Good relationships require leadership. Many of us have a few dissatisfying relationships, but it doesn’t occur to us to guide the relationship to a healthier place. We feel we are stuck with how the other person is. More likely, we haven’t thought through what we really want from our relationships. We deal with our relationships passively and reactively, instead of taking leadership.
If you wait for people to guess your needs, relationships fall apart. Instead of just reacting to other people’s insensitivity, you could tell them how you want your relationships to feel. What do you want them to do? What are the unspoken paths of conduct you wish they would follow?
Such openness comes more naturally in close friendships and intimate relationships. But you can also lead in other relationships that you didn’t choose, such as your work, neighbors, and family connections. You may end up around people with whom you have little in common and who are insensitive to how you feel or what you want. You can feel stuck with these relationships, but here is where you can shine as a relationship leader.
Relationship leaders are people who are clear about how they want to be treated and what makes a relationship rewarding. They request respectful treatment, such as asking them politely or disagreeing without becoming insulting. For instance, a relationship leader might say to a man who barks orders, “I’d love to help you, and I’d love for you to ask me nicely.” Or to a woman who mocks others’ political views, a relationship leader might say, “I think it’s perfectly fine that we see things differently, and it’s interesting to hear both sides.” These are neutral responses that actively lift the dialogue toward something better.
Relationship leaders can even go a step further by adding broader instruction in how relationships can be made more rewarding for both parties. For example, family members who annoy you by stopping by whenever they feel like it are being disrespectful of boundaries. You might make a request, such as “Please call before you come to see if it’s a good time for me.” But you could also offer additional relational leadership by sharing an insight about good relationships in general, like “Happy relationships have good boundaries” or “Visits are more fun when both people feel like visiting.”
If people violate a boundary you requested, they are telling you they didn’t get it the first time. They are thoughtlessly reacting only to their own wishes, so they need your leadership toward more desirable behavior. For instance, if a co-worker keeps talking after you’ve stated your need for uninterrupted work time, you can lead the relationship by saying, “To be good co-workers, we have to give each other time to get things done. I’ll let you know when I’m able to talk.” To an overly chatty neighbor, you could say: “That’s interesting, but I’m not up for talking right now. Sometimes we all need some quiet time to ourselves.” In a respectful, informative way, you are offering good relationship values to live by.
Beyond setting limits, there may be times when other people simply treat you badly or accuse you of things that aren’t true. That’s when relationship leadership can guide the relationship forward without reacting in ways that could injure the bond beyond repair. For example, if someone unjustly accuses you of a malevolent intent, you might say “That’s not how I meant it” and follow up with relational leadership, such as “We can check it out with each other before assuming the worst.” Or if someone has been holding a grudge against you, say “Things work better if we tell each other clearly why we’re upset.”
Sometimes relationships between adult children and their parents breed conflict over dominance and inequality. Parents are accustomed to being the authority figures, and it often falls to the adult child to lead the way to a more equal and respectful adult relationship. For instance, when parents try to take over or give advice, you might say: “Well, that’s a good idea, Mom, but it’s important to let me think this through for myself.” If a parent gets angry and speaks harshly, you can be the leader by saying “I expect you to control yourself. We are two grown adults now. How are we going to have a respectful adult relationship with you talking to me like that?”
Remember, the ultimate goal of relationship leadership is to not only to speak up for yourself, but also to offer good relationship values that can inspire both of you to treat each other respectfully. Your choice is either to lead or follow. You’re not doing them any favors if you know a better way but don’t teach them a better way.