Supporting Your Clients in Acting Relationally

Nov 21, 2023

Last time, I wrote about what it means to act relationally. This essential relationship skill is what allows us to resolve impasses–which are an inevitable component of sharing your life with another person. It involves balancing your own desires, preferences, and beliefs with those of your partners; it’s a journey, rather than a destination, and calls on us to act with curiosity, patience, creativity, and intention. If you need to review, here’s the article.

This time, I’m going to be tackling it from the therapist’s side. Acting relationally is necessary for any healthy long-term relationship, and it’s also likely that your clients are struggling with it, at least some of the time. After all, it’s far from easy! So, how do you help support your clients in acting relationally? 

Acting relationally starts with managing automatic reactions. By that, I mean the self-protective responses that instinctively flare up when someone feels threatened, trapped, or otherwise stressed. Everyone has these responses. They’re perfectly natural; in fact, they’re essential, because they keep people safe in dangerous situations. The problem is that most of the situations people face on a daily basis aren’t truly life-or-death, but they might still react to them as if they are. 

Compare that to a relational mode of being. Being relational calls for intentionally–if not always perfectly–cultivating a calm, considered, and curious spirit. When someone is in a relational mode, they’re holding their own thoughts and feelings alongside their partner’s thoughts and feelings, and they’re treating both with a similar amount of respect. 

As a therapist, I see my role as helping my clients identify their goals, working with them to clarify the vision they’re striving for, and supporting them in the change process. If your client’s goals involve having a stronger and healthier relationship, learning to act relationally will serve them. No matter what your client’s triggered reactions tend to be, they’re almost certainly not relational. They probably aren’t serving your client in the task of building a trusting and intimate relationship. 

It takes some serious motivation to overcome one’s natural and instinctive self-protective responses, so this process starts with identifying the client’s motivation. How do they want to show up in the world? What kind of partner do they want to be? And what will they get out of this change? Change is hard, so it has to be compelling in order for your client to be willing to put in the work.

For example, imagine a client who has had a history of blowing up when their partner tells them something they don’t want to hear. Over time, their partner has started to hold back information when they anticipate a blow-up. Your client doesn’t like not knowing the whole story. They want their partner to tell them the whole truth. Maybe they have enough insight to realize that their habit of blowing up is making that difficult, or maybe you as the therapist help them understand the role they are playing in their relationship dynamic. They decide that their goal is to become someone who it’s easy to tell the truth to, no matter what that truth may be.

After helping my client tease out their goal, I would give them plenty of props for being so insightful and for being willing to embrace the challenge of personal growth. I would help magnify their vision, encouraging them to think about how wonderful and empowering it will feel to be able to choose how they show up, no matter how their partner is acting. Then, I would settle in for the long haul, and prepare to give them lots of practice managing tough emotions and strong reactions under the stress of difficult conversations, as they move closer to their vision, one step at a time.

Originally published on Psychology Today.

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