Some people destroy relationships because they are narcissists or aggressive. But many others ruin relationships simply because they lack skills. Being a nice person is definitely not enough. We know plenty of kind and caring people who are clueless about how to maintain, let alone nurture, a satisfying and reciprocal relation.
By now you’ve heard all the research about the importance of verbal and non-verbal communication. We have too. What you haven’t heard much about is the importance of pressing the pause button before you even begin to interact with someone else.
Pause and edit. Being the reactive creatures that we are, interactions trigger in us all kinds of responses. Depending on our level of affect regulation, we may consider our responses carefully or react impulsively. Most of us react automatically to perceived slights or minor offenses. Many people alternate between defensive and offensive mode. Their goal is to win an argument as opposed to having a meaningful conversation.
If you think of your life as a movie, and you are the director, one of the most useful things you can do is press pause before you respond to other people, and edit the movie. Your first impulse may be to say “you are an idiot for thinking that,” or “you always, always, always, make the same mistake.” If you could press the pause button on the movie of your life, and edit the scenes, you would probably want to delete impulsive outbursts and find better ways to dialogue. Some couples especially are hooked into negative communication patterns. They do not even see the repercussions of their sarcasm or derision. It is all automatic, and it happens in a split second.
Being able to press the pause button and edit your responses is what psychological flexibility is all about. If you are able to monitor your responses, as opposed to acting automatically like a robot, you would consider some of the following:
At every juncture in the conversation, there is an opportunity to take control of your reactions. Your exchange with your friend may not have started well, but that doesn’t mean that you have to keep adding fuel to the fire.
Listen carefully. People often focus on what they are saying, or will say, in a conversation. They are so focused on their own speech that they fail to listen to the other person. Being a good listener is absolutely essential to nurture satisfying relationships. When you grant other people an opportunity to express their views without judgment, you are giving them the gift of mattering. How simple and how scarce. Good listening is in very short supply in families, workplaces, and society as a whole. Instead of engaging in a mutually enriching experience, many people concentrate on scoring points for their brains or self-image.
A few simple skills can make you a great listener:
Of course there is a context for everything, and some of these rules need to be obviated from time to time. If someone is telling you that they are about to commit a crime or harm themselves, you need to do something and not just stand there catatonically. But in general, most exchanges among humans are not about 911.
Express yourself. In reciprocal relationships both parties have an opportunity to express their views. If you want the relationship to be healthy, you will pause and edit your listening as well as your talking. You always must have two goals in mind: to express your views, and to build the relationship at the same time. If you only care about the former, the latter will suffer, and vice versa. The trick is how to add value to yourself, the other person, and the relationship at the same time.
Starting with “I” statements is a very prudent beginning. Instead of saying “you are always late and it makes me furious” you can say “I prefer to be on time and would appreciate it if next time we could plan accordingly.” Also, refrain from character assassination. Instead of saying “you are just beyond repair” to your child, you could say “when you do this I feel really frustrated.” You can assert yourself in respectful ways. Remember, your goal is to be heard and build bonds of connection at the same time. To be heard, you must refrain from putting the other person on the defensive. Once that happens, the chances of a healthy conversation, let alone a resolution, vanish.
Master the art of feedback. Regardless of your level of tolerance, empathy, and kindness, and despite your best efforts to be non-judgmental, from time to time you will have to give feedback to a colleague, a family member, or a friend. Some rules will help you achieve the dual goals of making your point and maintaining the relationship:
Pausing, editing, listening, asserting yourself, and providing feedback are building blocks in the creation of mattering relationships. Ultimately, the goal of communicating in ways that enhance mattering is to strengthen bonds of connection.
Isaac Prilleltensky is an award-winning academic and humor writer. His latest books, The Laughing Guide to Change, and The Laughing Guide to a Better Life, co-authored with Ora Prilleltensky, combine humor with science.