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5 Essentials for Close Relationships—and for a Reunified U.S.

These habits apply in personal interactions and equally in the political world.

Key points

  • The current internal divisiveness in the United States can be healed.
  • Listening style has an especially strong impact on relationships.
  • Hostile attitudes undermine intimate relationships; they similarly can destroy countries.
Source: Polina Tankilevitch/Pexels
Loving relationships and a strong country: What's the same?
Source: Polina Tankilevitch/Pexels

Teenagers Bonnie and Bobbi have long enjoyed a warm and close friendship, a friendship free of tensions, full of fun, and enriched by their mutual abilities to talk openly about their differences.

By contrast, spouses Joe and Donna had been feeling tense and defensive toward each other. They decided that setting aside time for a meaningful talk together might be helpful. Alas, instead of re-igniting their affection for each other, talking together exacerbated their former frustrations and even opened new antagonisms.

A mayor and the mayor of the town next door started to talk about a problem that had come up between their two towns. Very quickly, instead of problem-solving, the discussion turned into a battle of My way. No, my way.

Congresspeople in Washington from different sides of the aisle, like too many citizens with differing political views, too often assume enemy postures instead of sharing their viewpoints in respectful voice tones. They listen to criticize each other's perspectives rather than to understand them. They insistently push their own preferred solutions instead of brainstorming together to find co-created win-win solutions to the country's challenges.

In all of these situations, what has gone wrong? Most likely there have been violations of the five basic rules of positive relationships.

1. Be nice.

Were Joe and Donna, the two mayors, and the Congresspeople speaking to each other in mutually pleasant voices, reflecting an underlying attitude of mutual respect? Or had they devolved into poking and stabbing each other with insults and accusations?

Irritated voices and hurtful words push people away. Better to keep your moments of negative emotional intensity only momentary. As soon as you hear yourself sounding negative, apologize, rein yourself back into a calm place, and proceed only then.

To stay in the calm zone, the zone of niceness, take a pause the moment you begin to feel even the slightest bit of annoyace. Say to yourself, "Anger is a stop sign." What do you do at a stop sign? You stop. You don't clobber people with the stop sign. You stop and look around to understand the situation. Only then do you proceed ahead, and you move forward in a mode of niceness.

So, at the very first indications of irritation, pause. Ask yourself, "What do I want?" and then, "What might be a better way to get what I want than getting mad?"

Beware, too, of taking a blaming or criticizing stance: "You shouldn't have ...!" Instead, talk about situations that had triggered a negative feeling for you by using a when-you: "When you said x, I felt ___."

Talk about issues that have arisen between you only when you can share your perspectives in a calm and friendly tone.

2. Be appreciative.

Listen in a way that enables you to express agreement. "That's interesting." "Hmm, I like your idea that _____." Validating and appreciating what others say and do sends forth positive energy.

Genuinely listen to uptake what makes sense in what you are hearing. Respond then with Yes, and build aloud on what you learned before moving forward with sharing your additional perspective.

Beware of any responding with But, as that word indicates that you are listening to push away what you are hearing rather than to appreciate what makes sense in it.

After you have clarified what you heard, then you can add your perspective, Just be sure that you add by starting with and, not but. That way, even if your perspective is quite different, it too will be most likely to get received appreciatively.

3. Be curious.

Ask questions about others' concerns.

Instead of assuming you know what others think, ask to find out. If someone did something you did not like, ask them about it instead of criticizing or blaming. "How come you came into the house without saying hello to me when you returned from work today?" "What were you thinking when you went silent just now?" "What do you hope to accomplish by Congress passing this law?"

Good questions begin with What and How. If your partner says, "I'm feeling frustrated," instead of getting defensive, ask a follow-up question: "How come?" or "What about?" Be curious.

4. Be open.

Let new ideas and different viewpoints enrich your thoughts. "You have a good point, and my concern is valid as well. Let's create a plan for moving forward that works for both of us."

Be especially open to discovering mistakes you may have made so that you can apologize and self-correct in the future.

Repeat to yourself often the mantra Listen to learn. If you are listening to find what is wrong with what you are hearing, your mind has closed to new information. No one likes talking with someone whose listening is like a brick wall. By contrast, if you are listening to learn from others, they will feel valued, they will be more likely to value you in return, and the two of you together can fix whatever difficulty has occurred.

The opposite of being open is refusal to listen. Blocking free speech spells disaster for marriages and for countries as well.

5. Be humble.

Listen to learn. Assume that others see things that you did not know before. Instead of demonizing others, assume that others with very different ideas than yours are looking at different data points. Assume that they are motivated by concerns that differ from yours, yet are also valid. Are you trying to show that your ideas are better than theirs? That you are right and they are wrong?

Catch yourself right away if instead of aiming to uptake what you are hearing, you are aiming instead to negate it or to push it aside. Notice, and switch.

Humility enables the ability to add others' perspectives to yours.

The moral of the story?

When people are driving their cars, they must observe the rules of the road. Otherwise, they are inviting crashes and injuries. This rule applies to small cars and huge trucks as well.

Similarly, the five guidelines above keep dialogue safe. Similarly also, they apply both in the small moment-to-moment interactions between loved ones and in the large import interactions between political leaders.

Ignore these guidelines, and you will create a high likelihood of destroying the relationship—and at the same time harming those whom you are responsible for (children, citizens). Follow them, and you will create safe and satisfying interactions, the ability to find win-win solutions to your differences, and the joy of seeing your relationships, your dependents, and your country flourish.

For more information on habits that build healthy relationships, do check out my books.


Heitler, S. (2016). Prescriptions Without Pills: For Relief From Depression, Anger, Anxiety, and More. New York: Morgan James.

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