Rare is the day and scarce is the place where our life doesn’t intersect with other people.
Whether physically or digitally, people are a ubiquitous part of the landscape to our life. At home or work, on the street, through social media, television or the radio, we can’t escape the presence of other people.
With the advent of digital technology it is nearly impossible to go an entire day without crossing paths with other people. Cell-phones, television, and social media permit people into the most private spaces of our life even though they may be thousands of miles away. From our spouse quietly asleep next to us in bed to a complete stranger ranting about politics on a YouTube video from the other side of the globe, our lives are inextricably entangled with people.
With people, comes interaction. And interaction is the stuff of relationships.
Whether intimate or awkward, we relate - in one way or another - to every person we encounter in the course of our day. All told, we interact with dozens of people throughout a day; hundreds - maybe thousands - in a month.
Some people in our life are close friends; others, complete strangers. When it comes to family, we interact with intimate expressions of familiarity. These are often lifelong relationships. Other people we pass on the street with only a nod of acknowledgement, never to see them ever again. Those momentary encounters are the briefest relationships of them all.
There’s no escaping it. Relationships are an integral part of our existence.
Imagine every person who is a part of your life – from spouse to stranger - fits into one of these six relational circles.
1. The Family Circle - People you are related to you by birth, marriage, or adoption.
2. The Friend Circle - People connected to you through warm and familiar friendship.
3. The Peer Circle - People associated with you through some shared affinity such as your job, civic involvements, mutual experiences or common interests.
4. The Neighbor Circle – People who intersect your life by virtue of the proximity you live to each other.
5. The Acquaintance Circle - People you are familiar with through previous introductions and occasional interactions.
6. The Stranger Circle - While you may not know the various strangers you encounter throughout a day, they are nonetheless, a relationship that invites your acknowledgement and interaction (i.e. asking for directions, paying a cashier, discussing customer service issues).
It’s All About Interaction
At one time or another - in some way or another - each of the people in these six circles evokes a response from you. Whether it is a physical, emotional, verbal, or non-verbal response, it is, nonetheless, interaction.
Interaction is the essence of relating.
Even complete strangers we pass on the street with only a sideways glance ignite some form of social interaction. Down in our subconscious, we make nanosecond calculations as to whom to ignore and whom to acknowledge as part of our relational priorities at that moment.
Take for instance when you run into the grocery store to pick up something quickly on your way home from work. You see someone you know but act as if you didn’t while ducking down another aisle to avoid a conversation because you’re in a hurry. That right there is a form of relating without even saying a word or acknowledging their presence. You “interacted” by purposefully choosing to ignore them. We do this sort of thing with strangers all the time.
Some people you ignore; others you engage. Both are expressions of relating to those around you.
Relationships are the source of life’s greatest joys and the deepest disappointments. Some relationships give us life, while others rob us of every ounce of energy we possess. In other words, enormous quantities of energy from our life are spent on our relational interactions.
The responses we divvy out to other people exacts more time and energy from our life in the course of a day, a week, a month, and year than any other activity of life. More than our work, more than our finances, more than meeting our physical needs, relational interaction demands the most from us.
And you know as well as I do, it’s hard to be happy when our relational world is in disarray. Therefore, it is imperative we learn how to effectively manage our relationships if we hope to protect ourselves from any negativity that disturbs our sense of happiness.
Life at the Lake
Think of your life as an enormous lake. (Can you see it? An entire lake named after you!)
One day the waters on the lake are calm and peaceful. Another day, they’re choppy. And yet on another, the lake is rough with whitecaps - full of the turbulence created by stormy conditions.
More times than not, the surface of that lake – your life - is determined by what is going on in your relationships. Relationships influence life at the lake.
Some of your relationships are enjoyable, energizing, and encouraging. These relationships make no waves, leaving you with a life that is peaceful and calm. Typically, we love being in the company of these people as they enrich our life with love, laughter, adventure, and discovery. As I like to say of these kinds of people, they’re “easy to be around.”
Who are the calm-water people in your life?
Other relationships seem to stir up the waters of your life. These people always bring with them some kind of drama whenever they come around. The choppy waters of stress and frustration tend to follow them as they come in and out of your life.
These are the people who always seem to whine, complain, judge, criticize, argue, and antagonize just about everything going on around them. It seems as if they’re never happy or content and they like to drag everybody down there with them.
Can you name a few choppy-water people in your life?
Then there are those relationships that are best described as stormy. Without fail, they’re always creating turbulence in your lake.
Turbulent people complicate our lives with their thoughtless words, foolish choices, irresponsible behavior, immature responses, abusive manner, and dysfunctional lifestyles. The prevailing experience of your relationship with these people is one of conflict and chaos.
Oh sure, there are the occasional days now and then when they surprise you, but years of discourteous and disruptive behavior have left you suspicious. You are not quick to “forgive and forget” because you know it’s just a matter of time before they descend upon your lake and stir the waters into a tumultuous mess with their ferocious winds.
You know exactly who I am talking about, don’t you? It’s a relative, a work associate, or a neighbor who lives down the street. It doesn’t matter how bright the sun is shining, these people always bring the dark clouds of rain with them.
Taking on the Storm
Typically, calm-water relationships are rarely a threat to the quality of our happiness. It’s the choppy and turbulent ones that disturb the waters of our life. If we hope to avoid the stress and frustration that rob us of joy, it is imperative we guard ourselves against the threat posed by choppy and turbulent-water relationships.
