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Retrieving Your Relationships From the Rubble

By Dr. Gary Bradt

If you are in a relationship that’s not working right now at work or home, you’re hardly alone. It happens. The question is what are you going to do about it? Some of us get lazy. Rather than roll up our sleeves and get busy, we put on our running shoes instead. We race from one job to another, one relationship to another, only to end up in a similar mess each time. Others of us bury our heads in the sand, in the vain hope that our difficulties will miraculously disappear. Usually, it’s the relationship (and sometimes the job) that disappears instead. In either case, we tend to rationalize our part in it all: Well, what could I do? That’s just the way men / women / bosses / employees / co-workers / jobs-in-general are.

Here’s what you could do: I’m going to give you five tools; five ideas and steps on how to retrieve your ring from the rubble of broken relationships at work and home. The ring represents the opportunity to build better relationships. The rubble represents the hurt, frustration and pain we all have to dig through from time to time. These tools will help you fix your relationships, if you apply them to yourself. Please note:  You can’t fix anyone else! If you want others to pick up these tools, then be a role model and pick them up first.

1. Preventive maintenance: Treat those you know best like strangers. Often we treat perfect strangers better than we treat the people we live and work with everyday. Kind of crazy when you think about it, so here’s the first tool to try: treat those you know best like strangers. That means being polite, regularly saying please and thank you, and perhaps biting your tongue occasionally. It means doing the little things that can make a big difference, like dressing nicely at home, not just at work; holding doors open; making eye contact; smiling; and picking up after your self, instead of complaining about those who leave the kitchen or break room a mess. Extending common courtesies to all is akin to preventive maintenance: it sustains relationships before they break, thereby reducing the need for extensive (and maybe expensive) repairs later.  

2. Swallow your pride and learn how to say ‘I’m sorry.’ For some of us, this one is hard to do. For all of us, it’s incredibly important. Grievances, imagined or not, remain unresolved when we can’t, or don’t, chose to express remorse for our part in helping to create them. All manner of things may get in our way of saying we’re sorry: ego; a need to be right; ignorance; and arrogance. In addition, in The Five Languages of Apology, authors Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas point out that sometimes, even though we may think we’ve apologized, we haven’t been understood. They teach us that we all have an apology language: some need to hear “I’m sorry.” For others, words mean little; it’s action that counts. We have to learn what our language of apology is, and what language others speak, to be effective in this arena. Learning to say ‘I’m sorry’ is a skill that can be learned: learn it.

3. Repeating your point won’t get you heard, but listening to theirs will. Often, we scream at each other across the rubble that divides us, versus working to collectively remove it. We get so caught up in our need to justify our actions, prove others wrong, and to dazzle with our logic that we lose track of the outcome we are after - a stronger relationship. You already know your point of view. Repeating it over and over (or louder and louder) is not likely going to make others suddenly agree with you. In fact, just the opposite is more likely: They’ll argue with you even if they agree with what you’re saying! As Stephen Covey taught us in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People we should seek first to understand, then to be understood. Most of us will listen if we feel heard. So ask questions. Listen to their answers. Ask questions to understand, not judge. Regular use of this tool will help keep small relationship problems from escalating into bigger ones, and help to more quickly resolve those that may already have.

4. Figure out who wants it more and then let go. Usually, like a stream carving a canyon, it’s the little things that wear relationships down over time. Whether its fights at home over a messy household, or fussing at work about keeping the break room or workstation tidy, these minor nuisances play a major role in decaying goodwill over time. When there is a disagreement about how to go about something, e.g. whether to fly or drive for vacation, whether to visit or call the client, go with the person who has the most energy over the issue. If it matters more to them than you, do it their way. Stop turning pebbles into boulders. If both parties in a relationship use this tool, it helps maintain equanimity over time. Neither of you will feel like you have to always give in, or play a game of tit for tat. By definition, you’ll only be letting go of stuff that in the end does not matter as much to you as it does to them, so what’s the difference? Let it go.       

5. Have goals together and you’ll grow together. Relationships are dynamic, moving, changing organisms, because people are. When we stop growing together, that’s when we start dying together. It’s easy to fall into relationship ruts. We assume we know everything there is to know about someone and we stop learning, or even paying attention, to who they are now. If they change or grow, we don’t notice. If their skill set expands at work it’s invisible to us. It’s like being in relationship with a picture of a person, rather than with the person themselves. Having a purpose, a goal, a challenge you are pursuing together, will help maintain forward momentum in all of your relationships. Setting goals and meeting challenges together renders rubble as incidental. Pursuing mutual goals may even transform rubble into stepping-stones that lead to personal growth, enhanced mutual understanding and a shared sacrifice that may ultimately draw you closer together.   

A Final Word: Relationships, like all living things, need to be nurtured and replenished over time. Stop tending your garden and the weeds will grow; so too in your relationships. And, most importantly, if you have a relationship that needs some work, look in the mirror. That’s where the healing and the work need to begin.

Read other articles and learn more about Dr. Gary Bradt.

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