The #1 key to good relationships

I have seen this one strategy support relationships to withstand everything from day-to-day frustrations like toothpaste in the sink through incredibly difficult challenges like infidelity, bankruptcy, or a death in the family. 

The #1 key to good relationships is having someone outside the relationship that you can talk to when you’re feeling angry, hurt or frustrated with the person in the relationship, before you try to address the situation with them.

Why does this help?

When something frustrating or hurtful happens, our minds become a jumble of thoughts, feelings, and painful or vengeful images. It’s like a tangled snarl of fuzzy thread.

Being able to freely express each thought, feeling and image as it arises is just such a relief. And it seems to help us sort things out.

Journalling is one way of doing this. Talking to a pet, or a picture of someone we love is another.

But it does seem, for most of us, that there’s something especially comforting about being heard by another human being, when that’s done with compassion and care.

If you have someone in your life who supports you in this way, I’m so glad! If not, read on to discover why this can be so hard to find, and what we can do about this.

Challenge #1

The person who is most likely to be around when you’re feeling angry, hurt or frustrated is the person who triggered those feelings.

Unfortunately, as I mentioned last week, it’s virtually impossible for that person to hear you without getting triggered and defensive. So they’re not the right person to talk to about this particular issue at this particular moment.

Challenge #2

It’s actually quite difficult for most people to listen to someone who is upset – especially someone they care about – without getting slightly agitated themselves. This leads them to want to “help” or “fix” the situation so you’ll feel better and then they’ll feel better.

This can lead you to receive a variety of responses that can be frustrating, hurtful or disappointing when you’re already upset. These responses can include advice, indirectly critical questions (“Well what did you say that set them off?”), or telling their own stories of either success or pain in similar situations.

Ugh. I don’t know about you, but I tend to leave these kinds of conversations feeling worse than before I started. It feels doubly unfair. Not only did I have the original frustrating or hurtful experience, but then when I reached out for compassionate support, I didn’t get it.

The good news is that there is hope! But first we need to talk about one more challenge.

Challenge #3

This one took me quite a while to recognize as a challenge because it can feel so good in the moment.

That is when someone agrees with all my criticism and judgments about the other person. How they really are inconsiderate and thoughtless and selfish and … well you get the picture.

This can be really comforting in the moment because it helps me both to feel cared about and to feel good about myself.

It’s only later that I discover two downsides of this kind of support.

First, after I calm down, I often feel a bit guilty about the two of us talking about the other person in such critical ways. It feels uncomfortable.

Second, I often find myself feeling kind of helpless. Like the world is unfriendly and threatening and I can be attacked out of the blue in any moment and there’s nothing I can do about it. Yuck! I don’t like that.

What we can do about this

The first thing I’ve learned (and maybe you have too) is to be discerning about the people I approach for this kind of support. It’s like any other skill – some people are good at it and some people aren’t.

The second thing I’ve learned is that, even when I’m approaching someone who does have the skill to support me in this way, they may not have the capacity to do that at that particular point in time. So I want to check in with myself and them before I start to share about a sensitive topic.

I first want to check in with myself about whether I sense this is a good time to ask them for this. We can all be remarkably intuitive about other people’s states of mind.

If I get a ‘yes’ from myself about whether to ask for support from this person right now, then I want to check with them. Maybe it sounds something like, “There’s something difficult that happened to me today and I’m wondering if you’d enjoy listening to me talk about it? Or if you’d rather talk about something else?”

The goal is to make it as easy as possible for them to choose the second option. Because there’s a lot of social pressure for them to say ‘yes’ to listening to you. But if they wouldn’t really enjoy it, my experience is that you won’t either.

Finally, it’s important to check in with yourself if they say they’d like to listen. Hearing their tone of voice, seeing their facial expression and watching their body language, do you feel confident that you’ll be heard in the way you’d like? If not, you don’t have to proceed!

Big relief!

This was such a huge relief to me to discover.

I thought if I asked and they verbally said ‘yes’ then I had to go ahead.

But I’ve learned that I can trust and protect myself by saying something like, “Thank you so much for being willing to do that. But just by having said what I did out loud, I’ve realized that I would rather _____.” Fill in the blank and ask them a question about themselves to help transition to a different topic.

Then look for someone else to offer you the compassionate support you need.

An Additional Option

You could choose to join a growing community of people who are learning to listen to themselves and one another with the compassion and care we all want; who are building skill in finding peace and bringing an empathic presence when someone is upset.

I will be offering 2 opportunities to build these skills in community this fall:

  1. For people who are new to the step-by-step approach I teach for developing this capacity, or who want a refresher, and
  2. For people who have studied both this process with me and how to have successful Change Conversations.

It would be wonderful to have you join us in building a more peaceful and joyful world together.

Warmly, 🙂 Glenda

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