A certain amount of turbulence in relationships is inevitable. Some of life’s best friendships are forged in the crucible of conflict. But there is a difference between the occasional misunderstanding and disappointment that inevitably occurs between human beings verses what seems like the constant upheaval some people create wherever the go. They’re always stirring the waters. Conflict is frequent rather than rare in these relationships. These are the people we must deal with in wise and careful ways.
In our pursuit of happiness, we must diligently attend to those relationships that threaten our emotional peace. To ignore the dynamics of relationships that keep frustrating and complicating our life only leaves us imprisoned in disappointment.
That’s no way to live.
Let me offer four effective ways to guard against unnecessary upheaval in your relational world.
1. Practice Honesty
Telling people the truth about how their inconsiderate behavior makes you feel is completely appropriate in a relationship. Granted, how you tell them this is important to the response you may receive, but nonetheless, permissible. These kinds of conversations are often referred to as “candid.”
I like the word “candid.” It means “truthfully straightforward” or “forthright.” Being candid is the confident permission to speak the truth about what you think or feel. It is an expression of personal empowerment. A candid person is not intimidated to say what they honestly think regardless of another person’s disagreement or disapproval.
With that said, keep in mind there is nothing about the word “candid” that inherently means rude, inconsiderate, aggressive, or mean. You don’t have to be a jerk when being candid. In fact, candid conversations are best when delivered in a humble, careful, and sensitive manner. Most people will respect both the courage and the sincerity of a candid conversation when it is delivered in a considerate fashion.
2. Offer Accountability
Consistent accountability is part of helping others honor the appropriate boundaries for how to treat you. The inconsiderate behavioral patterns of some people are so ingrained in them they are unaware they are behaving badly. You may have to bring it to their attention again and again until they recognize what they are doing.
The more consistent you are at declaring that you will not allow yourself to be treated a certain way, the sooner people will be more careful around you.
There is a stretch of road in the city where I live that is frequently patrolled by the local police. Lots of people have found out the hard way that law enforcement means serious business about driving the speed limit on that road. They’re very consistent in insisting the law be obeyed. People who frequently drive that road have learned to respect its speed limit and not to test the police’s resolve to uphold it.
Likewise, you may need to teach some people in your life the “rules of the road” when it comes to being in your company. If there is something they do that upsets or offends you, they may need to be reminded that you will not tolerate that kind of behavior. Even if they disagree with you about what they are doing, keeping them accountable will teach them not to behave like that when they are with you.
3. Extend Grace
Grace is often defined as “undeserved kindness.” We could all use some grace from time to time. All of us have bad days, irrational moments, and emotional meltdowns from time to time. The offer of grace from an understanding spouse or friend is a wonderful gift when we make a lousy choice in how we act around others.
Grace, as a virtue, is not only a wonderful gift to receive but it is also a great catalyst for change. People on the receiving end of grace are often motivated to behave better the next time.
Make sure you are affording a fair share of grace to those challenging relationships that consistently stir up the waters of your life. Keep extending grace until they cross the line of presuming upon your kindness. If they continue to behave poorly in their relationship with you, you may need to take steps to protect yourself by establishing clearer boundaries for what you will permit.
4. Make Space
Extremely difficult relationships require that you create plenty of space in order to protect yourself from the damage they leave in their wake.
Some people are like skunks. They spray anybody who gets too close to them. Sadly, this is often a reflection of painful experiences from their past. While that is unfortunate, it doesn’t mean you need to keep bearing the brunt of their abuse.
Space simply means you are careful about three concerns:
· How much time you spend with certain people.
· In what situations you will entertain their company.
· To what extent you will tolerate their selfish behavior.
If your conversations with an acquaintance always seem to turn to their relentless whining, complaining, or criticism, determine to talk to them only until they start becoming negative. Once they go there, politely excuse yourself from the conversation to do something else or to talk to another person.
You’re not being rude. You’re being wise. Frequent or continued exposure to their negativity only threatens your own attitude. Don’t let them bring you down by giving them that kind of influence in your life.
If you have someone in your peer circle who consistently berates you with angry and aggressive words while trying to “discuss” an issue, simply warn them you will not tolerate that kind of spirit in the effort to work out your differences. If they persist, end the conversation – walk away, hang up the phone, refuse to respond – as a way of declaring your boundaries for such situations.
Belligerent behavior between adults is an immature approach to problem solving that never brings about a resolution in an equitable fashion. You don’t have to submit yourself to such treatment. That’s not weak. That is strong. It is a declaration that you are strong enough to defend yourself from another person’s abuse regardless of what shape it takes.
Naturally, you won’t be able to control every interaction you have. There will always be variables that are impossible to manipulate to your favor. Certain “turbulent” family members, work associates, neighbors, and strangers you encounter at places you frequent are going to be part of your daily life. What you can control is your attitude about them and your response to them. You can always be in control of yourself and the choices you make about reacting to difficult people who are part of your life.
Here’s to Smooth Sailing
Rare is the day and scarce is the place where our life doesn’t intersect with other people.
If we hope to nurture and protect the happiness we long for, we must handle our relationships wisely. In the same way parents of toddlers “baby-proof” their house by eliminating potential hazards, we can take steps to reduce the risk posed by selfish relationships. Permitting people to stir up the waters of our life by not dealing with their inconsiderate behavior only places our emotional tranquility in danger.
In the end, we only have ourselves to blame if we allow it to persist.
Let’s not live like that way one day longer. Let’s do what we can to enjoy calm and peaceful waters at the lake.