Making Great Relationships (2023) is a practical guide to building nourishing, healthy, communicative relationships. It shares simple strategies designed to troubleshoot conflict and break unhealthy cycles, as well as best practices for deepening and strengthening positive relationships.
Introduction: Simple strategies to build better relationships.
Table of Contents
Our relationships with others – partners, family, friends, colleagues – can be the source of life’s greatest joy. They can also cause us grief, pain, and frustration. Many of us take our most satisfying relationships for granted. What’s more, we tend to view challenging relationships – with an irritating coworker or a former friend, perhaps – as fixed problems.
The truth is, there’s a skill to creating and sustaining great relationships, just as there are simple techniques you can use to troubleshoot and strengthen poor relationships or those that have hit a rough patch. And when we consider the outsize impact that our relationships have on our sense of well-being – not to mention the rewards that we derive from deep, meaningful connections – well, learning the skills and techniques to build nourishing relationships starts to seem pretty important.
In this summary, we’ll explore how building a better relationship with yourself lays the foundation for better relationships with others, as well as proven methods for dealing with challenging relationships and effective communication techniques for resolving conflicts.
Become your own best friend.
You’ve probably heard the saying, It takes two to tango. Essentially, no one person is responsible for the health of their relationship with another. So you might be surprised to learn that all the changes, habits, and practices for building better relationships you’ll learn in this summary are focused squarely on one person – you.
Here’s why: you can’t control the actions or behaviors of others. But changing the way you relate to the people in your life is entirely within your control. And it all starts with how you relate to yourself. In fact, this might be the most important relationship you’ll ever have.
Imagine a time when you were a really supportive friend to someone who was having a hard time. What did you do for them? Perhaps you encouraged them, gently rebutted their self-critical talk, reminded them how special they are, and spent quality time with them. Doing all this for your friend probably didn’t even feel too difficult – it’s second nature to support our good friends when they need us.
Now, imagine lavishing that kind of care, respect, and supportive encouragement on yourself. Does that seem just as easy? Probably not. But befriending yourself can actually allow you to build better relationships with others, too.
Ready to learn a few techniques that will help you be a better friend to yourself? Great, let’s begin.
The first technique is about respecting your own needs. Often, we’re frustrated by our relationships because they’re not adequately meeting our needs. But encouraging others to meet your needs will be much easier once you also consciously try and meet your needs yourself. So try this exercise. Sit down with a blank piece of paper, and write two words at the top:
I need …
Now, finish the sentence. What relationship-based need springs immediately to mind? Maybe you need your partner to pay you more compliments. That’s a valid need! Sit with that need for a minute. Does it go any deeper? How would having that need met make you feel? A compliment from your partner may give you a feeling of self-worth. More than the acknowledgment that your hair looks nice, this feeling of self-worth is what you’re really after.
Once you’ve identified this deep-down need, ask yourself if you could meet it without relying on other people. Perhaps at the end of every day you could reflect on what you did well, and take a moment to appreciate your own capabilities and talents. When your needs are met, your cup is filled; it’s powerful to realize that you can fill your cup yourself.
Here’s another way to start becoming a resource to yourself: cultivate a calm centeredness. Even our best relationships can get rocky when we’re experiencing stress – maybe you’ve snapped at a friend after a poor night’s sleep or found yourself picking fights with your partner when a work deadline is looming. Feeling calm instead of stressed won’t magically solve any problems in your relationships. But it will help you put them in perspective and deal with them reasonably.
If you’re feeling stressed, here’s a quick fix: take a deep breath. Really. Breathe in for as long as you can. Then, as you breathe out, match the length of your exhale to the length of your inhale. Slowing your breathing actually activates your parasympathetic nervous system, a network of nerves that promotes feelings of ease and relaxation. Sometimes a deep breath is all you need to take you from boiling point to cool, calm, and collected. When relationship flashpoints are triggered – your parent is overly critical, or your partner is giving you the silent treatment yet again – practice breathing slowly, in and out, before you take any further steps.
