How do you best manage a difficult relationship, whether at work or at home? From complex co-workers to sulky teenagers, there are no quick fixes – as Congress has been finding out lately. Crazy as it might sound, administration officials have been told by intelligence staff that we might have visitors from outer space. Difficult relationships could be about to enter a whole new dimension. 

Congress has recently been given a classified report on unexplained aerial phenomena – UFOs. An unclassified version, due to be released in the coming days, is set to confirm there have been incidents involving multiple, credible witnesses, among them US Navy pilots who have filmed objects racing through the sky. The report apparently contains nothing to say these things actually come from outer space. It just suggests that, for the most part, they are not some secret US military project and that their origin remains unknown. Sober and sensible folk who’ve been discussing them include former President Obama.

Whatever the truth, America finds itself needing to communicate with a silent something that pretty much does what it wants without any explanation. Anyone living with a teenager should be able to help. 

Interpersonal relationships at work

Whether aliens are here or not, many of us privately face similar communication challenges. Before the pandemic, a survey of 2,000 working Americans found that the leading source of tension in the workplace was interpersonal relationships. This was back when general levels of anxiety were low. In 2019, just one in 10 US adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder. During the pandemic, that number rose to four in 10.

More than 42% of people surveyed by the US Census Bureau in December 2020 reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, up from just 11% the previous year. Between them, the rise in homeworking and the increase in anxiety have affected many people in one way or another. In America, divorce agreement sales increased 34% during the pandemic. At work, relationships have become virtual, lines of communication are stretched. What can you do when communication breaks down altogether? 

Recognising difficult conversations 

It’s best to recognise difficult conversations early on. It’s easy to initially feel defensive or frustrated, but if you can catch yourself in the moment you’ll be able to lay the groundwork for calm discussions later on. Recognition makes it easier to see where you might have taken a wrong step. It helps you find conciliatory language, it helps you show the other person that you understand the problem and that you have empathy. 

After recognition, comes self-talk – the process that reminds you to stay calm, to be careful of the language you use, to hold on to a rational thought process. Staying calm allows you to more easily recall the events that might have led to the conversation in the first place. 

A calm sense of control will help you clearly shape your argument, focusing on the point not the person. These steps lay the groundwork for a follow up talk afterwards. The more clear-headed you are in the moment, the easier it will be to rebuild things once the dust has settled.    

Managing difficult relationships 

Difficult conversations require a level-headed approach to fixing things so that both parties can get back to normal. When ‘normal’ is knocked sideways by an ongoing, difficult relationship, it helps to acknowledge what’s happening. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but the following thoughts will help. 

Start with the wider truth. This is a relationship between two people, neither of you is fully responsible for problems that you share. Equally, both of you will be part of the solution. These are facts that you both have in common. And you’ll discover more common ground once you begin talking. 

In discussing the situation, calmly explain to the other person what they are doing, again focusing on the problem not the person themselves. Explain the impact their behaviour has on you. They might want to resolve things just as much as you do. Look for the root cause of their behaviour. Once you understand the problem better, it will be easier to manage.

UFOs looking to communicate might have to be patient, a lot of us are busy being alienated by things closer to home. You can’t ‘fix’ someone. But by building bridges and allowing a little flexibility, you can reduce problems to a manageable level and thereby soften their impact.