6 Ways to Have Meaningful Relationships with People

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The hit show “Girls” follows Lena Dunham, and her trek through New York as a post-grad 20-Something. This is actually a very painful show for me to watch, because I don’t feel like the characters ever have meaningful relationships with each other. All they do is sit around and prattle, and the conversation is always moving from one selfish comment to another; no one ever affirms what someone else said, no one ever directly responds back, and no one ever really has a meaningful relationship with each other. “Girls” is a show that attempts to capture, in a comedic way, the realities of being a 20-Something, and I can’t help but wonder how many of our own relationships are also this meaningless and void. So, how DO we have meaningful relationships with people?…

The first thing I think you have to do is strip away your ego; your feelings of jealousy, competition, selfishness, power and control. If you are constantly ruminating about how you want what someone else has, how you are better than them, how your desires must be met first, you are never going to have meaningful interactions with others, because you are putting YOURSELF at the forefront of everything else, and you can’t ever fully connect with someone else. Say, for example, you are at coffee with your friend, and she is really excited about this new job opportunity she has. If you let your ego get in the way, while she is excitedly talking and filling you in on the details, your mind is full of other thoughts: “Why do things always seem to come so easy for her?”, “If I made more money, I could go on a trip too”, “What can I say that makes my job seem better than hers?”. And, because all of this mind chatter is going on, you probably only hear half the stuff your friend is saying.

I once watched this interaction between two people; one girl gave the other a hug, asked her how her week has been, and as the second girl started talking, I noticed the first girl’s eyes darting around, looking at all the other people meandering around; I can’t imagine the first girl took in too much of that conversation because her attention clearly was diverted elsewhere. Be intentional about your time together.  Look at them when they speak. Put your cell phone away. Avoid distractions and focus on your task at hand. One of the most significant lessons yoga has taught me is how to be present in the current moment. I realized one day that I was always so busy thinking about what I needed to do next that I never really appreciated what I was doing then, and what’s the point of doing things if I’m not fully present? As always, my favorite venue to practice this is driving; because I’m often running from place to place, I often worry about getting there in time. But, I have to remind myself that I can’t change the stoplights, I can’t drag cars off the road to alleviate traffic, I can’t make the distance shorter. So, I have to be present, and intentional, about what I am in the current moment. The same is true with relationships. If I’m scheduled to meet my friend for coffee at 3:00 PM, I can’t be worrying about what I am doing at 6:00 PM; at 6:00 PM I can worry, but not now.

And, when you are having coffee with your friend, actually listen to what they are saying. As a teacher, I often forget that I must instruct my students HOW to have meaningful discussions. We literally read a chapter out of a book, and I give them examples of ways to enter a conversation. For an entire class, we practice saying, “Well Franklin that’s a great point you bring up about the silence. I’m inclined to think….”, “Charlotte, I might have to disagree with you about censorship; I actually think that…”, “Winston, I like that you brought up Modern Family as an example. I also think…”. In therapy, they call this reflective listening; basically, you repeat what the person just said. It works for three reasons: one, the person feels their response is validated by hearing it back, two, it allows the listener to qualify what they are hearing, and the speaker to re-iterate if that is not what they meant, and three, it allows the speaker to elaborate on their thought. We created language as an attempt to standardize the human condition, but as we all know, language has limitations, and we often misinterpret and misunderstand what people actually mean. So, practicing these techniques, and actually listening to what they are saying, helps to promote understanding, and meaningful conversation.

And, in these conversations, don’t be afraid to bring up controversial topics. I always feel bad for men who fall into the Ugly Step Sister Syndrome; Cinderella’s step sisters put a bunch of make up on, really pretty dresses, and for a few hours at the ball, they pretend to have really great manners, can cook, and will be generous wives. As women, we are taught to “put on a show” and change ourselves to find a husband, and once we find a husband, we let ourselves go, and our true, crazy, illogical natures come out (that’s why there’s always so many men at the golf courses on the weekends). When we go to social gatherings, we talk about the weather. We talk about nail polish colors. We talk about drapes and cookie recipes, and through these surface-level conversations, we never actually get to know people. I always like to drop the big bomb on people: tell me about a time you bullied someone else, what do you think happens to us after we die, who is your favorite character on Once Upon a Time. I’ve been accused of being socially un-tactful in some of these approaches, but if I want to have meaningful relationships, I need to KNOW about people–their opinions and why they think that way, what their motivations are and where their motivations came from, what kind of desires they have for themselves, and their opinions of the weather or nail polish colors or drape fabric is never going to get me to the root of them as a person.

Nothing is ever more dissatisfying than finding out someone lied to you, even if those lies were with good intentions. So, always be honest. Be honest in your intentions, your motivations, your decisions. Many of us are people pleasers, and we will often tell people, “I might come out tonight”. Inevitably what happens is, “might” to you means “probably not”, and to them, it means “yes definitely”, so when you don’t end up coming out, you leave people disappointed, and you feel guilty, even though you knew in the first place you were never going. So, be honest. Communicate, and tell people you aren’t coming at the beginning. It saves a lot of emotional turmoil on both ends.

Practice humility. C.S. Lewis once said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; humility is thinking of yourself less”. We can never fully devote ourselves to other people if we are worried about ourselves first. Our thought structures are malleable, and like anything, small shifts lead to big changes. I might start by simply parking at the back of the parking lot so I can save the closer spots for someone who is unable to walk further distances. I might make it a goal to write a thank you card to one person a month. I might remind myself to always turn off the lights when I leave a room. And, slowly, these small shifts–where I am being mindful about putting others first–will lead me to big changes in living a humble, less selfish life.

And, with humility, I think we also need to know that it is OK to talk about ourselves. We are trained that talking about ourselves is bad, selfish, and wrong. Yes, bragging and gloating about ourselves is bad, because, through these comments, we are putting ourselves above everyone else, and attempting to suppress others. But, I would contest that the best relationships I have are ones that endured trauma. After my long term boyfriend and I broke up, I HAD to talk about myself and I HAD to rely on other people to occupy me, affirm my emotions, tell me their stories, get me through the emotional turmoil. But, this is also practicing humility, because I was recognizing my vulnerabilities. People like helping others, and my relationships with those are  so meaningful now.

I always live my life intensely. I only get one, so I want to make sure I suck as much out of it as possible. I like my Kool-Aid strong, my work outs intense, and my relationships meaningful. Why dilute life?…

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