Some relationships are easy – we feel like we are on the same page, speak the same lingo and “get” each other. Other relationships are just not that straightforward. They are the ones that are more likely to cause us conflict, strain, and keep us up at night. It’s hard to even begin to imagine the other person’s perspective. 

We all likely have some tricky relationships in our professional or personal lives. While the simplest option might be to cut ties and end the relationship, this is not always possible when it involves a colleague, manager or family member. Learning to find ways to be effective in these relationships without losing respect for ourselves and the other person is essential. It’s important to remember that relationships involve two people with their own perspectives – for a relationship to work, it’s important to practise looking at all sides of a situation. 

The following information comes from Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), an evidence-based approach commonly used to help guide people to effectively navigate emotions and relationships. The term “dialectical” comes from the idea that both accepting the parts of the situation we can’t change, and working on the things that we can change, are important skills in managing tricky relationships. If we only do one, it can either feel invalidating about how hard the situation is, or make us feel very stuck and hopeless.  

From this perspective, it is helpful for us to accept ourselves and other people as we are and to balance that with developing effective ways to navigate the interaction. Here are some ideas to assist managing what tricky relationships bring up for you (skills 1 and 2) and communicating well with people you find tricky (skill 3): 

Skill 1: Manoeuvre your emotions

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by emotion which can cause us to become more aggressive, or alternately more passive, than usual. These emotions may show up as yelling, making a personal attack, judging or sneering, or avoiding a conversation entirely. By being more aware of our emotions, we can actively plan to have the conversation when we are not feeling totally frustrated (10/10 intensity) about the situation. By entering the conversation in a less emotional frame of mind, we are able to access parts of our brain that are essential for relational skills such as tone of voice and body language. 

Skill 2: Be aware of your beliefs around the interpersonal situation 

One common barrier to asserting our own needs – such as saying no to a request, or asking for something you need – is worry about the potential negative consequences. How many of these beliefs have shown up for you before? By spotting these types of beliefs, rather than automatically buying in to them, we can start to untangle ourselves from them. 

Fear of disapproval or criticism: I need everybody’s approval to be worthwhile.

Entitlement: People should always be the way I expect them to be.  

Jumping to conclusions: I generalise based on one or two qualities or events to form a negative overall judgement.

Magnification: I blow events out of proportion.

Personalising: I think that everything people do or say is some kind of reaction to me. 

Skill 3: Use assertive communication skills to repair relationships when needed 

The longer a problem in any relationship remains unattended to, the harder it can be to repair. Don’t let frustration, hurt and problems build up. When we are able to assert our needs and opinions in a fair, honest and calm way, people are more likely to respect you. Use assertive communication skills to get your needs met and to resolve conflict before it gets overwhelming.

A helpful way to remember assertive communication skills is to use the term DEAR:

Describe the current situation. Stick to the facts. 

  e.g. We have to get this project to the leadership team by Friday. Last time we had a project due, we went with your idea and didn’t explore anyone else’s ideas. 

Express your feelings and opinions about the situation. Don’t assume that the other person knows how you feel. 

  e.g. I found it frustrating that we didn’t explore anyone else’s ideas.

Assert yourself by asking for what you want or saying no clearly. Don’t assume that the other person will figure out what you want. 

  e.g. I would really like it if we take the time to explore all ideas before narrowing them down. 

Reinforce the person ahead of time by explaining the positive effects of getting what you want or need. If necessary, also clarify the negative consequence of not getting what you want or need. 

  e.g. That way, we can be more confident we have picked the best idea and work collaboratively together. 

While these tools won’t make all relationships smooth sailing, they will help you to manage yourself well and work to change the dynamic between you and the other person. Be willing to negotiate and listen to the other person’s point of view. Remember you can only manage your own half of the relationship. This is all part of the delicate dance of acceptance and change in tricky relationships.