I originally started writing this article from the point of view of work relationships at technology companies like Amazon, but I realized that everything I was writing applied to relationships with your spouse, kids, and neighbors. Keep in mind that human relationships are just that, connections between people, which exist everywhere.
Everyone knows the concept of the witty comeback. Repeated in movies and playgrounds alike, someone’s ego is bruised by an insult. Rather than lose the interaction, the victim uses their intelligence to strike back at the aggressor, turning a hurtful situation into victory.
In movies, the hero uses this social weapon to demonstrate their superiority over the villain. Their moral standing ensures that the bystanders in the film (and moviegoers) recognize these words as honorable and justified, in contrast with the aggressive and shameful actions of the antagonist.
Best Intentions vs Reactions
Reality is not a movie script, and we have grown since our playground days. When we end up at odds with others, they are our co-workers, our bosses, our neighbors, our kids, our parents, our spouses. Our relationship battles are not good vs evil. They are instead a tangled web of exhaustion, unintended insults, fear of the future, bruised egos, and careless actions. We all start with best intentions towards others. We all internally believe that we want our spouse happy, our co-workers successful, our children thrilled to see us. Yet our natural reaction to a perceived negative act is to react in kind. We pretend that humans are highly evolved, but we often act to the contrary.
How Do You React?
John into the kitchen sink in annoyance as he finished making his coffee. Sally had yet again dumped food into the sink, leaving it to rot. It drove him crazy. He dumped dumped a pile of coffee grounds on top of the mess. That would teach her a lesson.
Susan saw the request from the recruiting group to help with the security team’s hiring event next month. She laughed and rolled her eyes. The security team had been a pain in her side all last week. They might end up being the reason she would miss her launch dates. She was incredibly frustrated. She declined the request to help with their event, adding to her response that she was too busy with her security reviews to participate.
Barry got a notification from the school that his daughter Wendy had gotten yet another D on a math test. She knew that she had to tell him if she received any bad grades, yet here he was, finding these things out on his own. He felt betrayed and angry. He went to her room and yelled at her about her poor study habits, and how he was angry that yet again she had not told him about her poor grades.
What Is Your Goal?
As a human animal, our instinctive actions lead us astray. We feel the need for revenge when someone hurts us. We feel the need to protect our social position when it is threatened. We feel the need to lash out when our ego is bruised.
Listening to your feelings is great when you are writing a love song. Listening to your feelings while deciding how to react to another person in a time of emotional turmoil is not wise.
When you have a relationship with another human being, you will inevitably experience distress at some point. Instead of listening to your emotions, you need to take a step back and ask yourself a critical question.
"What is my goal in this relationship?"
By taking a step back and asking yourself this question, you've already taken a valuable step in reacting to achieve your goals rather than reacting to your base emotions.
If your spouse is driving you crazy with their behavior, what is your goal? Is it to make them feel annoyance as well, or is it to have a better relationship?
If your co-worker is making your life harder, is your goal to make their job harder, or should it be to make you work better together?
If there are interactions with your child making you unhappy, is your goal to make your child feel unhappy as well, or is it to build a better relationship with them?
It's Harder to Build than Destroy
In movie land, there are evil villains, and the hero generally wins in the end. The villain is embarrassed in front of others, the hero gives the best insults, the villain realizes that their actions were wrong while the hero is admired, and so on.
In real life, there are no winners in relationships. Relationships are connections between complex humans, and those connections need constant work. You have three major choices with relationships. You can make them better, or you can make them worse, or you can remove the relationship completely. You do not win or lose a relationship, because the result of a relationship is not victory, but a connection.
It is easy to lash out when you’re upset, because it’s a biologically natural thing to do. It’s much harder to build than destroy when you’re unhappy. One of the hardest things in life is to attempt to build something which is currently causing you emotional pain. Specifically, it can be very hard to act positively towards someone who just hurt you in some way.
Taking the hard road of building a relationship will often go against every lizard brain instinct you have. When your spouse does a thoughtless act, you need to act thoughtfully. When your co-worker makes your job harder, you need to help make their job easier. When your child acts like they don’t care about your needs, you need to show them that you care deeply about theirs.
Lashing Out and Relationship Power
When we lash out in relationships, we're attempting to exert control over our relationship. We felt emotional pain, and our subconscious reaction is to inflict pain on others to prevent them from hurting us again. A dog will nip at another dog to stop it from biting.
Lashing out in a human relationship has no inherent power. Your goal in a relationship is not to stop an immediate source of pain, your goal is a better relationship. Lashing out and causing pain brings you further away from your goal.
Our only hope to reduce pain in a relationship is to have a strong relationship, or none at all. We build relationships through our actions. Only when our main focus is building a solid relationship can we have a hope of improving our situation in the long run.
Good vs Bad vs No Relationships
A good relationship is one where your intentions are positive towards the other party. A bad relationship is one where your intentions are negative towards the other party. A non-existent relationship is where you have no intentions towards the other party.
We should never act to create a bad relationship. Bad relationships hurt both parties. We should never purposefully irritate our neighbor, hurt our spouse, upset our children. If we cannot consciously act positively towards another person, our intention should be to politely disconnect, never to cause harm.
In some situations, working elsewhere or getting a divorce may be the right option to remove a negative relationship. In other situations, we need to accept that building the relationship is our only option.
You control 100% of your side of a relationship. You can’t change their behavior or their reaction, but you can completely control yours. What actions will you take?
John, Susan, and Barry
Lets assume John above does not want a divorce. Throwing coffee grounds on top of his wife's mess won't make her happily clean up the kitchen. It will irritate her. It will hurt their relationship. John has no option to win this, because it's not a battle to be won. He needs to figure out how he can end up in a situation where his relationship is stronger. That might mean having a very polite and honest conversation with his wife. That might mean he takes on the job of cleaning the kitchen from now on to avoid the resulting rotten mess. Since there is no winning or losing, the only outcomes he should look for is to move forward with a better connection with his spouse.
Susan will likely need to work with the security team at her company in the future. They've been hard to work with so far. Rejecting their request for help is going to be either neutral or negative for their relationship. She should treat this as a great opportunity to build a relationship, rather than an opportunity to get revenge. Going on the recruiting trip might emotionally feel like losing, but the result could be a better relationship going forward.
Barry wants a strong positive relationship with his child. Yelling at his child makes them feel bad. It makes the connection between the two of them worse. Even if yelling somehow made his child behave, they would be behaving at the expense of their parent / child relationship. Regardless of his feelings of betrayal, he needs to assess his goals. He wants his child to study, be successful in life, get great grades, and most importantly - have a great relationship with him. Yelling creates a negative relationship impact, and yet ignoring the child's behavior is making the decision to have no relationship at all. How can he speak and act towards his child to show his love and care about their grades and behavior? This builds the relationship between the two of them, while helping his child grow and mature.
Making a Conscious Choice - Repeatedly
I remember a number of years ago at Amazon, there was one team my group had to work with. We needed their help for a project, but they were incredibly difficult to work with. At some point a few of us complained to our manager, in particular complaining that we had 'tried repeatedly' to make the relationship work. Our manager's simple answer stuck with me.
“If we have to work with them, we need a good relationship. Every single action we take and every single communication we make must be towards building a good relationship. There is no option to win, so get off your high horse and figure out how to make us work better together.”
You can't control their reaction, only your actions. If your relationship goals haven't changed, then 'trying repeatedly' is never an excuse to act differently. If you have a relationship you value, think about the actions you've taken, and the words you've used. Do they line up with your goals?