Goals are something that therapists talk about often. Goals for yourself, for the future, for relationships… In and outside of therapy, many of us are constantly setting goals (whether we’re aware of it, or not).
One of the classic guidelines for goal-setting is to create and aim for goals that are stretching, but are reachable. If you set goals that aren’t challenging at all, you might get bored and stop reaching, or you might just miss out on good change and growth. If you set goals that are too challenging, you might burn out quickly or get discouraged and give up. Search for some middle ground.
Goal-setting varies depending on the topic or activity, but today I’d like to specifically touch on what it looks like to set interpersonal goals.
Relationships are a crucial and often difficult part of everyday life. And more often than not, every deep relationship will be difficult at some point in time, as we are all constantly figuring out the best ways to do life together. As a therapist, a lot of my clinical work has a relational focus. Because relationships are so integral to life, they show up in therapy all the time, and I love it when they do! I love sitting with and working with people who are doing the hard work of deepening, curbing, or repairing relationships with the people in their lives.
An important part of that relational work often involves, you guessed it, goal-setting! People have to have tough conversations or have to spend extended time with challenging people, and as those plans are made, we will spend some time in session preparing for those situations. Here are two of the tenets I come back to when helping clients set appropriate goals for whatever the upcoming situation may be.
Skip to the end
Sometimes, people can think up and state their goals, no problem. However, it usually takes a little time and thought to put them into words. I like to ask clients to imagine themselves after the fact. For example, think ahead to your drive home after this conversation that we’re planning for. Or, think about the Monday after this weekend with family. On that drive home or that Monday after the trip, how will you know that it was a successful conversation or a successful trip? What will signal to you that it went well? This way of thinking backwards, in a way, can sometimes help put more shape to what you want out of the situation.
Who can make those goals happen?
Once you’ve got an idea of those goals, check to make sure they are achievable. When I say achievable, I do mean making the goals reasonable and reachable (as I mentioned above). But I also want people to consider, who are the deciding players that would need to be involved to reach that goal? The goals you set need to be about you. You are the only person in the conversation (or during the family time) that you can control. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment by setting goals that require other people to reach them, because unfortunately, you don’t get to decide how they engage or respond.
For example, a non-achievable goal might be that the other person feels loved and cared for during the conversation. That is a great consideration and definitely worth hoping for, but at the end of the day you can’t control how the other person feels. What you can do, however, is make that an achievable goal by deciding that you want to express that you love and care for that person. Then, after the conversation and on that drive home, you can celebrate the fact that you reached your goals and said your piece, even if the other person doesn’t receive it.
Keep the hope
Lastly, I always encourage people to acknowledge their hopes. The above example is a good illustration of the important differentiation between a hope and a goal. A hope is something that you want to happen, a goal is something you can make happen. It is still okay, and even good, to have and acknowledge hopes for relationships or conversations. I’d just encourage you to recognize that even if those hopes aren’t fulfilled, you can rest in the fact that by doing what you could, you’ve met your goals – that’s worth celebrating.
If you find yourself navigating difficult relationships, we’d love to walk alongside you! Call one of our therapists if you’d like to learn more about what it looks like to build and maintain healthy, positive relationships and the steps you can take to get there.
Written by therapist Clair Miller
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