We've all had one and maybe you do now-an important relationship that is difficult to manage or even understand. In such situations, it's easy to conclude that nothing works and give up, explode, or both. Before you throw in the towel, however, you may want to consider these options.
1. Examine your differences.
Every relationship and most conversations operate on the basis of certain premises, assumptions, and values held by each party. More often than not, these are implicit, hidden, or both. So, the differences that may ultimately divide often exist from the start. For example, do you both feel that honesty is the best policy, even though it may hurt the other person? Are you willing to set aside your own position in order that you may understand where the other person is coming from? Is the other person equally willing?
2. Compare your agendas.
Rarely are even chance meetings free of agendas. At the least, we enter the world of interpersonal relationships with a design (often subconscious) that we be perceived by others as fair, frank, integritous, or whatever. Often, we go further, to make certain that others understand (and agree) with our (correct) point of view. The fact is: conflicting agendas tend to polarize relationships in ways little understood by those involved. Ask yourself: am I always willing to communicate with the other person, my real reasons for what I say and do?
3. Identify the real issues that divide.
It's possible to differ on some things and still agree on others. Then, there are the sticking points, the sore spots that left untouched in the hope that they'll go away, not be noticed, or not really affect the outcome. Mostly, they won't, will, and will! Identifying the crucial dividing issues can be freeing in that it clears the air and gives you a clue as to what you've got to work on.
4. Pinpoint the key factors that prevent you from understanding each other's point of view.
No, this isn't the same thing. An issue is what divides you; this is why it divides you. For example, you and your parents may differ fundamentally on the issue of raising children. Why you differ probably has a lot to do with how each of you were raised which includes culture, history, and events. The point is that, if you can understand why the other person sticks adamantly to her/his point of view, you are in a better position to negotiate around your differences.
5. Determine what you have in common.
While you can build on difference (if you really appreciate the uniqueness and appropriateness of each person's place), it's much more difficult than building on agreement. Sometimes, moreover, the few things we have in common turn out to be superordinate values-factors so important that they subsume and minimize other differences.
6. Consider that you may be frustrating resolution.
Who, me? Not a question we like to ask ourselves, but an essential one nonetheless. All too often, we try to move the other person (child, spouse, lover, friend, colleague) from where we are rather than from where he/she is and, usually, it doesn't work. When this happens, it helps to go back and review your objectives: do you want to improve the relationship or just prove your point?
7. Face up to your expectations.
When the person with whom you are at issue is close to you-a child, a loved one, a mentor-this can be a heart-rending task. But think about expectation in the larger sense; isn't it an obligation you're imposing upon the other person? Put yourself in her/his position: do you like it when someone pressures you with their expectations for you?
8. Define your responsibilities TO and FOR.
If you've read much of my stuff, you've heard this before. Except in the case of your minor children, you aren't responsible for the other person; they are responsible for themselves (even if it hurts to admit it). And your responsibilities to the other person can be defined concretely: you are responsible to the other person in that you must allow them what you require for yourself. If you require respect for yourself, then you must be willing to give it to others (even if you think they don't deserve it!).
9. Decide what you are willing to do differently.
This is not a conditional decision. It doesn't depend on what the other person is willing to do, only what you are willing to do in order to improve the situation. Yes, sometimes you'll be asked to go that extra mile (or miles) but again, what's your objective-to heal the situation or defend your position?
10. Love unconditionally.
I left this one till last, because it is, by far, the toughest thing you will be called upon to do. Often unconditional love is returned with suspicion, derision, and animosity. You get (mis)taken for a sucker and regarded as gullible or worse. So, let's set the record straight. In many situations, unconditional love is the only thing that heals. Unconditional love is undemanding and can be entirely nonverbal. It's not a device or a posture, but an entirely different way of viewing the situation and the other person. It is, to paraphrase Shakespeare, a consummation devoutly to be wished, a state diligently to be pursued.
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