Creating meaningful relationships requires courage
Social communication concept
Written by David Lee

If you want to create a supportive, encouraging and nourishing community, start by looking at how you “show up” in relationships.

Do you do that in a way that fosters caring, open-hearted connections?

To explore how to do this, I want to share a simple, yet lesson-laden experience I had recently with Carolyn Delaney, Journey’s publisher

While I love being part of Journey and the good it’s bringing to the world, and have huge fondness and respect for Carolyn, I recently also felt frustrated by not getting timely responses when I emailed her.

This was one of those classic experiences people have in the workplace where they want to do a great job but their supervisor’s lack of response makes that hard.

In this case, I’d go back and forth between engaging in frustrated negative self-talk about Carolyn not being thoughtful or respectful and thinking about quitting and then reminding myself of the great work Journey is doing, what a great person Carolyn is, and her off-the charts work demands.

I stepped back and reflected on how this was a perfect example of:

  • How and why employees go from caring deeply about their work, supervisor and employer to gradually becoming indifferent, and … eventually leaving.
  • How we humans often make people less important to us and harden our hearts to them when we’re upset, rather than speak up and have a courageous conversation.

Because I believe in – and teach about – having courageous conversations, I knew I needed to “walk my talk.”

So the next time I saw Carolyn, I mentioned how frustrating it was to not have my emails answered. I was conscious of “speaking my truth with kindness” and not having a harsh or judging tone of voice or using any kind of one-up language.

Carolyn, being Carolyn, listened without getting defensive. She apologized, acknowledged that it must be frustrating, and shared a little of what was going on with her work load. Before we could finish, other people showed up for a meeting and she excused herself.

I felt good about the interaction. She made it clear that she heard and cared about my point of view. And she called the next day to say she felt bad that we hadn’t finished our conversation and wanted to see how I was doing.

I let her know that I appreciated her calling and that I felt heard, and that I also recognize the demands on her time. She said she’d be more organized about follow-up tasks and asked if she could do anything else to make it right.

I told her that the way she had responded made it “all good” and thanked her. After the call, I reflected on what our two interchanges offered for lessons about creating satisfying, meaningful relationships:

1. Choosing to speak up has HUGE implications for relationships and life.

As someone who knows only too well the “withdraw and make that person less important to me” survival mechanism from childhood, I know how easy it is to avoid the discomfort of a courageous conversation. But if we choose to harden our hearts rather than keep them open and venture into uncharted conversational territory, we’ll never have the open-hearted, deeply meaningful relationships we desire.

2. Challenge ‘Mind Reading’ and unproductive stories you tell yourself about a person.

This is one of the most useful practices for cultivating a healthier, more open-hearted approach to conflict. Mind Reading is when we “explain” to ourselves why someone did or said something and then believe our “explanation” as fact rather than just our guess. Next time you’re upset with someone, notice the “story” you’re telling yourself about them. Chances are it’s unproductive. One of my favorite antidotes to this is asking, “What might cause any normal, healthy, decent person to do this?”

In the situation described above, I knew the only way to get the true story was to bring it up. I recommend you do the same when you’re telling yourself negative stories about another person. Of all the tools I’ve learned over the
years for personal well-being and resilience, learning to recognize and challenge counterproductive self-talk is probably the most useful, and … it’s a lifelong practice – I still catch myself regularly engaging in it.

3. While we can’t control whether someone shares what’s bothering them, we can increase the likelihood by how we show up.

Because Carolyn’s way of relating to people is warm, caring and thoughtful, I believed she’d be open to hearing me, rather than getting defensive. And she was – she demonstrated a desire to understand where I was coming from and explicitly acknowledged her understanding. This made me willing to talk openly rather than just disengage and move on.

4. Being honorable and accountable creates a strong foundation for a caring, meaningful relationship.

This is a huge one to remember. Carolyn was willing to hear feedback and didn’t try to manipulate the conversation. I’m sure you’ve had experiences with people who – because feedback triggered shame – became instantly defensive and wouldn’t acknowledge the validity of what you said. Instead, they attacked you or turned things around to make it about you, or make it your fault. You probably found it hard to trust or respect them after that, unless they changed their ways. Holding ourselves accountable, admitting when we’re wrong, and acknowledging when uncomfortable feedback is valid are all honorable behaviors that lead others to trust and respect us.

5. Courageous conversations bring relationships to a more intimate, more meaningful level.

Even though I liked and respected Carolyn beforehand, my fondness and respect for her grew more because of how she showed up in our conversations. Haven’t you experienced that? Haven’t you dreaded bringing up a difficult issue with a friend – afraid it would ruin the friendship – and instead it brought you closer together?

That happens because we hunger for authentic, intimate connection (even though part of us fears this), and when we get to experience it with someone, we can’t help but care more deeply about them and feel closer.

David Lee

David Lee

David Lee is a career coach with Heart at Work Associates and a workplace relationship consultant. He is the author of the “Dealing with a Difficult Co-Worker: The Courageous Conversations at Work Series.”