5 Anger Myths Explained, Discussed and Debunked Part 1

This is the first of a two part series of posts which look at some common myths about anger. While there are many different anger myths, I have chosen to look at 5 myths which I believe will give you, as a follower of this blog, a better understanding of the misinformation that has been written about anger, how this misinformation has evolved into widely believed myths which act to both demean anger as a valid emotion and disempower people, including women, to deploy their anger as a strategic tool.

I have chosen to write two posts rather than one in order to keep the length of each post manageable.

In part #1, this post, I will discuss what a myth is and anger myth #1.

In part #2, I will discuss the remaining 4 myths.

Let’s start by examining what a myth is.

Myth Defined

A myth is a story, a belief, or a statement about how the world is perceived to be.

It might be an “old wive’s tale” that has been repeated so often that it is unquestioned, widely believed,  and accepted as fact.

The Problem with Myths

While many of them may sound both logical and correct, they turn out to be false when critically examined.

That they appear to be logical increases the likelihood that they will be believed and repeated.

Two Examples of Myths

 The 5-second rule.

This rule states that if a food object such as a piece of candy, a slice of banana bread, or a chicken leg falls on the floor, it remains safe to eat as long as you pick it up within 5 seconds of dropping it.

While I hate to admit it, I have heard this rule over and over, repeated it to others, and even acted as if it were true. The facts, however, are that it is completely false. Indeed,  it only takes a very small fraction of one second for bacteria to contaminate your food once the eatable lands on your germy floor. And, if you walk on that floor, it’s germy.

I don’t know how this myth started.

What I do know is that it probably persists because we don’t want to throw out or waste “good”food, or give up that tasty treat just because it accidentally found its way to the floor.

I have implemented the myth because it was convenient.  While I haven’t gotten sick (yet), the myth is still wrong and it is wise not to believe it.

Brown vs White Eggs

Another common myth is that brown eggs are more nutritious than white eggs.  The truth is that egg color is related to the breed of the specific chicken and there is no correlation between egg color and the nutritional value of the egg. Here, the myth might persist because advertisers and merchants have found that they can charge more for brown eggs than white eggs.  So, while you may think you are getting more for your money with brown eggs, all that is going on is that you are unnecessarily spending more than you need to.

I do pay more for extra large eggs and they happen to be brown.  I wouldn’t pay more money for brown vs white eggs.

Anger Myths

There are many myths about anger and I suspect they persist for several reasons which will be discussed below.

Anger myths are problematic and even psychologically harmful because…

  • our behavior is impacted by the myth,
  • our ability to strategically deploy our anger as an emotional tool gets impaired, and
  • the validity of the myth is not challenged,

There are numerous anger myths. I’ll explore 5 of them.

Myth #1: Anger is a negative, dangerous, or bad emotion.

This myth is both widely believed and widely quoted although the form you see it in may change. It is seen as both believable and credible because most people do not understand what anger is or why we experience it.

By the way, I totally explore and explain anger in my Amazon best selling book: Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool.  You can download the first two chapters of the book (without any opt-in) by clicking on the “Beyond Anger Management” page on your right.

Examples of this myth include:

  • “Anger is a negative emotion.”,
  • “Anger is one step (or letter) away from danger.”, and
  • “It is bad to get angry.”

The facts about anger are..

  • anger is a primitive threat detector,
  • It has three functions:
  1. subconsciously perceive the presence of a survival threat (one that would kill us)
  2. alert us to the threat, and
  3. very quickly prepare our bodies to attack and eliminate the threat. Anger prepares us for battle.

These three functions are primitive, occur subconsciously and are part of the anger mastery cycle.   You can download a PDF of the entire anger mastery cycle by clicking on the link in the page section to your right.

The myth probably persists because some people, when they get angry, do bad or regrettable things.

Secondly, because anger motivates us to take quick action toward a threat, it is easy to assume that the anger causes the negative behavior that becomes associated with it.

It is the association between anger and behavior that gives anger a bad reputation.

That anger causes behavior is another myth we will discuss next.

The truth is..

  • There are no negative emotions.
  • All emotions are adaptive in that they provide us with important information about our surroundings.
  • We can learn to master our emotions and choose to use the information they provide to improve our lives and our relationships.
  • Emotions never force us to do anything.

In the next post, I will discuss the other 4 anger myths.

I welcome your comments.

 

Why labelling an emotion (correctly) is important.

What is the reason you go to your Doctor when you are experiencing some symptoms?

The simple answer is that you want him (or her) to diagnose what is going on and offer some suggestions about how best to “treat” whatever it is that your symptoms suggest needs attention.

Your symptoms are a window into a process that is taking place in your body.

Simply put, here is the process:

Symptoms ==> Diagnosis ===> intervention

The diagnosis is a label.

The point of a correct diagnosis is that it should lead to a treatment.

In other words, if you don’t know what you are looking at, you can’t give it a label.  If you can’t give it a label, you have no idea how to treat it.

I recently experienced a red rash on my legs that itched like crazy.  Because I did not like waking up at night wanting to scratch my legs, I went to my primary care physician.

He looked at the rash and told me I had “idiopathic pruitis”.

While this sounds very scientific, what these words mean is that I had an itch (pruitis) that he did not know the cause of (idiopathic). In other words, he put a fancy label on my symptoms which did not allow him to do anything else.

In this case, the label was rather useless and did not lead to any recommended treatment.

He implied that it was nothing and that it would quickly go away.

It didn’t.

So, i went to a Dermatologist (skin specialist) who told me that my doctor’s diagnosis was incorrect.  I did not have an unidentifiable “itch”.  I had a seasonal heat rash on my legs. I don’t remember his official diagnosis.  However, based on his diagnosis, he prescribed an ointment and the problem was eliminated.

In this case, the process was very straight forward. The correct label resulted in the choice of an effective response.

But, think about a fever or other “non-specific” symptom.

Here the process is not always so clear. Yes, the symptom tells you that there is something going on in your body but much more information is needed before you can correctly determine what is going on and what intervention is required.

Have you ever had a symptom about which you were concerned and either gone into see your doctor, visited an urgent care center, or, perhaps, consulted with a “practitioner” by phone and were told that there was nothing to worry about?

I have.

The process is similar regarding your emotions.

It is a bit of a stretch and not completely accurate but you could think of your emotions as your symptoms reflecting your underlying perceptions.

I need to point out here that most of this post focuses on correctly labeling your own emotions so that your actions in any given situation are effective in addressing what is happening to you.

It is equally important, if an emotion is directed at you, that you attempt to correctly label that emotion.  Doing so gives you an opportunity to choose how you want to interact with someone who is anxious around you, angry at you, or envious of you.

Your emotions tell you something may be going on  in your environment.

The key to using your emotions as tools or mastering someone else’s emotions, is understanding that emotions are a window into their world and how they are perceiving what is going on between you.

