Reference Guide: Relationships

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Module Reference Guide


“Connection is why we’re here; it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.” Brené Brown 1

Why a pillar on relationships with others? Because strategy is all about putting smaller, singular things into a wider context, and that context includes people.

Research shows that finding a sense of belonging in close social relationships and with our community is essential to our well-being. What makes belonging essential for us is the fact that we are a social species. We cannot survive without one another. In a meta-analysis of studies on loneliness, researchers Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, and J. Bradley Layton 2 found the following: Living with air pollution increases your odds of dying early by 5%. Living with obesity, 20%. Excessive drinking, 30%. And living with loneliness? It increases our odds of dying early by 45%.

What relationships are we talking about here? This pillar typically covers your non-work-related relationships with others, prioritising your most important relationships and your strategy for change. This could include relationships with your partner or spouse, children, family, close friends, wider family and friends, a mentor or mentee, your connections, your community, or your social network.

Whomever these others may be, be sure that you let everyone know the key parts they are expected to play in this strategy to avoid disappointment. Otherwise, it’s set up for failure.

What do you aspire to in your relationships with others?



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Using the Strategic Relationships worksheet, list the ‘strategic relationships’ that you might include in your priorities.  Why are they strategic for you?

A key thing to remember is that this strategy is not a strategy for others to implement for your benefit but a strategy for you to manifest your aspiration. It’s too easy to blame our situation on the actions of others. And too often, we have intentions or expectations for our relationships that might not be shared by the other party.

This pillar is about you taking responsibility for your relationship with others to have the impact that you aspire to. Consider the attributes that you desire to be demonstrated in your relationships; consider your part in enabling or obstructing the flourishing of that relationship. Make your expectations centre around what you can control, i.e. your feelings, not theirs.

How are you showing up to others?

Is the way we are showing up to others aligned with what we desire in our relationships? If we aspire to love and be loved, what is our strategy, what work do we need to do, to achieve that?

“So often when we feel lost, adrift in our lives, our first instinct is to look out into the distance to find the nearest shore. But that shore, that solid ground, is within us. The anchor we are searching for is connection, and it is internal. To form meaningful connections with others, we must first connect with ourselves.” Brené Brown Atlas of the Heart 3

In the Self pillar, we explored how we show up to ourselves. We examined the internal narratives that we have of ourselves and the assumptions that derive from them, whether delusional, constructive, or defensive. In the Relationships pillar, we take account of how others experience us, and there’s often quite a significant difference between how we think we show up and how we are actually showing up to others, either positively or negatively.

What are you known for in your relationships?

It’s not just how you show up but how you keep showing up that matters. Locard’s Exchange Principle of forensic science – ‘every contact leaves a trace’ – is the basis of your credibility. What others believe to be true about you, like trust, is built up gradually in a series of moments but can be lost in an instant. 

Are you known for being totally present when you’re with someone? Are you known for always finding fault with a family member or being judgemental? Are you known for being totally clear on your boundaries? Are you known for letting people down? Are you known for always putting others first and neglecting yourself? Are you known for being the light and soul of the party, for bringing people together? Are you known for providing a safe and loving home/environment? Are you known for your openness to others’ values, ideas and what might emerge from the relationship, or for being controlling or closed? Are you known for your care, empathy and kindness, your wholeheartedness? Are you known for focusing on joy? Do you sweat the small stuff?

Return to your Strategic Relationships worksheet and make some notes on:

  • How am I showing up to others? What am I known for?
  • What do I want to be known for in my relationships?

I’ve learnt some hard lessons by listening to others reveal how I show up to them and it’s changed my experience of my relationships when I changed my strategy to focus on what I needed to change in my approach to key relationships rather than on what I needed to change in others to satisfy my expectations.

What is your trust and connection strategy?

“Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” Brené Brown 4

Trust can be lost in a relationship very suddenly and dramatically with a significant event – a lie, a betrayal, a revelation, disloyalty, an unkindness. However, trust and connection can also be lost through disengagement or not caring which is corrosive. Each time that we choose not to engage we choose to turn away from the relationship rather than towards it, eroding trust gradually and slowly and betraying the relationship by not investing in it. When the people we love or with whom we have a deep connection stop caring, stop paying attention, stop investing, and stop fighting for the relationship, trust begins to slip away and hurt starts seeping in.  “Disengagement triggers shame and our greatest fears – fears of being abandoned, unworthy, and unlovable.” States Brené Brown in ‘Daring Greatly’.5

In your Strategic Relationships worksheet, capture your notes on your trust and connection strategy:

  • What are my intentions to strengthen my relationships, being fully engaged and connected and giving my relationships space to grow?
  • Am I allowing others to be seen and heard?

