There’s something to be said for slow and steady progress, but there’s also something to be said for decisive and sweeping action. When it comes to negative relationship habits, there’s no time like today to quit cold turkey. Of course that’s a lot easier said than done, but with practice we can do better almost immediately.
Lately I’ve been making it a point to bring more awareness to the specific negative relationship habits our coaching clients have been repeatedly complaining about or engaging in. And perhaps more importantly than that, I’ve also been noticing how frequently many of the same habits and behaviors surface in my personal relationships. I mean let’s be honest, we all misbehave in our relationships sometimes. None of us are immune to occasional negative mood swings. But that doesn’t excuse what we do to each other on a daily basis.
Over the years, through our coaching practice and live events, Angel and I have literally worked with hundreds of individuals looking to fix or strengthen their relationships, and we’ve learned a lot about what it takes to make that happen. One of the most significant realizations, again, is the fact that most problems in our relationships (both intimate and platonic) arise from the same basic negative habits and behavioral issues. Here are some of the more prevalent ones to be aware of…
1. Giving the silent treatment.
Tuning out, ignoring, disengaging, refusing to acknowledge, etc. All variations of the silent treatment don’t just remove the other person from the disagreement or argument you’re having with them, it ends up removing them, emotionally, from the relationship you have with them. Truly, when you’re purposely ignoring someone you’re really teaching them to live without you. If that’s what you want, be clear about it. And if not, reengage with them in a constructive way.
2. Seeking attention by complaining.
I spoke with a new friend yesterday who all but refused to talk about the positive aspects of their life. After listening to them vent about fairly minor troubles for an hour straight, I asked about some of the exciting projects they have going on (of which they have many). Within three sentences they were back to complaining about trivial things. We all need to share our troubles with friends or strangers from time to time, but don’t fall into the habit of turning conversations into your own personal dumping ground. It’s an easy way to get attention, but it’s a poor way to keep it, and it’s a poor way to view your life.
3. Using disagreements as an excuse to condemn someone’s character.
Complaints are OK. Disagreements are OK too. These are natural and honest reactions to a person’s decisions or behavior. But when complaints and disagreements spiral out of control into global attacks on a person’s entire character, rather than their occasional decisions or behavior, this spells trouble. For example: “They didn’t call me when they said they would because they were busy and forgot, but because they are a horrible, wretched, selfish person.” The bottom line here is that there’s a big difference between who someone is and what they sometimes do.
4. Focusing on the inner monologue instead of the actual dialogue.
“Holy crap! How should I respond? What can I say that will sound smart and clever? I really hope they think I’m intelligent. I could touch on symbolism or make a reference to post-modernism. Wait… what did they just ask me?” Stay focused on the other person’s words and points. People rarely mind when you say, “Hmm, let me think about that for a moment.” Quite the opposite, since it shows that you’re taking the conversation seriously. If you compose your answers while someone else is speaking, you’re really only having half a conversation, and it’s usually quite obvious. (Read “Just Listen”.)
5. Using (subtle) hateful gestures.
Frequent name-calling, eye-rolling, belittling, mockery, childish threats, rude teasing, etc. In whatever form, gestures like these are poisonous to a relationship because they convey hate. And it’s virtually impossible to resolve relationship problems, or strengthen a relationship in any way, when the other person is constantly receiving the message that you hate them.
6. Multi-tasking while engaging with people.
Even if you are a professional multitasker, if you’re talking to someone, talk to them and that’s it. Don’t browse online, don’t watch TV, don’t scroll through social media, etc. If you really don’t have the time to talk, be honest and find another time, or cut it short. The bottom line is that there’s no greater gift of kindness, and no greater expression of caring that you can offer, than your undivided time and attention. (Note: Angel and I discuss this in more detail in the Relationships chapter of “1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently”.)
