August 22, 2018

Relationships: Small Steps That Make a Big Difference


Relationships of all kinds take work and sometimes this work can feel overwhelming. It’s also common to feel helpless when it seems like the other person isn’t changing. I find it helpful to break things down into smaller, manageable steps that I can take and sustain over more extended periods of time. I’ve also seen it beneficial to focus on myself and what I can change, rather than get discouraged that the other person isn’t changing.  Whether you’re working on a romantic, sibling, parent-child, or different relationship, there are small changes you can make that will have a significant impact in the long run. These changes are about you, the only person you have any control over in the relationship.

Don’t Take Things Personally

This might seem counterintuitive since relationships by definition are personal. What I mean, however, is that you can learn not to make out what others do or say as a personal attack. Other’s words and actions certainly have an impact on us, but what if you paused and considered that maybe there’s something more going on that doesn’t really have anything to do with you? Have you ever arrived home from a long, frustrating day at work and snapped at your spouse or child? You were upset and drained by what happened at work, and this had nothing to do with your loved one, yet you acted in a way that was hurtful towards them. This happens a lot in relationships, and you’ll often find yourself on the receiving end. Telling yourself that maybe there’s something else going on will help you respond less defensively and with more curiosity. Instead of returning the hurtful words or tone, you might soften your approach and ask questions to find out more about how the other person is really doing. This will communicate to them that you are sensitive to their feelings and that they can talk to you about what’s going on if they would like to.

Believe the Best

This means believing that the other person did not intend to hurt you or just did not understand how their words or actions affected you. Similar expressions include “giving the benefit of the doubt,” or “giving the most generous interpretation.” Believing the best is an integral part of relationships because it keeps you from assuming the worst and responding to that. If you give the most negative interpretation to another’s actions, you’re more likely to lash out or withdraw. For example, if you assume that your friend didn’t call you because they don’t care about you, then you’re likely to be cold or angry in your next interaction. However, if you tell yourself that your friend didn’t call because something must have come up at work or with the kids, then you’ll respond with understanding and not let it affect how you view your friendship.

Slow Down

When we’re rushing around through life, it’s easy to say things without thinking and misinterpret others actions. Intentionally slowing down serves multiple purposes. It gives you time to speak and act thoughtfully so that your words and actions reflect what you value and what you intend. You are less likely to do or say things you regret when you take time beforehand to think about the impact of your words and actions. Slowing down also enables you to take the time to practice the previous two suggestions. Before responding you can ask yourself whether the other person’s actions have nothing to do with you and whether there might be a more generous explanation for their behavior. Slowing down also gives you the opportunity to be more present with others. Being present in each moment creates opportunities for deeper connection, which everyone can benefit from. When you slow down, you can enjoy the time together, listen better, and express more empathy. You’re also more likely to notice things about the other person that you appreciate.

Practice Gratitude

Gratitude is a practice that we can develop over time. It doesn’t always come easy, especially in relationships. It’s often easier to fixate on problems or flaws and then communicate those to others. Practicing gratitude can significantly change the tone of a situation, and the more you do it, the more your relationships will benefit. Most people can readily identify their flaws and weaknesses and have a harder time identifying strengths. What I’m trying to say is that your loved ones need help seeing their strengths and feeling valued and less support to look at their flaws. What a unique gift that you can provide to them by using affirming words and seeking to build them up. Look for things the other person is doing well. Tell them what you appreciate about them, and often. When you need to address something the other person did, use the sandwich method, which involves sandwiching the negative feedback in between two (or more) positive affirmations.

I would recommend picking one of these to focus on this week and then reevaluate at the end of the week to see how it went. Then keep building until these steps become like a habit for you. You can make a difference in the many relationships in your life. It starts by taking small steps every day.


Written by therapist Ndunge Marquardt

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