Your emotions alert you to how you are perceiving what is happening to you but much more information is needed before you can decide what you need to do. They are your “early warning system”.

The fact is that you are hardwired to scan your surroundings for any threat and to subconsciously react to that threat. This process is facilitated by and communicated to you through your emotions.

Mastering your emotions involves understanding the function of emotions, correctly identifying the emotion you are experiencing by starting with the physical signs in your body, analyzing the information your emotions make available to you  including your thoughts, and using this information to choose an effective response to the situation in which you find yourself.

Put another way…

In order to master your emotions as tools, it is critical that you learn how to correctly identify the physical signs in your body that represent each emotion and correctly label the emotion so that you can accurately assess your situation and choose an effective response.

Why is it critical that you learn to correctly label your emotions?

You might make the argument, regarding anger, that emotions are self-evident so labeling is no big deal.

In other words, “if it looks like anger, it must be anger”.

Well, the truth is, while anger often is easily recognizable when it is experienced as a “primary” emotion, there are many times when anger is expressed as a secondary emotion.  When this happens, the “anger” you see (or express) may actually be indicative of hurt, anxiety, a sense of weakness, or vulnerability.

For those of you who are “regulars” to this blog, you know that anger is one of 6 primary emotions.  The primary emotions can be seen in all human cultures and many subhuman species.  If you have kids, you will have noticed the primary emotions “shortly” after your infant was born.

The primary emotions are mad, sad, glad, fear, disgust, and surprise.

Many writers have tried to label anger as a secondary emotion.

A secondary emotion is one that substitutes for another emotion.  So, if I am really feeling anxiety but I show you anger, anger is a secondary emotion that I am choosing to display because I don’t want you to know that I am really nervous or anxious.

Sometimes, anger will be used as a secondary emotion by men because men do not want to appear “weak”.  Women may avoid anger and substitute another feeling because it may not be safe, culturally accepted, or situationally “appropriate” for a woman to express anger.

Anger can also be used instrumentally.  When this happens, the display of anger is used to manipulate you into taking some action including backing off, giving in, or surrendering.  I may look angry but I’m actually just determined to “force” you into doing what I want you to do.  My anger is a weapon I’m using on you.

Your feelings are your symptoms.

You need to learn how to “read” your body.

The message of the feelings are the diagnosi.s

Your initial emotional reaction only tells you how you first perceive what is happening to you.  It may, or may not, be accurate.

Your choice of adaptive action is your intervention.

Take a look at the list below. You can find many different lists by googling “feelings list”. This is just one I came across. It is neither unique nor representative.  It is just an example.

While the basic emotion is “afraid”, there is a clear distinction between “apprehensive”, “suspicious”, “worried” and “terrified”. You might choose to respond differently to someone about whom you are worried than you would someone about whom you are suspicious.

I think you get the point.

And, someone else’s reaction toward you would also vary with their perception of you.

Image result for feelings list pdf

In summary, then,  you can’t be sure about the response you choose to  exhibit toward another person until you can be sure that the emotion you are experiencing correctly matches the situation in which you find yourself and you have correctly labeled that emotion.

When you do this, you have mastered that emotion.  And this, emotional mastery, is the goal you are seeking.

The World Should be More Emotional not Less.

Emotions are tools that you can learn to master.

A friend of mine who worked in construction once told me, “You know, you can’t have too many tools.  With the right tools, you can do any job.”

The same is true for emotions as tools.  The more familiar you are with your emotions and the more adept you are at mastering those emotions, the more flexible you are in dealing with any situation you encounter.

In other words, the world should be more emotional (master more emotions) not less (restricting or controlling emotions).

To be clear, emotional mastery includes managing or controlling your arousal level so that you can assess what it going on around you.

The issue, for me, is that controlling one’s emotions is presented as the endpoint not the starting point. And, if the emotion is strong enough, control won’t be considered as an option.

In the absence of emotional mastery, you may only experience anger, assume that there is a threat (see below), and act as if that threat is real.  It may not occur to you that what really is going on is that you are disappointed, hurt, frustrated, or misinformed.  In any of these cases, it will not be anger that is appropriate.

A physical analogy is that, if you only have a hammer, you need to hang a picture and you can only find a screw, you pound the screw into the wall. Yes, it works.  But, a screw driver would be both more efficient and more effective.

Let’s introduce you to your emotional tools.

Emotions and Evolution

Our emotions have evolved over the millennia to both inform us about how we perceive our surroundings and motivate us to take effective action.

These are two independent functions of emotions: inform and motivate.

Emotions as Information

Each emotion provides you with useful (although not always accurate) information about how you perceive the world around you.  This is the message of the emotion.

The message of positive emotions such as glad (or happy) is that you perceive what you are doing as a situation in which you want to stay.

The message of negative emotions is that you perceive some sort of “threat” that could harm you.

Anxiety is an example of a (so-called) negative emotion because it doesn’t feel good when we are anxious.

I got anxious when my wife went into labor with our first child.

Anxiety is a future based emotion, the message of which is that there may be a threat out there which could be harmful.

For me, the message was that my wife needed to be in a hospital before the baby arrived just in case.

Understanding the emotion.

Anxiety is an interesting emotion in that it has two faces and a flip side.

The two faces of anxiety are eustress and distress.

Distress is the most common form of anxiety.  The message of distress is that the possible threat is real, it will harm me, and I must avoid it.

There is always the possibility that the perceived threat isn’t as disastrous as it appears.

Have you ever anticipated a response from another person about some subject only to be surprised when that individual either didn’t react the way you expected or wasn’t even aware that a problem existed.

There is a commercial for Discover credit card in which the customer practices refusing to pay any fees and anticipates a negative response from the credit card “operator”only to find out, when he contacts Discover Cards, that no fees are ever charged.  In other words, the customer in the ad was nervous about, and over-prepared himself to handle, a situation that never existed.

Or, think about the time you may have gotten all nervous about asking someone out on a date, or your boss for a raise, and prepared yourself for all the things that could go wrong only to be surprised when she said “yes”.

Eustress is the other face of anxiety. The message of eustress is that the possible threat is real and that action must be taken to prepare for the threat so that it can be eliminated.

Eustress motivates you to prepare for possible “threats” that do exist.  An example is studying for an upcoming exam so you don’t “fail” it.

In the language of positive and negative emotions, anxiety would be a negative emotion because it feels uncomfortable and anticipation would be a positive emotion because it feels great. Both anxiety and anticipation are adaptive in that they help us improve our lives.

The emotion of anger can be understood in the same way.

As an emotion, anger is very powerful.  It is a tool just like a car that you can learn to master.  The message of anger is that you perceive a threat you believe you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it.

Rage looks like anger on steroids but is more like travelling too fast on an icy road.

Anger can help you make better decisions.  Rage is out of control.

Different, and often less potent, faces of anger include irritation, annoyance, frustration, resentment, exasperated, indignation.

