I have been reflecting a lot lately on what makes a relationship work. And more and more I’m leaning towards believing that, though each relationship is unique, there is a formula that takes you most of the way to a lasting, happy relationship.
Reflection on this topic began when I was introduced to what we call “leadership tools” at work, a set of tools or models we use to shape the way we think and change our behaviour so we become leaders of ourselves and of others. The tools cover a variety of concepts, and the three which I’ve come to believe are the basis of all healthy relationships are trust, authenticity, and communication.
Let’s begin with trust. I think we can all agree that trust is essential to building a relationship – be it familial, platonic, or romantic. If we are lucky to be born into a loving family, we develop trust from a very young age in our parents or parent; we trust that they want the best for us and will do all in their power to keep us safe and give us a good life. Admittedly, parents can sometimes be misguided and end up imposing their views and desires on us, but in most cases the intention is good, and – though we may not admit it – we usually trust that this is the case.
Entering into a relationship with someone who is a stranger to us, for me, is akin to leaping off the cliff into the unknown. We are essentially placing our heart on someone else’s hands, leaving ourselves exposed and vulnerable. Trust to me is making the jump while firmly believing that a strong pair of hands will be there to catch us, knowing that our heart will not be carelessly or mercilessly crushed. Without trust, this leap of faith does not happen and a genuine relationship cannot be built.
But it is not enough to have trust. That trust also needs to be communicated to the other person. It needs to be signaled and acknowledged so that – if the trust is not misplaced – it can be returned. In Thai we have a saying, “We cannot clap with one hand”. Relationships are between two people. Similarly, the trust must be two-way.
How do we communicate our trust to the other person? One way to do that is by being authentic. Authenticity is often mistaken for honesty, but it is not. Authenticity is much further along the spectrum; it is honesty with vulnerability. It is us ripping our chest open, letting the other person know that we have placed our heart in their hands, that we are vulnerable to them – to their words, their actions, even their thoughts. Authenticity is letting our weaknesses be seen, initiating the hard conversations, saying how we feel when we are disappointed with something that they’ve done; but it is also expressing our joys, sharing our successes. It is absolute clarity, a window into our souls.
But trust and authenticity, as crucial as they are, can only take us some of the way. For a relationship to work, there must also be communication. Without communication, it is very difficult to place and win trust, and impossible to be authentic. We must talk with our family, friends, partner, colleagues. We must initiate and reciprocate conversation.
And it is not enough just to communicate. We must communicate well. In all communication, perception is reality. And we must understand that each individual’s perception is invariably influenced by their opinions, values, upbringing, culture, and a myriad other factors that shape who they are. So, in communicating, we must be aware of this fact and weave our way through the layers, speak the language of the other person.
In my 28 years, I have observed many relationships – some flourishing, and others which are undeniably failing. I have witnessed authenticity; but sadly, more often I have witnessed at one end of the spectrum silence where words needed to be said and on the other careless ones uttered with no consideration of the other person’s feelings, with no attempt made to be empathetic, to see the world through the other person’s eyes.
I see those relationships and realise how lucky I am to have the relationships that I am in, to have placed my heart on worthy hands and to have received the ones on mine. Granted, the path is not lined with rose petals, but I believe that, with awareness and effort – relationships don’t just happen; they require building and maintaining – the relationships I have built will last and be a continual source of joy and wonder in my life.
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