Why working relationships can fail
A new relationship—whether personal or professional—is a lot like buying a new car. Driving it off the forecourt gives you a great feeling., but like a car, when a relationship breaks down, it’s overwhelming. A trained eye knows when a car is in trouble. The same is true of relationships, and you can be your own mechanic.
Research carried out at the University of Washington discovered four clear indicators of relationship failure. Although they made their predictions based on married couples, these behaviours translate into the workplace too. When you compare the quality of people’s working relationships with their job performance, it’s often the top performers who are skilled at managing relationships. These leaders will avoid the triggers for relationship failure at all costs.
The indicators of relationship failure
These four triggers represent the counterproductive acts we can easily fall victim to when our emotions get the better of us. Consider each of the four indicators and its relevance in your relationships, and remember that conflict itself is not a problem. Conflict is actually a normal and (ideally) productive part of two people with different needs and interests working together. The amount of conflict between two people has no bearing on the success of the relationship. It’s how conflict is handled that determines a relationship’s success, and the appearance of one of the triggers means conflict is not being dealt with constructively or productively. If you follow the strategies provided for overcoming each of these obstacles, then your relationships are bound to be more successful.
Criticism is not to be confused with delivering feedback or otherwise seeking improvement or change in another person. Criticism becomes, well, criticism when it isn’t constructive (“This report is terrible.”). Criticism, in its most troubling form, focuses on the individual’s personality, character, or interests rather than the specific action or behaviour you’d like to see changed (“You are terrible at writing. You’re so disorganised and tangential.”). It’s one thing to criticise without being constructive; it’s another to go after someone for something they are unable to change.
How to overcome CRITICISM
If you often find yourself criticising when you planned on being constructive, it’s best if you don’t deliver your feedback and commentary until you’ve planned ahead. You’ll need to think through what you’re going to say and stick to your script in order to remain constructive and avoid criticism. It’s also best if you focus your feedback on a single specific behaviour, as your reactions to multiple behaviours at once can easily be perceived as criticism. If you find that you cannot deliver feedback without generalising to the other person’s personality, you’re better off saying nothing at all.
Contempt is any open sign of disrespect toward another. Contempt often involves comments that aim to take the other person down a notch, as well as direct insults. Contempt is also seen in indirect and veiled forms, such as rolling of the eyes and couching insults within “humour.”
How to overcome CONTEMPT
Contempt stems from a lack of interest in the other person. When you find that you don’t enjoy or admire someone—perhaps there are things about him or her that used to be interesting or charming and now they’ve lost their luster—contempt can surface unexpectedly. If your disinterest is unavoidable and the relationship is one that isn’t going anywhere, such as a family member or colleague, then you need to focus on taking small steps forward. People who manage relationships well are able to see the benefit of connecting with many different people, even those they are not fond of. Common ground, no matter how small, is a commodity to be sought and cherished.
Denying responsibility, making excuses, meeting one complaint with another, and other forms of defensiveness are problematic, because they prevent a conflict from reaching any sort of resolution. Defensiveness only serves to accelerate the anxiety and tension experienced by both parties, and this makes it difficult to focus on the larger issues at hand that need to be resolved.
How to overcome DEFENSIVENESS
To overcome defensiveness, you have to be willing to listen carefully to the other party’s complaint, even if you don’t see things the same way. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. Instead, you focus on fully understanding the other person’s perspective so that you can work together towards resolving the conflict. It’s critical that you work to remain calm. Once you understand why the other person is upset, it’s much easier to find common ground than if you dismiss their opinions defensively.
Stonewalling is what happens when one person shuts the discussion down by refusing to respond. Examples of stonewalling include the silent treatment, being emotionally distant or devoid of emotion, and ignoring the other person completely. Stonewalling is problematic, because it aggravates the person being stonewalled and it prevents the two from working on resolving the conflict together.
How to overcome STONEWALLING
The key to overcoming stonewalling is to participate in the discussion. If you’re stonewalling because the circumstances are leaving you feeling overwhelmed, let the other person know how you’re feeling and ask for some time to think before continuing the discussion. Maintain eye contact and a forward posture and nod your head to let the other person know that you are engaged in the discussion and listening even when you don’t have something to say. If you stonewall as a matter of practice, you need to realise that participating in discussions and working together to resolve conflict are the only ways to keep your relationships from crumbling.
Thanks to Travis Bradberry for inspiration for this post.