So, let’s go back to construction tools.  If you see a screw  with a “slot” in it, you know you need a Flathead screwdriver.  If  the screw has a “+” on it, you need a Phillips head screw driver.

Similarly, if you are angry, you know that you perceive a threat that you believe you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the threat actually exists, only that you perceive it to exist.

What you do with the anger depends on how familiar you are with anger as a tool. Is it anger or one of anger’s cousins such as annoyance, resentment, etc?

The more emotional tools you have, the more specific you can be in how you use your tools to interact with your surroundings.

Positive and Negative Emotions ( a clarification)

I’ve referred to positive and negative emotions above because that is how most people view emotions. However, I don’t like to label emotions as positive or negative because these labels imply that some emotions (the negative ones) should be eliminated (think negative evaluation at work) and others (the positive ones) should be pursued.

In fact, there are no positive or negative emotions as all emotions are adaptive (useful when understood) as sources of information and motivation. There are, however, emotions that feel good (the  so-called “positive” ones) and  emotions that do not feel good (the so-called “negative” ones).

The labels of positive and negative describe the hedonic quality of the emotion not its value or importance.

Emotions as Motivation

Anxiety, as distress, motivates us to avoid public speaking, leads us to avoid asking someone out on a date, keeps us in situations we don’t like because we might not do any better, and can lead us to procrastinate.

Anxiety as eustress motivated me to take my wife to the hospital and gives my students the motivation they need to study for their exams.

Anger prepares you for battle.

Positive emotions motivate us to continue doing what we are doing.

The main point here is that emotions alert us to our surroundings and motivate us to take action.

Motivation is not the same as coercion.

While our emotions move or lead us in a certain direction, we have a choice about what action we will take.

It is at the intersection between emotions and logic that all the benefits of emotions come out.

Learning to master this interaction could be very useful and is the basis for my recommendation that we need more (well mastered) emotions.

Think about any important decision you’ve recently made.  If the decision required background information to help you draw a conclusion, the more accurate information you had, the better would be the resultant decision.

Two words are important here: more and accurate.

Your emotions give you a lot of information about how you perceive your surroundings.  You may perceive a threat you want to eliminate or prepare for.  Or, you  perceive a situation you want to experience more of.

Emotions inform and motivate.

They do not choose.

The more information you have about a situation in which you find yourself, the more opportunities you have to evaluate and assess the information and choose how you want to respond.

Emotions inform logic.

It is logic that evaluates and chooses a response.

Think about the above discussion regarding anxiety.

My anxiety informed me about a possible future event that needed my attention.  Had my wife been experiencing some mild discomfort, I would not have been anxious. I got anxious and I was motivated to take some action. The action I took was to (safely) run a red light.  When I did this, a cop pulled me over. I informed him about my wife and told him that he could follow me to the hospital (about 3 blocks away) and, once my wife was taken care of, I would comply with whatever decision he chose to make.  By the way, he followed me to the hospital, checked my licence, registration and insurance and wished me good luck.   I would not have gone through the red light or put off the cop without my anxiety.

An alternative approach could have involved my getting angry with the cop for pulling me over and “preventing” me from getting to the hospital.

Had I been angry, my interaction with the cop would have been very different.

With people facing an upcoming interview, a test, or a project about which they have some concern, their anxiety may motivate them to procrastinate and avoid the future event.

Whether we choose to avoid the event or prepare to effectively deal with it is always a choice.

So, given my belief that more relevant information is better than less, I am recommending a world in which we both validate and acknowledge all of our emotions so that we are open to the information they provide us about our surroundings.

More emotions lead to more involvement and possibly more effective interactions with others.

In addition, I am recommending that we more effectively use our logic or intellect to help us choose the best course of action to improve our lives and our relationships.

Using my emotions and my intellect together allows me to inform you that I don’t like what you are doing and to interact with you so that we, together, can come up with a way to resolve whatever issue has come up between us.

I am not saying that more emotions and logical evaluations will end the types of behaviors we have recently witnessed. If a perpetrator of an undeniably bad event is “perfectly sane”and has chosen to both give in to his emotion and use his logic to justify what he is feeling, emotion is not the issue.  His belief systems and  model of the world need to be explored.

For others, however, using their emotions as a source of information to be logically evaluated could lead to better decisions and less negative behavior.  It is these people that I believe would benefit from more emotions.

I welcome your comments.

Love Mac and Cheese (LMAC): 4 Steps to Mastering Anger

As a regular reader of this blog, you know that I have written extensively about using all emotions as tools and about specific emotions such as anxiety and anger.  Of all the emotions, I have focused most of my posts on mastering anger as it seems that many people do not understand what anger is and seem to blame anger for any problematic behavior that anger appears to elicit.

As most of the literature focuses on managing anger, which involves controlling the emotion and is often unsuccessful, I have chosen to go a step further and emphasize mastering anger as a tool.

With this in mind, in this post, I am offering a way to remember the process of mastering your anger. Everyone is familiar with macaroni and cheese either as a kid or as an adult.

So, if you can recall macaroni and cheese, you can remember the four steps to mastering your anger using Love Mac And Cheese (LMAC) as a mnemonic devise.

Anger Mastery-Simplified (managing vs mastering anger)

  • Management => Controlling Anger
  • Mastery => Using Anger as a Tool

Remember that anger management involves lowering your arousal level and controlling your anger while mastering your anger allows you to use your anger as a tool to improve your life and your relationships.

Anger mastery involves:

  • validating the emotion and knowing that you are angry,
  • initially managing your anger by controlling your arousal,
  • mastering your anger by assessing the situation and
  • choosing an appropriate response to effectively deal with the situation.

 

 The 4 steps to Mastering Your Anger:  LMAC  (Love Mac And Cheese):

The 4 Steps to Mastering Anger are:

  1. (L)  Label the emotion,
  2. (M) Make a safe space.
  3.  (A)  Assess the situation
  4.  (C)  Choose an effective response and do it.

Step #1: Label the emotion

All emotions start with an unconscious reaction to a situation.

When we lived in caves, we were constantly on the alert for threats that would kill us. As all threats were both real and dangerous, we evolved a process which would continuously and subconsciously scan our surroundings for any threat.  When our subconscious scan picked up a threat, our bodies automatically went into fight/flight/freeze.  We were on alert and ready to act.

Again, back then, ALL threats were survival based so this automatic process was both efficient and effective.

As we fast-forward today, the problem is two-fold.

  • First, most of the threats we now face on a regular basis are psychological (not survival) based.
  • Second, and perhaps more importantly, while we, as a species, have evolved in many ways, the automatic alert process that operates subconsciously has not evolved.

Emotionally, this plays out this way….

Anger is one of 3 primitive survival- based threat detectors. The other two are fear and disgust.  These primitive threat detectors are designed to set us up for flight or fight.

