It’s Not Just About Me, and It’s Not Just About You: Keeping the Positive in Any Relationship

By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC

As Dale Carnegie said, “To be interesting, be interested.”

Has the art of conversation been lost? Has email or its younger brother, text messaging, become the new normal; the standard approach for communication? Has face-to-face interaction or the phone call become the when-all-else-fails situation, relegating their choice as the last available option?

I re-read Robert D. Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, which is almost 20-years-old. What is fascinating is its observation about the social fabric coming apart at the seams. What’s more, is that this was years before the advent and takeover by social media. One of the biggest concerns in the latter part of the twentieth century was whether too much time was devoted to television and the repetition of daily life and their societal impact. The book’s historical references to social divides evinced a more-things-change-the more-they-stay-the-same dynamic. New technology tools, the ways businesses work and the demographic changes in the marketplace will reveal whether personal interaction will be a thing of the past.

The art of the conversation becomes victimized: the lessening of the give and take; the infrequent exchanging and debating of ideas; and the reduced need for thinking, responding and sharing.

And to schedule a simple get together becomes a whole megillah. In this fast-paced existence, the half-hearted let’s-get-together-for-a-cup-of-coffee suggestion requires looking at our smartphone app to see if our calendar allows for such a luxury; as if technology will secretly compress our available time, preventing a simple meeting.

The Get-Together: Be Aware

But, alas, your schedule finally meshes with your friend. Some time has gone by since you both last spoke in person. This conversation could have disastrous results because of the rarity of getting together. Ever notice that a conversation can already begin with an imbalance — one speaks a disproportionate amount of time without taking a breath. If it’s a good friend, then you have to take the good with the bad. But why should you have to? Can’t there be balance, a give and take, where back-and-forth communication is so vital in the relationship?

We’d like to be treated respectfully—to be listened to—by the usual suspects: parents, children, siblings, teachers, customer service reps and others with whom we daily communicate. Why can’t we enjoy and receive the same from colleagues and friends?

We seek to share our wishes and desires with those who are near and dear to us and hope that it is reciprocated. It’s only fair and right.

While family is the strongest union we have—even with its quirks—friendships have shown a fragility because of misinformation, misinterpretation, real (or perceived) slights, off putting body language and the inadvertent choice of words. Life-long friendships become tarnished; new friendships become suspect. The saying of “You can pick your friends, but not your family” means that there is a real balancing act involving the cultivation and nurturing of who is important to you, and rebuffing those who peddle negativity.

Maintaining Relationships and Civility

There are basic elements in forming, growing and retaining relationships through life’s ups and downs. These comprise the nucleus of what is so elemental in communication, whether involving public discourse or personal relationships.

  • No talking at, but speaking with: the ease of conversing. How many times have we seen political pundits talking at and over their fellow panelists and the moderator? Or talk show hosts who ask questions while feigning interest in the answers? Do the answers given and opinions offered have real value to the audience or just serve as entertainment? (Note: What we really need are more interactive prime-time cable shows where viewers can ask the so-called experts questions to force relevant and tangible answers instead of the rote talking points.) As a public official, how many ways can you tell the same story and spew the same viewpoints without inviting listeners into a world of insanity?
  • I believe our civil discourse will get worse before it gets even a tiny bit better. But will we be able to sense an improvement? Whether at work or in a social situation, if you are involved in an 80-20 discussion ratio, meaning you are listening 80 percent and speaking 20 percent, you need to use your allotted time to express thoughts that show understanding, acceptance and empathy. If you can, it’s possible that subsequent conversations will shift to a more meaningful 50-50 balance. We can only hope.
    • Gauge the real value of the investment in your relationships. Oftentimes in conversations there is a sense of one-upmanship. You explain a happy or sad situation, an achievement, or a personal challenge. The other person waits for that one millisecond of silence to jump right in with a thought that has no relationship to what is being discussed. He or she dismisses what you say by offering their own story—inadvertently or not—trying to “outdo” you. Is this a battle you want to continue? Will it enhance your life? Make an assessment of the relationship and do what’s necessary.
    • Not just listen with your ears, but also listen with your heart and brain. Recognize, acknowledge and express sympathy or empathy, when appropriate, and try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes to understand what words are important or that matter, or whether recognizing that just by listening, you are performing an act of kindness without feeling compelled to relate your own experiences. Treat the person’s sharing of something emotional or personal with you as something of real value to embrace. Believe it or not, sometimes a conversation requires just one person speaking and the other person listening. Nothing more.

    As we enter a New Year and future years, let’s hope that there will be a shift from “talking at” to “speaking with”; more thinking and listening; being disabused of the notion that the louder you talk the more correct you are; and finally, determining the risk versus reward of trying to “win” an argument.

    If we all invest more time in personal interaction, then perhaps we can reduce reliance on technology’s conflict avoidance tools, and have a real and meaningful conversation on topics that matter — with those who matter.

    About Steve

    Steven Sacks is the CEO of Solutions to Results, LLC, a consultancy that specializes in helping individuals, firms and organizations meet the challenges of communicating with clarity and purpose.