Cooperative Strategies for Transforming a Difficult Relationship
Dorm mates, family members, friends of friends, coworkers, teammates, neighbors – something all of these people have in common – they’re in our lives and we usually do not have a choice as to who they are. Unlike friends, business partners, or romantic partners, who we choose, these other people are more or less “assigned” to us. Sometimes the pieces fall into place and we just “click” with those Bonus People (BP). But it doesn’t always work out that well.
Although there can be conflict in any relationship, it’s harder to motivate ourselves to be understanding of these people that just rub us the wrong way. Assuming we don’t want to quit our job or otherwise uproot and reorganize our lives to just avoid them, we have to find a way to make the best of it. In this article I’m going to give some strategies on how to best get along with those whose values, actions, and styles of thought baffle us.* I’ll be referencing the cognitive functions in this article, if you aren’t familiar with them yet, read up on them here.
Step 1: What Do You Want From Me?
Figure out what type of relationship you want to have with your BP. There are several factors involved here in answering this question and setting realistic goals for this:
- Expectations (theirs, yours, and other peoples’)
Perhaps there is someone in your life who you don’t see eye to eye with, but you believe the relationship could be turned to a more positive direction if you were both able to give it some extra attention. Unfortunately, at least one of you isn’t in a place to try to make that work right now. It isn’t personal; you’re just too busy or your schedules don’t line up properly. Maybe you won’t be seeing them regularly enough in the future to make it worth the time. In this case, it may be best to be as cordial as possible and run out the clock.
However, before you jump at the chance to use the “I’m too busy” excuse, consider this: if the relationship is costing you extra time or emotional energy and you foresee being connected with this Bonus Person for a while, then putting in the effort in the short term to get it on a better course will likely be worth it in the long run.
Generally you’ll find that the expectations in your most difficult relationships are dramatically different. Maybe you hoped to hit it off with your new team captain, but she has no interest in you. You never envisioned being close with your cousin, but he seems to want to be your new best pal. You and your coworker can’t agree on anything except that you both think that your boss made a huge mistake pairing you up to work in the same cubicle. Start by getting in touch with your expectations so that you can deal honestly with yourself.
Next, you need to objectively assess what they are hoping the relationship will be like. Oftentimes, you have to ask them outright what they want, as their behavior may not match their true motives (at least, not from your perspective!). Don’t go into this step making assumptions; just gather as much info as you can without protesting the validity or plausibility of their expectations.
Finally, if there is a third party involved (for example your spouse in the case of in-law relations; or the rest of your work associates in a professional setting), you should factor in their needs and how your behavior and attitude in this relationship will influence them.
Step 2: Find the Common Ground
Generally, you’ll find that if you are stuck with someone (and they are stuck with you), making the best of it and actually trying to work on the relationship is the one thing you can agree is a necessary undertaking. There are three main elements to common ground; we’ll address them each separately:
- Common Goals
- Common Language
- Common Appreciation
In most relationships the parties bring goals to the table that are one-sided in nature. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can be overwhelming to have someone pile on expectations that don’t seem to benefit you in any way. So, for now, focus on the goals you can both wholeheartedly support. Try to make your goals straightforward and simple.
Here are some examples of relational goals:
- “We want to support our friend as she plans her wedding and walks down the aisle, and we want to pull off an epic bachelorette party without murdering each other in the process.”
- “We want to figure out how to share this tiny space for the rest of the semester without driving each other insane.”
- “We want to collaborate without stifling each other’s ideas or taking credit for each other’s work.”
- “We both want to feel safe to share our opinions and free to disagree peacefully.”
- “We want to get along well enough that we can have joyful holidays together.”
- “We know that conflict is inevitable in relationships, but we want to improve our abilities to successfully resolve conflict when it arises between us without falling into old destructive habits.”
- “We believe we have things to learn from the other and we want to make the most of that.”
- “We want to minimize miscommunication without minimizing our communication overall.”
- “We want to find activities to do together that we both enjoy.”
As you can see, they’re going to be totally unique to your relationship. We are all anxious to see our families happier, our social interactions less awkward, our teams operating synergistically, and our workplaces more productive.
Start small. It’s better to be amazing acquaintances than crappy friends. It is better to be a family that is respectful and kind to one another and in the process of growing closer than it is to appear to the outside world be “tight knit” but riddled with dysfunction and improper boundaries as a result of trying to force “closeness.”
Common language simply means coming up with accurate, inoffensive ways to describe each others behaviors and traits. It’s important that you both agree that the terms are inoffensive, as everyone has their own ideas and feelings about what a word means to them.