Other emotions such as anxiety, pride, and jealousy have evolved to denote psychological threats.

The issue is that the primitive part of our brains reacts to any threat today just as it did eons ago.

To the  primitive part of our brain…

Threat=Danger=Red Alert.

Each emotion alerts us to a situation we are facing and prepares us for action.

As we initially experience all emotions physically, the first step in mastering anger is to be able to identify how your body tells you that you are angry and to label that emotion as anger (as opposed to hurt, jealousy, etc.)

There are two possibilities here:

  1. Your initial assessment is accurate and there is a real threat.
  2. Your initial perception of the threat is not accurate and the emotion you are experiencing doesn’t match the situation you are facing.

Hence, the need for Step 2.

Step #2: Make a Safe Space.

Whether you are accurate in your initial assessment of the threat or not, it is important that you create some “space” between you and the threat.

Step #2 calls for creating both a physical and a psychological safe space.

Physical safety.

The message of anger is that you perceive a threat that you believe you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it.  You are ready for WAR.

If you are facing a physical threat, taking a step back creates some space between you and the threat.

This can communicate that you are willing to defend yourself or it can  communicate to another person that you might not be the threat they initially perceived.

Psychological safety.

By taking a deep breath, you automatically reduce your level of emotional arousal.  Lowering your physiological arousal allows you to engage the thinking part of your brain (the cerebral cortex) and makes you better prepared to make logical decisions.

This sets you up for Step #3.

Step #3:  Assess the situation

You will need the thinking part of your brain to help you BOTH assess what is really going on in your situation and to decide the most effective action to take to resolve what is taking place.

Assess:

You have have an opportunity to determine whether your initial assessment of risk was accurate or that you misjudged the situation for reasons including:

  • You initially looked at the interaction through the biased lens of some prior experience.
  • You misjudged the other person’s actions because what they did was ambiguous.
  • They misjudged you and your intent.

Decide:

If you decide based on new information that your initial assessment was not accurate, you can change how you view what is happening.  When you do this, what you feel will also change.

If your initial assessment of risk was accurate and the emotion you are experiencing is preparing you for effective action, your thinking  brain will help you choose the best course of action to take.

With anger, the threat is real.

But, it may be more effective to talk rather than to attack.

You are now ready for Step #4.

Step#4: Choose an effective response and do it.

Once you have accurately matched to and validated your emotion within the situation, you are now ready to engage the thinking part of your brain to choose the most effective response to the threat and to use the energy of your anger to execute the action you have chosen to deal with the “perceived” threat.

This might involve:

  • Further engaging the other person by talking to them
  • Attacking them
  • Apologizing for any misunderstanding
  • Disengaging by walking away

Remember that the job of your anger, as a tool, is to..

  1. alert you to a possible threat.
  2. prepare you to deal with the threat  and
  3. give you the energy to take effective action.

LMAC reminds you of the four steps you need to take to master your anger as an emotional tool.

Learning to effectively implement these steps takes time and is NOT easy.  It is, however, DOABLE with practice.

I welcome your comments.

 

Relationship Primer: Tips 3 and 4 for Getting the Most out of a Relationship

In the last post, I discussed relationship tips #1 and #2.

Tip #1: Master your emotions.

Tip #2:Master their emotions.                ______________________________________

In this post, I will start with Tip #3.

Tip #3: Remember and apply the Basic Relationship Rule

Remember and apply the Basic Relationship Rule

The Basic Relationship Rule is a lens through which we can take a closer look at, and begin to understand, what is going on in our relationships.

This basic rule, or formula, applies to all relationships.

Mastering the Basic Relationship Rule can help you both gain insight into and understand what motivates others and how you can positively impact the actions of other participants in the relationship.

What is the Basic Relationship Rule?

                Everyone always does the best they can given their model of the world and their skill sets.

  • Everyone: Every participant in the relationship including you and the other person.
  • Always: The assumption is that, if the action is personally meaningful, each person will default to an action that will be maximally productive in the situation.
  • Best: The best they can do in the moment. Not the best possible.
  • Model: Their personal perception of the current event.
  • Skill sets: The behaviors they can use to deal with the situation.

The basic relationship rule sets a standard for how you view the actions of another individual within the context of your relationship with that person. 

The basic relationship rule is intended to help you avoid judging the actions of another participant in the relationship so that you can validate and understand the behavior you are observing. It does not require that you condone or accept the other person’s behavior as appropriate.

  • judging: labeling the behavior in such a way that eliminates further understanding and can exacerbate any problems which might exist in the relationship. Judging the behavior of another person in a relationship can effectively end any further constructive interactions. 
  • validate: accept as their best, at the moment, NOT the best possible.
  • understand: gain some insight into the behavior you are observing.
  • condone, accept and appropriate: imply a set of standards that can, if necessary, be applied later to the behavior

Validating  helps you maintain the relationship, if this is your choice, while you devise a plan to intervene and facilitate any changes which might improve the relationship.

Validating also allows you to continue to accept the other person while you might not accept their behavior.

Understanding can provide some direction in choosing an intervention.

How do you apply the Basic Relationship Rule?

Something is perceived to be “wrong” in a relationship when the person with whom we are interacting either does something that doesn’t seem right or fails to do something we think they “should” be doing.

In other words, you believe that a rule or an expectation has been violated.

It is important to point out that when a relationship isn’t working, the issue could involve the behavior of one or both participants.  Therefore, as you continue reading, please keep in mind that the basic relationship rule might have to be applied to either your behavior, the actions of another person, or both.

Violating an explicit rule.

If the rule that you believe is being violated is explicit, you may have an “absolute” (published in some form such as a policy or agreement) standard to which you can refer.

But not always.

There can be a difference of opinion regarding how the rule is applied. As an example, one person may see an action that is taken such as asking a colleague “out for a drink” as complying with policy while the colleague may see it as a boundary violation.

Violating an implicit rule.

If the rule is implicit, the issue is more complex as the perceived violation could be due to ignorance (vs ignoring) the rule. 

Whatever is happening, we conclude that something is wrong and we want to correct it.  

The Basic Relationship Rule gives you some guidelines to help you understand what is going on in the relationship and what changes you might begin to explore making.

Let’s unpack the Basic Relationship Rule.

best–what they believe will enable them to effectively handle the situation they are facing.  It isn’t the best possible but the best they can do in the moment. Their choice of what to do involves the context, their model of the world and their skill sets. 

The assumption here is that each participant wants a particular result from the relationship and is, therefore, motivated to use the most effective (or best) approach they have to accomplish the desired result. 

If there was a better approach, about which they were aware, they would use it.

model of the world — encompasses their understanding of the rules that apply to the relationship including what is “okay”, what will “work”, what they can “get away with”, and/or the way things “should be”.

skill sets –this is the behavior that the individual brings to the situation and includes how they handle emotions and their level of self-control (intrapersonal skills), how they interact with others (interpersonal skills), any training one has had such as assertion training, and what has(or has not) been productive in the past.

