I have written, edited and discarded this post at least a handful of times in the past two weeks. What started as my wonder of what the world would be like if we were all more honest with each other turned into countless conversations with friends on the topic. I quickly realized I was naive to think the questions I was asking were simple, because the answers were anything but. We would scratch the surface then go deep fast, and talk about things we might never have discussed if I hadn’t asked these not-so-simple questions. Then every time I tried to take what I had learned and write about the subject of honesty, I would get closer to what I believe is true – but I’m still not there yet. So, I’ll save that post for the day I feel more certainty in my words.
For now, I want to talk about something I’ve been thinking about for months, and have been actively trying to get better at: being more intentional in my relationships. I’ve shared a few thoughts on this before – namely, around the fact that I have learned how to let go of toxic relationships, or relationships that don’t serve either one of us anymore. I still stand by those decisions and believe it’s something we should all learn how to do. But if we only look at our relationships in terms of which ones we should let go of, that shines a negative light on it. The same sentiment could be attached to minimalism. If we only see it as a tool to help us get rid of things, it doesn’t mean much. The meaningful work is figuring out what you value and intentionally bringing more of that into your life.
Before I go any further with this thought, remember that the word “intentional” literally means “done on purpose”. In the past five years, I’ve made a lot of intentional decisions. I decided to become a conscious consumer and get rid of the things that didn’t add value to my life. I decided to start exercising, become a mindful eater and quit drinking. I decided to build up my freelance work and quit my day job. I decided to create/embrace my own definition of what it means to be a minimalist. And I decided to pay off my debt and learn how/why to save. If you look at the pieces of the puzzle that make up your life, I’ve intentionally taken control of five out of six. These were all deliberate choices I made for myself, over the years, and each one helped me take one step closer to living the life I want.
But as grateful as I am to be able to say I’m living the life I want now, there’s one thing I don’t like about the last sentence and all the changes I’ve made over the years: it’s all about me, myself and I. There’s nothing wrong with that, if I bring my best self into my relationships – but here’s where I’ll share one honest truth, which is that I haven’t always been good at that. Instead, I’ve been a bad listener; I’ve been unavailable; I’ve been a bad influence; and no one would proudly admit this, but I’ve also been selfish. Not all at once, and not even in recent years. In fact, I think most of these negative qualities vanished shortly after I stopped drinking. But still, I’m aware that I haven’t always brought my best self into relationships, and that’s something I’m slowly learning to change.
I’ve been thinking about this all year, but never more so than when I was on the road trip. It started when I began noticing all the unique ways my couple friends interacted. I loved watching the way Anthony and Amy worked together as a team, listening to the special language Clare and Drew had invented, witnessing the way Carrie and Ryan made decisions, and picking up on all the nicknames and other signs of affection passed between them. Aside from just romantic relationships, I also spent a lot of time with friends, and was even brought into circles of existing friendships. And within those, I found myself, again, watching the way people worked together, listening to their special language (filled with memories and inside jokes) and witnessing the way they made decisions.
Before I left, I could never have guessed that some of the best lessons I was going to learn on the road would be about relationships. Looking back, however, it makes sense. Over the years, I’ve taken a lot of steps to become a healthier version of myself. And I’ll never be done – there’s nothing selfish about taking care of yourself. There’s actually a great quote from one of Rob Bell’s books that says, “your relationships are only as healthy as the least healthy one of you”. (Let that sink in. Does it make you think about any of your relationships that are suffering?) But there’s only so much work you can do for yourself before it should naturally start to pour over into how you relate with others. I think I’ve slowly become a better friend and a better partner, over the past few years. But I want to be better.
The Difference Between Wanting to Be Better and Being Better
When I was on the road, I witnessed in my friends many things that I want to be better at in my relationships. Kayla makes me want to be more thoughtful. Carrie makes me want to be more open and honest. Clare makes me want to be more vulnerable. Drew makes me want to be more inviting. Nate makes me want to be more forgiving and generous. Jay makes me want to be more generous, loving and kind. And then there’s Garrett who, somehow after only knowing each other for a couple months, has quickly become one of my best friends – and he makes me want to be better at everything. Specifically, my interactions with Garrett make me look back at the ways I would’ve reacted to similar situations in the past and I don’t want to repeat those behaviours. I want to be better.
It’s really easy to “want” your way through life. You can want a more fulfilling job, want to feel healthier, want to have less debt, less stress, and so on. You could even want to be a better person in all your relationships, which is where I’m at now. But as the Minimalists says, “wanting to improve upon something is only putting on your shoes – at some point you must step out the door and walk toward the goal you’ve identified.” I have learned this while changing every other area of my life. I couldn’t have gotten out of debt or quit my job or taken control of my health if I hadn’t taken steps towards it. Because the difference between wanting something and being/doing/having that something is being more intentional every step of the way.
