Tag Archives: communicating

Kindness Is Key

. . . to great relationships.

Triumphed again my darling!” exclaimed my uncle as my aunt produced yet another burnt offering. Cooking was not her forte but she was taking lessons and insisted on trying out new things before she was quite ready.

20150701_132257_Richtone(HDR)My uncle was a kind man. He never resorted to sarcasm. He never gave her anything other than glowing feedback. He adored her culinary triumphs and made light of her kitchen disasters. He exuded an air of “Aren’t I lucky to be sharing my life with this woman!”

I think they were the most joyful couple I’ve ever known and staying with them was deeply restorative.

Were they “perfect?”

Of course not!

They came from very different backgrounds; had different interests; enjoyed different music; had different appetites for socializing; he was a quiet private man, she was an extrovert; they could rub one another the wrong way as much as any couple.

But they were (almost) always kind to one another.

They were my first role models for the power of kindness in creating great long-term relationships.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Sometimes living together gets tough. You have issues. You want to fix something. You work hard.

And yet, after all the ~

  • communicating;
  • counting to ten before you speak;
  • concentrated listening;
  • patient “So what you’re saying is . . . ” active reflecting;
  • negotiating, and giving one another space, and problem-solving;

after you’ve cycled through your arsenal of relationship skills in the effort to both understand and grow closer to the person you love (or thought you loved) ~

you may still be mystified by your partner.

You may still feel exasperated, irritated, disappointed, exhausted, frustrated, righteous.

So then what?

This person whom you’ve committed to spending the rest of your life with may still;

  • Loose their car keys every day;
  • Finish your story;
  • Overcook the fish;
  • Forget your birthday;
  • Channel surf;
  • Grunt at you over morning coffee.

Nothing you’ve said or done or negotiated has worked and there is this issue, this “pebble in your shoe” (as the Mexicans say) which threatens to undermine your whole marathon.

It’s hardly a crime against humanity. It can’t possibly be grounds for divorce:

Your Honor I’m done. He burns the fish!”

But, dammit, there’s this issue that bugs you. Whether you’re the partner who looses track of fish cooking times and hates that this matters, or you’re the partner who hates that fish gets burnt, you are aware that over the long haul this issue could get old. And potentially deadly because the truth is, it often IS the little things that make or break a marriage.

So what?


Try kindness.

Here’s why you might want to try kindness.

Every interaction between you and your partner does one of three things.

  1. It brings you closer.
  2. It maintains the status quo.
  3. It pushes you apart.

Happy couples enjoy a ratio of five positive interactions for every one negative one. Their arousal and fear mechanisms are not triggered. They feel safe with one another. They can relax. This feels good. It IS good. Their emotional landscape creates their biological reality. Happy couples literally live longer .

On the other hand, unhappy couples have more negative interactions than positive ones. These negative experiences trigger the body’s arousal and fear mechanisms. They feel less and less safe with one another. They can’t relax. This feels bad. It IS bad. Indeed, emotional toxicity undermines the immune system. There is growing evidence that bad relationships contribute to bad health. which is why Happy couples literally live longer .

Here’s how to try kindness. .

  • So – how to get this 5:1 ratio of good to bad interactions?
  • What does this look like in real life?
  • What’s an example of a “good” interaction versus a “bad” interaction?

It’s not what you think!

Sure the “bad” list includes what you’d expect:

  • Physical, verbal or sexual abuse
  • Abandonment
  • Criticism
  • Defensiveness
  • Contempt
  • Stonewalling

[By the way, these last 4 in italics have been identified by John Gottman as The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse because they do so much harm. If you are interested I’ve embedded a short video from Gottman’s website . These are the poster children for Not Kindness!]

But the “bad” list also includes some seemingly “normal” responses to the irritating scenarios above. In other words, you may be unwittingly triggering a negative response in your partner through these small daily interactions that add up to no good.

Here are three responses to a chronic lost-key scenario. Which would you prefer if you were the key looser?

  1. You see your partner roll their eyes, sigh, check their watch and drift off leaving you alone to find the keys.
  2. Your partner notices you are key hunting and says in a neutral tone, “Oh, you’ve lost the keys?”
  3. Your partner comes to you a few minutes before it’s time to leave and cheerily says: “So, are we on a key hunt this morning, or have you rounded up those bad boys already?

Personally I’d choose door number 3. There’s a playfulness, lightness, acceptance of the probability of a key-hunt and the use of “we” not “you.”