Some relationship strategies don’t focus on particular relationships but rather on what you want from relationships more broadly. For example, if you value meaningful relationships, your intent may be to embrace wholehearted connection and intimacy. The enabler here could be having the courage to be vulnerable. To connect meaningfully fully requires you to be seen, but the downside of this visibility is that once seen, you can be hurt.

Is your self-protection impeding your relationships?

The consequences of choosing self-protection over love are described beautifully by C.S. Lewis.6

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

Brené Brown’s research and writings have shaped our cultural narrative on vulnerability and have certainly influenced my relationship strategy. We carry around a ton of armour of protection but being able to have authentic relationships requires us to let go of the armour, it requires vulnerability. I learned to armour up early on in my life, and this was reinforced by the superpower of compartmentalisation.

Being great at compartmentalisation was foundational in my career and a fundamental survival technique when my husband passed away from cancer when my youngest was less than a year old, and I was left in a difficult financial position. In order to survive, not get consumed with the awfulness of my current situation, and to protect myself from the pain, shame, and anger that I felt, I put my heart into ‘Davy’s Locker’ (from Pirates of the Caribbean), locked it, wrapped it around with chains and threw it into a virtual ocean where I thought that it would be safe. I anticipated that when I was ready, I would be able to collect the chest, unlock it and carefully bring my heart back to life. I didn’t count on an almighty storm that washed it all up on the shore, bursting open the chains and the chest, creating emotional and mental chaos.

What I learned is that when you put your heart in the locker, you disengage from love and joy – you numb all your feelings. Being crazy busy is another means of protection, not making time for emotions and feelings. And as it was explained to me by a close friend reviewing an early draft of my personal strategy map, “if love isn’t even on your map, let alone being one of your priorities, it’s not going to happen.” He made me realise that I needed to show up in my relationships and be vulnerable to have the outcomes that I desired but never allowed myself to experience. Being vulnerable opens the pathway to courage, love & joy. For me, to dare to love after being broken-hearted was one of the bravest things that I could do, but essential in the healing process.

Getting familiar with vulnerability has the power to shift how we show up to ourselves, in our relationships, in our communities and in our wider world. Vulnerability is a way of showing up in our lives, letting ourselves be fully seen by others, and embracing all of who we are in order to live more fully, whatever that may mean for each of us. Vulnerability is a roadmap to connection; it connects us to others in a real human way and is often a basis of healing.

The key to vulnerability is discernment around when, where and with whom to practice vulnerability; oversharing or exposing yourself with no boundaries is not vulnerability, and it has a great deal of inherent risk. Start with being vulnerable with yourself, then with someone you trust deeply before being visible to your wider community and the world at large. When we are honest about our feelings, emotions and experiences for ourselves, we make it a lot easier to do the same for those that we care about.

My family values independence: indeed, our motto is humorously considered to be “I’ll do it myself.” Maybe you have also made an assumption that you don’t need to be vulnerable because “I don’t need anyone; I can go it alone.” Except we are hardwired for connection.

We are a social species. In the absence of authentic connection, we suffer; we derive strength from our collective actions, not from rugged individualism. Our neural, hormonal and genetic makeup support interdependence over independence. John Cacioppo, a neuroscience researcher dedicated to understanding loneliness, belonging, and connection, explained, “To grow to adulthood as a social species, including humans, is not to become autonomous and solitary, it’s to become the one on whom others can depend. Whether we know it or not, our brains have been shaped to favour this outcome.” 7

In relationships, the emotions that we fear the most – such as shame and guilt – are where we need to do the work rather than getting angry and blaming others. 

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasures you seek.” Joseph Campbell 8

It reminds me of the scene in Star Wars where the wise Yoda and young Luke Skywalker are in the swamp. Luke feels this really strange energy coming from this cave, and he turns to Yoda and says, “What’s in there?” Yoda says, “Only what you take with you.” Luke says that he’s not going into the cave, and Yoda replies, “In you must go.” Luke grabs his lightsaber, and Yoda says, “Weapons you will not need.” Luke is in the cave for a matter of seconds before he sees Darth Vader in front of him. He pulls out his lightsabre, and they start duelling. Luke cuts off Darth Vader’s head, and as it rolls on the ground, the mask comes off, and Luke sees his own face on the ground before him. 