How to Be More Intentional in Your Relationships
So, how can you go from wanting to be a better person to actually being a better person? The same way you tackle any other goal: intentionally take steps toward making it happen. If you want to approach it from the minimalism/intentional living (gosh, I still think we need a new word to describe what it is we are doing here) definition I shared earlier, I would start by identifying what you value. For me, this exercise was fairly simple. All I had to do was think about some of the most meaningful interactions I had on my road trip to come up with the list of things I value about my friends and our relationships. Note that while many of these things could probably fit under the word “communication”, for me, communication is at the centre of everything and you can’t have a relationship without it.
Side note: Once you know what you value in a relationship and spend time with more people who bring those values into your relationships, it then becomes increasingly more obvious what you don’t value and who brings negative feelings into your relationships – this is where you will learn to let go. Personally, I’ve mostly let go of relationships that felt one-sided. I’ve also distanced myself from friends who had negative outlooks, or who spent most of their time talking about themselves or other people. That’s not to say I’m never negative or never gossip – and I don’t write anyone off for doing this (we are all human). But I do believe you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with, and that’s not who I want to be, so I have slowly distanced myself from it.
Now, here’s where the intentionality comes in. It’s one thing to know what you want to improve about yourself. It’s another to know what you value in relationships. But if you don’t bring the two together, you won’t make or see any changes. And if you’re not intentional in your relationships, you can’t learn, share or grow in them – and you certainly won’t appreciate them.
One example I keep going back to is the difference between making friends when you’re a kid and making friends when you’re an adult. When you’re a kid, you have no choice but to be friends with the kids you go to school with or kids your parents introduce you to. As you get older, you may also be friends with the people you’re in closest proximity to (i.e. you work with). And when you’re limited in options and spend all of your time in these groups, it’s easy to absorb the mindsets – positive or negative – that exist in them. But at some point (especially when you work at home by yourself), you realize you have a choice. You get to choose who you want to have relationships with. And as my friend Kayla pointed out when we were brainstorming ideas for this post together:
So, after you’ve figured out what you value in relationships, choose your friends. Don’t line them up side-by-side, declutter and organize them into one of three friend type boxes. Just choose to be their friend. Every time you communicate, choose to be a friend to them – and be the best one you can be. Here are some of the ways I’m trying to be more intentional in my relationships:
- Be present – I know, I know, you read this one everywhere… but I can’t publish this post without it. One of my biggest pet peeves is spending time with a friend and feeling like they care more about what’s happening on their phone than what could be happening if we were both being present in the moment. Yes, not looking at your phone can cause you to miss a few notifications or texts, and that’s not always ideal. But our in-person connections are limited as it is. Pay attention to what’s in front of you. You’ll both be grateful you did.
- Create space for them (and protect it) – This is probably the most important point on this list, and is one I could talk about for hours. Maybe I’ll write a full post about it one day, but for now just think about this. When you have a connection with someone, you create a space that exists nowhere else in the universe. It’s just you + them. Nobody else. You’re both responsible for what you bring into the space. The best thing you can do is protect the space by letting the other person be themselves and trusting they will do the same for you.
- Listen and ask questions – When you’re in the space with someone and they are opening up to you, your gut instinct might be to react to whatever they are saying. Try not to (unless you can tell that’s what they want). Instead, practice your listening skills. Don’t interrupt. Honour the fact that what they need is for you to hear what they have to say. And when they are ready for you to talk, start by asking thoughtful questions; help them open up more and get all the facts, before you react. The conversation will be more meaningful for both of you, when you do.
- Try to see things through their eyes – It’s easy to get stuck in your ways, or think your way is the right way to do everything. But the world opens up when you recognize that your friend or partners’ set of eyes can be your second set of eyes. One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed in my conversations with Garrett, specifically, is that we can reach a lot of the same conclusions, but we often take totally different paths to get there. This is a gift because it gives me new ideas. Whenever possible, ask people to help you see things the way they see them.
- Trust them – If this one sounds scary, you’re not alone. Trust is a big and scary word, especially if you know what it feels like to have someone break it. One of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned this year is that you can’t assume everyone is going to treat you the same way someone else did in the past. When I feel scared or nervous about letting someone in, I remember: I wasn’t exactly perfect in my past either. But if I want people to trust me, I have to trust them. So, I’m open, honest and vulnerable. I let them in. They let me in. It works both ways.
If any parts of this post sounded like a love letter to my friends, I’m glad – because that’s exactly what it was. Simplifying my life has given me the time and space to figure out what I value most, and that’s people + travel. I can travel as much as my budget allows for, but my life would be empty without my family and friends. I’m still not always the person I want to be in our relationships. But I’m so moved by my friends seemingly natural abilities to be open, honest, vulnerable, generous, loving and kind – and the way it feels to be on the receiving end of that makes me want to do the same for them and others. It won’t happen overnight, but I have incredible people in my life who model these behaviours and let me practice it with them, so I’ll become that better person eventually.
Instead of asking how you are trying to be more intentional in your own relationships, I’d love to hear about someone in your life who makes you want to be better. What is it about them that you admire, or that makes you want to be a better person? Write a little love letter to them here. And if you feel comfortable, send it to them after. :)
- Creating the Genuine Connections We Long For – Zen Habits
- The Practice of Intentional Dialogues – Zen Habits