The question of how best to deal with relationship challenges in our life is not new!
And as Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Happiness at Work, notes; ‘bad behavior’ can be as a result of intentional malice but most often is not.
When we perceive ourselves to be on the receiving end of what we label as ‘bad’ or challenging behavior, we are often judgmental of both the behavior and the motive (intent) of the other.
It is not uncommon for there to be blame.
And it is also not uncommon for us to also lose touch with who we are.
Just as much as the other who acted ‘badly’ may have lost touch with themselves.
That seems to be the difficulty. That as much as we want to control our external world to secure inner peace we find that there is much going on within us that is also part of the challenging mix!
So then, what exactly is a challenging relationship?
Very simply, a challenging relationship is one that you have concluded is challenging!
In other words the test is subjective and very personal.
It means that your difficult person may be liked by many. You may or may not be the only one bothered. And, you may be shocked to find that others – using this same subjective test - find you challenging at times!
This subjective approach is intentional. It avoids ‘typing’ and excessive labeling in which the identification of qualities justify a diagnosis or ‘type’.
See, for example, the book “How People Tick: A Guide to Over 50 Types of Difficult People and How to Handle Them” by Mike Leibling. How anyone can remember all the 50 different types of difficult people or indeed what to do for each is beyond me.
At the end of the day, you will know if you are at peace or not. And if your perception is that the relationship is in any way;
- Threatening not safe
- Negative not positive
- Difficult not easy
- Defensive not open
- Hostile not friendly
- Confusing not clear
- Draining not energizing
- Toxic not healthy
Then you have a challenging relationship!
Now, I hasten to add that this conclusion does not entitle you to blame or do any of the other things that will make the situation worse.
But at least you won’t get stuck arguing about whether the behavior or attitude meets the definition of challenging behavior. Or which type it is! Or what to do assuming you have the correct type!
There are 10 things that I have identified that are guaranteed to make things worse. One is labelling and typing.
Another is blame!
When things turn out differently to what we hoped and we are disappointed and even angry because our needs are not being met, we often blame the proverbial other for what went wrong.
The benefit is that we may get sympathy and care. Sometimes shared outrage! And as long as the focus of blame is more external on the other or the environment, we can avoid our own feelings of pain and responsibility. Remember, our part in the challenging mix!
When we blame we make a judgment and hold the other person responsible for a situation from the past based on our perception and interpretation of the facts. As the authors of Difficult Conversations (Stone, Patton, Heen) say, “blame is about judging and looking backwards.”
Blame elicits defensiveness. It reduces the likelihood of learning about what is really causing the difficulty or from doing anything helpful about it.
A blame conversation is not the only conversation humans can have when things go wrong. I will always be grateful to Stone, Patton and Heen who revealed a worthy process alternative: a contribution conversation.
“A contribution conversation is about understanding and looks forward.”
Instead of asking whose fault is it, we openly ask how we each contributed to the situation in question:
What is my contribution to the situation?
What did we each do?
What can we learn?
Instead of defensiveness and concealment that prevents learning when we take the blame route, we discover through our candid revealing that we can learn from our individual and collective mistakes.
Here’s how the two approaches look side to side. Where the blame cycle grows and leads to more of the same challenge, the contribution conversation is balancing and reduces the problem.
We all experience challenging relationships and as the wise Sharon Salzberg cautions - most of the time it is from good folk, like you and me, losing touch with who we really are.