Paraphrasing Pogo, ‘I have met the enemy, and it is me.’ 

To have the relationships that we aspire to, we must face into the cave, face ourselves and the role that we play in creating, developing and maintaining those relationships. This takes bravery. As Brene Brown’s research shows, “There’s not a single act of courage that doesn’t require vulnerability.” 9 Having the relationships we desire requires courage and vulnerability.

In your Strategic Relationships worksheet, consider the following:

  • What parts of myself do I feel particularly protective about? What makes me feel self-conscious or exposed?
  • What stops me from being open about this with others? Do I worry about being judged, or fear rejection?
  • How does any self-protection show up in my relationships? What is the result?

What role does perfectionism and judgement play in your relationships?

For a perfectionist, perfection is both seductive and justifiable but entirely unachievable because perfection is an unattainable goal. It also fuels the scarcity train of I’m not good enough. In relationships, it can show up as measuring our relationship against some unachievable ideal that we’ve put on a pedestal, and in our drive to achieve it, we destroy the very basis of the relationship. This is because it’s not real and genuine; it’s based on a fantasy. It’s easy to fall in love with what your expectation of a relationship, but that falls apart when reality and your ideal are not aligned. And while you are focused on your fantasy and what you are lacking, the real world and other opportunities pass you by. I’ve learned this from experience too!

Judgement is often fuelled by perfectionism and is just as destructive as it undermines trust. One of the best pieces of advice given to me by a global HR Director with whom I worked was under all circumstances and at all times, “Start with positive intent.” Start with curiosity and not criticism, and it changes the outcome. Judgement creates shame and resentment, resulting in oppositional defensive behaviour.

John Gottman has done pioneering research on how we connect and build relationships based on 40 years of studying intimate relationships. From his work on marriages, he was able to predict an outcome of divorce with 90% accuracy based on responses to a series of questions. His team screened for what he called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt, with contempt being the most damning in a romantic partnership. 10

How could your relationships be strengthened by letting go of perfectionism or judgement?

In your Strategic Relationships worksheet, rate the presence of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt – in any of your relationships. What part will you play in eliminating them?

The ‘story I’m telling myself’ tool

The stories we create to justify our own inadequacy affect trust and connection in relationships and also crush our self-worth. One of the best examples of this (and one of my favourite stories as it’s so easy to relate to) is ‘the ham fold-over debacle’ in Brené Brown’s book, Dare to Lead 11 (page 246). It’s worth a read in full, but the abridged version is that Brené was extremely overworked and stressed and when her husband Steve came home, looked in the fridge and quietly said to himself: “We don’t even have any damn lunch meat in this house”, it set her off on a full attack of her husband based entirely on the story that she was telling herself about the situation. Completely refusing to engage, and with great love, Steve asked her calmly what was going on.

Fortunately, Brené had learned a skill from her research on resilience – using the ‘the story I’m telling myself’ tool. Brené recommends it as a game-changer with “the power to transform the way you live, love, parent and lead.” So, back to the story and in Brené’s kitchen, she looked at Steve and said, “Look, the story I’m telling myself right now is this: I am a half-ass leader, a half-ass mom, a half-ass wife, and a half-ass daughter. I am currently disappointing every single person in my life. Not because I am not good at what I do, but because I’m doing so many different things that I cannot do a single one of them well. What I’m making up in my head right now is that you want to make sure that I know that you know how bad things suck right now. It’s like you need to announce how sucky things are in our house on the off-chance that I – the purveyor of everything that’s currently sucking – happen not to know.” Steve told Brené that he got it, he knows that this is her go-to story when she’s in a hard place and that he could see that she was so far under water that she couldn’t even find her way up. “So, here’s what we’re going to do,” he said, “I’m diving down. I’m going to find you, and I’m going to pull you back to the surface, because when I’m that lost, you always find me and bring me back to the surface…And then we’ll sort this out, together.”

Later, when Brené enquired about the comment at the fridge, he said innocently, “I’m just hungry because I didn’t get lunch. I’m hungry for a ham fold-over.”

And there it is, the age-old example that we’ve all experienced, where you make yourself the centre of something that has nothing to do with you out of your own fear of scarcity, only to be reminded that you’re not the axis on which the world turns.

