Thinking Out Loud

Helping People Get Along Better

In third grade, I helped a kid who always got into trouble. I befriended him and coached him in how to get along with the teacher. I used eye contact, smiles, and directives about what to say and what not to say and told him when to apologize. This was an eight-year-old’s version of helping people get along better. Over the years I’ve gained more sophistication and communication skills but some of my early instincts still apply.

Getting along better requires effective communication, with an awareness of some basic principles and the ability to put them into practice. At the core of these principles is accepting that getting along is not about trying to convince others that you are right and that each of us has a unique communication style. Understanding individual communication styles is about respect and taking time and care to notice details in how you relate to another and work toward mutual understanding. It’s about using genuine curiosity to guide you in asking careful and thoughtful questions. It’s about listening and steadying yourself from reactions so you can more truly understand what is important to the other person and how he or she expresses it.

It’s extremely helpful to stay aware of what you are experiencing, whether it be with images, thoughts, feelings, or other sensations. Recognizing how you are affected by the communication and respectfully conveying that to the other person is also important and an opportunity for the other person to refine their thoughts and feelings to better account for that impact. The give and take of discussion involves the weaving of material created by both individuals trying to develop an understanding that is durable. This process takes a lot of self-discipline and care.

Getting along better is an active process that involves really paying attention to both yourself and the other. So often we pay attention to what we want to say (trying to convince?), which is only one part of an evolving conversation. What we say, what we mean, and what the other says and means creates a complex, dynamic experience. Acknowledging this complexity and recognizing how easy it is to get off track helps us be more patient and encourages us to ask thoughtful questions in our quest for understanding.

Our efforts to get along better, when they are rooted in respect and good intentions, pay off in the long run—and an understanding and patience for different communication styles adds a practical dimension.

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