Tips on Improving Our Social Relationships

This is a continuation of my last post on the importance of social relationships. So, if you haven’t read that, then it might be best to start there.
Let’s start with this premise: if you agree that social relationships are critical to one’s happiness, then it makes sense to spend some effort to develop, maintain, and improve your social relationships. I don’t know that I exactly believe in karma, but what I’m positing is a bit like that. Establishing positive relationships with others is both good for us and for them. Thus, we will get back the “good” that we put into our relationships. For instance, by treating a friend well, he/she is more likely to treat us well. That might sound self-serving, but I look at it as a “win-win” situation – the friend is happier and we are happier.
This begs the question, what’s the best way to treat others well? That can be a very complex question as relationships, as we all know, can be very tricky at times. Despite this fact, I think there are some general principles that we can follow that, although not foolproof, are useful guidelines. First, I believe that there is much wisdom and power in the “Golden Rule” – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. You don’t have to believe this from a religious perspective. Variations of the “Golden Rule” have been taught by many cultures and religions for thousands of years because there is much Truth to this approach with a capital “T.”
In his psychological/philosophical approach to relationships, psychiatrist Dr. William Glasser also has some powerful wisdom to offer. I won’t go into great detail about his “Choice Theory” at this point, but there are a couple of aspects in particular that I would like to present that has been very helpful in my life and in my relationships. In his Choice Theory, Dr. Glasser proposes that we have physiological needs and psychological needs that drive all of our behavior. The physiological needs include food, water, sex, air, etc. The 4 psychological needs are: love/belonging, power, freedom, and fun. Of these 4 needs, the need for love/belonging (our social need) is the most imporant overall.
Accordingly to Dr. Glasser, since everyone has the same psychological needs, it is important for us to fulfill our needs in ways that do not interfere with the efforts of others to meet their psychological needs. For instance, if we try to exert power over others and try to control them, it infringes upon the other person’s ability to meet their needs for power and freedom. This tends to result in conflicts.
From the field of social psychology comes a fancy name for how people tend to react when their liberty is infringed upon called “psychological reactance.” Studies have shown that when people’s liberty is restricted they tend to act in ways to reinstate their liberty. For example, for the parents who tell their teen daughter that she can’t date a particular guy, their daughter soon finds that she wants to date that guy more than anyone else. It’s like the “forbidden fruit” syndrome. So, one way to treat others is in a manner that allows them to meet their psychological needs for love/belonging, power, freedom, and fun without interference from us.
Dr. Glasser also puts forth a very simple rule to follow that helps us to treat others well and improve our relationships. The simple rule of thumb to follow is this: Before we say or do something to someone else, ask ourselves whether this will bring the relationship closer together or push it further apart. If we decide that saying or doing that thing is likely to push the relationship apart, we don’t do it.
Unfortunately, we often choose to pursue being right over being effective in our relationships. How many times have you gotten in an argument with a friend or significant other only to find friction and angry feelings as the primary result? In essence, we often try to meet a power need at the expense of the relationship. However, since most of our happiness is dependent upon the quality of our relationships, this path ultimately contributes to our own unhappiness and that of others.
Dr. Glasser does not propose being a social doormat to others and neither do I. When it is time to be assertive, this can be done in a way that is not aggressive, threatening, critical, or unkind.
What Dr. Glasser is proposing is easier to say than to do. Yet, it can be an extremely powerful and effective approach in our social relationships. Relationships are the cornerstone of our happiness, and efforts to build and maintain positive social relationships light the way to our happiness and the happiness of others.

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