“Deep human connection is the purpose and the result of a meaningful life—and it will inspire the most amazing acts of love, generosity and humanity.”
- Melinda Gates
Each of us shares this planet with 7.8 billion other people. Really let that sink in for a moment—7.8 billion people, all completely unique, all playing out from birth to death and epic saga filled with love, fear, change, adversity, hope . . . just like you. A handful of people in that 7.8 billion are those who you love and cherish. But there are also the people you will work with and for, the people who can help you excel and achieve, the people who need your help and your unique gifts, and the people who are going to challenge you to evolve in ways you can’t yet imagine.
Despite our being jam-packed and full of possibilities to connect, the world today is set up to reinforce an illusion of separateness. We may feel that we are fundamentally alone in our experience, with our sole responsibility being to advance our own narrow interests, gain material security, or bolster our egos against a hostile and uninterested universe. And yet . . . in our most vulnerable moments, we remember what really matters: deep human connection.
If there’s just one skill that will guarantee you a happier, more successful life, it’s the ability to have compassionate, cooperative relationships with other people. Whether it’s with your family members, friends, colleagues, or romantic partners, there’s no area of life that isn’t improved when you get on better with the other humans in your world. Poor relationships are arguably the most significant public health risk—without proper communication, we are unable to parent, unable to love, unable to lead in business, unable to negotiate, and entirely unable to make sense of our lives in our friendships, our families, our communities. Communication is nothing less than the fabric that stitches all 7.8 billion of us together.
In this book, we’ll be looking at practical ways to transform yourself into someone who is likeable, communicates well, and has meaningful, productive connections with others. Though this might be an area of difficulty for you currently, the good news is that all of us have the capacity to improve the way we connect and communicate.
You versus Me . . . or Us versus the Problem
Let’s begin, however, with all the things that stand in the way of us being the compassionate, emotionally intelligent people we want to be. If people desire better relationships, then why do they find it so difficult to cultivate them? Unfortunately, our world is geared up to emphasize the narcissistic, the competitive, and the combative in us, while there is comparatively little training or education on how to engage cooperatively with our fellow man. The first step to learning to be better, though, is acknowledging what isn’t working currently.
In this book, we’ll keep returning to several core concepts and mindset shifts that underpin our approach to improving relationships. Perhaps the biggest one is simple: it’s how we frame arguments.
Imagine a married couple who have exactly the same argument every few months. The wife feels emotionally neglected and sidelined while the husband works, and her fears mount until she raises the issue. She says, “I feel unloved,” and he hears, “You don’t love me. You’re doing something wrong.” He goes on the defensive and starts explaining how hard he works—to support her! Isn’t she grateful? Does she think that she’s perfect? The wife feels even more unloved.
There are countless examples of these boring old arguments a million times over all across the world. You’ve probably had some of them yourself, right? What they all have in common, though, is that they position the other person as an enemy. It’s them versus you. Many of us go into combat mode so automatically that we literally cannot think of any other way to communicate. If you disagree, doesn’t that logically make the other person your adversary?
The answer is no! Communication experts understand this point: That it’s always you and the other person as a team working against the problem, rather than you and the other person working against one another. The goal of conversations is never to declare a winner. It’s to create harmony, connection, and understanding. Imagine it as partner dancing, rather than martial arts!
Simply get into the habit of saying, “We’re on the same team,” and you’ll find this instantly brings you both into a more cooperative mindset. When you have a relationship with someone, healthy communication is geared toward protection and maintenance of that connection—not to hurting the other person, blaming them, or finding out who is the villain and who the hero. This latter approach is like doing salsa dance with someone and trying to compete to see who can get to the end of the song fastest—not only does it not make sense, nobody will enjoy the experience!
Disagreement or conflict does not need to be an invitation to go into war mode with another person. For the couple above, they can really start to shift the issue when they realize that they love one another and are both on the same side. The wife loves her husband and wants to spend time with him; the husband loves his wife and wants to provide for her. When they stop seeing one another as the source of the problem, they can appreciate this monumental fact and put it front and center.
No offense and defense, but teamwork.
No blame or guilt, but honest identification of the problem, and a joint effort to fix it.
No you and me, but us.
Your enemy is not the other person, but whatever is standing in the way of your connection.
No winner and loser; we win together, or we lose together.
Often, people get into heated arguments because deep down they feel threatened, unloved, unheard or disrespected. These needs can be so strong and overpowering that they temporarily eclipse the need for relationship harmony. But here, we make a mistake: this zero-sum thinking has us believing that either we get what we want, or the other person gets what they want. So, if we feel like we are not getting enough understanding or love, we assume we have to take it from the other person. If we want to feel right, we assume that we need to make the other person feel wrong.
Of course, in a healthy relationship of any kind, goodwill, love, and respect are not finite quantities that have to be squabbled over. Everyone can be right! Or on the other hand, two people can differ in their opinions, yet there is no problem and no reason to fight.
An emotional discussion often has a feeling of lack or fear at its very core. When you say, “We’re a team,” it helps to dissolve these feelings and orient you toward solutions. In mentioning solutions, however, it’s worth noting that there are two levels that conversations of this kind usually play out on:
1. The objective content
2. The emotional content
Imagine a friend shows up late to a meeting, and the other friend is angry about it. They argue. The objective content is the fact of the tardiness, and they may fight at length about exactly why the friend was late, and the times it’s happened before, and how bad lateness is or isn’t. But while the argument is a tussle between the friends over where to assign blame, the emotional content is going unspoken: one friend is hurt that the other does not value their friendship as much as they do. Some relationships are one hundred percent objective content—they keep returning to the petty details because they never address the real emotional core of the problem.
The next time you have an argument with someone, take a pause and ask yourself some grounding questions:
• Are you trying to protect and deepen your connection, or are you trying to prove that you’re the winner, i.e., you’re right and they’re wrong?
• Have you unconsciously (or consciously!) positioned the other person up as an attacker or enemy?
• Are you exclusively focused on your point of view and forcing the other person to accept it, rather than seeking a compromise between you?
• What is the emotional content of the situation right now?
Arguments are a natural part of life. We can navigate them in such a way as to create distance and fear, or we can use them as opportunities to grow as individuals and strengthen our bonds with others.
In the thick of an argument, it can be tempting to enjoy being the victim, to heap blame on others, to shut down in defensiveness, or to get aggressive. Even if you “win” an argument this way, though, you ultimately lose. It’s so important to become aware of your emotions and see that no matter how strong or unpleasant they are, it doesn’t change the fact that you and the other person are a solid, unified team.
If you’re struggling, turn your attention away from the other person and look at yourself for a moment. Ask what is stopping you from seeing the other person as an ally and partner. Dig deep and you’ll likely find unmet needs. In later chapters, we’ll talk about ways to get these needs met without having to make the other person responsible or wrong. But for now, it’s enough to simply remind yourself that disagreement, friction, hurt, or confusion are normal. The good news? We can disagree with someone and still have a good relationship with them. We can still listen, we can still be heard, and we can still communicate with compassion and respect.
The goal of all communication is to maintain a healthy and happy connection.
The goal is not to beat the other person down, to win, to make your case, to blame them, to get them to recognize your truth, or to feel vindication for achieving the higher ground.
Tune all your awareness to the former goal, and arguments will cease to be a threat to your relationships.