Even though we have all sorts of ideas about what being successful means, for most of us, what matters most is the quality of our relationships. Could your important relationships be better? Important relationships can often seem challenging and impossible. One-half of all marriages in America end in divorce. This fact documents the high cost of not communicating well in important relationships.

It’s hard to relate well to someone who is different from us in some way. Sometimes we realize our contribution to a problem and we would like to improve the quality of our relations. More often, we play the blame game blaming the other person and denying our role in the situation. We often find ourselves repeating the behaviors that hurt the relationship.

There are myriad reasons why relationships go sour and at the core of each of these challenges there is usually a communication issue. One way to improve the quality of your relationships is to improve the quality of your communication. This is easier said than done. So many variables impact truly effective communication. A lot has to do with how we experience the world and how we manage information.

Over the next four issues this column will provide ways to help you cultivate great relationships with partners, spouses, family members, friends and co-workers. The next three issues will cover improving communication skills. Let’s start with some basics. Here are five wisdom keys to help you better understand what gets in the way of communication and things to do to improve how we relate to others.

1. See relationship challenges as communication challenges. It’s important to remember it’s not the person you object to; it’s their behavior. Opening a conversation and identifying the problem behavior will get the ball rolling.

2. Consider an alternate perspective. We each see and experience the world differently. We take in information like sights, sounds and feelings. The amount of information we have at any given moment can be overwhelming. We have different information. Even when two people have the same information, we experience it differently based on our background, our needs and our interests. So when a problem arises, a good question to ask yourself is, “what would make this person believe or say that?”

3. Accept that feelings are important. Feelings play a huge part in what makes for great relationships. They are often at the center of many challenging conversations. We often avoid the feelings issue in tough communication with people we care about. We prefer to have what some of us consider a principled discussion talking about tasks but not about feelings. We tend to think that we need improvement in our problem solving skills. Often we don’t want to risk hurting someone else’s feeling or be that vulnerable with our own feelings. Take a risk and try to determine and acknowledge both your feelings and the other person’s.

4. Discuss/expose your assumptions. We make assumptions about many things. In many instances these assumptions are not accurate. For instance we may assume everyone sees the problem the same way we do. We assume who is wrong or right. We can assume which role each person should play in solving a problem. We assume how others feel about the situation. Exposing your assumptions allows you to check in with the other person, and it affords you the opportunity to gather data that your assumptions are, in fact, not accurate. It is helpful to check in and confirm your assumptions. For example, “It seems that you are upset because ___. Based on what you said, would prefer that I ___. Or, it sounds like you would prefer that I _____. Is that right?” Next, invite the other person to explore the situation with you.

5. Improve the quality of your listening. When someone important in you life reaches out to you, make an effort to listen. Listening is critical to understanding. Remove as many distracting interruptions as possible. Turn off the TV. Unplug the cell phone. Move to a more private space. Focus your mind on hearing that person, stop yourself from thinking ahead to what your reply should be. Confirm your assumptions about what you heard before moving on to your response. If, for some reason, it is impossible to listen in the moment, don’t fake it. Schedule another time to have the conversation when you can give your undivided attention. Most people would rather have five minutes of your undivided attention than two hours of your time when you’re distracted.

Make a conscious effort in the next few weeks to apply these steps with the clearly stated intent that the relationship is important to you. Notice how the quality of your time together improves.

Send your comments or questions to communication@cathyharris.com

Cathy Harris’ expertise lies in cultivating people connections. She is a professional keynote speaker, trainer, consultant and author who specializes in helping people make the critical connections that increase their productivity and profits.

Phone: 800-924-2284 – Fax: 504-242-0423