create better relationships

“On some level it all comes down to Feeling Better versus Getting Better. Repressing information about ourselves or our friends, creating scapegoats as a way to avoid our problems, using shunning to unite a clique and create group identity—all of these make people feel better because it makes them feel superior. But the only way to truly get better is to face and deal with each other, sit down and communicate.” — Sarah Schulman

Think of a few times where you’ve been talking with someone, and you felt an uncomfortable feeling in your body. Something felt off. Maybe you felt like they were arrogant because they kept interrupting you. Maybe you felt like they were talking about what was going on in their life so much that you couldn’t get a word in edgewise to share your own life updates. Or perhaps you felt that they were negative, complaining, a total downer, and it was bringing you down to hang out with them. Or perhaps they’re someone who feels passionately about an issue or a topic, and when they really get to soapboxing they take on this intense argumentative tone—and if you ask them a question, they treat it like a debate.

You know what that experience is like, right? You’ve probably had it any number of times. If I was in a room with a crowd of people and asked the room, “How many people have had this experience?” most people would raise their hands. And if I followed it up by saying, “Those people are annoying, aren’t they? They’re so difficult!” I would imagine that most people would nod their heads. That’s right, yes, those people, so annoying, so difficult.

And if I asked the same group of people, “Who here is interested in learning how to create better relationships?” a significant portion of the audience would say, “Yeah, absolutely.” They’d raise their hands.

Yet if I asked the same group of people, “Great—raise your hand if in those situations with those annoying, difficult people, you decided to ask for what you need from that person,” the room would have very few hands raised. Maybe a few of them would go up, but if I clarified what I mean further some hands would go down.

If I asked the audience, “When you felt as if someone was interrupting you, did you say to them, ‘Oh, wait—I want to finish what I’m saying here,’”? hands would go down.

If I asked the audience, “When someone was talking so much about their own life updates, did you say to them, ‘We’ve both been busy! I’m excited to catch you up on some things that have happened with me,’”? hands would go down.

If I asked the audience, “When the person was so negative and complaining, did you either ask them how you might support them since clearly they are struggling if they’re complaining so much, or, did you ask for a topic change?” hands would go down.

If I asked the audience, “When that person was getting really passionate and debating for their position, did you say something like, ‘I want to keep talking about this, but this is feeling really intense, for me,’”? hands would go down.

So in essence, people are all about saying, “I want to create better relationships,” until it means doing something difficult: speaking into and negotiating what you need, in your relationships.

Let’s flip it around. No one likes to imagine this of themselves, but what if you were the one who was interrupting a lot? Perhaps you didn’t even notice it. But a friend privately decides that she’s had enough, and she’s over it with you interrupting. She stops taking your phone calls or making plans with you. You have no idea that this is why she isn’t making plans, and are left wondering. How does that feel?

Or, let’s say that you’re really excited about some big life changes, and you’re yammering on about them. You mean no harm, but yammer away you go. Your friend decides that this means you’re really full of yourself, and one day she angrily tells you so. You had no idea that she was upset, and for you, her anger has come out of nowhere. How does that feel?

Or perhaps you’re struggling, and it’s really difficult to see the positive in life right now. Someone at a party talks with you for a few minutes, decides you’re too negative, and excuses themselves to go get a drink. Standing with a few other women nearby, the person says to the group, “Don’t talk to that person over there—my god, she’s so negative.” How would that feel?

Or perhaps you feel passionately about an issue. Underneath your passion is actually fear—you’re afraid that the issue won’t change. When someone asks questions, without intending this, you feel the push back that those who are opposed to your issue often give you, and your voice takes on force as you try to advocate for why you’ve really thought through the changes that are needed. The intensity in your voice had nothing to do with your friend or the questions asked—it was all you, getting worked up over something you care about. Later, you think to yourself, “Oy, maybe I was a bit overboard,” and you say as much to your friend, who laughs it off, no big deal, all of that. But she calls less and makes plans less until it’s clear that she isn’t interested in maintaining the relationship, because she’s decided that you’re too annoying when you soapbox. You have no idea that that’s why she’s suddenly unavailable, though. How do you feel?

My guess is that you’d feel pretty awful. My guess is that you’d feel embarrassed. My guess is you’d say things to yourself like, “What did I do wrong?” My guess is that you’d rack your brain trying to figure out what in the world happened.

Let me throw out one more hypothetical—let’s say that your child was interrupting, talking too much, etc., and so their friend group at school, without every talking to them about what was bothering them, threw them out of the group. Shunned them. Talked about them to other people. Stopped inviting them to things. Would you be okay with that? Would that feel good?

I’d like to point out a few things that are obvious to everyone, but that not everyone actually puts into practice when they want to create better relationships. As you’re listening to these, I’d like you to imagine the person you have the most conflict with, someone you wish you could have a better relationship with or at least have less conflict with. Perhaps it’s a coworker, a family member, a friend you haven’t been vibing with for awhile. If you would raise your hand and say yes, I want to create better relationships in my life, I want to experience less conflict, then I’m hoping you’ll be willing to examine each of these areas:

First: It’s human to make mistakes, to be imperfect—to not have all the perfect skills of communication and interaction and relationships nailed down. Someone might say, “Well, if someone doesn’t want to annoy other people, they need to make sure they don’t interrupt, yammer on about themselves, complain or talk about negative stuff, or get political. I don’t do those things!” Well, to that person, I’d say, congratulations on being perfect and so much better than all the rest of us. But for the rest of us humans, sometimes we interrupt, get caught in cycles of negativity, talk too much about ourselves or soapbox about something we’re passionate about. I’ve done all of those things, as have most of the rest of the people I know.

