Relationships are tricky. They’re critical to any type of successful human interaction and they require work, plain and simple. I tell my clients I will be your partner, not your vendor—the difference is one-way versus two-way communication. I tell my kids to build strong relationships centered on common interests and trust, not appearance or convenience. My wife and I preach the importance of family first to our kids; after all, family is a relationship that should last forever.
All great advice, right? Then life happens.
Clients start to treat you like a vendor and wonder “what have you done for me lately.” You start to treat clients like revenue streams and focus on “what else can I earn from that client.” Your kids make a sport out of abusing each other and you must referee. You and your spouse argue over the silliest things, sometimes in front of the kids.
So much for relationships, right? Not so fast.
Life is messy, and that’s OK
Like anything worth having, relationships are hard to build and sustain, but they provide some of the best memories and moments in our life. As we get older, we realize relationships have ups and downs, especially the most meaningful ones. Not only is that OK, it’s normal.
Life is not a TV show. People don’t get along every moment of every day because our days are longer than a 30-minute scripted show. Life is unscripted and it’s not paid for by advertisers. In life, the bad days are televised just as much as the good days. It’s messy, and you need to cut through the mess and sustain the energy and conviction to build a strong, give-and-take relationship with your spouse, your kids, your friends, your colleagues and your clients But how? No really, I’m asking because I’m still trying to figure out the secret to an “easy” yet strong relationship. (Shhh, don’t tell my kids, I act like I have it all figured out!)
An early lesson: Relationships 101
I’ll tell you what I’ve come to learn about relationships so far (admittedly, I’m still on the journey). But when my wife and I argue in front of the kids, I feel guilty. I remember when my parents use to argue, and it scared me a as a kid. I was nervous that they would get divorced. I would ask my dad “Why are you and mom mad at each other?” He would simply say, “Because we love each other and care about each other deeply.”… Um …what?!?
That never made sense to me until I got married, had my own family, established my professional career and built meaningful relationships at home and at work as an adult. Finally, I began to realize it’s through your deepest relationships that you have your most honest conversation. In these relationships, you’re not afraid of the truth, rather you feel comfortable speaking it because you know your relationship can handle it and will grow from it.
Thanks Dad. After all these years later, while my dad is no longer here, he still is teaching me invaluable life lessons.
But I know there is more to understand and frankly, times have changed and relationships are more challenged than ever before. We’re constantly fighting distractions that threaten to get in the way of building and growing meaningful relationships. We have a longer list of ways to communicate and shorter attention spans to get it done. What is the secret ingredient to staying connected (and not just digitally) to those who are so important to us? How do we sustain?
An aha! moment
Most of you know, I’m a lifelong learner, with a passion for reading. In my quest for answers, I’m constantly attracted to books and articles on relationships. I’m thirsty for knowledge and want to learn and grow in all of my relationships. This weekend I found a gem. I came across a great article called, The Secret of Improving Any Relationship by Eric Barker, who authors a blog for The Week. The article is built around excerpts from a book called The Relationship Cure, written by Dr. John M. Gottman. I was so inspired by the article, I ordered the book and plan to read it this month.
This article touched on many great points ingrained in Gottman’s book, but there were two that stuck with me:
- Relationship conversations are not about the content; they’re about the emotion underneath and what Gottman calls a “bid.”
- How you choose to respond to the conversation, or bid, is critical.
Let’s start with the first point that focuses on the emotion behind what is being said. OMG, I think my wife wrote that line! When we argue, it’s usually because I’m listening to solve the issue. (Side note: another good book to read is “Men Are from Mars and Women Are from Venus”). I’m not catching or listening to the emotion underneath the content or the words that she’s saying. The reality is this can happen in any conversation not just with our loved ones. It can even happen with clients. Intuition is real, but you have to be open to it. When we’re truly invested in the conversation, we’ll pick up on the unspoken intent. Most conversations usually are not about the words. It’s about some deeper meaning. And as a good friend and colleague once shared with me, to get to the deeper meaning you need to “stay in the conversation” (Great advice—thanks Dave).
With the second point, Gottman suggests that how we respond to the bid is critical and we have three ways to react or “turn.” We can turn toward the bid, against the bid or away from the bid. Bingo! I see it. I realize now I’m so turned off in conversations when people turn against or away from my bid. It has an immediate impact. I’m insulted and I feel like they don’t care. I may even unconsciously stereotype them as a generally negative individual. Truthfully, it drains me and I’m no longer interested in conversing with them, let alone building a relationship. I feel trapped and frustrated.
On the flip side, I started to think, do I do that to others? Then I thought of the “Yeah, but” conversations—the ones that irritate me when they’re done to me and show no acknowledgement of my feelings or perspective in the conversation. Uh oh! I’m infamous for the “yeah, but” conversations at home with my wife and kids. I mean well, but the truth is I’m reacting to the words not recognizing the underlying emotion and it may feel like I’m “turning against” the conversation. I have to be honest, reading this article was an eye-opening and powerful lesson for me. While I think I’m helping, the person to whom I’m speaking with thinks I’m turning against them. If you really think about it, I bet most of us have done this without intentionally trying to cause harm, but also without realizing the long-term impact it can have to our valued relationships.
So now what?
Practice! The first part of practice is building awareness of what needs to be worked on. For me, I need to stay in the conversations, try to understand the deeper emotional meaning and build stronger relationships by turning toward the conversation. I also need to read the book! If I was this inspired by the article, I’m genuinely hopeful the book can teach me even more. I’m committed to being the best partner I can be to my wife, kids, family, friends and clients.
For the record, I’m not perfect so please be patient with me.