3 Easy Ways to Navigate Tough Moments in Your Relationships


Relationships are difficult as evidenced by the fact that the personal relationship card keeps getting turned up with executives I work with everywhere I go. And, because what happens at home has an effect on performance at work, this is hugely important. I'm not a marriage counselor, but with my work in emotional intelligence and brain-based performance management, relationships are of course an issue for anyone I talk to.

Ironically, several years ago, one of the documentaries I researched, wrote and produced during my TV days was called, Fighting For Your Marriage. It featured relationship psychologists, Drs. Howard Markman and Scott Stanley, who could predict with a whopping 90% accuracy those relationships that would last and those that would crumble, all by listening to a contentious 30-minute conversation. I look back upon the lessons they taught me and add some of my own insights from my experiences in the field of optimal performance.

What's the adage? One person: peace; two people: conflict. Unless you're living under a rock alone, you understand the conflict part. Interestingly, after my presentations on leadership and organizational success, the questions I field are not what one might expect. They often have to do with how to deal with conflict with their kids or with their significant others. What's fascinating is that these businesspeople almost apologize for "devolving" into a discussion about personal matters - as if the brain doesn't pay attention to personal relationships in the same way it does to business ones. A fact to remember: Our brain goes with us anywhere we go and pays attention to all that we expose it to, and so these discussions on personal difficulties are incredibly informative for our brain no matter the location in which it finds itself. Here are the big three that keep coming up.

1. My partner comes home and literally dumps all the bad things of the day on me.

This one comes up a lot. Many might think their personal relationships are the safe place to do this dumping, but without some parameters, it could be injurious to the relationship. Think about whom you love and respect the most and it's likely the person on whom you are verbally vomiting. Over time, loving feelings can become confused by all of this negativity after doing nothing but being subjected to your bad day. Plus, "What do you think I can do about all the bad monsters at your work, anyway?!"

Here is a guideline. Ask for permission to dump. Yes, even with your partner. Respect your partner by saying something like, "I've had a horrible day. May I just take 15 minutes and get it off my chest?" Then take only 15 minutes (really) and move on to your partner's needs from the day. No need to solve anything. Your partner just needs to listen. By doing this simple technique you encapsulate your gripe session into a brief window; you warn your partner that it's about to happen so that it doesn't come out of left field; and it feels less personal and tedious when your partner knows they don't have to solve anything for you.

2. When I walk in the door after a long day at work, it's almost like a competition to see who had the worse day.

This is kind of like the one above, except both parties might be feeling frazzled and ready to dump or hand over the cranky kids. If that's your scenario, create some ground rules about the transition time back into home after work. Both of you have things you want to get off your chest, but nobody wants to be ambushed the moment they walk in the door. Create a safe zone for about 30 minutes after both of you are home together. During that safe zone, no demanding anything from each other or dumping the day's problems. If one of the partners is at home with the kids all day, maybe switch roles for the initial 30 minutes and give the other a break to freshen up. Some people have told me that they use the safe transition time to have a drink with their partner on the back patio and just sit together saying nothing. If your job to home transition is a rocky one, create a 30-minute safety zone.

3. We never celebrate the good stuff like we used to.

Relationship expert Dr. Shelly Gable and others have discovered the flipside of dealing with conflict. It has to do with how much you celebrate as a couple. Couples who celebrate more of life's little victories have more positive and long-lasting relationships. If things feel negative and a little sour in your relationship, ask your brain to attend to a victory, no matter how small, that you can talk about with your partner - every day. Your partner does the same thing. Maybe during your transition time, you report your victories to each other. This does many things, but the biggest benefits are that you ask yourself to find something positive to be grateful for every day. That's healthy for the brain in anyone's book. Second, you bring positive juju to your relationship. Finally, it just feels better overall. Our brain is wired better to spot threat than it is to attend to reward, so we need to be a little more intentional about unburying our overworked selves, looking up and finding something positive to report.

Believe it or not, your leadership/management style is likely a reflection of your personal relationship style and vice versa. When you practice the respect the tactics above require, you can't help but see the benefits in all of your relationships - business or personal.