Human beings are not wired for isolation, we thrive in community and in companionship. Being in relationship—any type of relationship—is one of the single most rewarding and challenging aspects of being human. Our relationships at work, with our families, friends, and partners is what gets us through celebration, struggle, and everything in between.
In my professional work as life coach and in my personal work as an individual committed to a path of self-growth, I’ve come to know that relationships are merely an opportunity for self-awareness and selfactualization. They are mirrors to our inner landscape, reflecting back our brightness and our shadows. Being in relationship pushes us to question how we view ourselves and the world around us. Healthy relationships teach and encourage us to step more fully into our highest selves.
Here are my five steps for building healthy relationships:
1. Use Your Voice
No one is a mind reader. Although we have a tendency to believe that our partners, parents, and friends know exactly what is going on inside of our heads—they don’t, and they never will. When you expect others to fulfill a need, desire, or request without actually speaking up and clearly stating what it is that you want, you are setting your relationship up for failure.
Use your voice to openly and transparently communicate what you want and need in your relationship. Although these requests may not always be able to be met—you don’t know until you ask!
Call to Action: Practice asking for what you want or need 1X / week. This can happen in any type of relationship (a partnership or even with your favorite barista at the coffee shop that you frequent) and on any scale (a large request or a small ask). I would encourage you asking permission from the person you are about share with (i.e. I’d like to request something from you, is now a good time?), being as specific as possible (i.e. It would really mean a lot to me if you made the bed in the morning as I am out of the house before you wake up), and sharing how your request makes you feel (i.e. I know it may seem silly, but small actions like this make me feel seen and valued in the relationship). At the end of your request, thank the person you are sharing with for listening and notice how it made you feel to use your voice.
2. Have the Hard Conversations
We live in a culture that is afraid of conflict—afraid of speaking truths for fear of hurting someone else’s feelings. In my coaching practice, I see people everyday who express feelings of stuckness and malaise—a hunger for something more in life that I can almost always link back to a betrayal of self: not listening or aligning with their own unique truth. Fact is, the truth will set you free. In order to create healthy relationships, you must be willing to sit down and have the hard conversations. You have to create space for conflict and disagreement. Burying disappointment or frustration will only make it grow bigger. And yes, having hard conversation and aligning with your truth may lead you to see that the relationship is no longer serving you, but more often than not it will support you in deepening your relationship with yourself and others. Zakiya Harris, a cultural architect, artist and educator, shares a story in her Gutted episode of losing everything she had once had in order to find what she was looking for. She notes,
“We live in a society that is terrified of the darkness, terrified of quiet. We are inundated with more media and social media and messages … But when you look at nature you realize that nothing on this planet has started in the light. Everything started in a place of darkness. That is where the magic happens—that is where we really have the opportunity to seed our intentions for what we want to see grow up into the light and then therefore bring fruit that we want to nourish ourselves [with] and get to harvest.”
Call to Action: 1X / week meet up with a friend, family member, or partner that you have a close relationship with. Create intentional space for both of you to think about the relationship and possible areas of the relationship where each of you feel stuck. Then, allow each person to share for two minutes of uninterrupted time (I would encourage you to use a timer!). Share what is happening, how it makes you feel (take responsibility for your own actions and reactions!), and if possible—make a specific request for improvement. Use Step 1 and Step 3 to support you in these conversations. After your time is up, you get to decide if you want feedback (sometimes all we need is someone to hear us) and then switch roles.
3. Take Responsibility for Your Own Actions and Reactions
It’s often easier to blame other people for how and why we feel the way that we feel. However, nothing that anybody ever says or does is about you, ever. Nothing is ever personal. When we are in a state of reactivity, it is simply because there is something unhealed coming up inside of us that is asking to be looked at and explored. When you are having a reaction or resistance in any of your relationships—look no further than yourself. First ask yourself what you are feeling (sadness, anger, disgust, frustration, etc.). Then deepen this inquiry by asking yourself why you think you are feeling this way.
