All of us depend on relationships with others—in our work, in our communities, in our families, in our social lives, and in our most personal and emotional attachments. A great deal has been written about building and maintaining relationships. Some of it is useful, some less so. Much of it is too complicated to carry around easily in your head, which limits its usefulness in practice. So here are some very simple, easily remembered notions to help you deal with relationships better.
Other people are not broken . . . and nor are you. The way that you deal with them may very well be broken. It’s probably best to assume that it is, unless you can prove otherwise. That way you get to take the time and trouble to fix it. If you aren’t getting on well enough with someone, begin by looking at yourself as deeply and honestly as you can. You are who and what you are. So are they. Good relationships start when everyone accepts that and decides to enjoy the ride.
Forget your desire to alter other people’s behaviors to suit your own prejudices, wishes, and beliefs. As I said, most everyone is just fine as they are. Tinkering with their lives won’t make them better, but it will definitely make your relationship with them worse. Some people enjoy change, but almost no one enjoys others trying to change them. Do that and your relationship is doomed, sooner or later. Trying to change other people is foolish, but transforming yourself so they will find in you what it is that they need can be great fun. If you do this, you’ll likely also find what you need in them.
If someone is doing something wrong, start by assuming that it’s you. It’s tempting to assume that any difficulties you face with other people are their fault. It’s far more useful to assume the difficulties are in your court, so you can do something about putting them right. You cannot (and definitely should not try to) control other peoples’ lives. You can (and definitely should try to) control your own—at least as far as you can control anything in this world (which is not very far). If, in the end, the difficulties prove not to be your problem and you have to let that relationship go, you will still have learned something that may help you another time.
In the eyes of other people, you are mostly here to help them with their lives. In your eyes, most of them are here for the same reason: to make your career, your results, or your whole life better. Happiness is providing one another with the help that you each need. Unhappiness is demanding things from others that they are not willing to give. Misery is believing you have a right to those things.
Relationships flow along the path of least resistance. If you make it tough for others to relate to you, don’t be surprised if they go elsewhere. No matter how nice, knowledgeable, clever, witty, sexy, or well-connected you are, no one is forced to accept anything beyond the most superficial dealings with you. Besides, there are plenty of other people who are nicer, brighter, wittier, cleverer, sexier, and better-connected than you are. Some of them are probably richer too.
There is no such thing as a perfect relationship, so trying to find one is a waste of time and effort. Life is unsatisfactory. Relationships are unsatisfactory (some more than others). That’s the way it goes. But both are a great deal better than their alternatives. Accept what you have and enjoy it. Imagining what it might be, but isn’t, is the best way to ruin it.
Making moves to meet people where they are works better that hanging around until they come to you. You don’t have to like others and they don’t have to like you, but it’s a nicer world if that’s what happens. You could stand back and wait for everyone to come to where you are, but that’s going to take more time than anyone has on this earth. Making the first move towards friendship and acceptance beats waiting hands down. You’ll never know whether you might find something worthwhile until you make the effort to look for it.
Prejudice is like the person who found a ruby but threw it away because it wasn’t a diamond. It’s amazing what help and pleasure you can get from accepting other people as they are. No one has to work at finding diversity. Look around you. No two people are the same. Sadly, some people work extremely hard at trying to create a totally unnatural uniformity where everyone else is like them. Acceptance is natural (look at any small child). Prejudice is a learned perversion.
If your life does not add meaning and value to the world around you, why are you here? If it makes the world around you a worse place, why should other people tolerate you? Life has no neutral gear: you are either in forward or reverse.
No one owes you more trust, compassion, forgiveness, or consideration that you are willing to give to them. Fortunately, there are some people out there who aren’t keeping count. Be grateful.
Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life, The Creativity Class: a place to discover the best ideas on having the best ideas, and Working Potential, where you’ll learn about great ideas for self-development. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization, is now available at all good bookstores.