Counseling Today, Cover Stories

Relationship management

By Laurie Meyers January 24, 2019

Consider the words of a certain New Jersey troubadour:

Everybody needs a place to rest

Everybody wants to have a home

Don’t make no difference what nobody says

Ain’t nobody like to be alone.

This declaration is from Bruce Springsteen’s 1980 single “Hungry Heart,” which tells the story of a restless man who believed contentment could be found in ceaseless wandering, in never putting down roots or making connections. Over the years, however, the man realizes that he is alone, tired and lonely. Without close relationships, he has nowhere to turn when he is weary and in need of succor. He comes to understand that “home” can be found in the people we are close to.

“Hungry Heart” was Springsteen’s first top 10 hit as a performer. The song’s memorable and upbeat melody may partially explain its popularity. But perhaps its appeal also comes from listeners’ recognition of an essential truth revealed in its lyrics: People are not meant to go through life alone.

“We are social creatures,” says David Kaplan, who is retiring this month as the American Counseling Association’s chief professional officer. “We are meant to be with other people. We thrive with other people. Communication [with others] promotes community and a sense of connectedness. Lack of communication promotes isolation and dysphoria. It also predicts an earlier death.”

Indeed, research has shown that social relationships serve as a buffer against stress and are a protective factor against the risk of disease. According to a research review published in the May 2015 issue of the journal Current Opinion in Psychology, in the face of chronic adversity, adults who are socially integrated — meaning that they possess a network of close relationships — have a 50 percent higher survival rate than those who are socially isolated. In fact, social support has a more significant effect on mortality than do behavioral risk factors such as obesity and alcohol consumption.

The effect of social relationships on health is both direct (e.g., promoting well-being) and indirect (e.g., reducing or blocking exposure to stressful events or minimizing the physical effects of stress). Recent research has focused on how social relationships minimize the impact of stressful events. The body responds to acute stress by mobilizing the neuroendocrine, autonomic, immune and metabolic systems. Over time, this mobilization can cause wear and tear on the body (called the allostatic load). Social support seems to lower the body’s allostatic load — with support being a key word. Research indicates that it isn’t enough to simply have social “ties.” Not surprisingly, negative, stressful relationships can actually have an adverse effect on a person’s physical and emotional health.

Of course, professional counselors, who build their work around the therapeutic bond, are already well aware of the vital role that supportive relationships play in people’s lives. Using this crucial relationship, counselors can help teach clients how to cultivate and maintain healthy relationships in all areas of their lives.

Why can’t we be friends?

The bonds formed between friends can be just as important as those within families. But in our fast-paced, global and mobile society, maintaining friendships can be challenging, especially as adults. People move away, develop new interests or start families and find it difficult to consistently make time for those outside of their family units. Suddenly, adults can find their friendship pool depleted, and they’re left struggling to remember how to make new friends.

As children, we are placed in environments that make it easier to form bonds. We go to school with others our age and participate in shared interests such as club activities and team sports. But as adults, these kinds of opportunities aren’t as readily available, notes Kailee Place, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Charleston, South Carolina, whose specialties include helping women with relationship difficulties. As a result, adults generally have to actively seek out ways to meet people and build bonds.

One way counselors can assist in this effort is by brainstorming with clients about their interests and values, thus making it clearer what types of things they are looking for in their adult friendship, Place says. “Counselors also model healthy relationship dynamics in the therapeutic environment, providing room for vulnerability without judgment, actively listening to [clients], providing feedback and generally fostering respect and compassion. This helps lay the groundwork for healthy relationships in the future or can challenge any current toxic relationships [that clients] may have,” Place says.

“Sometimes, clients need a refresher course on social skills and social cues,” Place continues. “This includes how to use small talk to build into more substantial conversation, how to maintain eye contact [and] how to recognize different facial expressions or the meaning behind different tones of voice. During counseling sessions, we can practice these skills [with clients], perhaps using role-play activities, going through exercises to recognize and identify facial expressions, working toward greater comfort with eye contact and gaining comfort in sharing details about themselves.”