Applying the basic relationship rule:

Model of the world:

Looking into how others perceive their relationship with you gives you an opportunity to look at how they perceive you and the situation.  Perhaps, their actions reflect a misunderstanding of something you have done or said, how they perceive themselves relative to you, or how they understand what is “appropriate” within the context of the current relationship.  If this is the case, helping them change their perceptions may alleviate the challenge to the relationship.

One example might be a co-worker who violates a “personal boundary”. This boundary might be a physical boundary, an ethical boundary, or a rule violation. The questions to ask yourself involving his model of the world include:

  • Is he being aggressive and ignoring the “rules”?
  • Has he misunderstood something you said or did?
  • Is he unfamiliar with the rules?
  • Is his model unjustified or is this a skill set issue where in he just does not know how to say what he wants?

Another example might be a police officer who is “rude”. The questions to ask yourself involving his model of the world include:

  • Have I done something which “pushed his buttons”?
  • How likely is it that his behavior is based on other experiences he has had today or in his past?
  • Regardless of the basis for his actions, what is my best course of action to take?

Skill sets:

Looking at a person’s behavior as the “best” they can do leaves you open to exploring whether the actions of another comes about because, if their model is accurate, they don’t know any other more appropriate way to handle the situation. Perhaps, they need to  acquire new skills. If this is the case, then educating them about their actions and the consequence of the choices they have made and suggesting alternatives may be all that is needed.

If you decide that the behavior you are seeing is, indeed, the best, they are capable of, then, perhaps, the relationship needs to “end”. An example might be a friend or family member who is addicted to drugs and who tends to be agitated and defensive in their interactions with you.  All your efforts to help them change have  been unsuccessful and the relationship is taking its toll on you. You might decide to continue “loving” them and to be “available” if they choose to change but to keep your distance from them.

Tip #4: Shoot for a win/win but settle for a compromise

In both this and the last post, I have attempted to offer suggestions regarding how you might intervene to improve a relationship that your emotions inform you is negatively impacted by the behavior of the other person in the relationship.If a win/win is too difficult to obtain, then work toward a compromise.

This final tip looks at your goal in deciding what actions to take to bring about the changes you might seek to facilitate.

Initially, I am suggesting that you seek a solution that is “win-win”.  This is an outcome in which you and the other person end up getting what you want out of the relationship.  If, for example, the other person is angry with you (or you with them), then the emotion suggests that one of you perceives the other as a threat.  A win-win solution would involve the resolving the perceived threat so that both of you believe that your needs in the relationship have been effectively satisfied.

While this is the optimum solution, it is often difficult to accomplish.  It is, however, often doable and should, therefore, be your initial goal.

When the needs of both participants are beyond reach, your option is then to seek, and settle for, a compromise.  Too often, it is a compromise that we seek and we miss the possibility of the more difficult to achieve “win-win”.

If a compromise is the best you can achieve, then that is what you go for.

There is, however, a caveat here.  If the behavior that is problematic in a relationship involves a core belief, then compromising might not be an option.

An example I used when I was working with incarcerated young women was this.  If a male attempted to touch them inappropriately and they indicated that a non-negotiable boundary had been violated, if the male came back and said “Okay, let’s compromise, let me touch you (there).”  The answer would still be “no” and compromise would not be a viable option.  The boundary should be defended.

Seeking a “win-win” where possible leaves open the possibility of “falling back” to a compromise.  If you initially seek a compromise, that is the best you will ever accomplish and you might miss an opportunity for a better outcome.

If you are registered with the blog, please leave a comment as I would very much like to know what you think about what I have written.

Relationship Primer: Tips 1 and 2 for Getting the Most out of a Relationship

In my earlier posts, I defined what a relationship is, listed three categories of relationships and addressed the four attributes of a relationship.

In the next two posts, I will address 4 tips which will help you apply what you have learned so far about relationships and give you some suggestions about how you might choose to intervene if you want to improve a relationship that is “working”  or change a relationship that is dysfunctional. 

The four tips are:

  1. Master Your Emotions
  2. Master Their Emotions
  3. Remember and apply the Basic Relationship Rule
  4. Shoot for a win/win but settle for a compromise

I will discuss tips 1 and 2 in this post and tips 3 and 4 in the next post.

Relationship tips 1 and 2:

Tip #1: Master Your Emotions

Because I have written several posts dealing with emotions and emotional mastery, this section will only cover mastering your emotions in the context of relationships.  As a reminder, you can access all of my previous posts by clicking the Index tab above.

There are two reasons why mastering your emotions is the first tip.  The first reason emphasizes the importance of relying on your emotions to alert you to your surroundings and the possibility that something isn’t right in your relationship.  Accurately  perceiving your interactions with others is critical to maintaining or improving the relationship that you have.

The second reason emphasizes the importance of lowering your arousal level so that you can clearly assess the nature of the possible problem and focus on an effective response. If your arousal level is too high, you are more likely to react and possibly escalate the situation than to respond and move forward.

The Anger Mastery cycle illustrates, using anger as an example, how the emotional mastery cycle works. The link, by the way, takes you to a downloadable copy of the Anger Mastery Cycle.

 We all constantly scan our surroundings for any possible threat.  When a threat is perceived, an emotion is elicited which alerts us to our initial perception of what is happening to us. Our emotions then evoke a behavioral reaction.

Your emotions, therefore, are your window on the world.  They are your “early warning system”.  Your emotions alert you to how you perceive what is going on around you and prepare you to deal with whatever you see that “isn’t right”. This alert is the function of the emotion.  The content of the alert is the message of the emotion.

Our emotions may communicate that:

  • we do not like what we see (upset, frustrated, displeased, disappointed),
  • we perceive a current threat (anger),
  • we see a possible future threat (anxiety), or
  • we are aware of a need to move away from the interaction (disgust or fear).

Or,

  • when a relationship is “working” and is relatively free of complicating issues, our emotions inform us that we want to stay in the relationship (happy, content, satisfied) and we tend to just “go with the flow”.  

This “communication” is the message of the emotion.

Emotional mastery includes: 

  • managing your emotional arousal level so that you don’t escalate an interaction and
  • validating the emotion to give it credibility
  • assessing the message of the emotion against the situation
  • using the message of the emotion to choose an effective response

Most of you have probably heard of emotional management (as in anger management.) Mastery exceeds managing an emotion and involves both understanding what the emotion tells you about how you are viewing the situation and using that information to assess your perception.  Finally, mastering an emotion involves choosing an effective response  (based on your assessment) which will lead to a better outcome (in whatever situation you find yourself).

In the context of a relationship, when you “feel” that something isn’t right, your first step is to take a deep breath.  This lowers your arousal so that you do not react to the perceived violation.