For example, I have people in my life who have Ne high on their stacks. They tend to be super flexible, and they don’t mind a last minute change of plans. They like to go with the flow and they keep their options open for as long as they can. I have been guilty of describing this trait only in negative terms. Instead of “flexible,” I might have said “flaky.” Instead of “spontaneous” I would have said, “unreliable.” Instead of “absentminded,” when they forgot to communicate their changes in plans, I would have just labeled them as terrible communicators and inconsiderate people. Now technically, my descriptions were not entirely inaccurate in every case, but they were not capturing the full essence of the trait – just focusing in on the negative side of it. And in some cases my choice of wording when I was retelling events unintentionally exaggerated the negativity of the behavior or implied evil intentions that simply weren’t there.
This is a common habit when people fall into when describing a trait that they are experiencing negatively, or that they generally don’t like. Even if you believe you are telling the truth in the situation, check your language. Is there a more neutral term you could use and still communicate the same thing?
For those of you who are worried, no, I’m not saying you should strike all the blunt or negative descriptive terms from your vocabulary. There is a time and a place for those, but you have to have balance. In my experience, most people tend to focus on the negative and over use those words when referring to the traits that they don’t like. Expanding our vocabulary is just as much about reforming our own perspective of the other person as it is about communicating with them in a diplomatic way.
Even when one person believes they are using safe or neutral terms, there can still be hurt feelings or misunderstanding. We all have our little idiosyncrasies in how we understand and relate to the vernacular. Experiential and cultural differences will be factors in how we understand and interpret even the most mundane of words; just because a word is common, doesn’t mean that the connotations are going to be uniformly understood. We don’t want to be verbal wrecking balls, but we also don’t want to jump to the other end of the spectrum and become the highly offendable PC police. No one feels safe if they feel like they have to memorize a mile long list of trigger words just go about daily life with another person.
Safeguarding against either extreme can be as simple as asking your BP for feedback on how you’re coming off and asking them to clarify things in their speech that seem fishy to you. It can be a relief to discover that words you feared had mean spirited subtext were meant to be taken at face value or to imply something totally harmless.
Another way to strengthen your common language is to use relational tools.Relational needs assessments, “love language” tests, and of course, cognitive functions, are all great tools to help you get started on building your common vocabulary. Relational tools like this go a long way in defining
You need language to describe not only outward behaviors, but also internal processes that are happening (which is what I love about cognitive functions – they provide language for previously unnamed, undefined styles of thinking). It’s helpful to remember that what we observe and infer about another person’s behavior may not match up with the intent behind the action, words, expression, or tone. Cognitive functions can help paint a more complete “behind the scenes” picture. Talk with your Bonus Person and figure out an assessment or system that would be a good starting place for the two of you. You can add in more over time. Rebecca H. has some great thoughts about common language and the benefits of type in relationships, read more about that here.
Common appreciation focuses on identifying the things you do like about each other and the dynamics you both currently enjoy in the relationship. For example:
- “I like how broad your interests are.”
- “I appreciate your sense of fun.”
- “We’re both organized and appreciate punctuality. I like that we’re good about returning phone calls and emails promptly, I view that sort of responsiveness as a strength and value we share.”
- “We both like analyzing pop culture.”
- “You bring a lot of creativity to the table, I admire that.”
You don’t have to go in depth or try to force it. If you can only come up with a handful of things, that’s okay. Even if your BP comes up with a ton of good stuff to say and you only have a few, or vice versa, it’s okay. This stage isn’t about making judgments on what is or isn’t mentioned. Just focus on what you both like. Write it down along with your common goals.
Step 3: Focus on the Differences
Now that you have your common destinations, it’ll be your differing strengths that provide you the vehicle for getting there. Focusing on the differences entails 4 main parts:
- Understanding Yourself
- Understanding Them
- Understanding the Interactions
- Developing Your Relational Strategy
While it may seem like it should be easy, this is often the hardest part. There are lots of tools you can use to help you with this. The common language tools I suggested above are a good way to start. I have written elsewhere about how cognitive functions can play a huge role in self discovery. It’s good to focus specifically on what you are doing that causes tension in the relationship.
I remember being 13 and ranting on the phone to a friend about a conflict I was having with my parents. I went on and on about all the things I felt they were doing wrong. “Oh, poor little me!” My friend listened patiently, and when I was done she quietly asked, “So, what did you do?”
“Uh… me?” Yep, she was a keeper.
Maybe for you it’s journaling, or running off your frustration so that you can get in a clear, objective place, or talking to an honest friend. Whatever it is that brings you around to thinking truthfully about what is it that you do to complicate the relationship, do that thing until you get a more complete perspective.
Finally, listen openly to your Bonus Person. This could lead you to some of the most revealing feedback you’ll ever get. You don’t have to fully agree with everything they say, but if you listen to learn, you will definitely discover something new, if not about yourself, then at least about them.
Okay, on second thought, this might be the hardest part. Personally, I like to spend time on this whether there is conflict in the relationship or not. I like to know how people tick, but I know this isn’t a natural skill or interest for everyone. If you are not one of those people who are normally inclined to this sort of thing, but you’re doing it anyway, I applaud you. I know it can be uncomfortable or feel like a waste of time. You might be tempted to just go through the motions, or keep things superficial. Don’t back down or gloss over it and miss the opportunity. By sticking with this, you’re equipping yourself with knowledge and skills that are going to have far reaching applications beyond just getting along in this one relationship. A good next step is to take one or more assessments as mentioned above, and then find out what your BP’s assessment results were.