Finally, let’s talk about forgiveness. Think about your friends. They’re all pretty great people, right? You wouldn’t be friends with them if they weren’t. But none of them are perfect. And when they make mistakes, you forgive them. So, guess what? Being a friend to yourself means learning to do something incredibly difficult – forgiving yourself when you inevitably make mistakes.
How are you going to do this? You’re going to train yourself to be self-forgiving. Now, this exercise might be uncomfortable at first. Think about a time when you were in the wrong. Start small – an unkind remark to a friend, perhaps. Now, relive that incident. Face up to the facts of what happened, and be especially attentive to those facts that make you feel the most uncomfortable. It’s time to own up to your wrongdoing. On a piece of paper, finish this sentence:
I am responsible for …
Next, draw some parameters around your feelings of shame. Finish this sentence:
I am not responsible for …
Things you’re not responsible for might include ways in which others misinterpreted or overreacted to your actions. These things are outside your control.
Wrap up the exercise by acknowledging the ways in which you have made amends for your mistake, and reflect on how it helped you learn and grow. Repeat these steps whenever you can find the time, and you’ll soon be extending the same compassion and forgiveness to yourself as you would so easily extend to others.
Open yourself up to others through empathy and kindness.
In the previous section, we discussed the importance of self-love. Now, let’s think about how we can also turn love outward – toward those around us.
As humans, we’ve been gifted with an incredible power – empathy, which allows us to perceive glimpses of other people’s inner lives and emotional states. Empathy also happens to be the foundation of great relationships. Where it’s lacking, misunderstandings and miscommunications inevitably arise.
Train your empathy muscle by applying a respectful curiosity to the people around you. Notice what they’re saying and how they’re acting and, from here, try to understand what they might be feeling. What do you think is causing them to feel this way? If you find other people difficult to read, focus on their eyes – our eyes, and the many micromovements we make around them, tend to be our most expressive feature.
At the same time as you’re building your capacity for empathy, explore how you can make kindness your default mode. Kindness, as a general rule, begets kindness. If you approach others with warmth and consideration, they are likely to respond to you with the same. Make a list of ways to be kind that feel authentic to you. Small and simple things are best, like smiling at a neighbor or emailing an old friend to say hello. Include people you might not normally be kind to on your list – the person you speak to when you call a customer helpline, for example. At first, these very deliberate acts of kindness might feel superficial. But you’ll soon move from doing kind things regularly to simply being kind – and, in turn, inviting kindness from others.
It’s hard, of course, to be kind to everyone. But, as much as you are able, try not to put anyone out of your heart. We all have people in our lives who are, let’s say, challenging. A coworker who drives you up the wall, an aunt that always gets drunk and aggressive at family get-togethers. How can you extend kindness to these people?
First, remember that kindness is not approval. You can be kind to someone without condoning their actions. Second, set boundaries to protect yourself – make it clear to your aunt that you won’t talk with her when she is clearly drunk. Finally, find a trusted friend you can vent to, so you can release your negative feelings about this person.
Remember, being kind and approaching those around you from a place of empathy and love doesn’t mean you should act like a doormat. In the next section, we’ll talk through some techniques for asserting yourself and your needs.
Even the healthiest relationships are marked by conflict and confrontation – in fact, if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be very healthy at all! But conflict can still be unpleasant. If you’ve ever felt flustered and anxious when a fight flares up, or if you find yourself exploding with rage whenever you’re challenged, you need to develop strategies to calmly and confidently deal with conflict. Here are a few to start with:
Find your footing – quite literally. In a fight, it can be hard to stay mentally grounded. Instead, pay attention to how you’re physically grounded. Force yourself to focus on the feeling of your feet on the floor. Take deep breaths, and tune into the physical sensations you’re experiencing – try and find the calm centeredness we discussed earlier. Next, try to find an even keel mentally. Return to the facts of the fight. Clarify what has been done, what has been said, and what the intent was behind those actions and words. You and your partner may not be seeing eye to eye, but if it’s safe to do so, establishing some key facts can at least get you on the same page. Finally, make a plan for dealing with the issues that arise in the conflict – it could be something concrete, like creating a chore roster for you and your roommates. It could be something more holistic, like committing to practicing meditation and breathing with the objective of being less frustrated by inconsequential irritations. Remember that your plan doesn’t have to include your partner in this conflict. Sometimes, they may be unwilling to work together with you, and it may simply be more productive for you to take your next steps alone.
