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Better relationships start with you

When relationships with colleagues or family members feel challenging, we often look at the external environment first – before we ask ourselves what role we play in the situation.

I know from experience that the mere thought of having a difficult conversation can lead to sweaty palms, heart palpitations and that terrible knot at the pit of your stomach. For years, feedback felt like confrontation to me, like there was a clear winner and loser at the end. Obviously, this approach did not work for me – and it had nothing to do with the person handing out feedback. It had everything to do with the meaning I attached to the situation – based on my own experience. 

See, I didn’t grow up in a house where we sat down as a family unit and talked about our feelings – or how our behaviour impacted each other, or others. At school, when I got something wrong or someone hurt my feelings, kids made fun of me or the teacher would embarrass me in front of the class by telling me, I would never succeed. Therefore, the fear of saying something that may upset someone else or might be perceived as “wrong” drove many of my decisions as an adult.  

A voice trembling first attempt 

I remember the first time I had to give a colleague feedback because I didn’t like how she treated me – and I knew that if I didn’t say anything, she would think her behaviour was acceptable. I couldn’t sleep the night before! And on the day, I couldn’t focus on anything else. I had made this conversation so big in my mind that I couldn’t picture a positive outcome.

I considered calling  off our chat, perhaps I could bring it up later – if she behaved the way she had before – but I knew that if I’d let this one slide, next time would be too late. So, I mustered up the courage and half-way through the conversation, it all came out wrong; my voice trembled and she left the room angry. 

BUT here’s the thing, she never treated me that way again. 

I wasn’t proud of my delivery, it definitely needed work but the message had landed. 

Head in the sand 

For some of us, the idea of sitting across from someone to tell them how their behaviour has impacted us, completely takes us out of our comfort-zone. Our first response is to just not do it, to leave things as is or hope and pray that the situation will resolve itself. 

I’ve worked with many leaders who lead this way too. I call it the “head in the sand” approach; if there are challenges with someone in their team, that impacts the rest of the team, they don’t address the situation – they hope it will resolve itself or better yet, just go away. But it doesn’t; tension and resentment build up. This behaviour  impacts performance and motivation – and eventually, people leave. 

When we behave this way in our personal lives, we become resentful – not because the other person didn’t change but because we didn’t have the courage to make them aware of the impact their behaviour or actions had on us. 

It starts with you 

So, how do we change ourselves in order to improve our relationships and essentially how we communicate with others, to create a space that feels safe for everyone? 

Best-selling poet Rumi says “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

And this is true…

Most of us approach feedback from a place of fear; fear of how WE will be impacted.  We don’t want to be vulnerable so we keep ourselves out of the conversation and focus, instead, on the other person.

Understand who you are

If we want to improve our relationships, any relationships really, we have to understand who we are as partners, siblings, as managers, as leaders or as friends. 

If I know who I am, then I know when I am about to sit across from my husband to tell him how his behaviour made me feel, I can do so comfortably. Because, I know why it’s important to give him the feedback, I know the cost to our relationship of not sharing the feedback and I know that the feedback comes from a good place. 

Before you have the talk 

So, what can you do for yourself to have better relationships with those around you? 

I’ve learnt over the years to ask myself a combination of the following questions before I go into any conversation: 

  1. How have I contributed to this situation? 
  2. What role did I play?
  3. Why is now the right time to have this conversation?
  4. How will this conversation support the person I am talking with? 
  5. What might happen if I dont have the conversation? 
  6. If I am experiencing resistance what is my resistance bringing to light and how can I work through this before having the conversation? 
  7. What do I want to get out of this conversation?
  8. What is the best way to approach this conversation?

To improve your relationship with others, you have to start with YOU. Spend time thinking about the impact you have on others. Take responsibility for your role in the conversation and the situation that led to the need for that conversation. 

I would love your feedback, leave your comment below and let me know your thoughts on having difficult conversations.
If you would like to improve your relationship with change. You can purchase my workbook – From Undecided to Empowered: A guide to positive change. Click here to read more.

About the author

Selina is an ICF-accredited coach based in Cape Town, South Africa. She is the founder of SelinaNewman Coaching. A coaching practice designed to help professionals turn what often feel like impossible life and career transitions into powerful opportunities for growth.

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