Active listening is another essential skill for developing and maintaining adult friendships, says Kaplan, a past president of both ACA and the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, a division of ACA. As he explains, when people listen to someone else and then reflect back in their own words what that person just said, it conveys a message that the speaker matters to the listener. And how do clients learn the skill of active listening? By practicing, Kaplan says.

Melody Li, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Austin, Texas, agrees. She often has clients sit facing a partner, a family member or Li herself to practice reflecting back not just what the other person said but also the corresponding emotions embedded in the communication.

Part of being present and attuned is meeting a partner at a similar emotional level, Li explains. For instance, if a person is recounting something that angered them, such as an incident at work, and the listener conveys nonchalance, then the speaker will feel not only unheard but unsupported, she says.

Sherry Lewis is an LPC in Boulder, Colorado, who specializes in helping individuals, parents and families develop stronger emotional and relationship skills. She also holds workshops for children and adolescents on friendship skills and says that much of what she teaches in those workshops can benefit adults as well. In fact, Lewis regularly encourages parents to “listen in.”

“With the kids, we brainstorm things they think make people like or dislike others. Then we go back through the list and rethink the things listed,” she says. “Almost everyone, consciously or unconsciously, tries superficial ways to be liked or accepted by looking a certain way, performing or doing things to be liked, etc., but those are not the things that really make a difference. As the kids in the classes cross off more of the things they originally thought made friends, such as being smart, having things, being good at sports, art, etc., I ask them if they see a pattern. The kids figure out that it’s the way we treat others and how we make them feel that underlies others wanting to be around us more or less. This realization makes friendship less of a mystery and something anyone can improve by acting in ways that make others feel comfortable or positive.”

Lewis adds that maintaining social skills is an ongoing process that everyone needs to practice across the life span as they interact with the people in their lives. From Lewis’ perspective, we have become technologically overconnected as a society, while simultaneously allowing ourselves to grow personally disconnected.

Similarly, Li thinks the rise of social media has had an overall negative effect on people forming and growing interpersonal connections. She argues that social media “can give people the impression that they’re making a connection. A bite-sized piece of connection feels gratifying in the moment, but it is not satiating or meaningful in the long run.” She also believes that the frantic nature of continuously updating social media and news feeds has shortened people’s attention spans and harmed their ability to listen patiently.

Kaplan, on the other hand, doesn’t think that social media interferes with people starting and maintaining relationships. In his view, it is just another way to communicate, and frequent communication is essential to relationships.

“There needs to be quantity,” he says. “It might be online, verbal or face-to-face, [but] in one form or another, there’s no substitute for a quantity of communication with people that you care about.”

Kaplan and Li do agree about the adverse effects of another area of technology, however — the practice some people have of repeatedly scanning their smartphones while interacting with others. Although quantity of communication is important, so is quality, and being able to give full attention to what others are saying is a critical component of forging relationships. When spending time with someone they care about, people should put their phones away, Kaplan says. That advice might seem elementary, but in this day and age, counselors likely need to share it with clients who are working on their relationship skills:   

Feeling awkward

Making and maintaining new connections can be especially difficult if a client is shy or has social anxiety. All hope is not lost, however.

“Counselors can help immensely with debilitating shyness or social anxiety,” Place says. “Most people have some amount of anxiety or nerves when approaching new people, especially if the motivation is building a friendship.”

Place suggests that clients who struggle with social anxiety use grounding techniques such as slow, intentional breathing; carry a small object to fiddle with to channel nervous energy; or use a lotion with a calming scent such as lavender.

“I also encourage clients to challenge any irrational thinking they may be experiencing, such as dwelling on the assumption that people don’t like them, and to come to more accurate conclusions with the proof they have in front of them,” she says. “Keeping the mantra ‘this is temporary’ in mind is also helpful [because] emotions come and go, so those anxious feelings will come and go as well.”

