Are you a master or a disaster in relationships?

The value of kindness and generosity in all relationships

Over the past few months I have been on the receiving end of a lot of kindness and generosity from the various “tribes” I belong to – family, my book (and wine) club, fellow trail runners, friends living far and wide across the globe, fellow students, clients and colleagues. Because sometimes we are in a season of giving and later again in the season of receiving.

Every organisation or relationship is seeking the elusive holy grail of good interpersonal relationships, that one thing that, if it were changed even slightly, would push the productivity of a company way beyond the current level, or bring a new dimension of happiness to a relationship.

The secret in my view is the extent to kindness and generosity is shown in all spheres of life. Often the only time behaviour becomes a focus in an organisation is when there is a problem employee that must be dealt with.  Being masterful at relationships with staff, customers, suppliers is the key to success of any business initiative.

Where staff, customers, loved ones, friends and in fact, most humans are treated with kindness, they usually become generous it how they treat business interests and interpersonal relationships.

Lessons learnt from marriages – masters and disasters

Social scientists of the Gottmann Institute studied marriages over four decades by observing them in action. When the researchers analysed the data they have gathered, they saw clear differences between the masters and disasters.

Masters felt calm and were able connect with each other, which translated into warm and affectionate behaviour, even when they disagreed.  Masters had created a climate of trust and openness that made both parties emotionally comfortable and thus able to share thoughts, ideas and feelings.

“There’s a habit of mind that the masters have,” Gottman explained in an interview, “which is this: they are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building a culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. Disasters are scanning the social environment for people’s mistakes.” Disasters criticise people and don’t often validate others as humans – often due to their own low self-esteem and sense of inferiority.

Science says lasting relationships come down to 2 basic traits

Social Scientists says meaningful relationships embrace kindness and generosity.

Kindness glue people together – even strangers in the same democracy!  Kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in relationships.  Kindness makes people feel cared for, understood and validated.  If we master the art of validating people, they almost always respond positively.

The more we receive or witness kindness, the more we will be kind ourselves, which leads to upward spirals of understanding and generosity in a relationship.  This is true even in hard-core business relationships.

“Even in relationships where people are frustrated, it’s almost always the case that there are positive things going on and people trying to do the right thing,” psychologist Tashiro says. “A lot of times, a person is trying to do the right thing even if it’s executed poorly. So let’s appreciate the intent.”

You can learn more about this research at

Complaints vs criticism

While no one is without their faults, criticism is toxic in all relationships as people build up walls to protect themselves.  Even if you believe that you’re offering “truth” or that you’re trying to correct a behaviour or attitude, it is usually perceived as an attack and results in defensive strategies. Criticism means using disastrous red language.  When criticism is used as a channel to express contempt or disdain for someone else, it can make the other person feel devalued and worthless. It’s hard for any relationship to come back from that.

But this does not mean that you shouldn’t address issues in the relationship that bother you. Far from it! Instead, it just means that you need to do it in a way that can be heard—which will facilitate actual action and change. Be masterful and kind when speaking to a person about a behavioural problem and use friendly, green language.

Criticism is often expressed in a way that suggests a character flaw. It focuses on who a person is rather than what a person has done. A complaint, however, is different. It focuses on the action—and when it comes to relationships—a carefully worded complaint is okay, and sometimes very necessary in a relationship.

Making kindness and generosity part of everyday interactions

Let’s never forget the power we have to influence people and situations we encounter on a daily basis. True democracy is the people practising it on the ground, at work, in shopping malls, on social media, at public places and gatherings, at the braai at your home and on our roads. Are you kind and generous?

There are many reasons why relationships fail, but if you look at what drives the deterioration of many relationships, it’s often a breakdown of kindness. As the normal stressors of a life together pile up – people may put less effort into most relationships and let the petty grievances they hold against one another tear them apart.  Let us use the Ubuntu spirit of kindness and generosity South Africans are so well-known for, to move us, especially in the weeks ahead, to be masters of relationships.

Things masters do:

  • They listen more than they speak
  • They acknowledge what is said – silence is not golden!
  • They turn towards a person and lean into the conversation
  • They don’t let technology interfere in a conversation
  • They ask questions about the other party’s story
  • They understand how empathy works
  • They don’t criticise nor judge
  • Their own story takes a backseat
  • They make people feel comfortable when they are with them.

You choose – are you a master or a disaster in relationships?

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