In a ground-breaking research study of its time, Dr. Martin Seligman (founder of the field of positive psychology) identified five key pillars of happiness in his model of well-being; positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment – with relationships scoring as the most significant factor for determining personal happiness. Prior to this incredible research, he told one of his PhD students who wanted to study happiness – “Happiness is just the froth on the cappuccino. I want to study the espresso underneath – depression, anxiety, and anger.” (p. 206). Little did he know at the time, how his mindset would evolve to view the froth as the actual outcome of a well-stirred and blended relationship.

Every relationship has a unique space with its’ own systemic climate and process. We can simultaneously be involved and engage differently in many relationships (e.g., with partners, family members, colleagues, friends or acquaintances). We feel so much better in some relationships than in others. While we bring out our best qualities in some, other relationships can challenge us and tap into our worst selves. The topic of ‘relationship process’ is often shelved until a relationship is challenged. When things are going well, we enjoy what relationships have to offer and perhaps take their efficacy for granted as we go on with the complexities of our daily lives. Yet when we set a mindful intention to prioritize ‘relationship process’, we experience sustained efficacy in healthier, more inclusive and mutually happier relationships.  How can we act on relationships to improve them? How can we effectively deal with the challenges as they arise?


Contributing to a Better Relationship & Self-Noticing

Each of our relationships represents a unique relationspace with its own quality of communication. Whether a relationship thrives or breaks down, it is the product of both parties playing a role in these outcomes. Each relationspace is also filled with different modes of communication, as we generally act on how we feel in that space. For example, you may find that some relationspaces bring out your sense of kindness, joy, compassion or respect, while others may bring out your ambivalence, anger, frustration or fear.

Start studying your relationspaces by mindfully noticing yourself in the moment during an interaction with another person/s. You can also reflect on an interaction that you’ve had in the past. Visualize how you express yourself. Self-noticing in each relationspace allows you to notice your communicative style as you learn how you bring yourself to the space, how you share your thoughts and emotions, and how you respond to the other person. How does your style affect the interaction? How can you improve the way in which you relate? Begin to identify very small changes that you can manage immediately, and that will positively affect each of your relationspaces.

In some cases, you may find that there are ways in which you communicate that are entirely unintentional. While you may have an awareness about what you are saying in the moment, the other person may be receiving other cues. Notice your tone of voice, body positioning and movement, eye contact, and facial expression. What mood and/or underlying message are you conveying (e.g., motivation, intensity, joy, frustration, commitment, judgment, compassion, indifference)? Is your non-verbal messaging contradicting what you’re saying? For example, you may be trying to motivate a team by using positive verbal cues, but your demeanor (a frown, a slouch, an eye-roll) may negatively affect the group as they interpret that you are disengaged. What impact are you truly having in each relationspace?


Effectively Dealing with Challenges

Each person participates in how a relationspace evolves, flourishes or breaks down. In a coaching capacity, people mostly reflect on relationships that present with challenges, since these relationships can negatively affect theirs and the other person’s emotional wellbeing. Very challenging relationships can be fraught with tension and/or conflict, where individuals feel disrespected, demoralized and often experience a sense of defeat. In these situations, individuals may aggress on, or pull away from each other. For example:

  • A teenager continually yells at their parents and storms out of the house when grilled about their whereabouts/motivations.
  • A friend intentionally ignores your phone calls instead of actively resolving the issue after an intense argument.
  • A colleague withholds the problematic truth for fear of conflict or retribution.
  • A couple stops sharing their hopes and dreams with each other, for lack of trust or of being valued.
  • A child abandons challenging tasks when continually scolded for not doing well enough.

When a relationship is stressful, toxic or when we lose hope for a positive outcome, we sometimes protect ourselves emotionally by resorting to blaming the other person. For example, we might say, “If it weren’t for my son’s behavior, I would feel okay,” or “I’m a good person as long as my partner doesn’t trigger me,” or “I can’t help my reaction when my colleague does that.” While these thoughts may relieve personal pressure in the moment, they deter from moving forward in the relationship. Yet once we take notice of our own part in this unique space, we can begin to ask ourselves how we may contribute to a better relationspace by populating it with improved communication.

If you are in a relationship that you believe needs improvement, start by asking yourself if the relationship is worth improving. It may be that this relationship is too much to bear. In these circumstances, you may want to end or distance yourself from that relationspace, or take a temporary break from it. However, if you want to improve the relationship, do not wait for the other person to change their way of engaging with you. Take charge in doing your part. Reflect on yourself and on what you can do to make a difference. How are you bringing yourself to the relationspace? What changes can you manage that are within your control? What ideas emerge as good starting points?

Even just by implementing one small change, the other person will notice the difference and almost instantly begin to shift how they respond to you. A minor adjustment can completely reframe a relationspace.


Minor Adjustments in a Relationspace that Make a Difference

  • Bring your best self to the relationspace by giving it a fresh start each time you enter it.
  • Assume that the other person is at their best as well.
  • Set aside any pre-existing expectations.
  • Keep an open mind.
  • Take notice of the other person. Show your interest in them.
  • Look for the person’s attributes. What they can positively contribute to the interaction?
  • Bring your best attributes to the interaction.
  • Actively listen to the person with an open mind.
  • Try not to judge them.
  • If triggered, take a few deep breaths to calm yourself in the moment.
  • Provide eye contact.
  • Try introducing a smile.
  • Lower your tone of voice.
  • Position your body so you’re facing the person and lean towards them.
  • Demonstrate your interest by asking questions.
  • Be accountable.
  • Demonstrate your enthusiasm to problem-solve by brainstorming options with them.

To take notice in relationspaces, is to welcome every interaction as a new and hopeful opportunity. When we mindfully notice our own and others’ attributes, we spark mattering (feeling appreciated, recognized, respected). We refrain from pointing out previously observed problems or weaknesses. In these hopeful and inclusive spaces, everyone has a sense of belonging. Individuals can trust, be honest and bring their best selves to the interaction. With a positive outlook in relationship, everyone focuses on what works best over what does not, and is more forgiving during setbacks. With these wonderful elements in relationship, we find beautiful outcomes (the “froth” surfacing to the top). The next time you look into your coffee cup, remind yourself that as with a great cup of coffee, there are many elements contributing to a great relationspace, and that ultimately bring happiness.