Why is it that most parents would say they love their children, but not all children feel loved? Why do twice as many women as men file for divorce?
Men — myself included — are often less aware than they ought to be of serious issues in their personal and professional relationships. I came to understand the extent of my own lack of awareness the hard way…at a YMCA.
While setting up a membership, a gym employee asked for my emergency contact. And, at that moment, I realized, I didn’t have one.
A few weeks prior, I had said goodbye to my business partner of 25 years — a man with whom I couldn’t get through the simplest conversation without arguing. He also happened to be my father. And shortly after I left him, my wife decided she wanted a divorce.
Clearly, something had to change with how I communicated with the people in my life if I wanted to become the kind of person who builds connections, rather than breaks them.
According to famed psychologist Dr. John Gottman, dysfunctional conversational patterns between couples can predict divorce. You could say the same about the interactions between business partners or between bosses and employees. After all, the harsh words exchanged by unhappy couples are little different than those used by disgruntled workers.
Whether you think you are a good leader of a family, a business, or even a team is irrelevant. The only question that matters is this: do you have a good relationship in the eyes of your partners?
You may find answering this question difficult, but it doesn’t have to be.
With just 10 simple statements, you can not only determine where you stand, today, with the people you care about but proactively improve those relationships.
This process has two steps: First, ask your partner or child how much they agree with each of the following statements, on a scale of one to ten — with ten representing total agreement, and one meaning total disagreement. Then, commit to making each statement a concrete reality in your relationships.
1. I demonstrate kindness and respect toward you in ways that you can see and hear.
Marital research shows that the person who leaves a relationship often decided to leave years before. By the time they say, “I’m leaving,” they’re already mentally gone. Help prevent this disengagement by asking the right questions and being specific in your commitments.
Ask questions that show your interest in what your partner or child needs from you — such as, “How can I support you?” Remember that, even if your heart is in the right place, rude or commanding language is not likely to make the other person feel like you care for them.
When you commit to something, like finishing a task, be specific in terms of exactly when you will get it done — don’t say “next week,” say “by noon on Wednesday” — and, whenever possible, define what terms like “finished” means, precisely.
2. I listen when you speak.
Most of us think we’re good listeners. But when someone else is talking, we are often busily fast-forwarding to what we’re going to say in response to what is being said, rather than actually listening to what is said.
When I first posed this statement to my son, I got a six score. The main reason? “Well, you do look at your phone a lot when I’m talking,” he said.
He was right. So, together, we came up with a plan to help me become a better listener: If he caught me looking at my phone instead of listening, he’d say a silly code phrase to help me refocus: “purple elephant.”
Other techniques which can help you listen better include repeating what the other person just said, word-for-word (it’s tougher than you might think!), and, simply, acknowledging when you let your mind wander and asking your partner to repeat him or herself.
3. I am aware when I hurt you, and I apologize when I do.
A friend once told me about a relationship she had with a man who was constantly saying “sorry.” I liked the analogy she made: “He uses the word sorry like a toll paid that allows him room for misbehavior instead of a fine that brings with it an acknowledgment that he did something wrong.”
A real apology starts with an honest acknowledgment of the harm done. It is the start of the process of reconciliation.
Maybe you feel you had good reasons for the behavior that hurt your partner. Put your relationship before your reasons. Apologize.
Leadership in partnership is taking the lead and being the first to apologize. Sometimes that’s taking the lead and apologizing for your part in the breakdown in the relationship, even if the other person is not willing to apologize for their part.
4. I show interest in your career and development as a person.
Problem-solving is the default mode for many men. Thus, when a partner or child starts talking about what’s happening in their lives, or about an issue they are facing, men often start firing off solutions, rather than actually engaging with them.
Rather than presuming to know what’s happening in your partner or child’s mind, or trying to direct them toward paths or solutions you think are best for them, become someone who shows interest in their thoughts, ideas, and proposed solutions. The phrase, “tell me more…” can serve as a powerful tool in this regard.
5. I demonstrate how to respectfully request changes in the behavior of others, including my requests of you.
Criticism erodes relationships. If you make criticism the primary way you ask people to change, you will sow the seeds of discouragement and frustration in the long term.
Even in the best relationships, asking for a change in behavior is sometimes necessary; but be sure when you do so, you keep your language focused on actions, rather than inadvertently attacking the other person’s character.
Two good rules of thumb: First, drop “always” and “never” from your lexicon — as in, “You are always running late/ never on time;” second, do not follow the words “you are” (or the rhetorical version “are you”) with a negative adjective or noun — as in, “You are lazy.”
6. With my words and actions, I build you up rather than tear you down.
The words you speak to others often stem from the way you speak to yourself. Is your self-talk affirming or negative? Does it inspire, or admonish?
When I was twelve years old, my father frequently called me “undisciplined and lazy.” Years later, despite twenty years of working sixty- to ninety-hour work weeks, I still sometimes catch myself in self-talk using those same words.
The words we use when speaking to ourselves and others set the stage for the action that will follow. So, be as mindful of the words you use with your children and spouse as you are with your actions because your words will echo through the communication patterns in their minds and in your family for decades to come.
7. I effectively communicate my emotions and needs and create a safe place for you to communicate yours.
The late Dr. Marshall Rosenberg — author of a book famous within top business circles, but little-known elsewhere called Nonviolent Communication — argues that people’s actions (their words) are driven by a desire to fulfill their needs.
Start listening not just to the words you and others say, but to the needs hidden within those words. Doing so will help you better communicate whatever is underlying your own feelings, and also, allow you to approach others’ feelings with more understanding and compassion.
Related Stories From YourTango:
8. I express anger appropriately.
Anger can destroy connection, but it can also serve as an opportunity to create stronger bonds.
Anger differs from other emotions. Psychologists often refer to anger as a secondary emotion because it is a signal of one of the primary emotions: fear, shame, guilt, hurt, or sadness. Rather than expressing anger, if you can identify and then express the emotion beneath your anger, you can build connections with your partner or child, rather than fray them.
For example, my friend Amy was able to improve her contentious co-parenting relationship with her former spouse by asking herself what underlying emotion was driving some of his bad behaviors.
By recognizing the fear and shame that lay beneath his bullying attitude, and responding from that frame of mind, she was able to interact with him more compassionately — a move which, ultimately, caused him to change his own approach.
9. I surround us with people who enhance our lives and distance us from people who don’t.
Whatever toxic communications habits you’re working to overcome, make sure you don’t make that process harder — for you or your family — by allowing people still locked in poor communication patterns free rein in your life, or theirs.
You may not have full control over who you work or socialize with, but you can demonstrate your commitment to better relationships by not wavering in your own choice to pursue compassionate communication. It’s very possible your shift will spark one in others.
10. The tenth statement is slightly different depending on whether you are speaking to your spouse, or to your child:
Spouses: With my words and actions, I demonstrate love, kindness, and respect toward our family members, even when they are not around.
Fathers: With my words and actions, I demonstrate love, kindness, and respect toward your mother, even when she is not around.*
Mothers: With my words and actions, I demonstrate love, kindness, and respect toward your father, even when he is not around.*
Note that this statement applies even if you are not married to the mother or father of your child. How you treat the mother (or father) of your children will become the unconscious baseline of what your children will expect — and accept — in their own romantic relationships. Married or divorced, the parameters of your relationship will become the default setting for your kids.
Krister Ungerbock is the author of Wall Street Journal bestselling book 22 Talk SHIFTs.