Essential Tools for Navigating Difficult Relationships

Learning how to be with each other and with ourselves was not part of my childhood education. Maybe things are changing, but many of us end up as adults struggling with communicating with our co-workers, our bosses, our partners. We either explode or shut down and fume somewhere else. No one gave us the tools to understand the common patterns or core skills we should know to have more ease in our relationships.

After the last 6 years training to become a psychotherapist and coach and the years at a global award-winning design firm, I’ve synthesized down what I feel would be helpful to the everyday person to navigate life’s challenges both at work and at home.

1. Understand your Patterns in Relationship

There are patterns we all participate in when things get rough in relationships. The trick is to notice them, name them, then shift out of them.

First, notice what happens when you argue with someone–a spouse, a co-worker, your mother–and then slow down the dynamic. Does the other person feel demanding and all you want to do is retreat? Or, do you get angry because the other person seems to be withholding information so you keep asking them over and over trying to get more information? This dynamic is the common Pursuer / Distancer pattern (or, Connection / Personal Space).

Once you’ve slowed down the dynamic enough to see it happening, pop out of the pattern you’re stuck in and shift to a non-defensive stance. Sounds easy, huh? It’s not, AND it’s doable. It just requires some effort on your part.

Here are the steps:

  1. Identify the pattern
  2. Slow it down (use mindfulness)
  3. Pop out of it
  4. Respond non-defensively

It may take a few attempts to even notice the pattern. Hours, day, even weeks later you may realize, hey we did that thing again! Next, you’ll watch it happen before your eyes and you’ll be powerless to do anything. That’s really common and really frustrating. Then, you’ll get to a place where you can say something while the pattern is unfolding and you’ll still be triggered. It won’t go so well, but it will shift the pattern.

Finally, after much practice you’ll be able to take a breath and say, “So Mike, I realize we get into these stuck places when I ask you to give me an estimate on projects. I’m wondering if there’s something I’m doing that is making this difficult. What do you think?” If this is said in a non-defensive tone, Mike, might feel safer to respond to his boss. Or, to your partner, “Honey, I’m realizing you want answers right away. I need time to digest what happened. To you, it might seem like I’m withholding information, but really, I just need some space to collect my thoughts. I need a couple hours to think this over, then I can be available to talk. How does that sound?” (Dynamic: Resolve Conflict Immediately / Take Time to Digest).

Utilizing coaches and therapists to help you identify your patterns is a fantastic opportunity. They are trained to look for them and can save you years of struggle, and you’ll get some tools to better communicate.

2. Develop Powerful Communication Skills

How we communicate goes beyond what we say. It’s about how we keep calm, listen deeply, speak non-defensively, and show up to our relationships. Read more here.

3. Know yourself, your triggers, and what hinders you

I have found the Enneagram a great tool for self exploration. Once you find the type that resonates the most with you, you can discover the patterns of your personality that limit you.

For instance, as someone with an enneatype of Nine, I have had difficulty with tolerating anger not only in other people but in myself. This has made it difficult to be around people who freely show anger and for me to even know I’m angry. After doing some work around my anger, I have been able to more easily tolerate anger. For those that can easily get angry this may seem foreign to them, but for those of us that struggle with anger, it can be very empowering to be able to get angry and express it.  You can take the Enneagram test here.

Also knowing where you get your energy and how you think and feel is a great way to know more about yourself. Are you an extrovert or introvert? Do lead with thinking or feeling? This can be tremendously helpful at work and in intimate relationships. An introvert may need their weekends to recharge at home with a movie or book. Whereas, their extroverted partner may want to recharge by going out with friends. This can be a point of tension with couples because usually what is the case is that neither understands that the other needs a different kind of recharge. How well do you know yourself? If you’re interested in learning more about this  you can take a test here.

4. Have a self-care program

Having a way to counteract the stress in your life is crucial in today’s busy world. If you haven’t already, find a yoga practice, meditation/prayer practice, or dance class (5 rhythms, Soul Motion).

Community is also important and something people often neglect. We can fall into these work bubbles and home bubbles with few opportunities for shared experiences with others outside of our immediate relationships. For example, in addition to a mediation practice at home, go once a week to a sangha (community meditation night). Or, create a monthly potluck night with close friends or go volunteer at your favorite soup kitchen.


If any of these topic interests you check out my talks or contact me.


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