Tag Archives: relationships


It’s that time of year again – when it’s good, it’s very very good, and when it’s bad, it’s, well, much much worse. We see great acts of kindness and goodwill, and when there’s conflict or sadness, we feel it … Continue reading

When I follow the rules, things should work, right?

I’ve had a few incidents recently where I found myself frustrated with how things work. They had a similar theme – I thought I was following the rules to get things done and it didn’t work! Because this is not infrequent, and I hear the same from others, I’ve been reflecting on what I can do to reduce my own frustration. While what triggered this post is more about business, the same challenges exist and are maybe more important to pay attention to in relationships with people important to us.

To put this in context, I’m a bit of a detail person – not that I love details that much, but I can’t seem to ignore them, especially when it seems to me that if I don’t  take care of them, someone else might be affected or there would be consequences to me. I have come to understand that we don’t all see the same thing. My brain that recognizes detail is my own quirky blessing/annoyance (equal parts of both!). My natural temperament most enjoys ignoring the detail and letting things unfold as they may, but my brain wants to follow the rules. Others have their own particular blend of skills, preferences and capacities.

Here are some basic principles that I’m trying to put into practice:

  1. Remember that all of us are following values that matter to us. Just because I value service to others and put it into play by paying attention to details, doesn’t mean that someone else who misses the detail or communicates it in a way I don’t understand, doesn’t care. Yes I can call them (hopefully with my inside voice!) all kinds of unkind names, but I can also assume that they don’t see things in the same way I do, don’t have the same priorities, don’t have the same information at hand, are having their own bad day, or lack the resources to cover the bases that affect the particular issue I’m facing.
  2. We all have our own internalized “rules” that tell us what is nice, kind, respectful, funny, helpful, etcetera. If I follow my rules and someone else takes it wrong, feels hurt or angry, reacts to what they assume about me, I have a choice. I can make my own assumptions about them, react and escalate the conflict. Or, I can back up a bit and assume a misunderstanding, try to find out what went wrong, ask some genuinely curious questions, and maybe improve the situation.
  3. All of us have the natural limitations of how our brains organize information and rules. This also applies to information that ends up on our computers and other electronic devices. As much as it might be nice, there is no universal standard of how to do things right. My failure to understand how someone organizes their thinking, is my problem and one I’m usually able to solve, even if it takes some time and effort. If I don’t get someone’s logic, chances are they don’t get mine either. Who’s to say which of us is right?
  4. Yes it is entirely possible to come to the conclusion that those who don’t see things the way I do are just wrong (or lazy, or immoral, or flawed in some way).  But, you know, if I conclude that, I’m less happy and peaceful than I’d like to be. Can we assume at the outset that we just have different influences (capacity, experience, temperament, upbringing, culture, and biology – basically both nature and nurture)? I might actually have the opportunity to add positively to those influences if I’m willing to be respectful, or add negatively to those influences if I let myself become disrespectful or abusive.
  5. Curiosity is a wonderful tool to work through differences in communication, processes, and lack of understanding. Genuine curiosity means being able to step back for a moment and ask respectfully for clarification, maybe look for an example, and consider different ways of communicating. Some people communicate better in written form, or visually, or in spoken words. Try to be creative in how you illustrate your concerns. If you are building a piece of furniture and the tool at hand doesn’t fit, it is always easier to find a better tool than it is to fix what you broke by forcing a square peg into a round hole.

My bottom line here is that there always is a choice about how we deal with interactions or processes that seem to go wrong. I choose to believe that if I assume the best of others, we can work towards resolve our differences. While I don’t know for sure that I’ll get what I want in any given situation, I do know for sure that positive assumptions, slowing down the process and not getting caught up in needing to be right, is more rewarding to my soul.


Recently, I’ve developed a secret fascination with Twitter. Secret, because I don’t contribute, just follow. It has, I admit, led me to some interesting, funny and worthwhile bits of info and ideas. However, it also often leaves me frustrated as … Continue reading


Sometimes it’s very subtle, other times so in your face that it halts you in your tracks. Both leave you with a kind of sick feeling in your stomach and self doubt. I’m talking about narcissism. Every once in a … Continue reading

You oughta know!