Call to Action: In my coaching practice, I regularly have clients practice taking responsibility for their actions and reactions. Keep a journal with you and write down every time you are having a reaction to someone or something. After writing down what happened, look at the following list and see which of these were coming up to be healed inside of you (it may be more than one thing at a time):
1. You feel small or not good enough.
2. You have an attachment or expectation to how someone or something should be.
3. You are reliving, regretting, or rehashing the past.
4. You are afraid of the future.
5. You are out of alignment with your own truth or integrity. (See step 2)
Once you are aware of why you are having a reaction (which is all based on YOUR stuff, not the other person) you can practice using your voice (Step 1) and having hard conversations (Step 2) OR just continue to build personal awareness and self-responsibility. Awareness and observation of how you operate in relationship are the first steps for becoming unstuck.
4. Let-go of Attachments and Expectations
No one is perfect and the only person that you can change is yourself. When you have an attachment or expectation to how someone should act and be, you are setting yourself up for suffering. People are very consistent in showing their true personality and way of being in the world. What happens in relationship (and this is any type of relationship), is that we create fantasies and false perceptions of reality in order to see what we want to see. In the short-term this can work as we are swept into a fairytale with rose colored glasses. In the long-term, this isn’t a recipe for a healthy relationship as we attempt to mold and change a person into what we want them to be versus who they actually are.
Call to Action: Build awareness around when you are wanting someone to act or be different than they are. Notice when you are wanting to change someone else’s behaviors or responses. Rather than acting on these impulses, sit with your personal discomfort and see if there is room inside of you to compromise and accept more fully who this person is and how they operate in the world. What would the relationship look like? What would the relationship feel like? Are you able to take responsibility for you expectations (look back to Step 3) and meet the other person where they are at.
Note: Resignation is different than acceptance. I am not telling you to stay in an unhealthy relationship and accept it exactly as it is. I am asking you to own the fact that you cannot change anyone other than yourself. This allows you to accept things as they are and then make the appropriate actions to support you in being your best self.
5. Express Empathy and Gratitude
Being a human being is hard work. Being a human being in relationship to other people is even harder. It’s so easy to take our relationships for granted and forget all of the tiny beautiful things that another person experiences and has to offer in life. A key part of building healthy relationships is extending empathy and gratitude to others for who they are—exactly as they are in that moment.
Harish Patel, the deputy director of New America Chicago, shares in his Gutted episode how he had to put himself in his Mother’s shoes in order to rebuild their relationship. He states,
“I didn’t realize the hardship that it is to have two kids and move to a different country that is not yours. Where you don’t speak English very well and you have to depend on everyone for everything—which my mom has quite a hard time with (and I do too). Seeing that part of me in her, made me understand how hard it must be to be so [prideful] as an independent woman, and then feeling like, ‘Oh I have to ask [for help] with everything.’”
When we expression empathy and gratitude, we are not only extending love out. The act of being empathetic and showing our appreciation for others inherently deepens our own capacity to love ourselves.
Call to Action: Take time every week to tell people how you feel about them. Call someone up unexpectedly and love on them for who they are and how they are being in the world. Compliment someone that you love on something specific. Listen intently to another’s experience with an open heart (see Step 4). Life’s too short to not choose love. Regularly show people that you care and I promise those same sentiments and feelings will be returned back to you tenfold.
Allie Stark is a life coach, speaker, podcast host and inspired entrepreneur. Her work is centered around the idea of Reclaiming Your Instinct—a practice focused on quieting the clamor of social training in order to realign with your own truth. With over fifteen years of experience in health and wellness, Allie’s coaching and facilitation provides tools, ideas, and resources to support individuals and organizations to become their healthiest, happiest, and best selves.
Follow her Instagram @allie_stark_wellness
Some of Allie’s clients include: Planned Parenthood, Zendesk, Nest, GoPro, Weebly, Wix.com, Brita, SheLift and the Seva Foundation.