“You are in charge of how you react to the people and events in your life. You can either give negativity power over your life or you can choose happiness instead.”
– Anais Nin
We’re typically taught to read, write and calculate numbers in school; seen by some as essential conditioning for roles in the workplace. But relationship skills are sadly given little formal attention; assumed to be something that we learn along the way by absorbing the social norms within the culture in which we live. What happens, then, when our culture has declined in its social cohesion, in its shared values and common aims and no-one seems to be teaching anyone how to relate to one another in skilful ways? In a westernised culture that has been dismantling any form of moral consensus, usurped by consumerism and isolated ways of communicating, it seems that our skills in relating to one another as flesh-and-blood beings in respectful, courteous and mutually beneficial ways have suffered. And, much as handwriting has worsened as a result of our reliance and dependence upon electronic devices for communicating, so our abilities to relate to one another and the world require practice and fresh learning if we are to maintain our most fundamental and natural needs in human relating.
Some of the purposes of building strong relationship skills:
- social connection and friendship
- understanding others and being understood
- solidarity and cooperation
- protection from objectionable or toxic behaviour
- intimacy and caring
- loyalty and kinship
- being more effective at meeting our needs
- respect, consideration and dignity
- building a cooperative culture
Developing relationship skills is a valuable personal development task that anyone can undertake. Most of us could do with building on our ability to relate to others more effectively and there are discreet areas we can address to this end.
Motivation: Black or White, Light or Dark?
Before looking at skills building it’s important to look at motivation. What are my intentions towards the other person? We could, afterall, consider Machiavellianism to be a system of relationship skills, whereby my willingness to ruthlessly exploit other human beings to suit my purposes and meet my needs could technically be considered ‘relationship skills’. Most of us would not consider this dark motivation a mature or enlightened reason for developing our ability to work with others. However, there are a significant number of individuals in the world who do, in fact, operate according to the shadow side of their personas, and Machiavellian, narcissistic, passive-aggressive and exploitative behaviours are often reason enough for many of us to want to develop the kinds of relationship skills required to protect ourselves from such behaviours.
If we are honest then we must build into our understanding the fact that each of us also has the capacity to relate to others at times from our own shadowy places of ill-will and destructiveness. Having mixed feelings about the other person can be usefully examined to clarify motivation because we are all capable of being hurtful or mean when we harbour unexpressed feelings. And so clarifying our beginning motivation in encounters with others is a responsible attitude and necessary awareness in the development of personal authenticity and conduct that is informed by clear intention.
When speaking of goodwill and good intentions, we might include the following in our consideration of the motivational energy driving our relationship skills:
- Service and helping
Courtesy and Good Manners
The profound social changes within western societies – particularly the UK and the USA – have resulted in an erosion of social skills that were once referred to as ‘common courtesy’ and good manners. There are discernible reasons for this decline that are beyond the scope of this article. However, we need only clarify the obvious social value of such codes of conduct to place them back on our learning agenda, not as conservative mannerisms or affectations, but as basic tools for relating to others in agreeable and inoffensive ways.
The absence of courtesy brings much room for confusion and ambiguity in our interactions that can often end in either party feeling easily offended or disrespected. Common examples in our contemporary society are the absence of salutations, greetings, use of names and expressions of goodwill in text messaging and emails. These electronic forms of communication and the laziness associated with their use have destroyed the convention of respectful social interactions and letter writing, for example. Such communications are often now routinely met with no replies or acknowledgements, curt responses and ambiguous or abbreviated language that, through brevity, vagueness or lack of care, easily sow the seeds of resentment, division, misunderstanding, contempt and conflict: all disasterous for the formation and maintenance of honest relationships.
Courtesy and decent manners are socially adopted guides for engagement that offer to others we encounter a level of mutual respect, consideration and – when sincere – sensitivity and non-threatening demeanour that can pave the way for greater connectedness. Even when not heart-felt, courtesy still functions as a means of telling others that we are at least willing to respect the other’s need to be seen, acknowledged and to be treated with a basic level of dignity and consideration as a human being. In this sense, courtesy and good manners contribute to a culture of greater respect and cooperation as baseline functioning, and where currently high levels of social ignorance are reduced to a minimum.
Confidence is a quality and skill that can be built by anyone, and a minimal level of interpersonal confidence is essential when meeting new people and forming new relationships. We can distinguish between two forms of confidence: that which arises from playing a role, and confidence that is grounded in authenticity.
Role-playing confidence comes from acting confident. Role confidence comes from the familiarity we have with the role we create or occupy. This may take the form of the job we do, or a ‘false self’ that we create as a character that can be worn like a mask.
Authentic confidence comes from stepping outside our comfort zone; our usual routine and habits, and facing our insecurities, fears, discomforts, internal conflicts and external obstacles. This requires courage, and courage isn’t – as many would have us believe – the absence of fear, but our willingness to take the next step whilst being scared to do so. Courage is thus the act of facing our fears, not the absence of fearful feelings.
Confidence is the trust we have in our abilities, based on the accumulation of experiences that have required us to face our fears. We can still be nervous, anxious, uncertain and scared even whilst our actions are supported by confidence.
‘Saying what you mean and meaning what you say’, ‘walking like you talk’, ‘being genuine’, ‘being real’, ‘telling it like it is’: we have come up with a litany of phrases that approximate ways of being with others that we might term ‘authenticity’. But being authentic is altogether a less common undertaking. I’ve written several posts on authenticity that you can find in the blog section that hopefully give a sense of its importance and relevance for interpersonal skills. Contrary to notions of ‘the true self’, authenticity isn’t a self, as much as it is a commitment to the process of being honest with oneself about one’s genuine experience, values, beliefs, emotions, needs etc. Honesty with oneself on all levels requires courage and personal integrity: both of which can be written about all day, but which in the end require us to act, often against our deepest fears and insecurities. Being authentic involves risking oneself in relationship, but also looking after oneself and one’s best interests; speaking about difficult or awkward things, and learning to deal with disapproval and rejection from others. It is also therefore a task associated with personal maturity, autonomy, clarity about responsibility, and self-reliance.
- Articles on authenticity
Trust is the degree of confidence one has that the other person is who and what they appear to be, and ultimately that they will do us no harm. Trusting can be something that some people do too easily, and others find extremely difficult to do. But trust in its mature form is a balance of assessment, risk and intuitive skills working in synergy.
Those who trust too easily tend to rely on a felt response to the presentation of or assumptions made about the other person. Such feelings can be rooted in accurate intuition, or on powerful needs for intimacy, understanding, help or connection that may be rooted in early childhood needs for affirmation, for example. In the latter case, the sheer power of our hunger for what the other person appears to offer overtakes our subtler instincts and hard-earned wisdom calling for caution, and requiring our patience with the learning process involved in getting to know the truth of the other person as this truth is revealed over time. Too much trust too quickly can get us hurt, leave us feeling insecure, anxious or exposed.
By contrast, people who find it hard to trust others have often been deeply wounded or carry deep vulnerabilities that mistrust seeks to protect. Too much mistrust can, however, inadvertently feed a cycle of fear and suspicion that adversely affects the formation of their relationships, bringing tension and hypervigilance to their encounters; perhaps misinterpreting genuine behaviours as having ulterior motives, for example, and resulting in an absence of intimacy, understanding and kinship in their lives.
The fact of the matter is that people both reveal and conceal themselves at the same time – their motives, thoughts, values, truth, feelings – and so a person’s presentation can often be based on well rehearsed roles that he or she adopts with others that can easily be mistaken for authenticity at first glance. It is therefore important to view trust in realistic terms when building new relationships, even with people who are genuinely authentic with us: that trust is a process, not a singular act or decision; and a necessary function of our way of relating that must be tempered by experience, intuition, a degree of risk-taking and faith, a degree of vigilance and awareness of what the other reveals and conceals, rather than being based either on a burning desire or an opposing deeply held suspicion.
Trust must therefore be built over time using a number of skills.