Ah, the most over used 3 words in the relationship dance…………”You oughta know………….” when deconstructing how something has gone awry. This could be as simple as a wrong time or place to meet, or as complicated as one person feeling betrayed by a failure to keep an assumed agreement to back them up in a tense social or family situation. Let’s say, with totally imaginary characters, Jack knows (and will say quite freely) that Jill has some problems with his friends, especially John. He doesn’t really understand the fuss, thinks she should just do as he does and ignore the majority of what John says. Jill, on the other hand, can be quite specific about what she doesn’t like, and has no doubt that Jack has the capacity, if not the will, to see exactly what she sees, and could, if he wanted, support her when she feels offended. But, once again at a gathering of friends, she hears or observes something that bothers her, feels upset or insulted, wants Jack to say or do something, he doesn’t, and they’re fighting about it after the fact.

There are a couple of issues here, assumptions and loyalty. The assumptions at play here are (and you may see more if this situation rings a bell for you): Jack and Jill see the same thing and interpret it the same way; Jack knows what actually triggers Jill; Jill knows what John is “really” like and what his friend means to him; Jill really wants him to give up his friends and only do what she wants; Jack saw the problem and chose not to respond; they “should be on the same page” about how to deal with this; Jack and Jill each understand how the other feels in these situations. Having heard many of these stories over the years in my counselling practice, I can tell you that none of these assumptions are likely accurate. An individual is only capable of imagining how another actually sees something, and that imagination can become empathy if one truly makes an effort to learn more about the other’s point of view. I think one of the most underused skills we have is to ask genuine questions. What gets in the way of that is refocusing on one’s own point of view, which we all do most of the time. After all it’s what we know best.

So what are some genuine questions? …………….”Can you tell me what you saw/thought/reacted to/found familiar/etc.?” “When that happened, what else was going on?” “How were you feeling before……….?” “What was the important part of this time/event/occasion/gift/discussion/etc. for you?” “What were you hoping for?” “What were you most worried about?” “What did/do you need/want from me?” There are many more and different questions you can ask when there’s been a conflict, and, believe me, I know, especially if this is a repeat event, that you may think you’ve asked them all, and maybe even remember the answers. Or you may think there’s no point in asking because the other person has already decided you’re in the wrong, so best to do whatever you do when you feel attacked…………walk away to preserve what little dignity you have left, argue back to try and get back on an even footing, tell them all the things they’ve done in the past that offended you.

If you want to strengthen your relationship, you’ll need to ask questions, many of them, even some hard ones, but the key here is that they are genuine, not as part of a debate (who has the better point of view/knowledge/emotional maturity/etc.). To ask a genuine question, you have to actually want to hear the answer, follow up with more questions and clarifications, be willing to share what your struggles are with understanding the other person. You also need to accept that part of your caring for this other person is that they don’t think the same as you, don’t have the same background or experiences, will introduce you to new ways of seeing something, and to gain all of that, you get the annoying/mysterious/strange/funny/ difficult  parts of them too.

If you are accustomed to either the debate or the avoidance style of handling conflict, asking and answering genuine questions may not be easy. Here is an assumption that can be helpful ………………assume that the other has your best interests at heart and wants a better relationship. Suspend judgement about whether questions have a critical intent and answer them as best you can.

The second issue I mentioned above for our little scenario is loyalty. I’ll write more about that another time, but for now a few comments. Loyalty is generally assumed but often not discussed. It is one of the central aspects of a close relationship, whether a friendship or a committed partnership.  The problem arises when two people have disparate pictures of what it looks like, and when it’s not shown according to one’s own standards, the result is a feeling of betrayal. Try having a discussion of loyalty…………. what it looks like, how it plays out in imagination and in reality. Learn how it shows in how you present your relationship to others. Learn how you experience it differently and how you can know when the other needs it most from you and how you can display it in a way that’s meaningful to both of you.

So you hear “You oughta know!” The answer is “Perhaps I don’t know as well as I ought to. Can we talk more about it?”

Fight for, not against!

Fighting is a big part of my daily life. In fact you might say that it’s one way I earn a living. Okay, you got me……….it’s not me fighting, it’s many of the clients I see in my counselling practice. One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is “How do we stop fighting?” My answer is that you don’t have to. Fight for what’s important to you, stand up for your own feelings and rights………..just stop fighting as if the goal is to defeat the other person.

