Erica Reischer Ph.D.

What Great Parents Do

3 Steps to Get Any Relationship Back on Track

Expert advice on how to repair and strenghten any relationship

Posted May 28, 2015

Google Images/reuse
Source: Google Images/reuse

Maybe your significant other is angry at you, your boss is frustrated, or your friend is avoiding you.  Healthy relationships are critical to our well-being, so when our important relationships are out of whack it can make us feel out of whack too.

Here are 3 steps anyone can use to get a relationship back on track. 

1.  Listen. 

Listen to what the other person is saying, or, if the situation giving rise to the conflict is in the past, ask them to share their perspective on what happened.

Do not listen with an eye toward preparing how you will respond, or rebutting what they are saying.  Listen only to understand and especially listen for their feelings

Your goal here is to fully understand their experience of what happened. Ask lots of open-ended questions until you understand, and feel ready to proceed to Step 2 (Reflect).

To listen in this special way, many people find it helpful to pretend they are a reporter interviewing a source. 

2.  Reflect. 

Now that you have listened with the goal of understanding the other person's experience, reflect back in your own words what they have just said, as if from their perspective.

Once you have done the reflection, ask them if you got it right.  If they say "yes" you can move on to Step 3.  If they say "no" ask them nicely to repeat or clarify any parts of their experience you may have missed or misunderstood.  Continue this process until they say "yes."

For example:  "So, when I forgot to make the dinner reservations that I said I would for this weekend, you felt like our plans weren't important to you and that you weren't a priority for me.  Did I get that right?"

It's important to note that you do not have to agree with the other person's experience of what happened in order to reflect it. In Step 2, you are just taking on their perspective and reflecting what happened for them.

Bonus points for Step 2:  The essential part of Step 2 is reflection, but if you can also show sincere empathy, that will help even more.  Empathy is being able to feel what someone else feels based on your own experience. 

Here's an example of empathy using this scenario: "If the same thing happened to me, I might feel like you didn't care very much about me, and that would feel terrible.  Is that how you felt?"

Do not try to show empathy if it feels insincere to you.  In that case, just stick with reflection.

3.  Respond. 

Notice that responding is the last step, even though it's the first thing many of us do in a disagreement. 

Responding is also optional.  If you don't feel the need to respond, then just let the conversation be about listening and reflecting.

But if you do want to respond, because you feel it's important for them to hear your perspective, then follow these guidelines when you do:

     A.  Do not tell the other person they are wrong or say "That's not what happened."  This is likely to reignite the conflict. Instead, frame your experience as just that:  your experience.  So you might start your response with this:  "From my experience..." or "It seemed to me that..."

     B.  Avoid words like "always" and "never" as in:  "You always nag me about..."  Instead, keep the focus on specific behaviors and how you interpret them, for example:  "When you ask me more than once about something, it feels like nagging to me."

After you respond, politely ask the other person to reflect back what you have said.  They are more likely to be willing to do this if you just did it for them.

Continue this process (Steps 1, 2, and maybe 3) as needed.


© 2015, Erica Reischer Ph.D.  Twitter: @DrEricaR

Get science-based relationship tips in your inbox.

Dr. Reischer is a psychologist and author of "What Great Parents Do:  The small Book of BIG Parenting Ideas" (forthcoming, Tarcher/Penguin Random House).