Trust built over time is an incremental process of adjustment as we learn more about the other person in relationship as they both reveal and conceal themselves in words and actions. Time allows us to view both consistencies and inconsistencies in a person’s behaviours; to take note of whether their words and actions are congruent or contradictory; to observe the process and emerging of our feelings, and whether we are respected, valued, considered and treated as we deserve. Personal authenticity or inauthenticity is thus revealed over time. In this way, rather than an all-or-nothing leap of faith based on excitement or hope in the other’s appearance, trusting can be a steady, measured process involving a judicious use of our senses in the service of looking after ourselves and our best interests as we get to know other people whilst retaining a spirit of goodwill.
As with all of the relationship skills listed here, trust is a skill that can be developed within the therapeutic relationship based on the formation and implementation of effective boundaries, for example.
Very few people know how to listen. Most people think they’re listening when someone is speaking, but on closer inspection we often find that they are doing the equivalent of skim reading: hearing some key words and phrases whilst referring to their own inner processes of thinking of what to say in response to the speaker. This isn’t listening. It’s hearing. Listening is about fully attending, not only to the words of the other, but to his or her meaning, motivation, emotions and at the deepest levels, his or her needs. When we listen deeply and convey our comprehension back to the speaker, we honour their need to be heard and their humanity in making the effort to speak with us. If more people listened to one another, instead of rehearsing a response, the world might be in better shape than it is at present.
I pretend I’m listening to you. You act like you’re listening to me. Whilst you’re talking I’m thinking of what to say next. I do this by hearing a few words then drifting off into my composition. When your babbling ends, I recite my version of what you reminded me of whilst you were speaking about stuff I wasn’t listening to. You do the same in return, and our failures to listen to each other bind us together in monologues of mutual avoidance.
We no longer see each other deeply because we no longer invest ourselves in others. As with skim reading, we’re in a hurry too much of the time; busying ourselves towards the next goal and too preoccupied with getting somewhere else to delve into the moment and plumb the depths of that experience by spending time with others. It is the equivalent of eating without tasting. Superficiality in society seems to be at a peak, and the resulting lack of depth, commitment and genuine seriousness in our ways of relating to one another is often responded to with an even greater need to use the many means of escapism at our disposal that help us mitigate against the anxieties resulting from this absence of depth and the existential void we can feel in relationship with others. The vicious circularity of shallowness and anxiety spirals in society and has become a quiet crisis often pathologised and medicated with alcohol, recreational drugs and phramaceuticals. Depth in relationship is achieved through commitment, genuine interest in the other, time spent with people talking about real concerns; and by sincerely revealing of oneself.
Like listening, empathy is another skill that many people now lack. Empathy is the ability to identify and imagine the lived experience of the other person. It is more than sympathy, which more closely resembles pity. Empathy is the willingness to attune our feelings to those of the other; to try to see the world through his or her eyes. Empathy is the gateway to deeper understanding of the other person and a means by which we can expand our own realm of wisdom and knowledge of the plight and joys, despairs and appreciations, limits and strengths of other people in our lives. Very often a lack of empathy is merely an excess of selfishness; an over-absorption in our own minds, rather than the necessary act of putting our own ego interests to one side that empathy requires of us to be fully present to the other. Sometimes we lack the ability to empathise because we are disconnected from our own emotions through habit, dissociation or trauma. This latter problem can be overcome in therapy.
“We make a space inside ourselves, so that being can speak.”
It goes without saying that good relating is partly founded on being able to convey our understanding clearly in our words and gestures. We now avoid speaking directly to one another out of preference for the ‘convenience’ of text messaging, email, blogs and social media. These forms of communication, particularly texts, remove layers of nuance and emotion that the human voice conveys in spoken language and the physicality of being with others. We sacrifice to some degree the maintainance and building up of our social confidence, assertiveness and spontaneity by avoiding spoken communication and rob the relationship of what makes it more fully human and intimate.
As with the other skills listed here, learning or re-learning to speak plainly and directly to people face-to-face is a skill that helps us relate efficiently and confidently with minimal confusion. Speaking freely and openly is an asset when we are able to formulate our truths – particularly those that may be difficult to hear – in inoffensive ways that make them more likely to be heard or accepted. Speaking in an authentic, uncluttered manner takes time and practice and can be learned by anyone.
