of empathy and responsibility as well. None of the themes of healthy relationships can be fully expressed in isolation from the others.

So what is honesty? It is:

  • Being aware of my inner experience, my thoughts and feelings.
  • Owning my inner experience (rather than blaming it on you).
  • Disclosing my experience to you.
  • Getting sensitive issues out on the table when it is important to the health of a relationship to do so.
  • Making requests, not to change you, but to let you know what I need and want and how you can support me.
  • Setting boundaries to take care of myself, including sometimes saying “no” to requests you make of me.

Like empathy, learning honesty is how we grow, how we learn emotional maturity, and how we create healthy, satisfying relationships.

Responsibility

The last of the big three. (Or maybe the first.)  I define responsibility as “taking ownership” of the experience and outcomes of my life. My life is not up to chance. Certainly lots of things happen, many of them outside my control. But that does not mean I don’t have any say in them. I decide what they mean. I decide how they will affect me. I decide how I will act upon them. Ultimately, responsibility has to do with my ability to choose. It is about making good choices; to think and act in ways that are aligned with my, and our, highest self-interest.

It is easy to live a reactive life. It seems that the origin of our experience is external. Things happen and then we react. Especially when we don’t like what is happening it is easy to go unconscious and slip into a reactive, self-justifying, mode. “It’s not my fault.” “They did it to me.” “I couldn’t help it.” “If only…” “Someday…” “If you would only….” To the unconscious mind, our justifications play an important role. They protect us from feelings of failure, rejection, discomfort or being wrong. They make us feel safe, at least in the short-run, but exact a gigantic penalty in the long run as we give up greater and greater control over our lives.

No where does this play out more dramatically than in our relationships. I sometimes react to … say the weather. More likely I’m going to react to something my wife says. “I wish I could count on you to…” Now I’m hooked. That little boy part of me that still needs to please, or does not tolerate someone being upset with me, wants to defend and fight back, rather than listen and understand (empathy). The empathy part won’t happen until I “claim ownership” of my reaction. Until I get that it is about me and not what Judy said.  Even the honesty part—“It’s hard for me to hear a message that I’ve let you down” or even “I am sorry for letting you down…” —can’t happen until I am willing to be responsible for my own feelings. What is most significant about my experience is on the inside (my own perceptions and feelings), not the outside (her comment). Knowing this, claiming this level of responsibility is growing up so I can have healthy relationships. This, not getting the whole world (at least my little corner of the world) to treat me right, is what makes the world a positive, safe, trustworthy place.

Disowning responsibility puts me at the mercy of others and events. Owning puts me back in the driver’s seat. I can step back and respond to a situation in a more mature way. I can pause to see what I’ve done to cause what is happening as well as clarify my choices about how to respond. How can I build positive relations with others if not willing to accept ownership for my actions, communication, emotions and attitudes?

Responsibility means I:

  • Recognize that I create my life outcomes and experience.
  • Refuse to defend and blame when things go wrong.
  • Understand and “own” my part.
  • Take the initiative to build positive relationships
  • Live from “choose to” rather than “have to.”
  • Make deliberate choices rather than complain
  • Live consciously, in the present
  • Am proactive

In the heat of the moment, when my choices most count, it seems easier to ignore, defend, blame and disown responsibility. But it all comes down to short term vs. long-term. Taking responsibility is a prerequisite not only for achieving outcomes and the happiness I desire, but for creating positive, loving relationships, as well. The bottom line–don’t look at others. Look to yourself.

Our Shared Vision

Empathy, honesty, responsibility–three core principles to build positive and effective relationships, whether on the job or at home. Each principle is distinct and yet powerful because they intersect to support our growth into powerful, meaningful relationships.

I want to introduce one more principle that brings these three together, a principle which gives us the incentive to do the truly hard, emotional work of growing our relationships–our shared vision.

All relationships have purpose. It is purpose that pulls people into connection. In some the purpose is intrinsic, like a mother nurturing her child. In some, the purpose is crafted, like a group of volunteers who come together to support a cause. In each case, those relationships that thrive, as opposed to merely survive, are those in which the parties care about their shared vision and work together to not only support each other and grow the relationship, but to grow the relationship with some end in mind—meeting a business goal, winning a game, enjoying companionship, impacting a community, raising a family, etc.

Relationships come alive when the participants have a common purpose and vision. Husbands and wives will grow in their commitment to one another as they clarify their shared vision. A father and son may become closer by talking about what is important to each of them in their relationship. A workgroup will perform at a higher level when they understand and rally around a shared interest.

Of course, for a shared vision to really work it needs to be shared. It can’t just be my vision. Better if it is “our vision.” The clearer we are about “our vision,” the more we each participate in talking about or even forming that vision, the greater the attraction of the relationship and more benefit each will receive from being part of the relationship.

Creating a shared vision can be a powerful experience. It happens quite naturally as people come together and discuss such questions as:

  • Why do we exist?
  • What would we like to accomplish together?
  • How can we make that happen?
  • How can we help each other?
  • What is important to you in our relationship?
  • How can I support you in what is important to you?
  • How can we benefit (bless) each other by being in this relationship?

Simple questions, which unleash the potential of your relationships. In some cases, you may need to ask the questions of yourself because the other people would not understand or perhaps agree to the exercise. Asking yourself these questions can help you strengthen and become a better participant in the relationship. In many cases, it is better to talk about such questions together to experience the greatest benefits that this shared experience can bring.

However, I only recommend bringing people together if you have made a commitment and are doing your best (you don’t have to be perfect) to live the other principles (empathy, honesty, responsibility). Otherwise, you’ll be dealing with mistrust, resistance and avoidance.

But if you are doing your part, shared vision becomes that capstone that integrates the other three principles into a dynamic balance so you not only grow but achieve something meaningful through your association.

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About Roger Allen

Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation, leadership, and teams. His tools and methods have helped hundreds of businesses and tens of thousands of people transform the ways they work and live. Learn more: www.theheroschoice.com

Comments

  1. This is great information Roger. In addition to what you’ve shared, I’ve found that being willing to sacrifice solidifies a relationship. Curious, that if we give up something we think will make us happy to help or serve someone else, we are happier than had we retained the time, indulgence, etc. we wanted to retain originally.

    • Roger Allen says:

      I appreciate your comment, Charles, about the importance of sacrificing for another. I agree that it solidifies a relationship and may be more powerful than anything to cause a change of heart towards another.

  2. MerlinJenson` says:

    Another insightful discussion. I have fallen into the judgmental mode for too often.
    And have failed to speak my truth and share my beliefs and vision.

    Thanks for your thoughtful suggestions.

    • Roger Allen says:

      Thanks, Merlin. It is a process of learning and growing. Being committed to our growth and headed in the right direction is what is most important.

  3. Roger,
    The order of progression of these may be different for others, but I had to come out of denial before I could stop being a victim or blaming others, and take responsibility for the way my life was and who I was. Only then could I begin to have any compassion for myself, only then could I begin to have compassion or empathy for others.

    Thank you for helping me along this path and for the great work you are doing for all of us.

    • Roger Allen says:

      Hi Terry. Thank you for the comment about your progression. I have to agree that the foundation is personal responsibility, giving up being the victim and blaming others. Interesting that you then felt compassion for yourself and empathy for others. I think the principles of responsibility, honesty, and empathy (compassion) work together.

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