One reason it is so difficult to come up with an actual plan to improve and strengthen our relationships is that relationships involve a lot of responding and reacting to others. Most plans are about acting and initiating, not about reacting.
If you are setting out to accomplish something, you can set up a straightforward plan to get it done, and then just go out and do it. With a relationship, though, it’s not just about what you want or about what you do. There is another person involved, another person who is different from you — who has different needs and different expectations and wants.
And it is so easy to start dwelling on what we would like to change about the other person. It’s so easy for us to see what they could do better, or how they could meet our needs, or how they could change little things that bug us.
We find ourselves saying (or thinking) things like, “I want to be a better parent, so I’ve got to start changing my kids” or “We could have a better marriage if only my spouse would do a couple of things.”
Or we may go to the other extreme and say things like, “I don’t care what she does, I am going to just worry about me and do what I have to whether she likes it or not.”
We forget that a relationship is not just about you or just about the other person but about both of you and about how you interrelate with each other and how you have interdependencies and overlaps and synergies.
Relationships are about how we act and how we react to another person.
In thinking over the years about how to deal proactively with a reactive process, we found some help from an unexpected source — Benjamin Franklin.
Good old Ben decided that he could choose a list of desirable qualities that he wanted to incorporate into his personality and his character — and then actually acquire them by concentrating on one quality at a time. He defined each quality clearly in his mind and then focused on it until it became a natural and integral part of who he was. Essentially, he programmed himself to be the possessor of the qualities he desired.
It is possible to do something similar with our own individual responses to those with whom we have important relationships. By deciding in advance on the kind of reactions we will exhibit and on the characteristics we will show in certain relationships, we can actually program them into our natures to the degree that we will begin to manifest them subconsciously.
Let us give you an example: We know a father who came up with four words that described how he wanted to relate to his children — four words that expressed to his own mind what he wanted to project to his kids whenever he was around them. His words, with simple definitions were:
“Calm” — I want to project peacefulness and patience and avoid anger and harshness.
“Confidence” — I always believe in my kids and compliment them positively at every opportunity.
“Consultant” — I help them make their own decisions and respect their agency rather than forcing them.
“Concentrate” — I focus on the child I am with and treat each one as a unique individual rather than comparing them to each other.
This dad, who was a runner, had the habit of reviewing his four words each morning as he jogged. He would say to himself “I am CALM with my children” and then think of how he had been calm with them during the previous day. He did the same with each of his words each day, programming the qualities into his conscious and sub-conscious mind until he found himself following them without thinking about it.
Come up with your own words — a short set of them for your relationship with your spouse, another set for your relationship with your kids, another for your relationship with your parents, another for your relationship with your closest friends. Repeat, rehearse and reinforce them in your mind each day during some repetitive activity like running or exercising or shaving or showering. Gradually, you will find yourself taking on the qualities you have designed for yourself — qualities that will enhance and strengthen your most important relationships.