Option #1 is most likely to be experienced as negative. Eye rolling is a form of contempt.

Option #2 is most likely to be experienced as neutral. No one is angry or contemptuous. But there’s not a whole heap of warmth either.

Option #3 is most likely to be experienced as positive. It’s a kind response. The sort of thing good friends do for one another.

Is that so hard?

What does it take to help move a person from irritation to kind acceptance?

I’ll come back to this question over this month of July because it’s a great one, but for starters here’s how I’d answer that question.

Moving to kindness needs two things:

1. It’s a conscious decision to exercise your inner capacity to be kind.

2. Your inner capacity to be kind is like a muscle – it is weak when not used, and needs to be exercised to be effective.

So meanwhile – try it out! Catch yourself in one of your typical moments of exasperation and think through what a kind response might look like. Then try it. I’d love to know what you notice!

More next week.


This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.  → Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you’re interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

 SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut

SKILL SEVEN ~ Practice Kindness

  •  Kindness Is Key

Happy Families?

Imagine your family is oblivious to your feelings and needs, but still demands your loyalty, presence and engagement with family events. The “Lady Edith” dilemma. This is also Holly’s (whom you’ll meet in a minute) predicament.

Is there anything either of them can do to improve this situation?

Maybe this isn’t your problem, but perhaps you have other relationships which leave you feeling bruised, frustrated and yearning to change?

Welcome! This is a place to explore what it means to cultivate great relationships with partners, family, friends, kids, neighbors, work mates. With people you love deeply, and with people you’re tempted to dislike, or even write off.

In January I made the case that step one in creating great relationships is to get to know yourself in a whole new way. In brief:

  1. Recognize there’s not just one “you”. Notice how different people elicit a different version of you. We have distinct inner Parts. See here.
  2. Your Parts exist in relationship to one another. Tune into your inner chatter and you’ll hear one Part persuading, critiquing, judging, dismissing, ignoring or protecting another Part. See here.
  3. This is not random. Your Parts each behave purposefully in one of three ways: to proactively manage your day to day, to exile your deepest vulnerabilities or to dowse your inner pain when it is triggered. See here.

This month I’m exploring how – in the midst of this community of Parts – we can become proactive and choose how we show up.


Meet Holly (with the tough family). Her story is an amalgam of several prior client situations. She’d love to improve her relationship with her family and we meet her now as she anticipates attending a family birthday.

Holly’s one of five kids and the only one not yet popping out the grand-babies for her folks who have morphed from stern, judgmental, distant parents into indulgent and fawning grandparents.

It’s yet another birthday for a niece or nephew, and Holly’s been summoned to attend since, as her mother says every year and for every birthday “How could you miss! Don’t you want to celebrate with your family?

Holly is already familiar with her variety of Parts who get triggered by these events:

Screen shot 2015-02-09 at 7.39.17 AMHer inner recluse starts screaming and a feeling of suffocation begins to overwhelm her at the thought of the noise and chaos that happens when 20 people gather to eat sugar and offer too many gifts to a small child;

Screen shot 2015-02-09 at 7.40.21 AM

Her no-nonsense task-master starts trying to plan how to entertain the younger kids so there will be some planned cohesion to the afternoon’s chaos;

Screen shot 2015-02-09 at 7.44.20 AM

Her vulnerable, not-good-enough-because-I’m-not-married Part swoops in and she finds herself alternately sobbing and raging at her parents’ agenda for her in the days leading up to the event;

 Screen shot 2015-02-09 at 7.46.34 AM

Her devil-may-care Part makes sure she brings several additional bottles of Prosecco so she can always pour another glass when the going gets too tough;

Screen shot 2015-02-09 at 7.47.26 AM

And her yearning-to-connect Part braces for the disappointment that usually follows when Holly tries to have a meaningful conversation with her favorite sister Sally at family gatherings.

Holly has done some terrific emotional homework.

She’s discovered her ~

Managers – the recluse & her no-nonsense-Parts

Exiles – her vulnerable-not-good-enough-because-I’m-not-married, & yearning-to-connect Parts

Firefighters – her devil-may-care Part

(see this Post if you are not familiar with these terms)

And she knows how these Parts tag-team to keep her functioning at these family events. Her Managers keep her alternately seeming like a one-woman island unto herself, or chivvying everyone like a kindergarten teacher, both of which are acceptable to her family and serve to minimize her need to connect at any meaningful level with them. Alternating aloof with busy has the added advantage of minimizing her exiled emotional pain which is easily triggered by her family’s judgment and distance. And, as soon as the pain is tapped into, it’s “fire-fighters-to-the-rescue” and somehow her glass is constantly re-filled with the highly effective “lets-numb-out-on-booze” response.