Return to your Strategic Relationships worksheet. What stories do you tell yourself? How does this play out in your relationships?

Are you a leader in your relationships?

We are leaders of our own lives. Taking responsibility for our own strategy is a leadership role in itself. In your relationships with others, your intent reflects how you want to be seen and experienced by others, and for that, you must be vigilant about caring for and being connected to the people you have a relationship with, creating the space for others to feel safe, seen, heard and respected.

In cultivating meaningful connections with others, both compassion and empathy play significant and different roles.  Compassion is often identified as an attribute in building relationships that requires strengthening; this can be defined as a daily practice of recognising and accepting our shared humanity so that we treat ourselves and others with loving-kindness, and we take action – show up courageously – in the face of suffering. Compassion in relationships is other-focused and based on an equal relationship of sharing and support as opposed to a ‘fixer/healer’ and a ‘victim/wounded’ relationship. It’s not about rescuing or pity. It’s about moving towards the other, seeking to understand and be present with the other, and supporting them constructively on their path.

Brené Brown gave me some more insight into empathy. I like how she defines empathy as “a tool of compassion. We can respond empathetically only if we are willing to be present with someone’s pain. If we’re not willing to do that, it’s not real empathy.” She further explains, “We need to dispel the myth that empathy is ‘walking in someone else’s shoes.’ Rather than walking in your shoes, I need to learn how to listen to the story you tell about what it’s like in your shoes and believe you even when it doesn’t match my experiences.” 12

If we want to practice compassion and empathy, we have to start by setting boundaries and holding people accountable for their behaviour.

“Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” Prentis Hemphill 13

Key components of leadership are being clear and kind. Brené Brown in Dare to Lead says, “Clear is kind; unclear is unkind” 14 This is fundamental in relationships, as not being clear is not kind to ourselves or others. This requires setting expectations and boundaries on what you will say yes to, and what you will say no to, what is okay, and what is not okay. Many relationship strategies that I have witnessed have a priority around making choices on boundaries, whether it is with our families to regain our identity or with friends where relationships may have become one-sided and no longer mutually nourishing. Being clear on walking away from or putting clear boundaries in place in relationships that deplete you is often the kindest thing you can do for yourself and others. When you stop or manage the energy depletion and focus on relationships that build your energy, it gives you more to invest elsewhere. Strategy is about where you invest your resources; your time and energy are your most precious resources. If you choose to continue to invest in a tough relationship, ensure that you are investing in means to rebuild and nurture yourself and your energy. One of the key choices that we need to make with relationships is knowing when they no longer serve us and being able to either recalibrate or let it go so that you can both move forwards.

“This above all: To thine ownself be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” Shakespeare, Hamlet 15

This quote is a reminder for me that in all relationships being true to myself is the first commitment, and authenticity is foundational. Our different roles and duties to others require us to have multiple identities, and it’s easy for our true selves to get lost or buried. Use the map to guide you and your aspirations as your true north.

In your Strategic Relationships worksheet, consider the following and make some notes:

  • Are your relationships mutually beneficial and nourishing?
  • What boundaries do you need to put into your relationships?
  • How can you act more as a leader in your relationships?
  • How can you strengthen compassion and empathy to build meaningful connections in your relationships?
  • What is the role of ‘home’ in this pillar – whether a sense of home or your physical environment? Is it a priority or an enabler to your relationships?

‘Mind the Gap’

When looking for an abundance of a particular value in a relationship, demonstrate that value and you are more likely to experience an abundance of it from others. When looking for connection, demonstrate connection; if looking for love, demonstrate love; when looking for joy and happiness, be joyful and happy; when looking for trust, demonstrate trust.

Throughout the London Underground System, there is a warning to passengers to be careful while stepping over the gap between the  platform and the train. Brené Brown describes the difference between our aspirational values and what we are actually thinking, doing and feeling as the ‘Values Gap’.16

This is incredibly important in our relationships because if the values gap is significant, it creates a disengagement divide where we lose partners, friends, and family. This is particularly a cause of dangerous disengagement in families where we say one thing and then do another as it’s an easy option when we’re just tired, too busy or distracted. We need to align our values with our actions and pay attention to the gap where we are actually standing and where we want to be.

Joseph Chilton Pearce’s statement changed the way I parent my children and demonstrate my values: “What we are teaches the child more than what we say, so we must be what we want our children to become.” 17

Be the change you want to see!