Most of Rachel Sussman’s clients come to her because they are experiencing problems in a romantic relationship, or are going through a breakup. A licensed relationship therapist, she frequently works with married couples, many of whom have children. Despite deep-rooted problems, one or both partners often aren’t willing to leave the relationship. The stakes are too high.
In lieu of divorce, Sussman helps them build better strategies for communicating. This includes how to fight more compassionately and effectively.
Many of the techniques she’s perfected over the years could be applied to professional disagreements, she’s found. As in a marriage, when a dispute arises between business partners, walking away simply isn’t an option.
With that in mind, here are Sussman’s tips for improving negative dynamics, either in a romantic relationship or at work.
Skip the texts (and emails).
Not much has changed in the 20-plus years Sussman has been counseling couples; most fractures still occur when the foundational pillars of a healthy relationship (trust, respect, fidelity) are violated. The one exception? “The way people communicate,” she says. Email and social media means that messages once conveyed in person or over the phone are now relayed in text, “which leaves so much room for error.”
In fraught situations, context is particularly important. Sussman recommends that clients avoid initiating or responding to confrontations through email, an already charged medium where something as seemingly innocuous as a period can inadvertently convey anger.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a romantic or business partner. If you have an issue with someone, try to talk to him or her about it in person, says Sussman.
Be your own therapist.
Conflicts are rarely one-sided. Yes, you might have been wronged. But instead of spending all your energy ruminating on the injustice of it all, “you owe it to yourself to figure out what’s really bothering you” Sussman says. “Underneath anger if often hurt and defensiveness.”
It’s difficult to come to this realization immediately, when your feelings are still freshly bruised. Instead, give yourself time (a few hours, maybe even days) before evaluating the situation. Start by asking yourself why it made you so angry or upset — focus on your feelings, not what the other person did wrong. When you finally address the situation, lead with that. “It sounds cliched, but ‘I’ statements are very effective,” says Sussman.
Not only can they diffuse a tense situation by reducing the amount of blame being thrown on the table, but they can help you unlock why you’re really upset — invaluable information that might save you a lot of time (and heartache) in future.
Think about motivators and emotions.
After you’ve completed the above point, flip it around and apply it to whomever you are fighting with.
“Try to understand how they are thinking and feeling,” says Sussman (note: try not to be condescending.) Hopefully, by examining where the person is coming from, you’ll get a better understanding of why he or she is upset.
It also doesn’t hurt to ask (again, if you can’t manage to do this sincerely, you’re probably not ready for this step.) Whenever possible, use modified ‘I’ statements so blame doesn’t creep into the conversation, such as ‘You seem really unhappy with me, can you tell me why?’ Or ‘Can you tell me what I can do to make our relationship better?’
“Those are hard questions not to answer.”
And as a last resort: build boundaries.
Some toxic relationship aren’t going to get better. For this type of romantic relationship, Sussman recommends that the couple split up, kids or no. But in a business, it’s not that easy—often, you can’t simply walk away.
And so Sussman recommends developing strategies to minimize the relationship’s negative affect on your wellbeing. While you can’t dictate the nature of the relationship, you do have control over how it impacts your life. “Don’t let that person make you crazy,” says Sussman.
If you must interact with this person for the sake of the business, try and identify the mode of communication least likely to result in a flame-out (perhaps in-person interactions lessen the level passive-aggressiveness, or maybe email decreases the risk of confrontation, for example.) Only make contact when your business absolutely requires it.
While the above strategies can solve dysfunctional relationships, for truly toxic ones, the less interaction the better, says Sussman.