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Articles -- Relationships
Relationships are central in all aspects of our lives. How we relate to our colleagues at work, our family at home and every casual contact can make our life joyful or miserable.
When I think of people who excel in relationship skills, I see three main characteristics:
Before you can relate successfully with others, you need to have a sense of security and wholeness within yourself. If you don't have this inner security, you will be too preoccupied with 'making a good impression' and 'getting approval and love' to connect with another in a sincere and honest way.
In personal relationships, the early days are usually the best because there is curiosity and a sense of discovery. However, as soon as possessiveness and expectations come into play, the tensions begin and the relationship becomes a challenge and often a burden.
Couples who are totally secure within themselves allow their partner freedom to be who they are and to evolve and change. There is a shared excitement as each partner progresses to new things in life, and even if their paths take them in different directions at some point, there is always a deep affection and caring for each other. Many years ago, a former partner and I split up because our lifestyles were not compatible. However, we parted on the best of terms, and even now we are the closest of friends.
Inner security is also important in friendships. Friends who are totally secure within themselves do not burden the friendship with expectations, but they are enthusiastic about each others' interests and activities. There is an openness, honesty and sharing of successes and failures, joy and sadness. And there is an acceptance of the other exactly as he or she is.
In a work situation, relationships often end up being a game of showing how skilled we are or how much we know. Too often we see bosses or employees who try to pretend they know everything. But when you admit that you don't know something, you are displaying your willingness to learn. The open, honest admission of weaknesses and the sharing of knowledge produce a supportive dynamic environment in which everyone can grow and thrive.
These behaviors require that you are secure within yourself. Some people seem to have been born with that sense of security, or perhaps they experienced a childhood that promoted this feeling. But many of us do not feel that sense of security. Instead, we feel that little insecure child inside of us, crying out for comfort, love and approval.
In order to develop a sense of security, we need to be aware of that inner child and help that child grow up by providing all the comfort, love and approval that this part of us needs. Finding those things from an external source will never truly satisfy this part of you. You need to provide this for yourself.
There are many techniques for doing this work (having conversations with that part of you, keeping a journal, writing a letter to that inner child, discovering qualities about that child part that you love and wish to express, etc.). The importance of this work cannot be over-emphasized, because until you establish a secure inner state, you cannot fully develop the next relationship skill - empathy.
Empathy is the ability to see another person's perspective and 'feel' what they are feeling.
When I show up late in the evening at a restaurant and I see many empty tables that have not yet been cleared and the waitress looks tired, I can't help but say, "Busy night, eh? You must feel beat!" The simple acknowledgment and understanding creates rapport. She unwinds, we chat and both our lives are enriched.
I am not always empathetic, and it took me a long time to develop this quality to any degree. When I was a teenager, I did not get along with my dad - nor did my brother. We were both typical teenagers of that era and my dad opposed my mini-skirts and my brother's long hair and beard. Life was a battle and my mother was in the middle of it.
But my mother was an expert in empathy. She could see each of our viewpoints and she knew when and how to talk to each of us. She never raised her voice and she never talked to us when we were angry or upset. Instead, she would wait until we were relaxed and ready to hear what she had to say. The discussions went something like "Now, about what happened this afternoon... I understand that you felt... but how do you think the other person felt? And what do you think would have been the fair thing to do?"
Throughout our tumultuous teenage years, my mother 'kept the peace', but more than that, she changed us.
On my parents' 50th anniversary, when my dad toasted my mom and acknowledged how she had "made him a better person", she smiled and said, "Oh, you're not perfect yet!" He laughed and hugged her. At this stage of their relationship, the rapport and trust was so high that she could make this joke without offending. He truly had changed.
The second testament to her gift was demonstrated at my brother's funeral, when the church was packed with over 400 students and parents, and we heard many stories of how he had changed their lives, simply by listening, understanding and caring. As a high school teacher, he had become as gifted as my mother in the skill of empathy and he had touched so many lives.
I have certainly used this skill in many situations and now use it in my career as a life coach, but I guess the real question is why are we sometimes not willing to empathize? I know there are times when I have doggedly stuck to my views and refused to see the other person's side. I must admit that, for me, it's been because the other person was behaving in a way that I typically behave and... do not like to admit. My inner dialogue is... "That person is being an arrogant know-it-all!" ... and if I was honest with myself, I would have to admit to my own feeling that I know it all!
The costs of not being empathetic are alienation from others, lost opportunities and loneliness. I've never actually made up wiht that 'arrogant' person, although I'm beginning to come to terms with my own inner arrogant side. It took a sense of humor to allow me to accept that part of me, and that is the next characteristic that helps to support relationship skills.
A sense of humor
Humor is the most energizing ingredient in successful relationships.
My husband has an amazing sense of humor and whenever I snap at him, he always finds something to say that turns the situation around and makes me laugh. All of our arguments seem to end with laughter because we've each become adept at seeing different perspectives, creating a ridiculous scenario or blowing it so far out of proportion that the issue becomes irrelevant.
The ability to not take yourself too seriously is also a major factor in successful relationships. I often have to laugh at my own obsession with perfectionism, especially when I'm imposing it on someone else. "There I go again! Little miss perfection!"
Learning to see our many faces (sub-personalities) objectively and accept their good and bad sides is not easy, but having a sense of humor about them helps to break down our resistance to facing up to them. And when we are able to accept ourselves with all our weaknesses and faults, we can more easily accept others.
In a work situation, humor can be a great team building skill. While working in a large company steeped in bureaucracy, my colleagues and I found ways to use humor to create a productive and energized environment. Whenever anyone went away on holiday, they would return to find their cubicle decorated in some way reminiscent of their trip - the safari was the best, I think! The cubicle was made into a tent with a sleeping bag and a toy jeep, bug spray and jungle creatures.
I must credit my boss at the time for understanding the value of this kind of fun. Despite the disparaging remarks of other team leaders, cubicle decorating would happen at lunch time or after hours, morale and productivity were high and we had the tightest knit team in the building. Whenever one member was caught in a tight deadline, we would all pitch in to help get the job done.
In this article, I described three characteristics that underlie good relationship skills: Inner security, empathy and a sense of humor. Inner security allows us to connect with others with honesty and no underlying agendas. Empathy allows us to truly understand another's point of view and a sense of humor allows us to lighten a situation and relieve tension.
But why are relationships so important in our lives?
As human beings, we have a deep need for community. When we make an effort to relate to another, we provide an opportunity to form a connection. If reciprocated, there is a mutual benefit, but if not, there is no loss because there is an infinite supply of love and caring inside each of us. It's not like a bubble-gum machine that will run out! It's more like a river that will continuously be replenished from a vast ocean.
When you empathize with another person you are giving them an opportunity to share in that caring and support, and you broaden your circle.
It doesn't take a monumental effort to do this. Simply observe others and notice what strikes you about them - their posture, how they move, the expression on their face. Sometimes it's best to say nothing - all you need to do is send caring feelings. Other times, a word or two is all it takes. The 'Simple acts of kindness' movement is in tune with this philosophy.
It's a lonely world without others, so reach out and connect...
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