Keeping Relationships On-track by Paying Attention

Have you ever looked through a window only to be distracted by your reflection? Instead of intending your gaze on what’s going on past the pane of glass, suddenly you find yourself paying attention to your hair or fussing over some other aspect of your image as it glints back at you. Similarly, we use our relationships like windows: They can offer clear vantage points to the world around us or be used as self-involved mirrors to reflect only what we wish to see.

Many people enter a range of relationships hinging on the rusty assumption that both participants must have similar viewpoints for the pairing to have lasting value. These unfortunates struggle because they treat their interactions like mirrors. Longing to see themselves reflected in their partner’s eyes, they become disturbed and disappointed when what looks back at them is a person with differing perspectives.

Instead of paying attention to the other’s point of view they jump into judgment and, therefore, stop listening, learning, and growing. It is far healthier to look past our agendas to view differences with others as opportunities to strengthen our relationships and expand our horizons.

The Art of Paying Attention

The next time you find yourself struggling over a discrepancy with a friend, co-worker, or loved one, practice the following 5-steps as a way to see more clearly and strengthen your bond:

1.     Instead of judging, get curious: Instead of launching into how you disagree, ask them to tell you more about their point of view.

2.     Summarize what they’ve said to demonstrate that you are engaged, interested, and invested in listening to them.

3.     Find something in the other person’s viewpoint that you can agree with – even if it seems like a grain of sand on a vast beach of unreasonableness. A little empathy (walking a while in another’s shoes) goes a long way in helping others feel understood. Reassure them you’re taking the time to have this discussion because you care about them and your relationship with them.

4.     Ask for clarity: Express your feelings about what they’ve said tactfully and directly: “I Statements” are a great method for this. For example: “When you tell me the sky is orange, it confuses me because the sky appears blue to me.” Ask them how they feel about the way you are feeling (ex: confused) not necessarily about the specific belief (the color of the sky).

5.     Your self-disclosure may give them the understanding you both need: Perhaps the person was describing a sunset when you thought they were talking about a noontime sky. Or, may the person discloses that they are colorblind, which opens up sharing and allows you to understand better how a colorblind person might perceive the world.

Once the two of you are in a mutually respectful place, discuss ways to strengthen your newly found camaraderie – This often includes an understanding that each other’s differences can prove to be enlightening instead of challenging or threatening.

Decide to step away from the limits of your own reflection by paying attention. Roll up your shades of doubt, throw open the windows of opportunity, and cast your gaze toward the bigger picture of collective engagement.

Healthy interaction provides learning opportunities for us all – whatever colors the sky happens to be.