Too often, when we believe we have been “wronged”, we want to lash out, or react. This is not recommended because, while our initial perception may be correct, we might also have misunderstood. It is, therefore, preferable to respond to the situation rather than react.

When our emotions inform us that there is a “problem” with a relationship, we start looking for ways we can “work things out”, “make things better”, “come to an understanding”, and so forth.

Mastering our emotions involves learning to stay emotionally cool while still validating the emotion, assessing the situation to see if it does, indeed, match the emotion, and then using the energy that the emotion gives us to choose how we want to respond to the violation we “feel” has occurred. 

Tip #2: Master Their Emotions

Tip #1 advised you to master your own emotions so that you can lower your arousal level, validate the message of the emotion you are experiencing and respond rather than react to a perceived threat.  That you would master your own emotions makes sense because you can directly impact what you feel.

That you would attempt to master the emotions of another person is less intuitively satisfying and doesn’t seem to make any sense. 

Until it does!

Think about it for a moment.  Your goal in a relationship is to make the relationship work.  The threat you perceive is negatively impacting your interaction with another person and eliciting (not causing) your emotion.

This is also the case for the person or people you are interacting with.

While it is true that you can’t directly impact what another person feels, knowing how the emotional process works gives you an opportunity to indirectly impact their emotions by helping them alter how they perceive you and what is going on between you.

Here are the key steps to mastering another person’s emotions…

  • The emotion you are observing in the other person, and the message that emotion communicates to you, gives you insight into how that individual perceives you and their interaction with you.
  • Understanding this perception allows you to implement the emotional mastery cycle and validate their emotion. Remember that validation does not mean acceptance.  So, you can say something like, “I can see that you are (angry, annoyed, frustrated, etc.))
  • You can then assess the nature of the perceived threat by checking out the basis for the threat by asking for clarification regarding what you might have done which led to their perception of you as (a threat, an obstacle, uncaring, rude etc).
  • You can then, if appropriate, apologize for any misunderstanding.  Be aware that you are not admitting guilt here. You are only acknowledging that something you did might have been misunderstood.
  • You can, then, choose how you will interact with them and seek a resolution by clarifying what you did, asking for additional input from the other person and so forth.

Note that when you validate their emotions, apologize, and ask for clarification,  you are facilitating their changing how they perceive you which should help them lower their own arousal and be more open to anything you might have to say.  This is the key to mastering their emotions.  You are not doing anything to directly impact what the feel and the behavior that feeling evokes but you are using the message of the emotion to help them change their perceptions.

Once you have implemented tip #1 and  both lowered your own arousal level and understood your perception of what is going on in the relationship and you have implemented tip #2 to help the other person lower their arousal level so that they are more open to interacting with you, you can begin to gain some additional understanding into their actions by implementing tip #3.

The next post discusses tip #3 and tip #4.

 

 

 

Saying “I’m Sorry” in a business setting. My take!

My last two posts looked at what constitutes a relationship and what attributes are associated with a relationship.

In this post, I discuss an example which touches upon relationships (and other) issues in a business scenario. Additional elaboration on these issues will be reserved for later posts.

Have you ever done something at work you wished you hadn’t such as being late to a meeting?

Or, failed to do something you wish you had done such as completing a report that was due?

And, when you attempted to rectify the “undesirable” action by saying “I’m sorry (plus an explanation for the “perceived failure”), your boss, or the person to whom the apology was directed looked at you with disdain, displeasure, or disgust.

Even if this scenario hasn’t happened to you, you might still be able to identify with it.

So, what happened?

Well, let’s assume that your “explanation” was, indeed, an attempt to explain the underlying basis for the action that did occur (being late) or the action that did not take place (the absent report) rather than an attempt to simply justify or, in some way, excuse your actions.

In other words, your intent was not to deny, minimize, or avoid responsibility for your actions. Rather, it was an attempt to provide a context for what you did.

The reaction of your boss, however, suggested that he viewed your “I’m sorry” as an excuse and assumed that you were not taking responsibility for your actions.

So, is saying “I’m sorry.” in a business context appropriate?

Well, let’s explore this question from an emotional mastery (basically an emotional intelligence) perspective in the context of building (or maintaining) a relationship.

Basic Concepts:

  • emotional mastery:

The basis of emotional mastery is the idea that emotions are tools which, when mastered like any other tool such as a cell phone, allow you to interact more effectively with your environment and make better inter- and intra-personal decisions.

  • mastering your own emotions:

You master your emotions when you accept your initial emotional reaction as informative, understand the meaning of each emotion (the message), assess your surroundings to see if your initial perception was accurate, and use the assessment to choose how you want to respond to what is going on.

  • relationship:

A relationship is any interaction with another person that has value, is personally meaningful, or personally significant, and which, if not handled appropriately can result in unwanted consequences.

  • mastering the emotions of another person:

You master the emotions of someone else by observing their actions and attempting to understand the emotion they are experiencing. Then, by using this knowledge to address any problematic issues they might have with you, you attempt to facilitate a mutually beneficial change in their behavior by changing their perceptions of their interactions with you.

  • Retrospective mastery:

Managing the emotions of another retrospectively involves assessing the emotion that is displayed and working backward to understand and change the emotion.

  • Prospective mastery:

Determining how you want to be perceived and acting accordingly.

  • Manipulation vs Mastery:

When you opt to facilitate change in another person solely for your own benefit, you are manipulating the other person.  If you are detected, your relationship with that person will deteriorate.

When you opt to master the emotions of another so as to improve the relationship with that person in such a way that the change is mutually beneficial, you are mastering the emotion.

Mastery is productive. Manipulation is counter-productive.

“I‘m sorry”.

By itself, the meaning of this phrase is ambiguous.

For example:

  1. “I’m sorry I didn’t attend the meeting. I was held up in traffic.”
  2. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
  3. “Sorry about that.”

#1 is perceived as an excuse or attempted justification.

#2 is perceived as an expression of condolence and sympathy

3# is perceived as an expression of indifference.

The phrase “I’m sorry.” takes on meaning from:

  • the context in which it is said,
  • the “modifiers” that follow it (the information provided regarding what one is sorry for or about), and
  • the perception of the person receiving the “apology” in terms of the relationship with the “apologizer”, the perceived intent of the “apologizer”, and other factors

The perception of the “receiver” is impacted by many factors including:

  • relationship with the “apologizer”
  • past experiences with, and opinions about, “I’m sorry”
  • how one views any “failure to live up to expectations”
  • and so forth.

Think about this for a moment.  While there may be times when you are able to discern the nature of your boss’s reaction toward you (his perceived “threat”), there will also be times when you can’t know for certain what the basis of this perception is.

So, you may need to adjust your own comments to cover a range of possibilities.

“I’m sorry” plus restitution

When you said, “I’m sorry” and gave your explanation, your boss responded with a look that suggested his displeasure, some form of rebuke or censure, or even mild anger.