Eventually, Place says, clients have to test their coping skills in the real world so they can build confidence and experience. “Starting out small and safe is key to building a base of confidence and motivation,” she explains. “This can include striking up a conversation with a co-worker that a client feels relatively comfortable around or getting involved in a class of some sort where most people have a common interest. That common interest or common environment can take away the pressure of coming up with subjects to discuss. As these interactions go positively, clients see their ability and, ideally, build their energy and motivation toward more difficult social interactions.”

Li says it can be helpful for clients to be upfront about telling people that they’re shy and often don’t speak up right away but still welcome interaction.

Sometimes anxiety arises because the client feels socially awkward. “We’re all awkward. Some of us just fake it better than others,” says Li, who encourages clients to own their awkwardness and be open about it. She also works with clients to determine if there is something specific that is driving their perceived awkwardness, such as a particular incident or trauma.

Playing (and working) well with others

People might not automatically associate relationship skills with the workplace. Yet most people spend a significant amount of time at the office, which typically requires lots of interacting with co-workers. Negative office relationships not only contribute to unpleasant or downright dysfunctional environments; they can also affect how — or whether — clients fulfill their professional responsibilities.

Jessi Eden Brown is an LPC and a licensed mental health counselor in the Seattle area who specializes in workplace-related stress, work trauma and workplace bullying. She tells her clients that they don’t have to be friends with their co-workers; instead, they should strive for mutual respect and professionalism. Friendship — if it happens — is a bonus.

In addition to honing basic relationship skills such as having empathy and compassion, developing self-insight and being more accommodating, Brown teaches clients how to set a tone for working with others, how to give and receive feedback in the workplace, and how to resolve conflict.

Brown, a member of ACA, most frequently brings up tone setting when clients are preparing to start a new job or project, accept a transfer or change careers. “The process involves helping clients reflect on any changes they might want to make as they start over,” she says. “I often frame it as a way to redefine who you want to be at work.”

“Setting the tone includes thinking about relationships in the workplace. We’ll explore questions such as how much about yourself do you want to share with your new co-workers? Are there any reasons to be cautious at first — as is generally the case with bullied targets who are starting over? What strengths would you like to showcase? In what ways do you want to grow professionally? Are there any habits or behaviors you want to leave behind?”

Defining the desired tone allows clients to identify their goals and then work with Brown to brainstorm steps for achieving them. Brown believes this helps create a road map for clients to correct previous problems and approach situations in a new way. Once Brown and the client have developed that road map, she uses psychoeducation, modeling and role-play to work with the client on any specific skills that might be required, such as assertive communication skills, impulse control and anger management.

Giving and receiving feedback is an essential, yet frequently unpleasant, part of workplace relationships. Brown encourages clients to use “I” statements and to engage in reflective listening. When giving feedback, she is a fan of the feedback “sandwich,” in which the person providing the feedback opens with a positive statement about the recipient’s performance, follows up with an explanation of what the recipient needs to work on and closes with a general positive comment such as, “Overall, you’re doing really well.”

On the other side of the coin, Brown encourages clients to approach receiving feedback with an open mind, reminding themselves that they will probably hear information that they won’t like. Another piece of advice she gives: “You don’t have to respond in the moment — ever. If you hear feedback and feel defensive, tell them [the person giving feedback] that you need time to respond.” Clients can then take that time to ask themselves why they reacted defensively and to consider how they want to respond to the feedback, Brown says. Taking the needed time to gather their thoughts allows clients to re-engage and enter into a more productive discussion concerning the feedback, she explains.

All relationships have conflict, but conflict in the workplace can be particularly uncomfortable, especially if it involves a power differential, such as an employee who has a run-in with a supervisor who signs the paychecks. Brown starts by trying to normalize conflict for her clients, telling them that it’s everywhere. She also advises clients to observe their co-workers.

“Is there someone at work who seems to handle conflict particularly well? How are they doing it?” she asks. “You may even be able to tap them for information.”

Brown recommends that clients take a direct, solution-focused approach to dealing with conflict, including coming to the table with ideas for resolving the problem. If that approach doesn’t work, she advises clients to go through official avenues such as the human resources department.