Here’s another strategy: use anger as a tool – because that’s precisely what it is. Our anger has something to tell us. The only problem is, when we’re experiencing deep anger, we’re not well placed to listen to its message. So here are some questions to ask yourself:
What does my anger feel like in my body? Pay attention to the physical sensations that accompany anger, like clenched teeth or tight muscles, and learn to recognize them before anger fully takes over.
What is my anger trying to tell me? For example, if you’re snapping at others because you’re overworked, your anger might be telling you to start turning down work projects.
What is my anger trying to hide? Often, we lean into anger because we don’t want to face the other, more vulnerable feelings of hurt, jealousy, or regret underpinning it – but if we can’t work through these underlying feelings, our anger will never fully resolve.
Will I be able to work through these questions when I’m in the grip of anger? Probably not – at least not immediately. So, try and work through them after an episode of rage, and gradually bring more mindfulness into the way you experience anger.
Going forward, make a commitment not to act from anger. You don’t have to stop feeling angry. But be purposeful in how you direct this useful emotion. For example, instead of reacting in the moment you feel anger, wait for a more appropriate time to talk through the issue firmly and clearly. Take a break when you feel a conversation getting heated. Speaking and acting out of anger takes the focus away from what you’re expressing and transfers it onto how you’re expressing it – when you take anger out of the equation, you can communicate clearly and focus on finding resolutions that work.
Use your words.
Words matter. And fine-tuning the way you speak to others can bring radically positive results. So, in this last section, we’ll assemble a tool kit of easy-to-use verbal strategies that will encourage better communication across your relationships.
First off, ask questions – they signal a genuine interest in others’ experiences and feelings. Posing playful or personal questions, like “What was your first kiss like?” can deepen intimacy in friendships and romantic relationships. In a conflict, asking questions can take some of the heat out of intense exchanges. Questions like “What would it look like if you got what you wanted here?” and “Are there other things you want that haven’t been addressed?” can help move arguments toward productive resolutions.
Next, don’t rain on anyone’s parade. Aim to meet the ideas and interests of your spouse, friend, or colleague with general support – share practical concerns only when they’re relevant, and avoid a negative or dismissive tone entirely. Relationships work best when we feel our partners are co-enthusiasts who are open to the same possibilities we are.
If someone else has a valid critique of your behavior, own it – but don’t dwell on it. Admit your failing, explore how your partner might support you to avoid that failing in the future, and then move on – without tit-for-tat recriminations. Here’s an example: “It was rude and disrespectful of me to look at my phone while we were talking. Going forward, maybe we can save relationship discussions for the evenings when I’ll be less distracted by work. Now, what do you think about ordering pizza for dinner?”
Talk about talking. Take time to check in with the people who are important to you about how you’re doing communication-wise. When communication gets rocky, focus on the future, not the past – say things like “Going forward, I’d like you to stop making comments about my body.” Be sure to also address any needs or preferences you have. For example, you could say, “I know people in your family talk over each other, but I feel flustered and uncomfortable when I’m constantly interrupted.”
Tell people what you want. No matter how close your relationships are, other people aren’t mind readers – if you need something from them that they aren’t providing, tell them. But be specific. Instead of “I want you to do your fair share,” try saying, “It would help me if you did the laundry without me having to ask. Instead of “I want you to be more affectionate,” say something like “I’d like it if we held hands while we’re watching television.”
