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The 2 Most Critical Elements of Any Relationship

The simplest advice to strengthen your relationships may be hardest to follow.

Source: XiXinXing/Shutterstock

We seem to be living in a polarized time, with bitter divisiveness based on political, racial, religious, ethnic, gender, and other distinctions. Or at least it appears that way if you pay attention to daily news reports. Incivility also seems to be more commonplace than in the past—and sadly, people seem to be quicker to be insulting, bitter, angry, and to engage in bullying behaviors.

While there is no simple way to turn these disturbing trends around, we may be able to pivot in a more productive direction. Doing so involves remembering two key words and filtering all of our behavior through them whenever we interact with others—in person or online. These words should be used as a mantram and as an organizing and centering principle. They are respect and compassion.


One of the evidence-based predictors of relational conflict, as well as its resulting frustration and aggression, is feeling disrespected, or "dissed." Being treated respectfully and with dignity goes a long way in interpersonal and inter-group relationships. People and groups can disagree and not like each other, but if they feel that they are respected by others, they can avoid the aggressive polarization we so often see today.

Showing some degree of respect to everyone is a winning strategy for better relationships. President George Washington's first rule of civility, in his famous Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, states, "Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect, to those that are present."

This is good advice from a founding father.


Another evidence-based predictor of relational conflict is the feeling that others just don’t care about you. A lack of compassion, whether real or perceived, can be devastating. Expressing compassion for others—again, even for those you don’t like very much or have little in common with—can be disarming and help defuse escalating conflict, frustration, and aggression. Offering a supportive and compassionate comment or gesture—verbal or nonverbal—goes a long way in all relationships.

While treating everyone with respect and compassion might seem obvious or just plain common sense, it really isn’t: People often find it difficult to put common-sense practice into action. It is especially hard to do so in the heat of the moment. Even the American Psychological Association, the world’s largest group of psychologists, recently felt compelled to form a civility working group in order to get its member professionals to behave in a more civil manner that includes respect and compassion toward each other. That's remarkable!

Respect and compassion should be used as a behavioral filter or mantram in all of our interactions with others—at home, work, and in the public sphere. We should filter our online behavior through this lens as well—including Yelp reviews, commentary on Facebook, or other social media sites.

Embracing respect and compassion, and putting these principles into daily practice, can improve all of our relationships. And if highlighting respect and compassion becomes the norm for our interactions with each other, perhaps we can create a better climate and culture for all.

It's at least worth a try, don't you think?

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Copyright 2016, Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP.