Improving Our Relationships With Family and Friends

More often than I would like, after a family gathering or a visit with friends, I think I could have interacted with them a little better. I said or did something that didn’t really reflect who I really am inside or just simply showed them less than the best of me. I’m sure I am not alone in this. I know many people just don’t care but it sure isn’t me and if you’re reading this essay there is a good chance it isn’t you either. So here are some principles that could help us; little strategies I am endlessly working on, failing at too frequently, and at times even succeeding. 

Swift to Hear and Slow to Speak 

The old adage that we have two ears and one mouth kind of sums up the first principle that could improve our relationships. I have not always been a good listener but I am doing a lot better than I did when I was younger. It is hard to ignore or deny that people feel more appreciated when we genuinely and intently listen to them. When people think someone is a good listener it’s because they are listening more than they are talking and not distracted when they do listen.  Our family and friends need validation and support as much as we do. Listening validates and supports them, talking too much validates and supports us; unless of course we are speaking to their interest or responding to something that’s said to us. 

Pausing to listen also breeds confidence and trust in our eventual responses and questions. It demonstrates we are thoughtful about the conversation we are having with them. When we hit the pause button we hear what is really being said before we speak. We pause to judge whether it is best to respond with a question or if we have anything worth adding from our experiences. We may want to affirm someone or confirm something, after we get the whole story. 

It’s also very easy to be offensive or say something meaningless and irrelevant when we speak too quickly. Hasty remarks and responses can be hazardous; especially late at night. One thing we should never get into the habit of doing is taking what others are sharing and steering the conversation away from them to us; using it as a launching pad to promote ourselves; worse yet upscaling our experiences or ideas over theirs. This is a form of manipulation coupled with underdeveloped listening skills.  Be slow to speak and quick to listen. Wherefore my beloved be swift to hear, slow to speak and slow to wrath (James 1:19-20)

Manage and Control Our Anger 

The same verse referenced above, also guides us to be slow to wrath or anger. If we expect to cultivate positive relationships with family and friends we must manage and control inward hostilities and anger. The subject matter of our interactions doesn’t matter; knee-jerk outbursts, inordinate and uncontrolled anger is never okay. We must learn to slow it down. And get a grip! 

Their is a verse in Scripture, be angry but sin not (Ephesians 4:26). This is the heart of it, we might get angry at times but we must figure out how to manage it. If we have chronic out-of-control angry impulses, if we are honest with ourselves, we know it; if not hopefully someone who loves and cares for us will tell us.  If we need help with this we must find it. We just can’t live in denial or shelve it. This is an emotional impairment.

We might say or think I don’t have a problem with anger, yet we are often irritable, cantankerous, bitter and resentful because someone or some life experience has not met our expectations. We might also excuse our outbursts and anger because we are passionate and/or sensitive about our values or beliefs; unfortunately religious values and political views often bring out the worst in us. It’s lamentable because we could get some fresh ideas and thoughtful viewpoints if less argumentative; and more respectful and civil. Sadly, we seem to politicize everything in our present religious and political climate today. This has changed for the worse in my lifetime. 

There’s also a kind of – transfer the blame anger – we can have if we are not careful and circumspect. We might say or think something after we have had an angry outburst like I’m not angry, I am just frustrated; or I’m stressed out that’s why I’m so cantankerous; even worse I acted that way because you made me angry. We just can’t get better if we justify our anger or excuse it because we are a victim of someone else’s actions. We may have a valid reason but it is not an excuse. Facing up to our anger issues is the way forward; even if less chronic or systemic.

Another step forward is to work on our expectations. Unrealistic or foiled expectations can cause a lot of anger, frustration, irritability and resentfulness. Many marriages have imploded because of it. Children and parents have been estranged, close friendships dissolved, siblings silent and against each other for years; all of these and more are often a result of foiled or unrealistic expectations. This little exercise might be good when we feel angry: We could take a good look at the reason why we feel angry; the probability is high that the root cause is hidden in our expectations. At least now we can understand why well feel the way we do and try to do something about it; hopefully we can modifying or trim down our expectations. No one can fully pull-up the roots of anger and cut off it’s branches. But we can do some pruning. It’s hard work and takes time but it will pay off for us and those we love and care about if we work at it. 

Do What Others Want and Not What We Want

When we try do what others want and not what we want – we are not selling our souls. We can never compromise our values, our health, and our spiritual progress for anyone no matter how important they are to us; all of the rest of it is open to compromise and conformity.

It is counter productive for us to drive a wedge between family and friends for incidental and collateral issues and differences; the less critical why-for and what-for in life. It weakens  our relationships with the people we care about to be at odds with them over little or nothing. We are all so unique; in what we emphasis – what we think is important; intellectual and emotional interests, careers and pursuits, activity levels (some are recharged by activity others by rest and relaxation), talents and skills and much more. Capitulation over the little things for the greater good smooths out and smothers resistance when resistance is probable. The encouragement from Scripture is to prefer one another above ourselves (Romans 12:10). 

Abraham, the Father of the Faithful had many great qualities – one of them was his disposition to prefer others above himself without sacrificing his faith in God and his core values. He often did what others wanted and not what he wanted; not only in the small things but some bigger circumstances as well. This is only one of many examples: Abraham and his nephew Lot had a business and a family problem. The herdsman of Abraham and Lot were not getting along very well, to say the least. My guess is they were arguing over the richer grazing fields to feed their flocks. It wasn’t getting any better no matter what uncle and nephew tried to do. So Abraham had to come up with some kind of a solution. It was too big of an issue to ignore.

 Abraham suggested a friendly business separation. Although Abraham was by far the authority figure and was much richer in property rights – he gave his nephew first dibs to the best and most fertile land between them. Lot accepted the terms right away without a counter proposal that would have been a little more selfless on his part. He chose the best and most fertile soil closest to a bustling urban center – a more convenient location to sell his goods and services. This must have been personally difficult for Abraham. He raised Lot after his brothers death. Lot would have had much less if it would not have been for the blessings of God on Abraham’s life coupled with his faith and hard work. Yet Abraham acquiesced for the greater good; a less stressful family relationship with Lot and a more peaceful relationship between the herdsman. Finding a way to do what others want and not what we want without forfeiting our faith and core values is not a sign of weakness – it is a sign of strength, and how important our relationships are to us.

Joseph C. Hutchison, Rochester Hills Michigan, 2021

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