Let’s just say the other person starts it (isn’t that usually the case?). They say something outrageous or demand something. Perhaps the thing they want isn’t really unreasonable, but it’s the way they ask for it that raises your hackles. Maybe the “outrageous” thing they said isn’t actually all that bad, but you just know that it was said to get your goat. Hmmm………………. You could react a few different ways. The easiest way is to go on the offensive, keep them off balance, make sure they don’t get one up on you.  So, in that scenario, you respond to the hackles and the goat. Another way, not too difficult, is to stonewall, refuse to respond, keep your own power, and in no way give them an advantage. A third way  is maybe a little more difficult, and definitely requires that you leave yourself pretty open. That could feel like a problem if you think they actually are out to hurt you. There are probably many versions of these three options, but let’s keep it simple and take a look out how these could play out.

The hackles and the goat: the first is a pretty instantaneous reaction without too much thinking involved. Kind of like stepping on something sharp – before you know what it is, you feel startled and hurt. Your reaction is self-preservation. When your hackles get raised, you know without really thinking about it, that this is not a good thing, so you throw something back. And that knowledge that they are trying to get your goat doesn’t really require much examination, does it? If you go with that, you’ve already moved off the actual topic and right into your certainty that they don’t have your interests or sensibilities at heart. So the reaction is again to throw something back, probably something you have stored up for just this moment, something you know will get them off balance or strike a blow for the side of right. Most times, the next stage is just a reversal of roles, and you’re in a fight.

Scenario two: stonewalling, a good tactic if you don’t want to feel like the bad guy. See, in this instance, for a fight to happen, the other person has to keep raising the stakes until, well, you just have to respond, and then they’ve probably pushed your buttons enough, that you can make a case for yourself as the aggrieved party. Stonewalling is also good if you have no idea how to respond to whatever the other person is saying or asking. Just pretend you don’t hear them. The plan is generally to communicate that whatever they have to say is beneath you, unworthy of response. You might or might not get a fight out of this but you definitely will be striking a blow.

Scenario three: As I said above, this one could be tough. You check out what you think may be going on, and as you do this, hold back on your initial assumptions that the other person is trying to harm you. You might also need to set aside some verbal clumsiness, strident tones, poor timing, or unfair assumptions on the part of the other person. Are those things something to talk about or even fight about at some point? Maybe, but for now stick with the actual request, statement or complaint. Yikes, sounds like you’d actually have to cede that it’s possible that the other person might have a point. What if you’re sure they don’t? My guess is that this interaction feels pretty familiar and you may really believe that there’s nothing you don’t already know about the other person’s position. This is where you take a leap of faith.

The leap of faith could be trust in my experience with many fighting people, that there’s always more beneath the surface of even the most entrenched fight, and that the something often is more important than the familiar feints, lunges and blows. It could be trust that even though they seem to be acting like an a**, this is a person who matters to you, who you care about and who cares about you. It could simply be that any option besides having another fight that leaves both of you feeling hurt and alone, is a better choice.

So, my secret? Ask some questions. Look for even the tiniest bit of what the other person said that you could possibly agree with or be curious about and explore that. If you need to, ask for a little bit of time to consider what they’re saying, but if you do this, you do have to really consider it and come back ready to talk about it. Be aware that if you’ve successfully avoided having important conversations in the past, the other person may just be skeptical, so the two of you will have to practice this time out technique and work out the best way to do it. If you think this is something you might want to do, and you’re not in a fight right at this very moment, you could start a conversation about it, like: “When we have fights, I think I get defensive pretty quickly and don’t handle my feelings very well. Sometimes, I might be better to take some time to calm down so I can talk about it reasonably. If I want to try and do that and promise to come back to it, would you agree to give me that time?”

The main point of the third, and if I may be so bold, best, option is to start from the position that, even if you disagree, the other person has something to say that is important to them, something that you might not see immediately because of the way they communicate it. Believing that does not mean you need to agree with it, but if they are important to you it’s important that you give yourself an opportunity to hear it. I meant what I said earlier about fighting for what’s important to you, standing up for your own feelings, but this kind of fighting isn’t against an opponent, it’s against misunderstanding and for increased understanding. If something hurts, say it hurts. If you’re angry, say so. Help the other person understand more of your experience and point of view. The operative word is to help them hear you, which will most times require that you are willing also to hear them.

Are you skeptical? Fair enough. Human relationships are complicated and there’s probably an argument against most if not all of what I’m suggesting. I’m not going to be able to convince you that this will fix all of your relationship woes, but I truly believe that if the way you’re fighting against each other is hurting both of you, you have very little to lose by trying to change that.