Children, Parenting, and Families

Relationship Change: The Power Is Yours

Relationship changeRelationship Change: The Power Is Yours

Many people are frustrated because they have motivation for relationship change, but their partner, teen, or other significant person doesn’t. Did you know that by changing your behavior you can create changes in others’ behavior, too?  You can have a huge positive impact on what seems like a dead-end situation, even if you are the only one doing anything different. This week we’ll start to look deeper at the first and fourth elements of a healthy relationship, being responsible for your own actions and happiness, and thus changing others (by changing yourself).

This is NOT about how to make people do what you want them to do or control them with some Jedi mind stuff. You know that you can create positive and negative responses by doing certain things. Being rude gets you to one place, and being agreeable gets you somewhere else.  It’s about how relationships work. We act, others react, then we react to that, and others react to that, and, I think you get the picture. This is what Harriet Lerner called The Dance – how two people (or more) form a dance of patterns in a relationship. One person takes a step forward, and the other person takes a step back to stay in sync. Our most important relationships are like unique and complex dances. Some dances are harmonious, and some a little more chaotic. To change a person’s behavior, start by changing your dance moves and see how the whole dance changes.

We do the same dances time and time again

Most of the arguments in a relationship are likely to sound like a CD stuck on repeat. Your child does something they are not supposed to, so you react in the predictable way, and so do they. The root of the behavior is never addressed, so you will dance again in an hour. Your partner “always” or “never” does this or that, and you can see a disagreement coming a mile away. The dance is always similar in your head, too. The things you tell yourself about a situation, the emotions that come up for you, they are the music. Are you “always” the yeller, and your partner “always” the silent one? Are you the one that starts all of the “talks”? Or the one that gets all of the “talking to”? With your kids, are you always the bad guy, or the fun parent? The softie, or the hammer? Do you have similar issues with folks at work and in other areas? Are you always the one that rushes in to save a situation from becoming a crisis? Or the one that takes care of others? And the dances we do are very common. You can bet that you aren’t the only one with certain dances you’d like to change.  Think of it has having plenty of company in the ballroom.

You can only move your own feet in any dance

So many people want great relationship change, but they say things like, “I want my partner to do…” Or, “I want to get my kids to stop doing this and start doing that.” It’s fine to want someone to change, and you can do plenty to encourage that, but that’s like looking at another’s feet and thinking that if you concentrate hard enough they will move. You have to focus on what you can control, which is the role you play. The same is true when waiting for someone else to change before you’ll change. Sure, it would be convenient if the other person did something that made it easier or more enjoyable to change what you are doing. But, as long as you are lock-step in the same old patterns that is unlikely to happen.

So, where do I start?

Start identifying your patterns and your dance. You could, if so inclined, sit down with a pen and paper and actually write out what you know to be the steps to something that you and a loved one struggle with. For example: “First, the kids do this, and then we do that, and it ends with this.” Or, you can just observe your life and see if you have that deja vu feeling. In your head you might say something like, “Oh, here we go again…” That would be the first clue that you are dancing.  Is there a point at which you typically lose your temper? Or storm off? Or start to go off in an unhealthy direction with your thoughts? Take an honest look at what part you play in the dance. It can seem hard at first, but with practice you can see patterns emerging.

I would also take a look at Harriet Lerner’s books.


Healthy Communication in 4 Easy Steps

Healthy Communication in 4 Easy StepsThe Steps to Healthy Communication Can be Simple

Last week we talked about the five intentions in a healthy relationship. With the holidays coming I thought we could look at the second one – how to practice healthy communication.

Have you ever had this kind of thing happen?

Aunt Betty always does this. Every Christmas she bakes these insane amounts of super rich foods, KNOWING that I am trying to slim down. Is she doing this just to annoy me? And if I DON’T eat, she gets really offended, and then people silently blame me for ruining Christmas! One year she accused me of insinuating that SHE needed to diet because I didn’t want to eat the food! 

