A number of years ago at the conclusion of a two-day REAL Conversation class, two elderly gentlemen waited for me after class. After everyone left, they approached me and thanked me for the session. I asked them what had been most memorable and helpful for them. One of them perked up and said, “Before this class, neither one of us had spoken to one another for the last 21 years!” When I asked how that had happened, the other man said, “Funny thing is, we can’t remember now what we did that made each other so angry!”
Can you imagine working in the same company, team, or location and being so mad that you don’t talk to another person for that long? Think of how much effort it would take to go out of your way not to speak with someone for that long, not to mention the emotional toll it would take to be that angry for that long.
Often when I have the opportunity to coach an executive to improve their communication skills, they will bring up a work-related or personal situation where the relationship has been damaged or strained. When this occurs, I like to ask this question, “How long are you willing to wait for the other person to rebuild the relationship?” They usually come to recognize that if they decide to do nothing to heal or improve that relationship, then nothing will ever change.
All of us have a relationship or two that could use some attention. Unless you consciously and deliberately weigh in on the cost of that relationship and make a decision to improve it, nothing will change.
Here are 10 tips for helping to improve the vitality and quality of your relationships:
1. Be aware. Sometimes we are clueless. Not because we want to be, but because we just don’t stop and think and recognize where we are and what needs to be improved. You need to personally reflect upon the quality of your relationships, and be candidly honest with yourself about what is not working. When you can identify where you need to put your attention and focus, you will be able to start the healing process.
2. Acknowledge Your Part.Whether you want to admit it or not, you did or said something or you didn’t do or say anything and that has helped you arrive at the place where you are. To completely understand the situation, you will need to explore the understanding of the other person. However, you need to identify anything you may have done or said that has contributed to the current status of the relationship.
3. Engage in Conversation.This is the hard part. You may have to surrender your ego, your desire to be right, your desire to be in control, or whatever is driving you. If you can suspend your thinking and approach the conversation with a spirit of learning and understanding, then things will go much better than you anticipated.
You also might want to use a respectful Attention Check such as, “I’d like to talk about what we could do to improve our relationship. Can we do that?” Don’t worry, they won’t say “No!” People are usually so shocked by another’s willingness to engage them that they will accept your invitation.
4. Invite Their Perspective. Because you have thought through the current situation and understand your perspective, invite them to share their perspective first. This will allow you to gain insight into their thinking which will allow you to know what you need to share or not share when it is your turn to talk about your perspective.
5. Ask Questions and Listen. As they are sharing their perspective, you must be totally present and really listen to what they are telling you. This isn’t something that you can “fake it, until you make it.” Ask questions to deepen your understanding, clarify what you have heard, or explore examples of behavior. Don’t assume anything. Ask and listen to understand.
6. Apologize. Offering an apology is not assuming blame for the entire situation. For example, if you were unclear in giving directions, then you would say, “I apologize for not being more clear.” If you did or said something that may have been offensive, then you would say, “I apologize that I offended you.” It doesn’t matter if you didn’t intend offense. Usually, offense is taken where none was given. And don’t make your apology about them. I once had someone say to me, “I’m sorry that you didn’t understand me.” I almost laughed out loud because their “apology” really did nothing more than assign the misunderstanding to me.
7. Be Sincere. I have found that sincerity will carry the day. If you aren’t sincere in wanting to improve the relationship, no matter what you say won’t work. If you sincerely want to improve and deepen your relationship with a person, they will know because that is the energy that you project.
8. Be Forgiving.S ometimes the reason we become angry with another person is because we are angry with ourselves, often more so than being angry with the other person. First, forgive yourself. Second, forgive the other person for what they may have done or said. If your harbor ill feelings or strong, negative emotions for another person, you are going to do damage to yourself. You don’t need to carry that around with you. If you can forgive the other person, you will create a space for any number of wonderful gifts to come into your life. Obviously positive attracts positive, and the negative attracts the negative. You want to be a positive attractor.
9. Identify a Plan.Going forward, you may need to identify a specific plan to improve the relationship—how you will speak or what you might need to do differently. Be sure that you both agree about who will do what and when and be as specific as you can.
10. Make Time.Think of the quality relationships that you currently have. Great relationships take time and effort. Be sure that you make time to improve the relationship and know that things just don’t get better by themselves. You have to be actively and intentionally engaged to make things different. This may take time with some individuals, particularly where lots of past, negative baggage exists.
Having healthy, loving, supportive relationships in our lives is what makes life worth living. After all, when we leave this existence all we take with us is what we’ve learned and our relationships. Taking the time to nurture and grow your relationships is well worth the effort.