Emotional mastery would suggest that your boss perceives your communication as both inappropriate and as a “threat”.  This is the message of “anger”.  The threat, here, might involve:

  • his (or her) view of you as an “irresponsible” employee who wants to make himself feel better by justifying his “failure” to act appropriately (accountability),
  • his view of any “explanation” as a “justification” or “excuse” designed to manipulate him.

When you are attempting to interact with another person and “master” (or validate) their emotions within the context of the relationship you have with that person, you need to insure that you address the (possible) perceived threats that person might be reacting to.

When addressing a perceived threat, think about the concept of restitution.  Restitution is defined as the restoration of something lost or stolen to its proper owner and usually appears in legal settings where a crime has been committed.

While it is, admittedly, a bit of a stretch to include the idea of  restitution with saying “I’m sorry.” as no crime has been committed, here is how I am viewing your apologizing to a skeptical boss.

Your actions are perceived as a violation of how things “should be”.  Your boss expects you to be responsible.  Your actions have violated this expectation and it this expectation  that constitutes the “loss” that you are restoring.

So, your “explanation” now involves your stating how you will make things right or restore equilibrium.

Put another way, your boss isn’t so much concerned about why you did what you did as much as he wants to know what you will do to make everything right now that whatever you did is already done.

Hence…

I’m sorry.” in a business setting? Yes, with caveats.

It is here that your intentions and how you interact with your boss become important. These are relationship elements.

Caveat #1:  Never just say “I’m sorry.”

The reason here is that, as I noted above, this phrase is like a verbal Rorschach card which, because of its ambiguity, is prone to be misinterpreted based on the biases of the listener. Understanding and accommodating these biases are done in the context of the relationship.

Caveat #2: Be aware of your own intent in saying “I’m sorry.” and clearly communicate that intent.  This is mastering your own emotions.

What are you feeling concerning the “mistake” for which you are apologizing?

Did you unintentionally make the mistake? (feeling guilty and responsible for making it right)

Was the mistake unintended but the result of a situation beyond your control? (feeling content but still responsible for making it right)

And, so forth.

Caveat #3:

Be cognizant of the likely perceptions of your listener.

If you know that your boss expects accountability and responsibility, follow your “I’m sorry.” with a brief delineation of what happened and a clear description about what you will do to make it right.

The “I’m sorry.” communicates your accepting responsibility for any unexpected outcomes.

Your explanation supports the acceptance of responsibility and commits to a plan of action to “make it right”.

Caveat #4: Be cognizant of your relationship with your listener.

How does your listener view you and what expectations does he (or she) have about you.

Tailor your response with these expectations in mind.  For example, how direct can you be with this person.  Do you need to acknowledge  power, gender or seniority differences in your communication?

With these caveats in mind, saying “I’m sorry.” is appropriate because it communicates accepting responsibility and is reinforced by a plan to move forward.

In my next post, I will go into greater detail than this post permitted regarding mastering your own emotions in the context of a relationship (Relationship Tip #1) and mastering the emotions of another person in the context of a relationship (Relationship Tip #2).

And, the post after that will go into greater detail of interacting with another person.  Relationship Tip #3 will address the Basic Relationship Rule and Relationship Tip #4 will look at shooting for a Win-Win but settling for a compromise.

I welcome your comments.

A “personal” note to all my registered readers.. Thanks and help me improve this blog.

I put the word “personal” in quotes because I would like to think that I am writing to each one of you separately.  As I do not do mass email campaigns and I do not want to “spam” anyone, I do not use any of the addresses you post when you register.  Hence, this is the only way I have to reach you.

Thank you for registering for my site and showing your support.  My purpose in writing my posts is to educate and entertain you my readers.  I do my best to try and anticipate what you would like to read but I know I can always do better.

With this in mind, I really would like you to help me make this a better, more relevant blog.

Two points:

First:

If there is a subject you would like me to address in a post, please feel free to leave a comment on the blog.  I review all comments before they are posted.

Or, if you prefer, send me an email.  My address is TheEmotionsDoctor@gmail.com.  Put “blog comment” in the subject line.

Second:

Please let me know if the Index Tab that I have added to the site to help you to more easily get to the specific post you want is working for you.

Thanks, again, for your support, please keep coming back to the site, and let others know we’re here.

Ed Daube,  Ph.D.   The Emotions Doctor.

Relationship Primer: The Attributes of a Relationship

This is part 2 of the Relationship Primer series. In the last post, we defined what a relationship is and discussed three categories of relationships.

In part 2, I discuss the attributes of a relationship.

You can gain a better understanding of a relationship in terms of the function the relationship serves, what sustains it, what accounts for one’s actions within the relationship, or what might account for the relationship becoming unstable or problematic by taking a closer look at the attributes of the relationship.

The attributes of a relationship work across all three categories discussed in the last post.

The attributes of a relationship include:.

  • The context (including time frames) in which the relationship exists.
  • The rules (explicit or implicit) that apply to the relationship.
  • The expectations you and the other person bring to the relationship
  • Miscellaneous factors such as gender, power differences, age, and elements unique to each individual such as interpersonal skill sets and self-image.

Context

The context of a relationship is the setting in which that relationship occurs.  Some examples of context include..

official settings:

  • your work,
  • a business such as a store or an airport counter,
  • a governmental office,
  • an official phone contact including tech support, making an appointment, or placing an order
  • ordering food at a “sit-down” restaurant
  • a school,

casual settings:

  • starting a conversation with a stranger
  • a party
  • a “blind” date

Rules:

A rule is an explicit (stated or written) or implicit (implied or understood) regulation, mandate or principle governing conduct within a particular setting. 

Explicit rules include:

  • policies
  • contracts
  • codes including ethics
  • laws
  • parental “mandates” which apply to kids

Implicit rules include:

  • precedents (as in “the way things are done around here”)
  • implied guidelines (as in “this is the way you deal with that boss”)

If you don’t know the rules that exist within a given context or setting, you are more likely to “cross the line” and be perceived as acting inappropriately. This can lead to conflict.

If the rules are explicit, as in written policies, laws, mandates or ethics codes, it is reasonable to assume that others within your setting are familiar with, will understand, and will act according to those rules. Or, if their actions violate a given rule, informing them that a rule exists should be sufficient to produce a change in their behavior.

If you know the rules, you expect others to act in accordance with the rules and you “judge” or label the behavior of others as “right” or “wrong” based on whether that behavior conforms to or violates the rules. 

Expectations:

Context and rules often determine the expectations that participants have about how they and the other person in the relationship should act.

An expectation is a future prediction about what we believe will happen and, more importantly, what we believe is required to happen (based on whatever criteria are being applied).

Please note that an expectation involves…

  • our prediction regarding what will happen in the future and
  • our statement of what is required to take place. 

What makes expectations so critical is the belief, expressed as an expectation, that another person is obligated or required to act in accordance with the expectation.