We have all had one of those situations where we just want to tell a loved one that we prefer that they do or not do something. This is called healthy communication, and boundary setting. Before you know it, people are screaming at each other, and you are pretty sure that you didn’t start the argument. You were only trying to say what you needed, but they totally blew it out of proportion. Arguments happen, and it would be unrealistic to say that you can always be cool as a cucumber when you are mad about something. But, how are you supposed to be assertive and get your point across if it just starts a fight? Or causes people to give you the silent treatment? And how are you supposed to do this with KIDS?!?

First Step for Healthy Communication: Soft Start-Up

How we start a conversation makes a night and day difference in how the conversation goes. Research has shown that couples (and families) who are better at being gentle and loving in starting conversations are happier and stay together longer. If you can start it well with a strong intention to remain loving, you will get better and better at ending it well!

4 Steps in Healthy Communication

First, take a deep breath and think about your intention to be loving.  And remember that you can only try your best. You can’t control whether the other person chooses to accept this or not. The important thing is that you are making your needs known in a healthy way, not stuffing them or exploding. This creates space for loving communication in return if the other person is willing/able to.

G: Get it

Start out by showing the other person that you get them – you get their feelings or why they do something. This is simple validation. Example: “Aunt Betty, I know how you enjoy making lots of great Holiday treats and it’s the main way that you practice giving. You love seeing people enjoy themselves at Christmas.”


Next, tell the person what you feel, think, or want by referring to your own feelings and needs as much as possible. This is not “I feel that you are a jerk.” This is not even talking about their behavior or intentions if possible. This helps to avoid them feeling like they are being attacked. Example: “I am trying to slim down, and I need to really stick to it over the Holidays. So I can’t eat many of the home made treats this year.”

V: Validate

This is just like step one, only you are going to do more of it. Try to sprinkle in some feeling words so that the person really feels like you understand, or express some sort of appreciation for them. “I see how much care you put into it, and I really appreciate all of your effort. You make us all feel so loved!” For extra credit, you can add something about how you imagine that might make someone feel, such as, “I imagine that it could hurt your feelings if I don’t eat your cookies this year.”

E: Encourage

Lastly, try to encourage more good things. This can mean noticing and appreciating someone’s efforts to understand you or listen, or catching them trying to do something new and acknowledging it. If all else fails, you can encourage them by thanking them for letting you say what you needed to. “Thank you so much for letting me say this, it means a lot.” You can always thanks someone for letting your be honest with them, or praise them for being willing to talk about something difficult.

Notice how much of that formula has to do with being positive: 75%. How much is a criticism aimed at another person? 0%. When you use an I-statement, it doesn’t guarantee that the other person isn’t going to get mad, it just makes it so that you aren’t attacking someone else and making them responsible for how you feel. It makes it clear that you aren’t doing something to spite them, you are doing it because you need to. I-Statements can be over-used, but they remain a good reminder to own your crap and not point the finger when you are trying to have healthy communication.

To keep things going well continue to G.I.V.E. during the whole conversation. Even if you feel artificial or can’t put all the steps in every time, you will get better and become more natural with it. If you have the intention to G.I.V.E. in every difficult conversation, you will be better off!

Healthy Communication with Kids

With kids, we are often setting limits, so a slightly different formula can be used for that:

V – Validate: “I know you really want to________, or don’t want to ____________, or you really feel ____________”

E – Expectation: “I need you to ____________ or stop ___________”

R – Reinforce the rule: “Because we never ___________ or it isn’t nice to ___________”

Y – Yay! Give lots of praise and encouragement.

So, this might look like:

“I know you are having a lot of fun bouncing the ball off of the wall, but I need you to take the ball outside because the rule is that we don’t do that in the house. Thank you for stopping, that’s great listening!”

This simple formula for healthy communication with kids can be used when a rule or limit needs to be set, and it can feel wordy at first. But, with practice it will roll off your tongue just as easily as “KNOCK IT OFF!” It sets up a better chance for the child to follow the direction, and it helps you to slow down and be more mindful of what you are trying to help the child understand rather than just punishing the behavior.

Both of these healthy communication formulas can be used with kids if needed. I have used both for different situations. Healthy communication is tough, and there are a lot of other ways to tackle it. Holiday stress can be tough as well, here is another post on managing the holidays with your family through healthy communication.


Now go out there and G.I.V.E. to your family this Holiday Season!

Happy New Year!