If I were building a house and then subsequently maintaining it, I would need the right tools. Well designed, easy-to-use, accessible tools. Especially if I wanted the finished product to be a particularly sturdy, beautiful, life-giving house to meet my needs, now and in the future. The same is true for building relationships -- with spouses or partners, children, parents, friends, siblings, co-workers -- and even God.
Through an inspiring online session on relationships through our church*, I was recently introduced to Haley Erickson, a delightful and knowledgable licensed therapist in St. Petersburg, Florida. Haley's specialty is leading us humans to the tools for building and maintaining healthy relationships. Generous with her time and expertise, she graciously agreed to an interview.
There are many practical tools in her toolbox, I learned quickly. Yet as we talked, the wisdom of picking up one simple tool and using it more often hit me over the head like a hammer.
Drumroll please...the QUESTION.
Although questions want an answer by design, come to find out, using them productively and intentionally can produce positive results when it comes to dealing with other humans.
Below are a few of what I call "guiding questions" which can lead us to inner peace, reduced conflict, and healthier interactions -- if we keep them handy in the tool belt instead of having to dig in the garage for them.
** Note...if the relationship is toxic or abusive, these won't work. Please seek help. **
So...here we go...
TOOLS TO ASSESS OURSELVES
Why am I feeling this way?
Haley says as women, we tend to assess ourselves in the negative when pondering this question. Picture a courtroom...it always has a defense attorney on one side, a prosecutor on the other, and a judge who evaluates evidence on both sides.
Is my expectation of this person/situation/outcome fair?
We set our own deadlines. We imagine the outcome that works best for us. We see exactly what "perfect" looks like. Is it unrealistic or unworkable or uninviting to others?
Do I need to remove myself from this situation?
Yes, we really do have the power, and even the right, to simply leave the room.
Am I taking this too personally?
Just because my sister doesn't call me regularly to see how I'm doing doesn't mean she doesn't care. When someone doesn't return my text or email right away, it likely doesn't mean he/she is mad at me. Haley and I laughed together when she added, "As a woman, menopause is not your fault, and it's not your husband's either!"
What do I value?
Knowing what matters to us personally can help identify why something (or someone) is bugging you. For example, if you value punctuality, it can feel disrespectful when someone close is always late. If you value healthy living, it may be hard to watch loved ones fill their bodies with sugary snacks and drinks. If you value peace and quiet in the morning, it may get your day off to a bad start if you wake up to your husband watching videos on Facebook or clanging dishes. If you value privacy, you wouldn't want me to write about what happens at our house in the mornings! ;)
Are my complaints balanced with praise and admiration?
Haley says our complaints and requests may be better received if they are balanced by an appropriate amount of praise and admiration. Stephen Covey would call this the "emotional bank account."
What's the worst thing that can happen?
Having tough conversation or communicating our own needs feels risky. But it probably won't kill you. (I have another version of this question for us "doers"...if this task/project doesn't get done, so what?)
Am I getting to be the daughter/wife/mom/sister/friend I want to be, when it's all said and done?
If the ultimate goal is to win the World Series, there will wins and losses and home runs and strikeouts along the way. What matters is giving it our best and feeling good about the position we play, even when things don't go exactly as we thought they would.
TOOLS TO COMMUNICATE MORE EFFECTIVELY WITH OTHERS
Could simple personality differences be the reason we aren't communicating well?
For instance, am I asking an introvert to magically become an extrovert (or vice versa)? Know your own personality style and recognize how external factors impact human moods -- aka, hangry, hormonal, or just a hard day. There are as many unique personalities as there are people on the planet.
If I don't get the response I want, or in the amount of time I want, then what?
This can be frustrating for high-functioning females...(who, me??)
What is it that I really want?
Not to be confused with what I don't want...
"What's your 'real' question?"
If the need/want is being abstractly communicated through a threat, complaint, or sarcastic comment, you might have to ask a few more questions to get to it.
"What solution would work for you?"
This one is in the pocket of your tool belt for when your plan or idea is rejected...hopefully doesn't happen often! (wink)
"Would it be OK if we talk about this another time?"
Be prepared...this is a yes or no question...so if you want a quick resolution, you might have to wait. Or conversely, you may request more room to process the situation yourself.
And the biggie...before you speak...How can I turn my comment/concern/flat statement into a question?
I've learned this one the hard way!! Haley reminded me even the most well-intended, loving statement can be received as confrontational or critical, particularly in tough times when emotions are close to the surface, so putting it in the form of a question is softer. Also avoid phrases such as "you should"..."you need to"..."you don't ever"..."you always"...you get it! Or as my dad (aka, The King of the One Liners) would say, "don't piss on a hot rock."
TOOLS FOR MARVELOUS MAVENS
(aka, fabulous middle-aged-women-who-don't-see-ourselves-as-old-yet)
What life-giving, joy-filled activities or environments have I been missing?
Were beloved hobbies, interests, and recreational activities put on pause while we were raising kids, serving communities, tending to aging parents, or building careers? Whatever it is for you, it's time to add it back. God created so much for us to enjoy!
What is your experience with menopause?
Ask your mother, your best friend, your older sister, your hairdresser! We should make it safe to share in this space with each other, our daughters, and our nieces, even though our own mothers likely did not. We need some perspective, ladies!! (Is it hot in here??)
What do I want my marriage/partnership/friendship to look like in retirement? As an empty-nester?
It's guaranteed to look and feel different. Don't let it sneak up on you.
What do we do with all of this?
Here are more Haley Helpful Hints, which I took a little liberty in paraphrasing.
1) Be intentional.
2) Communicate early and often. We have the benefit at this stage of life to own where we are, and communicate what we need.
3) When you do answer the questions, make sure the answers are realistic and authentic. And there are no wrong answers.
4) Take space and give space, no judgment, no explanation, no orchestration. (In Haley's words, if he needs to go play golf and she need to go in the spare room and do yoga, enough said.)
5) Expect grouchy. (We're all grouchy sometimes, right?)
6) Guard your heart and your boundaries.
7) Have FUN! The best friendships are nailed together with laughter. And the best relationships are built on a foundation of friendship. (That goes for marriage, too.)
Last question...is it 5:00 yet?? ;)
* To view Bridgepoint Church's entertaining and enlightening session featuring Haley Erickson's interview with Chad and Nikki Bryan, part 4 of the series Better Than Normal, please visit https://youtu.be/T6PsOW2s4C4.