But what happens when the conflict is with a supervisor or co-worker who doesn’t respond to attempts to resolve the issue? Under such circumstances, Brown works with clients on ways to not internalize the conflict. When clients look around at the larger picture, she says, they often find that they aren’t the only target of conflict — the problematic manager or co-worker behaves that way with most people. Brown also encourages clients to try to apply the lens of humor to the situation or to find other ways to keep the conflict in perspective, such as reminding themselves that this represents only one area of their lives. It doesn’t stop them from continuing to engage in positive interactions with friends and family or from seeking their support.

Of course, conflict isn’t the only kind of drama people encounter when it comes to relationship dynamics in the workplace. Power struggles, gossip and general office politics can create an uncomfortable and precarious atmosphere, notes Maggie Graham, an LPC in the Fort Collins, Colorado, area who specializes in career counseling and coaching.

“If people are … mired in a situation where office politics are swirling around them, and they want to avoid getting pulled into the vortex, simple cues and redirections can be very effective at communicating a clear boundary around gossip while steering clear of judging and alienating co-workers,” she says.

Graham recommends techniques such as changing the topic when conversations veer into murky waters and using body language and clear statements to set boundaries. For example, she suggests clients can gently hold up a hand like a stop sign and say, “Oh, that’s not a topic I want to chime in on. It’s outside my scope of expertise.”

Taking a chance on romance

Much has been written on nurturing established romantic relationships, but what skills do clients need when still looking for love?

“Clients with attachment issues or relationship anxiety may deeply want a relationship but also fear it working out,” notes Rachel Dack, a licensed clinical professional counselor with a private practice in Bethesda, Maryland, who specializes in helping clients with dating, relationship and intimacy issues. “Fear may lead individuals to play games in dating or sabotage developing relationships due to not feeling worthy or confident that someone could actually like them. The fears can be so deeply ingrained that they approach dating with walls for protection or mental blocks that don’t allow them to connect despite really wanting a partner.”

Understanding behaviors that are driven by attachment issues, relationship anxiety and other internal belief systems is often a crucial part of resolving dating difficulties, says Dack, a member of ACA. For example, Dack had a single client in her 40s who repeatedly spent money on prospective partners and insisted on paying for everything while dating.

“She would plan elaborate dates and vacations for the men she was interested in and used her financial assets as a means to connect,” Dack says. “She often felt insecure and anxious that men didn’t want to date her. When we explored her belief system, she had deeply rooted beliefs that she was not good enough and was unworthy of being picked by a great guy.”

The client’s reliance on using money to attract men was ultimately self-defeating, Dack says, because even when someone continued to date her, she couldn’t help but question whether he would have asked her out if she hadn’t paid for everything. This created a constant sense of rejection in the client despite her success in getting dates.

“She [also] had a tendency to dominate the relationship when it came to logistics — planning dates, picking activities, paying all of the time — while holding back her feelings and acting standoffish with men despite her interest,” Dack explains. “She didn’t know how to relate to the men who wanted a more equal relationship in which they could also be generous and giving because she was scared they wouldn’t like her if she stopped paying. We worked to explore her underlying belief system and her thoughts on gender roles, healthy relationships, money, herself and men.”

Dack helped the client look at how these beliefs shaped her behavior and encouraged her to ask herself whether her approach was serving its intended purpose. “She realized that her negative mindset was interfering with her goal of a healthy partnership and that she wasn’t giving men the opportunity to get to know her in a deep way,” Dack says.

Together, they discussed how the client might behave differently if she believed she was worthy of love. Dack encouraged the client to allow herself to be more vulnerable by letting a man pursue her. She also urged the client to become more emotionally invested in her relationships.

“It was hard for her to accept a man who wanted to make her feel special, but she learned to become more comfortable with this through time and practice tolerating the discomfort,” Dack says. Dack also helped the client learn how to love and care for herself, which allowed her to accept love and care from others.

The process of forming an intimate connection — from early conversations to going on actual dates — can be a very scary or overwhelming undertaking for many people, Dack observes. She reminds clients that many of the negative scenarios they fear do not end up happening. Dack also helps clients reframe bad dates and past relationships — not only did the clients survive them, but they learned something that they can use going forward. “Clients often feel better when they take emotional risks aligned with their romantic goals [but] can feel hopeless when they avoid taking risks or give up on dating entirely,” she observes.