Finally, consolidate gains. When you’re communicating clearly and openly with others, you will resolve issues and find ways to move forward. Celebrate each small win, and don’t be tempted to move from one conflict to the next. Building great relationships takes time and work; you don’t want to destabilize your progress by focusing on everything that remains to be done. Instead, be inspired by all that you’ve achieved so far – and get energized by the achievements to come.
Your relationships can be your greatest source of joy – and frustration. It’s natural that you want to change them for the better. But trying to change others can be an impossible task. Instead, focus on your own style of relating to others. This will not only improve your mental and emotional well-being – it will encourage those around you to do the same.
“Making Great Relationships: Simple Practices for Solving Conflicts, Building Connection, and Fostering Love” by Rick Hanson is a practical guide for individuals looking to improve their relationships with others. The book offers a comprehensive approach to building and maintaining healthy relationships, focusing on simple practices that can be applied in various contexts.
Hanson, a renowned psychologist and relationship expert, emphasizes the importance of fostering positive relationships in our lives. He argues that strong relationships are essential for our well-being, happiness, and success. The book provides a step-by-step approach to building and maintaining great relationships, covering various aspects such as communication, empathy, trust, and conflict resolution.
The book is divided into three parts. The first part focuses on the foundation of great relationships, which includes understanding ourselves and others, building trust, and developing emotional intelligence. The second part discusses the various ways to build connection and foster love, including effective communication, empathy, and understanding. The third part provides practical tips and strategies for solving conflicts and resolving issues in a constructive manner.
One of the key takeaways from the book is the importance of self-awareness and self-reflection. Hanson emphasizes that understanding ourselves is crucial in building great relationships. By recognizing our own emotions, needs, and values, we can better understand others and communicate effectively. The book provides practical exercises and techniques for self-reflection, helping readers develop a deeper understanding of themselves and their relationships.
Another important aspect of the book is the role of empathy in building strong relationships. Hanson argues that empathy is a fundamental component of healthy relationships, allowing us to understand and connect with others on a deeper level. The book provides tips and strategies for developing empathy, such as active listening, open-ended questions, and non-judgmental feedback.
The book also covers the importance of trust in relationships. Hanson emphasizes that trust is built through transparency, honesty, and consistency. He provides practical tips for building trust, such as following through on commitments, being reliable, and communicating openly.
In addition, the book discusses the role of conflict in relationships. Hanson argues that conflicts are inevitable, but they can be resolved constructively. He provides practical strategies for conflict resolution, such as using “I” statements, active listening, and seeking common ground.
Throughout the book, Hanson uses real-life examples and case studies to illustrate the concepts and strategies he discusses. He also provides practical exercises and tips that readers can apply in their own relationships.
Strengths and Weaknesses:
- Practical and actionable advice: The book provides practical tips and strategies that readers can apply in their own relationships.
- Comprehensive approach: The book covers various aspects of relationships, including communication, empathy, trust, and conflict resolution.
- Real-life examples: The book uses real-life examples and case studies to illustrate the concepts and strategies discussed.
- Self-reflection exercises: The book provides practical exercises and techniques for self-reflection, helping readers develop a deeper understanding of themselves and their relationships.
- Lack of depth: Some readers may find the book’s advice and strategies too basic or simplistic.
- Too focused on individual relationships: The book primarily focuses on individual relationships, with limited discussion on relationships in a broader context (e.g., community, society).
“Making Great Relationships: Simple Practices for Solving Conflicts, Building Connection, and Fostering Love” by Rick Hanson is a practical and comprehensive guide for individuals looking to improve their relationships with others. The book provides actionable advice, real-life examples, and self-reflection exercises to help readers build and maintain healthy relationships. While some readers may find the book’s advice too basic or simplistic, the book’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses. Overall, the book is a valuable resource for anyone looking to build stronger, more positive relationships in their personal and professional life.