Relating with another person requires stepping away from your own judgements and making an effort to understand the person without bias. Seek out opportunities to talk to people from different areas of life, and use the following advice to make the most of these opportunities. Successfully relating to someone has the potential to make both of you happier and more fulfilled.
Relating to a Friend or Partner
Set aside one on one time. If you have trouble relating to someone close to you, these steps will help you understand him better. The first step is to spend time alone together, to make it easier for you to focus on that person. This is especially true if the friend is feeling introverted or shy, or if he is not comfortable discussing serious or personal topics in front of a group.
Use active listening. Give the other person time to talk about their problems, their feelings, or anything else that is weighing on them. Make a concerted effort to avoid distractions and pay attention. This is called active listening, and can take practice to develop. Turn off your phone, face the person you are listening to, and occasionally nod or say “hmm” to show that you are listening. Practice focusing on what she is saying, and not on how you react to her words or how you plan to respond.
Your friend may not be ready to talk about personal topics at the same time you are ready to focus on them. Let your friend have a more casual conversation if that’s what she wants, but still practice these listening and relating techniques.
Ask questions by referring to what the other person said. Establish a connection and show that you are listening by referring to the point he just made. A question is an excellent way to do this while involving the other person and clarifying anything you’re unclear on. Try these examples, changing the content of the question to fit the topic:
“When you said you were stressed in your job, is that because of the workload, or some other reason?”
“If I understood you right, you’re worried your father will be upset about you moving out of town?”
Pay attention to body language. While listening, watch the person’s facial expressions, gestures, and other movements. If he crosses his arms, moves further away, or makes repeated nervous gestures such as adjusting his hair, he may be uncomfortable. Consider suggesting a more casual topic of conversation.
Learn more about reading body language.
Pause to think about the other person’s point of view. Resist the urge to respond with the first reply that comes to mind. Instead, take a moment to imagine how that person feels. Even if you think her interpretation of the situation is wrong, pretend you are in her position and have the same idea of what’s going on. Could you see yourself responding in a similar way, or at least feeling the temptation to respond in that way?
For example, your friend accuses you of intentionally excluding her from a party, when in fact you tried to invite her and failed to reach her. Instead of defending yourself immediately or getting offended, try to think about how you would like to be treated if you genuinely thought your friends were avoiding you. Letting her know that she is still your friend by inviting her to another event may be more effective than arguing over the details of the last one.
Don’t voice every disagreement you have. Relating isn’t about winning a fight, or even communicating every opinion you have. Stay honest, but don’t automatically vocalize every argument or negative reaction you have. Respect your friend by allowing him to hold a different opinion than yours. As a rule of thumb, disagreements that lead to harm or negative emotions should be discussed openly. Disagreements that do not actively affect your relationship can be left alone. For example, differences in political views rarely affect regular interactions between friends, as long as they refrain from arguing over them.
Focus only on important problems. Approach disagreements or conflicts with a critical eye before you rush to find a solution. Is this problem something that will drive the relationship apart, or is it a “pet peeve” that you can learn to ignore or work around? Part of relating to someone involves allowing her to take some actions you disagree with, understanding that it works for her.
Often, the two of you can agree not to be around each other during certain actions or events. For example, watch a television show privately if the other person finds it offensive, or give her time alone to see her friend that you don’t get along with.
Sometimes, even apparently serious problems can be worked out with a respectful compromise. For example, you may respectfully attend each other’s different religious ceremonies for important holidays or events, but agree not to attend each other’s weekly religious service.
Forgive the other person’s actions if necessary. Forgiveness is more easily said than done, but if there is “bad blood” between you and your friend, it is worth taking the time to work through it, either with him or by yourself. You do not necessarily need to understand the motivation behind your friend’s actions, but if you wish to relate to your friend in future, you will need to move past resentment.
Note that if the other person is not ready to admit fault, he may be angry when you tell them you forgive him. Keep the forgiveness to yourself if you think this may be the case.
Express gratitude. Create a closer bond by recognizing when the other person does something for you. Thank that person for compliments, assistance, and kind acts. The positive emotional connection may make it easier for you to understand your friend in future, or at least stop you from jumping to negative conclusions about her actions.
Relating to People in General
Be aware of the judgements you make. Most of us make immediate snap judgements when we see or hear a person. This doesn’t mean we need to act on them, or that we’re bad people for thinking of them. However, it’s good to recognize that these judgements can prevent us from relating with people. The first step is to notice when you make these judgements.
Do you avoid certain topics with certain friends because you assume they won’t be interested?
Do you get annoyed or anxious when you see a stranger on the street or public transportation, before he has said or done anything to deserve it?
Do you dislike people with certain superficial traits, such as a tattoo or a choice of activity?
Don’t criticize “shallow” behavior. A common complaint by people who have trouble relating to others is that other people are shallow, immature, or even stupid. Dismissing someone with these insults makes it unlikely that you’ll ever discover another side to her.
People having fun can often be annoying to people who don’t share their idea of enjoyment. If someone parties more than you would like, or acts hyper and obnoxious in a group of friends, consider that you might still get along with her in a calmer environment.
Fashion choices, makeup, or even choice of activity are often more superficial than people think. Don’t let your stereotypes get in the way of a conversation.
Keep an open mind about other people’s lifestyles. Activities you look down on may be fulfilling for other people, or provide benefits that your lifestyle doesn’t. Even if someone admits to “guilty pleasures” that don’t appear to be beneficial, consider that these may reduce stress or boost energy levels before she returns to more productive or challenging activities.
Try to “translate” other accents or writing styles into your own voice. It’s easy to stereotype someone based on his accent, his use of “text speak,” or even a certain phrase that annoys you. Before you respond, imagine yourself or a respected friend making the same statement with a different tone or word choice. Does it sound more reasonable?
Practice a method of starting a conversation. If you want to meet new people, find a way to start conversations. It’s easier to get an accurate idea of someone’s personality once you’re chatting. Here are a couple simple ways to accomplish this:
Ask a simple question to get started. If you smoke, ask whether the other person has a light. Ask a stranger in a big city whether she come from the city or moved here from elsewhere.
If something funny or alarming happens nearby, make a comment on it, or just make eye contact and raise your eyebrows.
Bring along a conversation starter, such as a dog or a noticeable, unusual piece of clothing.
Read more literary fiction. At least one study suggests that reading “literary fiction” or realistic fiction can increase your ability to relate to other people. This may be due to these works explaining characters’ motivations or showing their experiences in a more realistic setting, which can help readers understand the motivations of people in everyday life. This probably has no effect unless you are reading a story that you feel emotionally involved in. If reading a story feels like a chore, stop and try to find literary fiction you may enjoy more.
Watch films and television with the sound turned off. Train yourself to read body language and facial expressions by turning the volume and subtitles off and trying to figure out what is going on. If you have difficulty with this, try watching the films with a friend who is good at reading body language, and have her explain her interpretations to you. Move on to watching by yourself once you have more practice.
Watch foreign language films without subtitles to practice interpreting tones of voice as well.
Studies show that people with lower status or less wealth may be more empathetic in many situations. While most of us are not willing to give up these benefits for the sake of relating to people, keep this in mind when you interact with people less fortunate than yourself. You may need to spend extra time and effort on these steps to counteract this effect.
Sources and Citations
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