Boundaries in relationship are rarely discussed, but are nevertheless an essential ingredient in any set of relationship skills. As discussed in detail in other posts, boundaries help others know what we find acceptable or unacceptable, and are thus a means of looking after ourselves. Knowing one anothers’ boundaries allows us to maintain respect for one another and avoid insult or offence. Direct, clear communication, assertiveness, authenticity and being clear on personal responsibility are all necessary ingredients in forming and maintaining clear boundaries with other people.
“When we focus our attention in the here and now and live simply, we have more time to do the things we think are important.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh
We’ve all encountered people who just aren’t present. They seem to be elsewhere, in their heads wondering about something whilst we’re talking. They are the people who will let the door swing in our face instead of checking behind them; who will cut us off in traffic; who will talk at the top of their voices in public spaces; who will park in front of your driveway; or interrupt us when we speak. These kinds of unaware behaviours are at least an irritation in relationship and are connected to an absence of listening skills, empathy, consideration and awareness.
Being present requires us to train our attention to be here-and-now rather than in our heads, abstracted from the moment by being absorbed in our thoughts. Present awareness is directly related to the experience of feeling grounded, centred and better able to make clear choice in relation to others. It also helps us be clear on our motivation with others. Thankfully, present awareness is a skill that can be learned using some very down to earth methods; mindfulness meditation being one of the most popular forms of present awareness development. Within psychotherapy, there are a variety of other more effective methods for developing present awareness beyond formal meditation. These methods help us train our attention to be in our senses, our emotions, our actions: all of which are necessary for being more fully present in relationship.
Being present in this way, not only has great benefits for the formation of intimacy, but also helps us connect with our intuitive ‘radar’: those finer awarenesses that are designed to help us (when we attend to them) stay away from danger and dishonesty in others. In synergy with clear boundaries, awareness thus helps us recognise the games people play and so allows us clarity of choice on whether or not to engage with such games. Often it better serves our interests to refuse to engage and instead to maintain an aware and composed distance from other people’s attempts to manipulate us.
My article on passive-aggression breaks down into detail the pitfalls and ubiquity of this manipulative way of relating to others. It is another kind of lack of awareness, and as with other anti-social tendencies, passive-aggression is a sure way to offend others and ultimately lose friends. It is the result of repressing emotions and requires a level of routine emotional dishonesty in relationship whereby emotional energy builds up within us and eventually is expressed destructively in our words and behaviours, often outside the grasp of our routine habits of awareness. Passive-aggression can be overcome in therapy when it is addressed head-on in a sincere way. The therapeutic process broadly involves the patient learning to contact and express his or her emotions in more direct and honest ways in relationship, including the therapeutic relationship; addressing any backlog of old emotions that he or she may have held unresolved within the body. Suffice it to say that we can develop all of the other skills listed here, but a failure to address one’s passive-aggression renders the other skills we might develop much less effective.
- Articles on passive-aggression
Understanding another person in a close, emotionally attuned manner allows us to bridge the inherent experiential gap we have between us. Like empathy, intimacy requires us to be connected to our own emotions; our own body awareness, in order to develop our awareness and sensitivity to the other’s feelings. From an understanding look shared between passing strangers, to feeling met and fully understood in therapy, to intimate physical and emotional connection with a partner, intimacy is for many people the ultimate level of greatest meaning in human relating. Intimacy that is lasting and safe demands trust, sincerity and sensitivity in both people: all qualities that are instrinsic to the other relationship skills listed here. Intimacy can be sexual or non-sexual and the importance of clarity in order to avoid ambiguity in this area is an important part of learning how to cultivate forms of intimacy that are appropriate to different relationships and circumstances.
These are just some of the fundamental relationship skills necessary for improving our ways of relating to others. All of these skills – just like reading, writing and arithmetic in school – can be learned, practiced and developed in the therapeutic relationship. When used in synergy they can transform the quality, security and meaning of our relationships; help us manage our anxieties and stresses in relation to others; help us keep ourselves away from toxic individuals; and be the difference between isolated functioning that comes from occupying the roles some people play, and a sense of deeper belonging and kinship with other human beings.
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