Relational needs assessments give you a general guide of what people want or need from their relationships. These results tend to be more subjective and usually change throughout a person’s lifetime. Love language tools are nice in that they can often give you a fast and easy guide to how the individual best receives communication that goes towards meeting their relational needs.
Cognitive function literacy is the next skill to work on. Learning to interpret what those crazy letters mean is a way to fast track the process of really understanding the core personality of this enigmatic bonus person. What are their strengths? What negative behaviors do they have to be on guard against? Can you identify when they’re getting stressed? What drains/annoys/frustrates/offends/hurts them? Think through to times when you may have done some of those things. What happened?
You don’t have to do this all at once, study them over time. Talk with them. Listen. Remind them that you’re just trying to understand. Be patient if they aren’t as gung ho about it as you are. Be patient with them and with yourself if they’re the one who wants to dive in and you are the one struggling to reveal personal things about your inner world.
Understanding the Interaction
Understanding how your types interact is a bit like studying chemistry. Only, instead of elements and molecules, it is people’s values and preferences combining to form reactions. Combine the wrong elements in the wrong environment and BOOM! You better duck for cover!
Lining up both of your results can start to make it obvious where some of the tension or miscommunications are setting off the explosion, or at the very least, corroding the relationship.
Oh, she’s an NeTi? Her top needs are acceptance and respect? She prefers to be shown love/regard through quality time?
But you might be an SeFi whose top needs are affection and approval, and whose love languages are bear hugs and gifts. Even if you two have nothing in common, at least you have a place to start from. You can begin to understand why she was so frustrated with you when you shot down her idea in front of the whole room. She starts to get why you felt so rejected when she said she had no interest in exchanging Christmas gifts with you.
Learn to speak the same language, and you may even find yourself making up terms or assigning code words to certain behaviors or dynamics of your relationship to really get on the same page. Sometimes getting the feedback of a third party whose opinion you both value can help bridge some of the gaps in understanding. If you decide to learn each other's cognitive functions, specifically identifying what functions are interacting and what both of you are thinking and feeling when there is fallout can make a huge difference in preventing the exact same scenario from playing out again.
Developing the Relational Strategy
Now that you’ve come to some understanding, it’s time for real life application. This is going to mean compromise. It’s a stretching process and it requires communication, flexibility, and cooperation. Here’s an example:
An SiTe may have some strong ideas about how quickly work emails should be replied to, but his NeFi coworker may not seem to have any interest in prompt responses. He might hold that 12 hours the ideal limit and the NeFi might feel that a week is more her speed, so they land on 72 hours. If the SiTe hasn’t heard back at that point, he has permission to bluntly ask, “Hey, where is my response? I should have heard from you by now” and the NeFi, respecting the Si’s need for predictability, agrees to try her hardest not to let it get to that point. The creative NeFi gets some much needs structure and accountability to her work, the SiTe gets to help by providing structure (playing to his strengths) and alleviates the stress of waiting for a week on email responses. Their NiTe coworker points out that they need to develop contingency plans for urgent emails that require responses in less than 72 hours. They keep communicating, and tweaking the strategy. Over time, they have an enviable working relationship; they fill in the gaps for each other and have developed a language that is unique to them.
Summing It All Up
There is no special secret that you must conquer Mordor to receive when it comesto getting along with those that are very different from you. At the end of the day, it’s just putting forth effort. You can use your logical side to come up with practical solutions, and/or your compassionate side to try to empathize with your Bonus Person. You can use your extraverted perception to study them and learn about them and your introverted perception to reflect on what you already know. Finally, your introverted judging can help you to assess yourself. And don’t forget to ask for help where you need it!
In my own life, I have found that those people who I thought were the most difficult to get along with are the ones that have brought me to the most growth and personal development. Here’s hoping the same will hold true for you and your Bonus Person.
*Disclaimer: This article is assuming that the other person is not highly toxic or abusive. If you are being emotionally or verbally abused, especially if the other person is in a position of authority over you or connected to you in a way that is not easy to avoid (like a boss, family member or dorm mate) please seek out professional help in navigating this relationship. The strategies for dealing with abusive behaviors are outside of the scope of this article. Student services, your company’s HR department, and counselors are all good resources.
Rebecca Alexander is an NiFe (INFJ) who enjoys coffee dates with her hubby, snuggling with her toddler, funny conversations with her preschooler, and spending time alone writing, painting, or cooking. An Austin, TX native, she is on a never ending journey to incorporate as many of her passions into daily life as she can, while supporting her favorite people in pursuing theirs, and still getting dinner on the table on time.
Want to connect with Rebecca Alexander?