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7 Steps To Healthier Relationships

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2010-02-05-Friendship_000010626267XSmall.jpgHealthy relationships are critical to our well-being, yet many people never learned the skills to cultivate them. Not all people have what it takes to be supportive, and not all unsupportive people can be avoided--for example, family members and co-workers. But the idea is to identify the qualities that support you, spend time with people who demonstrate those qualities, and, as much as possible, avoid people who are detrimental to your well-being.

There are many ways to cultivate healthy relationships, the first of which is to become a supportive friend to others. Below are qualities and behaviors that foster positive relationships that you can develop within yourself and seek out in others.

Be a good sounding board. When a friend wants to talk to you about something he's going through, the best approach is simply to listen. Don't offer advice without asking permission, because it may be that he just wants to share his experience or vent his feelings.

Don't be judgmental. It's important to avoid being judgmental--especially if your friend is sharing something that conflicts with your values. Remember that other people are not you; take care not to impose your values onto someone else.

Avoid "shoulding" people. Telling people what they "should" or "shouldn't" do tends to invoke defensive reactions. If you're in a relationship with someone who always tells you what you should and shouldn't do, that's a red flag. Instead of listening, this person is running assumptions about you or about the way you should live your life.

Be empathetic. Empathy is the act of putting yourself in another person's shoes. It's a trait you'll want to develop in yourself and a quality to look for in others. If someone tells you something painful, the simple statement, "I'm really sorry you had to go through that" is often the most supportive approach.

Practice emotional intelligence. Look for and practice emotional intelligence in your relationships. Here's an example. Say you've made plans with a friend to go out on New Year's Eve, but you have to cancel because you're ill. A supportive friend may be disappointed but she'll understand. If your friend gets angry, it's a tip-off that you're not dealing with an emotionally mature person.

Develop effective communication skills. You'll encounter occasional conflicts with any friend. Conflicts present an opportunity to determine if you can meet each other on an emotionally mature footing. I had a friend who once snapped at me when I called her at an inconvenient time. I composed an e-mail, saying: "I apologize for disturbing you. I tend to be sensitive to harsh communication styles, and although it probably wasn't your intention, I experienced your response as harsh. When you feel upset, please communicate your feelings in a more gentle way. She responded by apologizing. As a result, our relationship grew and she's become one of my dearest friends.

Know when to let go. Every relationship hits bumps along the way, which is when effective communication becomes especially important. Find out whether you can effectively negotiate your differences. If you can't--if the other person is not emotionally mature enough--you may find it's better to let the relationship go. Then, rather than create an unpleasant drama, you can disengage in a respectful way. You can say: "I think our values are too different to support a friendship." The better you know yourself, the easier it is to assess whether people are a good fit as part of your outer support system.

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