All relationships — especially the ones near and dear to you — take work. But many of us get so wrapped up in our inner worlds and busy lives that we neglect everyone from our partners to our close friends.
According to Christina Steinorth, MFT, a psychotherapist and author of Cue Cards for Life: Thoughtful Tips for Better Relationships, “Relationships don’t magically take care of themselves — as with most living organisms, they need nurturing.”
Throughout the years, in her private practice, Steinorth has seen the same problems plague all relationships. She identified poor communication and poor conflict resolution skills as the most common concerns.
In fact, she called poor conflict resolution skills “the kiss of death,” for even the best relationships. “If you assassinate your partner’s character every time you have an argument and hold grudges from one argument to the next, I can pretty much promise you that your relationship will end up a sad state of affairs.”
And these skills are just as relevant and essential for your family, friends, boss and co-workers. Below, Steinorth offered 10 pointers for improving any relationship.
Improve Your Relationship
1. Listen intently.
There’s a difference between hearing a person and truly listening to them. Listening is a skill, which requires many elements, such as making eye contact and observing the person’s body language, Steinorth said.
It also includes giving the person your undivided attention. This might go without saying, but in our plugged-in world, distraction is merely an electronic device away. That’s why Steinorth suggested powering down all your tech tools while having a heart-to-heart, or really any talk.
She also suggested spouses carve out 10 minutes each morning and night to talk and connect. “It can make a world of difference in your relationship.”
2. Practice small acts of kindness.
“Act loving even when you don’t feel like it, because people will always remember the way you make them feel,” Steinorth said. She encouraged readers to be thoughtful and compassionate. For instance, you can rub your spouse’s shoulders or take your close friend to lunch.
3. Avoid second-guessing what people say.
Most of us tend to respond to other people’s thoughts and feelings from our perspective, Steinorth said. But “If you want to take your communication skills from good to great, one of the best things you can do is actually listen to another person and believe they mean, feel and want exactly what they just said…”
Because if no one means what they say, then how can any person be trusted? she said. “Don’t substitute your own thoughts, feelings or judgments for what is being said to you.”
4. Be mindful about when to approach people.
“Do your best to ensure that the person you are going to talk to is in the right frame of mind to receive the message you want to send,” Steinorth said. In other words, if your boss seems stressed, wait until they’re relatively relaxed to request a raise, she said.
5. Empathize during conflicts.
“It’s OK to argue and disagree [but] just do it effectively,” Steinorth said. One way to do that is to empathize with others during a disagreement.
“[Consider] that the other person you’re having a conflict with probably feels like you do. This will help you approach the situation with more patience and understanding as ideally these are things you are seeking as well.”
Be open to their opinion, just like you’d want them to be open to yours, she said. This can be tough in the heat of a debate, so, before responding, pause for five to 10 minutes to remind yourself.
6. Fight fair.
Again, it’s not conflict that chips away at relationships; it’s how you approach conflict that causes problems. “Learn to address the subject, not the person, stay focused, don’t bring in stuff from old arguments, seek compromise if you can’t seek resolution and don’t bad mouth [your loved ones],” Steinorth said.
7. Be prepared to bend.
Sometimes bending is more important than standing your ground. All relationships require compromise. As Steinorth said, “If you value your friendship and the other aspects of it are good, would it really be so bad to give up on a few argument points if it means your relationship will continue?” Usually it’s not bad at all.
8. Tend to your relationship’s needs.
“If you value your relationship with someone, be sure to give it what it needs—be it time, compassion or love,” Steinorth said. If you’re not sure what they need, just ask them, “What can I do to help you feel better?” or “What would you like from me?” she said.
9. Pay attention to the give and take in your relationships.
“Be aware of what you are bringing and taking from your relationships with others,” Steinorth said. That doesn’t mean keeping score. In fact, there will be times in every relationship when one person needs more than the other, she said. “But overall in the healthiest of relationships the scales should pretty much balance out.” One possible sign of imbalance? “You feel that you could never ask the other person for what they ask of you.”
10. Be someone others want to be around.
What types of people do you like to spend time with? What types of people do you not like to spend time with? For instance, if you commonly nag, complain and dish out passive-aggressive comments, your relationships will suffer, Steinorth said.
Relationships blossom when you tend to them, truly listen and resolve conflict effectively. “When you’re able to do this, it can help you in many areas of your life…you have a better chance of getting promoted, your relationship will be better with your spouse because you know how to clear the air without destroying one another in the process and you can teach your children these skills by role modeling them,” Steinorth said.