It is part of being a human being to mess these things up. And when I reflect on the times when I’ve been the worst offender in any of these areas, I can always trace it back to a mistake on my part of thinking that I was connecting, without realizing that I was alienating. So maybe I interrupted thinking that the conversation was just flowing along or I was excited about what the person was saying, and had no idea that I was being an annoying interruptor. Consider, too, that our society has different views on interrupting—some people say that they know they are close to another person because they can “finish each other’s sentences.”

Can we give one another some grace? Can you give the annoying, difficult person in your life some grace, and see if that creates a better relationship?

Second: You don’t have to be friends with everyone, and not everyone is for us, true—but if you are writing people off, and you never communicate your needs to the person, how can you even really say you know who they are? Isn’t part of who we are embedded in how we respond to the requests of others? What if you communicated what you needed, and they realized something about themselves and decided to do it differently? Now, this is not to say that because you make a request in a relationship, someone else has to honor it and that’s what constitutes a good friend. But it is to say that if you write someone off without having a conversation about what you need or finding out what their motivations are for the behaviors that annoy you, then you have no real idea who the person is or what they, or your relationship, is really capable of becoming. And I hate to say this, but…with that behavior, you are simply judging people. That’s it. And constant judging of other people means…you’re being a judgmental person. That doesn’t create better relationships. And if someone else wrote you off and never gave you an opportunity to talk about what you need or to negotiate aspects of the relationship, then they’re judging you. This is profoundly anti-relational.

Are you committed to being relational, with others? Are you committed to being compassionate and non-judgmental? There’s a big difference between deciding that a relationship is not a match because it just doesn’t gel for you, and quietly judging someone until you reach a breaking point and then cut off without ever having a conversation. These conversations require courage.

Last: We create better relationships through the ability to rumble with and navigate diversity, not homogeneity, and often—this is the bitter pill to swallow—the things that annoy us in others are things that need examination in some way in our own lives. So for instance, sometimes, the person who interrupts is annoying you because you don’t feel permission to take up space with your opinions in conversations. Sometimes, the person talking about their life is annoying you because you don’t have a lot going on in your own life. Sometimes, the person who is negative and complaining bothers you on some level, you know that they are suffering and because you are afraid to look at the places in your own life where you suffer, and you’d definitely be too embarrassed to talk about those issues with other people. And sometimes, the person who is so passionate about an issue triggers you because you feel latent guilt that you aren’t doing anything about that issue, and you feel out of integrity with yourself.

Diverse viewpoints and ways of being create more opportunities for critical thinking, understanding others’ motivations, and humanizing other people. It is a sign of maturity if you can handle someone else’s way of being, being different than your own. It’s a sign of immaturity when you can’t tolerate someone being different than the way you expect or want them to be.

Spoiler alert: most of us struggle with this. I struggle with this. Of course it would be easier to live in a world where everyone conformed to my expectations—but that’s not the world we live in, so I, we, have to learn how to either deal with that or watch our social worlds collapse inward and become smaller and smaller until they only include those few people who are willing to strain to pretend they can always meet our needs. Because that’s all someone’s going to do if they sense that that’s what you expect—pretend and strain—because no one can ever always meet our needs or always show up the way that we want them to show up. And then eventually, we lose.

So if we want to create better relationships, we need to acknowledge that we are not perfect, and neither is anyone else. We need to remember that no one is a mind reader, which means that we have to communicate our needs and be willing to hear the needs of others. We need to consider that diverse viewpoints and ways of being often lead to our own growth, even if we initially reject the discomfort and messiness of being with someone else’s views that are antithetical to our own. This is the price of admission that we pay, to be received by that same person when our views, our way of being, is different than theirs. This is what it means to really hear one another.

Most relationships are destroyed not because one person is bad and needs to be excised from your life, but because two parties are not willing to really sit down and hear one another.

If we want to create better relationships, we have to start with examining whether our own behavior is relational. It takes courage to be relational. It’s not smooth. It often doesn’t look cool. But I truly believe that when we write someone else off because they don’t behave according to our liking, there’s a part of us that writes ourselves off, too, because we’ve just cut ourselves off from a potential opportunity to learn from the world or from others. We’ve lost an opportunity to build our own character by going through the process of facing our own discomfort with another human being. If you write someone off without communicating, you’re making assumptions, which means we aren’t growing; we’re just relying on our past beliefs about the world in order to function in the present or we’re projecting into the future as if we can predict that.

I want something better for our world. I want us to practice these skills so that we can teach our children these skills so that our children don’t experience the pain of being excluded without explanation. I want something better for the online discussions that so easily tip into full-blown warfare. I want something better for families torn apart by silence.

And, I hope you do, too, and hope you’ll have the courage to join me in reflecting on how we can create better relationships.