Which Friend Are You?

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Have you ever had a friend or family member who responded to nearly every comment you made with a grimace and a curt, “Not me. I’m exactly the opposite.”? Did you feel shot down? (“Yikes, she hates me,” you thought.) Or perhaps you’ve had a friend who said, “Me too!” when you declared your love of raisin bread—even though you’re well aware she hates raisins in her food. (You can’t help but think, “What a brown-noser.”) What about those friends who walk off in a pout, and you have no idea what you said—but you know you must have said something? (“Fine!” you think. “Have fun on your own . . .”)

Or maybe . . . just maybe, if you’re lucky . . . you have one of those friends who has the knack of making you feel connected because they really listen, but they also share. They may not always agree with you, but they know how to disagree without making you feel like an idiot. You know they care about you because they’re honest with you, but they temper their comments with compassion, understanding and conscious thought, and you know they have your back because they have proven they have the courage and character to keep a confidence.

Maybe you would love to be that person, but instead you recognize yourself in one of the first three scenarios, and you’ve noticed that your approach doesn’t always work for you in helping you connect with others. If only there was an easy-to-read handbook that offered a simple model for navigating these interpersonal issues and helping you become that special person that everyone gravitates toward. (Here’s where you expect me to tell you that there is.) And surprise!—Here you go.

In his book The 3 Dimensions of Emotion, psychologist Sam Alibrando suggests that the key to success in interpersonal relationships is to balance the way we relate to one another in three emotional dimensions. Scientists refer to these dimensions as “fight, flight or freeze,” but this triad is known under many other terms. “Power, love and a sound mind,” for instance, or as psychologist Elias Porter classified them, “Assertive, Altruistic, and Analytic.” Alibrando refers to them as Red (fight/power), Blue (freeze/heart) and Yellow (flight/mindfulness).

All three dimensions add something positive to our interactions when they are in balance. But each also has a dark side: particularly when not balanced by the other two modes. For instance, if you operate primarily as Red (fight/power), you pay more attention to the differences between yourself and others. Your first emotional instinct is to diverge, and you’re the one who is likely to say, “Not me. I’m not like you.” In balance with Blue and Yellow, Red is the basis for courage, protectiveness and confidence. But without the influence of the other two dimensions, Red mode can come across as aggressive, critical, hurtful and angry.

In Blue mode (freeze/heart) you converge: you don’t want to pick a fight; you want to focus on similarities because you know that’s where you find connection. In balance, this mode is the basis for empathy and support, but without being tempered by the other two modes, Blue can come across as helpless, subservient, too deferential.

In Yellow mode (flight/mindfulness) you want to shut people out—drop out of the action, go silent and observe. In balance, Yellow is a sound mind: the basis for self-awareness, patience, calm objectivity and careful consideration. But without the empathy of Blue and the courage of Red, Yellow is left isolated, aloof, indifferent and disconnected.

In conflict, someone acting out of negative Red mode is likely to go on the attack with impatient criticism and blame. In negative Yellow, their spouse or friend might respond by retreating—going silent, disconnecting emotionally. Or a Blue spouse or friend might give up his or her agenda completely, presenting a compliant front simply to appease the other.

Most of us have developed a habitual approach based on our past experience. But with mindful self-awareness we can tweak our style. And as Alibrando points out, when it comes to managing our relationships, our style is the obvious place to start any program for change—for the simple reason that I can’t change anyone but me, and you can’t change anyone but you. But the changes we make to our own reactivity do influence the reactions of others and will usually (though perhaps not in the most extreme cases) make a tremendous difference to the overall outcome. As Alibrando says, “What are the 3 most important things to do when managing a difficult person? 1. Manage yourself first, 2. Manage yourself first, 3. Manage yourself first.”

What does that mean, practically speaking? Alibrando recommends a strategy he calls “working the triangle.” This exercise is less about focusing on what we’re doing that’s unhealthy and more about focusing on what we’re not doing that is healthy. For instance, the best way to overcome a tendency to criticize and blame (unhealthy Red), is to take the time to stop, think and listen objectively (healthy Yellow); and with the resulting calm, express your feelings (healthy Red) with kindness, in love and humility (healthy Blue).

If you have a friend or a spouse who is courageous, protective, honest and confident (positive Red), while also supportive, empathic, respectful and appreciative (positive Blue) and who responds—even to your reddest attacks—with patience and calm reflection (positive yellow) . . . then you have something to be truly grateful for this Thanksgiving. You might want to look up Alibrando’s book so you can become the same gift to them that they are to you.

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