To prepare for dates, Dack has clients practice their active listening, communication and validation skills. “The balance of how much to speak and share versus how much to listen can be tricky to maneuver,” she says. “Often, clients fall on one extreme — either they are so eager to share about themselves that they do too much talking and oversharing, or they are very introverted, shy or scared to be vulnerable, so they prefer to sit back and do all of the listening.”

Many clients struggle with how to create a natural conversation flow, Dack adds. One of her clients, a man in his early 30s, had trouble getting more than one date with the women he pursued. He told Dack that women often said they didn’t feel a connection with him. As Dack and the client discussed how he typically interacted on dates, she helped him realize that because of his anxiety about potential rejection, he would ask numerous questions but not truly take in or indicate interest in his date’s responses.

Dack used role-play to train the client to slow down his questions, listen attentively and stay on topic for more extended periods of time. The client also practiced sharing his own experiences and emotions. “We explored what it means to connect and practiced validation skills so that his dates would feel heard, valued and understood,” Dack says.

Over time, the client’s enhanced ability to engage allowed him to achieve much better connections — and led to relationships that have extended well beyond one date.

 

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The power of forgiveness

“Forgiveness is important to relationships for many reasons, but primarily because it is a mechanism of healing ruptures that occur in all relationships,” says Veronica Johnson, an American Counseling Association member whose research focuses on forgiveness, conflict resolution and infidelity.

People who refuse to practice forgiveness in their relationships experience resentment, bitterness and anger, which can cause both physical and psychological problems, points out Johnson, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Counselor Education at the University of Montana.

Another reason forgiveness is essential to relationships is because it restores a sense of dignity and trust to both parties, Johnson says. “The offender is released from guilt and shame … [for] what they did, and the victim lets go of a desire to seek revenge and continue to punish their partner,” she explains. “In the presence of a good apology — which is also quite important in relationships — the victim’s dignity is also restored [because] they are validated in their experiences.”

Forgiveness, however, first requires a willingness to forgive, Johnson emphasizes. “Allowing clients the space to express the anger, resentment, grief, sadness and other host of emotions that accompany a relationship rupture is absolutely essential,” she says. “Only after the client feels validated and heard in expressing their experience can a counselor begin the process of helping the client see the effects that active unforgiveness has on their life.”

Johnson recommends Robert D. Enright’s book Forgiveness Is a Choice: A Step-by-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope as a resource. Enright emphasizes that therapists should never imply that clients must or even should forgive.

“Implying such can be experienced as blaming or retraumatizing for a client,” Johnson says. “We can help clients to see how their active unforgiveness impacts their life, and when they are ready to free themselves from the hurt, anger, bitterness, etc., then forgiveness becomes an option. The process of forgiveness that Enright proposes involves allowing oneself to fully experience the range of emotions that accompany the offense, actively choosing to forgive, working toward forgiveness by developing understanding and compassion for the offense and the offender, and discovering meaning, purpose and release from negative emotions associated with the offense.”

Johnson adds that forgiveness need not be accompanied by reconciliation. “We need to empower our clients to make decisions that are healthy for themselves and their relationships, and sometimes that might mean leaving an unhealthy relationship,” she says.

If the client is leaving an unhealthy relationship, the forgiveness work often shifts to self-forgiveness. These clients often need to learn how to forgive themselves for staying or for tolerating bad behavior in their partners, Johnson concludes.

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Books and DVDs (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

  • Relationships in Counseling and the Counselor’s Life by Jeffrey A. Kottler and Richard S. Balkin
  • Mediating Conflict in Intimate Relationships, DVD, presented by Gerald Monk and John Winslade

Podcasts (aca.digitellinc.com/aca/store/5#cat14)

  • “Imago Relationship Therapy” with Susan Hammonds-White (ACA284)
  • “Love and Sex and Relationships” with Erica Goodstone (ACA231)

 

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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