7. De-emphasizing compliments, or fishing for more of them, with self-effacing remarks.
“Oh, I look terrible today” … after someone compliments you. “I just threw it together at the last minute” … when you obviously dressed up. “I’m really not good at things like this” … when the people you’re with say you are. Don’t do this to yourself and others. It’s not flattering or helpful behavior. By making self-effacing comments, you basically force the other person to repeat their compliment or defend it, which is not a gracious thing to do. It’s perfectly OK to say simply “thank you” when you’re complimented. It’s not snobby, it’s just a basic courtesy.
8. Holding the past against people that have been “forgiven.”
If someone you love or care about makes a mistake and you choose to forgive them, your actions must reinforce your words. In other words, let bygones be bygones. Don’t use their past wrongdoings to continuously justify your own present righteousness. When you constantly use someone’s past wrongdoings to make yourself seem “better” than them (“I’m better than you because, unlike you, I didn’t do XYZ in the past.”), it’s a lose-lose situation in the long run.
9. Leveraging or accepting emotional blackmail.
Emotional blackmail happens when you apply an emotional penalty against someone if they don’t do exactly what you want them to do. The key condition here is that they change they’re behavior against their will as a result of the emotional blackmail. Absent the emotional blackmail they would live differently, but they fear the penalty from you and so they give in. If that sounds familiar, the solution relies heavily on better communication. If two people care about each other and want to maintain a healthy relationship, they absolutely need to be allowed to openly communicate all of their feelings to each other, not just the agreeable and positive ones. If this is not allowed or supported — if one or both people fear penalty or punishment for their honesty — lies and deceit will gradually transpire.
Remember, we all have a responsibility to uphold.
As you reflect on the negative social habits above, do your best to keep things in perspective. If you recognize one or more of them in your relationships, refrain from pointing fingers. Take some responsibility so you can put yourself in a position to make positive changes. Remind yourself that when you deny 100% responsibility in a relationship problem or dispute, all you’re really doing is blaming the other person. You’re saying, in effect, “The problem here is never me and it’s always you.” This denial of responsibility usually just escalates everything, because there’s a complete and utter breakdown of communication.
The key thing to understand is that you have a choice. Either you’re choosing to be in a relationship with another person, or you aren’t. If you’re choosing to be in, then you are responsible for it. Denying this means you’re giving up all your power to the other person — you’re their victim, regardless of circumstances (positive or negative), because you’ve given them 100% of the responsibility for the relationship you have with them. So again, even when the behavior driving a relationship problem belongs to the other person, the only way to find common ground, or simply create a healthy boundary and more space for yourself, is to first own the fact that you have a responsibility to address.
And also keep in mind that when your friendship, marriage, parenting, etc. gets difficult, it’s not an immediate sign that you’re doing it wrong. These intimate, intricate relationships are toughest when you’re doing them right — when you’re dedicating time, compromising, having the tough conversations, and making daily sacrifices.
Healthy long-tern relationships are always amazing, but rarely easy 24/7. Resisting the hard times and seeing them as immediate evidence that something is wrong, or that you’re in a relationship with the wrong person, only exacerbates the difficulties. By contrast, finding the patience and mindfulness to view the challenges as an opportunity to work together will likely give your relationship the energy and strength needed to transcend the problems and grow even stronger in the long run.
And finally, practice tuning in to your own feelings and needs. Note the times and circumstances when you’re resentful of fulfilling someone else’s needs. Gradually establish healthy and reasonable boundaries by saying no to gratuitous requests that cause resentfulness in you. Of course, this will be hard at first because it may feel selfish. But if you’ve ever flown on a plane you know that flight attendants instruct passengers to put on their own oxygen masks before tending to others, even their own children. Why? Because you can’t help others if you’re incapacitated. In the long run, proactively establishing and enforcing healthy and reasonable boundaries in your relationships will be one of the most charitable things you can do for both yourself and those you care about.
Now, it’s your turn…
Yes, it’s your turn to get out there and bring some healthy awareness to how you’re showing up in your relationships. But before you go, please leave Angel and me a comment below and let us know what you think of this essay. Your feedback is important to us. 🙂
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