The Most Important Relationship Skill & How to Develop It
In both our personal or professional lives, the quality of the relationships we have with others often plays a significant role in the happiness we experience. There are countless books written on how to improve our relationships and sometimes it’s difficult when so much information is thrown at us to make heads and tales of it, or to effectively incorporate it into our lives.
In this article, I want to sum up the advice I’m trying to share in one simple phrase:
“Seek to understand before being understood.”
As human beings, we all have a natural desire to be understood by others, particularly those closest to us. When we sense another person really understands or “gets us,” we generally feel a sense of relief and genuine connection.
The mistake many people make in their personal and professional relationships is that they prioritize trying to get someone to understand their own thoughts, ideas or opinions. They focus on communication skills such as the specific working of what they’re saying. While communication skills such as these are indeed important, they’re significantly more effective when used after you put effort into understanding the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of the person with whom you are communicating.
The skill I’m referring to when talking about more fully understanding someone is empathy. Empathy can be defined as trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes to the best of your ability. When done well, empathy involves the full use of our mind’s ability to imagine what someone else is thinking and feeling; what their hopes and priorities might be; and what obstacles/challenges they may be experiencing.
One of the mistakes people can sometimes make when trying to empathize with someone is assuming too quickly that they “know” what the other person is experiencing, especially if they’ve gone through a similar experience. In such cases, people often neglect to take into consideration contextual factors which affect people’s experience of similar events.
Let’s look at an example that many people struggle with to help illustrate some of these points – namely trying to empathize with our children. Trying to maintain deep, meaningful connections with our children, particularly during their teen years, is something that’s so important for their well-being but also something that many parents find difficult to do.
Many parents, particularly if they have children of the same gender, make the mistake of assuming they know “what it’s like” because they were once a teenager too. I was a teenager in the 1980’s and now have teenage children of my own. To illustrate how important context is, let’s take a moment to compare just a few aspects of teenage life in the 1980’s versus 2018.
Teenage life in the 1980’s
- One house phone where you had to pay for long-distance
- Cable TV with VCR’s for recording your favorite shows
- You felt lucky if you had Nintendo
- Being a good athlete meant you got to play for your varsity high school team
- High school dances were common (of course with the great music of the 1980’s!)
- Colleges were getting somewhat more competitive but getting good grades and being fairly well-rounded make you a great candidate for many excellent schools
Teenage life in 2018
- The Internet is so prevalent that Googling something has become commonplace for even grade school children
- The majority of high school students have their own smartphones with social media accounts through which the majority of their socializing is done
- Texting/Snapchatting has become the most common mode of communication
- Playing X-box remotely (at least for the guys) is the way you “hang out” with your buddies
- Playing AAU or club sports is almost a requirement for playing many high school varsity sports
- Colleges have become so competitive that many students feel they are putting together a “resume” from the moment they enter high school
Even though I was once a teenager, I wouldn’t begin to assume I know what it’s like to be a teenager today because of how dramatically the world has changed since the 1980’s. Be it with my children or the teenage client’s I work with, the only chance I have to impart any advice or wisdom is to first listen and ask them to help me understand as best they could what life for them is really like.
The process I use to deepen my empathy with them is, as they describe their lives, I try to remember back to when I was in high school and how confusing or overwhelming life felt at times. I then imagine, as vividly as possible, adding all the additional stresses teenagers have on them today. This process helps me feel not only a great deal of compassion for today’s teenagers, but it also deepens my connection with them.
Using your imagination is key to building your ability to empathize. So, the next time you are trying to genuinely connect with someone, before speaking, take a moment to imagine the following:
- What’s going on in their lives physically, psychologically and socially?
- What are they most concerned about? What’s important to them?
- What abilities do they have or not have?
- What knowledge do they have or not have?
- What struggles are they facing?
- What hopes and dreams do they have?
I hope that doing so will greatly deepen the relationships most important to you.
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