So, if I expect you to do something and you do not, I perceive you as violating some norm or rule.  It is this perceived violation that elicits my anger, displeasure, criticism, or desire to punish or correct the violation.

One’s expectations are often the basis for misunderstandings and conflict in relationships!

Sometimes, we are aware of our expectations.  For example, we expect our server at the restaurant to be polite and attentive.  If the restaurant is not busy, we expect our coffee to be refilled as frequently as needed.  If the restaurant is busy, our expectations change accordingly.  If our coffee gets cold and is “never” refilled.  Our displeasure is clear, our expectations have not been met and the tip we may leave might reflect this displeasure.

At other times, we may not be explicitly aware of our expectations but someone does something and we are surprised at what we see.  This “surprise” is an indication that an expectation has either not been met or has been exceeded.

Our expectations impact our emotions and our actions whether we are aware of them or not.

Sometimes, there can be a conflict between the expectations of the participants in a relationship. 

When I was working as a Psychologist in a juvenile correctional facility, I wrote a report in which my “recommendation” was in direct conflict with what the Institutional team was recommending.  The Superintendent called me into his office and berated me for “not being a team player”. His expectation was that I, as a team player, would go along with the team’s recommendation.  I agreed with him about, and assured him that, I was a “team player”. In this instance, however, I had a higher standard I had to meet. My psychological data led to a different conclusion and I had an “ethical” responsibility to follow my data. My personal expectation was that, when ethics trumped loyalty, I would be ethical.

Another example is when a boss might expect that he (or she) can “take advantage” of a subordinate who “expects” to be treated with respect.  The “me-to” movement is beginning to address this “injustice”.

Miscellaneous factors:

Finally, there are other (miscellaneous) factors which can impact a relationship. Miscellaneous factors may impact the “expectations” each participant brings to the relationship.

Miscellaneous factors include:

  • gender (or gender identification)
  • power differences (when one’s position involves the ability to negatively impact a subordinate and this “power” is used to exploit a subordinate)
  • each participant’s model of the world (one’s model of the world is a general view of “the way things are in the world”or “the way things should be in the world” regarding right and wrong, interpersonal relationships, honesty, values, appropriate vs inappropriate actions, and so forth)
  • skill sets (These are the abilities that each person has including assertive skills, problem solving skills, and communication skills.)
  • the self-image of each participant (This is the picture one has of oneself and includes self-confidence, one’s place in the world, how one relates to others, one’s sense of entitlement and so forth.)

In the next post, I will look at an example of an interaction which touches upon the concepts of mastering emotions and relationship issues (reacting with another person).

Relationship Tips #1 and #2 address mastering emotions and will be covered in a later post as will Tips #3 and #4 which look more specifically maximizing your interactions with another person.

If you are registered with this blog, please leave a comment.

 

 

 

Relationship Primer: What is a “relationship”?

This is the first of a series of posts on relationships.

In this series, I will help you…

  • understand what relationships are 
  • how you can appreciate the relationships you have that are “working” 
  • how you can attempt to improve the relationships that are problematic.  

In this post, I look at what actually constitutes a “relationship”.

Enjoy, and, if you are registered, please leave a comment.

What is a “relationship”?

Take a moment and think about the relationships you currently have.

You probably thought about your significant other, your kids, or perhaps someone like a family member that you used to be able to relate to but are now estranged from.

Of course, you thought of the easy, or obvious, relationships.

But, did you think of your boss, your co-workers, the clerk at the store who helped you find the perfect gift, the policeman who pulled you over on the way to work, or the tech guy you called to help you figure out how to make your phone do what it is “supposed” to do but doesn’t do for you?

Or, did you think about the person at work  you have to interact with in order to do your job but who, in reality, is a “jerk” because that individual marginalizes, demeans, or discounts you in some way?

On both counts, probably not.

What is a relationship? A working definition:

A relationship is any interaction with another person that:

  • has value, is personally meaningful,or personally significant

or

  • which, if not handled ” appropriately”, can result in unwanted consequences.

“Relationship” only indicates that there is a connection between you and another person and that you and another person are participants in the relationship.

The definition of a relationship does not, by itself, tell you anything about you, the other person, the nature of the connection, its valence (positive or negative) or how serious the connection is.

All of these elements are important and help to delineate what the particular relationship entails.

The category which you decide best describes any relationship in which you are a participant can impact the expectations you bring to that relationship.

I discuss expectations and their impact on a relationship in the next post.

Three Categories of Relationships

There are at least three categories of relationships.  The first two are obvious.

The third, while less obvious, is no less significant.

  1. Personal – family, marriage, kids, in-laws, friends, significant others
  2. Business – your boss, co-workers, or customers with whom you interact
  3. Unrecognized – the clerk at the airline ticket counter, the tech person you call about your computer, the cop who pulls you over.

Unrecognized relationships are those interactions with others  that you do not typically recognize as “relationships” but which can impact your life.  They may help you get an upgrade on your airline ticket or hotel room, help you avoid a traffic ticket, or improve your ability to achieve other “outcomes” you desire.

Years ago, I happened to be standing in line at an airport and watched a man aggressively tell the clerk that he had to get on a specific flight.  The clerk had informed him that the flight was full.  He postured, the clerk repeated what she had said, and the man left in a huff.  The next person in line approached the clerk politely, stated his need to be on the flight and, was able to get a seat.  This second customer approached the clerk as if he had a “relationship” with her.

Fluid versus concrete distinctions

The categories I have noted above and the examples I have given for each are in no way meant to be either definitive or rigid.  They can overlap.  For example, your co-worker can be a personal friend.

A suggestion: Avoid “labels” and think of all “connections” as “relationships”

As a general rule of thumb,  I try to communicate to others that I see them as a “person” and not just as a “label” such as “employee”, “cop”, “clerk” and so forth. In other words, while the connection I have with this person may not last very long, if it is “meaningful”, it is still a “relationship”.

Indeed, I am suggesting that going forward you consider all important connections that you have with other people as “relationships”.  When you do this, the importance you use as a lens through which you view that connection will have a significant impact on how you relate to the other person.

Why is this the case?

Well, there at least two reasons:

  1. When you define a connection with another person, you are viewing that connection as significant or worthy of attention.
  2. If a connection is significant, you will take some time to figure out what is going on with, how to make progress within, and how, possibly, to improve that connection.

That a connection is significant does not imply that it is positive, desirable, or healthy. As an example, that “jerk” at work may be someone whose cooperation you need to complete a project. While you might like to eliminate him (or her) from your life and consider the connection undesirable, negative, or unhealthy, it is still significant.

And, it is, therefore, a relationship.

The Attributes of a Relationship:

It is possible to gain a better understanding of the connection that constitutes the relationship by examining the various attributes which define your relationship.

I’ll discuss the attributes of a relationship in the next post.