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Dare to Build Better Relationships

How to find the courage to connect with family, friends, and coworkers


by Janice Holly Booth

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Untended, all living creatures will grow in one direction or another. Relationship issues, whether they’re at home or work, are just like vines: clipped and trained they can enhance a landscape; disregard them, and they quickly overtake and strangle everything in sight. Ignoring relationship issues will not render them neutral. But standing up and addressing them can feel so risky that many people will acquiesce to the status quo.

Why courage in relationships can be so hard to muster

The trouble with courage is that it is intimately connected to fear, and no-one likes that feeling. But too often we mistake discomfort for real fear. At the first hint of shakiness, we back off and say, “I can’t do that. I’m too afraid.” We succumb right away to simple discomfort. Rarely do we sit down and analyze what’s really going on. Getting clarity around relationship issues can strengthen our bonds at work and at home and help us focus on the action we may need to take

Can we learn to be brave?

We can. Courage is like a muscle, and like any other muscle in the body it needs exercise before it can do the heavy lifting. But how do we flex that courage muscle when our life is mostly safe and predictable? Here’s the good news: Learning how to be brave in one aspect of your life will transfer to another. Believe it or not, your body cannot differentiate one kind of fear from another. I once interviewed a SWAT team captain. “In a hostage situation,” I asked him, “how do you pull the trigger when there’s a good chance you might kill the wrong person?” His answer astounded me. “The body reacts to emotional and physical stress the same way,” he told me. “We make our men practice their precision shooting when they’re physically exhausted. They learn how to shoot while their hands are shaking and their hearts are pounding and sweat is running into their eyes." So, if you’re terrified about standing up to your boss, do something else that scares you. Afraid of heights? Force yourself to paraglide. Scared of public speaking? Grab a microphone and sing some karaoke. Do something completely unrelated to the issues at work or at home. As you learn to overcome a physical fear, you prepare your body and mind to summon courage when you finally confront your boss.

See also: Exit Strategies for a Friendship Gone Stale

Be supportive in your relationship with yourself

You can’t really rush this process, and you shouldn’t be discouraged if you’re not successful right away. It’s the trying that counts. In the short term, it really doesn’t matter if you succeed or fail, as long as you go back and try again. Each time you give it a go, you’re standing up to fear. This is key: Most relationship issues aren’t resolved on the first try.

Practice on a small stage

Emotional courage is harder to define because it’s not tangible. Begin practicing in situations where there’s not so much on the line. Don’t wait until the moment of truth arrives, when everything rides on your decision to speak or be silent. Practice in staff meetings, in family discussions, or conversations with friends. Practice being quiet and practice speaking up. Push yourself a little bit into that place you avoid going. Don’t be discouraged: No transformation comes from a place of comfort.

Get comfortable with ambiguity

Very few things in life go according to plan; there are always surprises along the way. Often, we choose to leave things as they are for fear of what they might become: my partner might leave me; my children might hate me. But wrestling with fear over and over again will build the muscle you need to take action in spite of uncertainty.

Enjoy the pay off

It’s not enough to be brave just once, or just in the dramatic moments where anyone in their right mind would be scared out of their wits. We need to be brave on a small scale too: This is the kind of daily courage that allows us to define and create the relationships we want. This is where the time invested in exercising your courage muscle will really pay off.

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