But she wants to do this differently. These behaviors only reinforce her family’s dim view of her mental stability and life choices. She wishes she could be with them as she is in other contexts, where she experiences herself as strong, interesting and capable.

Holly knows no one in the family (with the possible exception of Sally) has the desire or ability to change how they all relate, so it’s up to her.

With me, as well as working to understand the variety of ways she shows up and how they can trip her up, Holly is also learning to speak FOR her Parts, not FROM them. This means (with reference to the upcoming birthday party) that rather than act out her feelings of frustration with her family by huffing, sighing, rolling her eyes and snapping at them, she can say (even if only to herself to start with)  “You know, Part of me gets frustrated by these high-stress family gatherings, but there’s also a Part of me who’s happy to be invited and wants to continue to try and connect with my siblings.” See here to learn more about this idea.

So – what should Holly do?

Below are 4 options for Holly. You choose ~

_____a.   Cross her fingers and just go.

  • Pros: no effort needed in prior planning and you never know! The family might be attentive, kind and finally interested in her life; the kids might be calm and the cake tasty.
  • Cons: This never happens! Last birthday ended up with her leaving early, drunk, and in tears after screaming at Sally.

_____b.   Decline the invitation and avoid the whole thing.

  • Pros:            She would not get hurt that day.
  • Cons:            She’d pay for it for years to come in guilt trips from the family.

_____c.   Just pick one Part and stick with it. Right now she’s totally blended with the imagined security of her no-nonsense Part. That’s the one!

  • Pros:            If she could do this, it might work. She’d organize the smaller relatives, stay busy, avoid talking with anyone else, and leave early.
  • Cons:            Zero buy-in from the other Parts pretty much guarantees that they’ll show up. And then we’re back to option a.

_____d.   Practice some pre-emptive self-leadership so she is aware of her inner dynamics and can trust her Self to finesse whatever happens.

  • Pros:            Knowing she can keep her Parts attended to, Holly is free to enjoy the Party. She can risk having conversations with family members because even if they can’t control how they are with her, she can handle what is going on for her. As she masters her ability to be compassionate and present with her internal community of Parts, she notices she is able to feel acceptance and compassion toward her external community of people.
  • Cons:            Getting to this stage takes a strong desire, a willingness to be honest, and a level of compassion toward oneself that takes time to cultivate.

OK – if Holly’s goal is to improve her relationships with her family, which of the above scenarios would you pick for her?

Most folks choose options a, b or c and those are good if your goal is to simply cope, or get through something. But improving things takes a different approach.

If Holly is committed to improving her relationships, then it’s up to her to BE someone else, and DO something different, which makes (d) a compelling option.

What’s this pre-emptive self-leadership Holly needs before she can enjoy herself at the party?

Self-leadership describes a state where your best self, or maybe your true self, becomes the wise, loving adult to all your younger inner Parts.

This true Self (which I’ll now refer to as Self) is the you which remains once all the chatter of your inner Parts quiets down.

Self is present when your heart melts into compassion for these young Parts, instead of the usual judgment, criticism, and impatience.

You’ve met this Self before.

It’s the still point at your center when you meditate.

It’s where music and art can take you.

Or the particular beauty of earth ~


Or the vast, unknowable majesty of space ~

Screen shot 2015-02-10 at 7.22.32 AM

Self is the still-point amidst all the hubbub.


Discover how to connect to your Self, and learn how to bring this Self into a loving relationship with your Parts. This is the key to that pre-emptive Self-Leadership Holly will need (we all need) if we are to connect deeply with others. And it begins when we connect with our Self.


This is the sixth article in a year-long series about the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-did.”

Top 12 Relationship Skills

Click the box for the full list →    →    →

If you are interested in reading this blog in sequence, here are links to  previous articles, with #1 being the first and #5 the article before this.

  1. My Top 12 Relationship Skills
  2. Part of Me Wants . . .
  3. Little Miss Sunshine
  4. The Purpose Driven Life
  5. Report The News – Don’t Act it Out

Join me for the whole series. You can sign up at the top of this page, on the right.