I remember my counseling professors drilling home the point that the therapeutic relationship was the most vital component in delivering effective therapy. As an experienced therapist, I now know they were right. However, my experience has taught me that quality relationships form the basis for interactions in a variety of settings. Often, the better our relationships, the better the outcomes we can expect in the workplace, on the home front, and even in some difficult and volatile situations.
Last week, I spoke at the 10th Annual Youth Violence Prevention Conference in Charlotte, NC. My presentation focused on practical ways to de-escalate violence among youth from the front line. Through my work with potentially violent and aggressive kids, I have learned that the best de-escalation technique is often a positive and mutually respectful relationship.
De-escalating volatile situations became a norm for me when I worked with youth in the juvenile justice system. However, one situation left a lasting impression on me because of its potential volatility. When you are in the trenches, it is not always easy to recall specific techniques and training. However, I believe the quality of the relationships I formed with the young men in that facility prevented a disastrous situation.
One afternoon, after dismissing a group therapy session, I noticed that one of the students gathered a crowd of about 8-10 others. I glanced down the other end of the hall to see another student approaching, followed by a group of his peers. I soon realized that these two groups represented rival gangs. I turned to the leader of the group closest to me and asked him if he had the power to call shots. He responded with pride and said that he did. Next, I simply asked him if he would be willing to call off the fight. He complied and this simple request thwarted a potential melee. I did not yell, threaten or beg. I simply asked and he complied.
The results of that situation may have appeared amazing and even magical to the casual observer. Closer observation revealed that my success at that moment began months earlier as I took the time to get to know this student. I realized that along the way I had done five key things that allowed me to build a positive relationship with that youth. These principles are applicable to any relationship, even if you are not working with potentially volatile young people.
- Find common ground
It may take some effort, but seeking commonalities will create bridges to strong relationships. Often we focus on the areas that cause division, but finding common ground helps unify us with other individuals. It serves as a way to lower the barriers that may otherwise keep us separate.
- Focus on the strengths
Very few people respond well to having their weaknesses exposed and exploited. Think of how empowering it is for others to highlight our strengths and what we do well. Sure, we all have weaknesses, but choosing to focus on the strengths can be the key to building a positive connection with another person.
Trying to be something you’re not is exhausting and eventually erodes trust in any relationship. Seeking to over relate to someone appears disingenuous and ultimately makes it difficult to establish the foundation needed for a strong relationship. When in doubt, be yourself, which will allow others to see a consistent and genuine person.
Listening is a skill and it takes practice to develop. However, being an effective listener is crucial to building strong relationships. It communicates to others that their thoughts and words are valid and valuable. Listening to truly hear will create a forum for honest dialogue and honest dialogue produces deeper and stronger relationships.
- Show genuine interest
Showing a genuine interest in others will put you on the fast track to developing a strong relationship. Whether we are parents, counselors, teachers or supervisors, asking sincere questions and seeking to know our children, clients, students and supervisees communicate that we care. Many of us know the famous quote “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I have found this to be a true statement and showing interest is a great way to show you care.
It is all about relationship. Even if you are not in the middle of a potentially volatile situation, developing positive relationships is vital to success in our day-to-day interactions with our significant others, co-workers, clients, or even our own children.