The Four Aspects Of Effective Goal-Setting For Relationships

vlog Oct 29, 2020


As promised, today I’m going to talk about effective goal-setting, or what direction you might want to point yourself if you’re looking for an improvement in your relationship or relationships. 

What we’re doing here is talking about how you might want to think about your relationship and your part in your relationship in order to set yourself up for success in whatever change process you want to engage in. Whether that’s a self-help project, therapy, counselling, coaching, or anything else, it’s all going to go way better, and be more effective, if you do this magic trick first, which involves a perspective shift. Last week’s vlog describes that perspective shift; you can watch it here. This is part two.

When you’re engaging in a change process, it’s good to get clear in your mind what it is that you want to change. Imagine if I were to say to you, “What I want to change in my relationship is that I want my partner to do this thing differently”–the problem is, how much control do I actually have over either that problem or that solution? None. I might have a little bit of influence. I could go to my partner and I could say “My darling, I have some feelings about this. This is a change I would like to discuss. Do you have any interest in this change process? I don’t love how this aspect of our relationship is going. What are your thoughts about this?” That would be about me. But the way I would word that goal is, “I would like to speak up to my partner in a non-defensive, collaborative way about a change that I would like to invite my partner to consider.” 

This is a very important fine point. If you want to have a goal that’s effective, it must be a goal about you. If the goal has to do with communication between the two of you, that’s your part of the communication: “I would like to show up differently in the communication between us.” Then it would be good if you could get clear about what exactly that would look like.

I’m going to deep dive for a second about what is an effective goal versus what is a non-effective goal. The first aspect we already talked about: your effective goal needs to be a goal about you. A goal about your partner is great, and your partner may or may not be interested in getting on board with that goal. Either way, it’s in their realm. What I want for you and for your own happiness project is for your goals to be firmly in your court. I want them to be in your realm, and to be something you can actually tackle. 

That’s the first aspect of an effective goal: It has to be about you. The second aspect is that the goal should be something you want to pursue for your own reasons. That may sound really obvious, but sometimes we’ll come up with goals because our partner wants us to: “My partner told me that they would like me to change this or that aspect of how I’m showing up in my relationship, and so I want to do that because it would make my partner happy.” That’s great, but no one ever did a really hard thing simply for that reason. Therefore, it’s important to investigate if it is a thing you want, for yourself, for your own reasons. 

The third aspect is that you should be clear on how achieving the goal will benefit you. What will be the payoff directly to me? When I achieve this goal, how will it benefit me? How will my life be better? Will I be happier, more relaxed? Will I feel more connected with my partner? Will I be in more honest conversation with my partner? How is it going to benefit me to make this change? This might seem very me-focused, and it is, because the only person you can actually change is yourself! 

The fourth aspect is that your goal should be actionable. If you were watching a movie, can you imagine how the person in the movie would act on this goal? What would it look like? Would you be able to see it and say “Oh yeah, there they are, doing that thing?” If you can’t imagine how it would play out, it’s not specific enough. So, if someone comes to me and says “Martha, I want to be a better communicator,” I might say, “Well, what does that mean to you? When you are a better communicator, what will you be doing differently than what you’re doing now?” That is the key. 

When you drill down a bit and get specific about your goal, the questions are going to get harder to answer: “Well, Martha, if I were a better communicator, I would listen without interrupting, not get defensive, get curious about what my partner’s experience is.” Those are all things I could see someone in a movie doing: “There they go with the curiosity thing! Awesome communication!” or “Oh, look at that, they almost got defensive, but instead they asked a question,” or “There they are, listening without interrupting. I can see that happening.” That’s the last aspect of your effective goal-setting: it needs to be actionable. You need to be clear about what it would look like to you. 

It’s also going to be a little more effective if you can come up with a goal that’s positive rather than negative. It’s hard to “not be defensive” and to know what that means. Again, if you’re watching a movie, how do you know they’re not defensive? How do you know? What are they doing instead? Because if you’re going to do something differently, it’s good if you’re clear on what that is. 

Let’s recap. You’ve watched the previous video and figured out what kind of a person you want to be in this relationship, what it looks like, what it feels like, why it feels important, and how far you are away from that now. Then it’s time to really put it into practice: “The way I would actually be different in my relationship is: ____________.” 

It has to be something that is important to you. It’s really great if it’s values-aligned, meaning something that feels important to you for your own reasons. For instance, “I want to be a good listener, because I think it’s a good way to be, and also because if I’m a good listener, maybe my partner will talk to me more honestly or more deeply, and maybe I’ll know my partner, my actual partner, rather than some mask they’re showing to me because they’re people-pleasing.” Those are some values-related reasons to be a good listener, as an example. 

Or, “I want to be curious, instead of defensive.” You’ll notice I thought up a positive step, rather than just a negative thing. What would I be instead of defensive? Curious. So, why do I want to be curious instead of defensive? It’s the person I want to be. I feel good about myself when I’m with friends who ask good questions and help me go deeper with what I’m thinking about. It’s a nice way to be. It makes people feel good. I would like to be that kind of a person, who makes other people feel good. I would like to be the kind of person who helps people learn more about themselves and take their conversation to a deeper level, and if I were curious, I could do that. There are some examples of values-led reasons for curiosity.

Maybe you have a relational goal like “I would like to be more honest and transparent in my relationship.” Okay, so you want to say some things to your partner that are a little deeper, a little more honest, as an alternative to secrecy, perhaps. You want to grow the muscle of telling your partner hard truths. What exactly does it look like and what does it feel like? What would be the benefit to you? Imagining that I’m this person, I might say, “I want to be more honest and transparent in my relationship. Why would I want to do that for myself? Because when I look in the mirror I want to like who I’m seeing. I want to feel clean inside, like my dreams and desires and actions and words all line up, and things are sorted out in my relationship life. That’s a lot easier to get if I’m honest and transparent. I would like to be the kind of person who trusts my partner to receive information that’s important to me, even if it’s hard for them. Well, I might get that or I might not, but my partner’s not going to have to grow that muscle at all if I don’t say some things that are true for me and that I want my partner to know. I will sleep better. I will like myself better. I will feel more aligned in my life.’ Those are reasons that accrue directly to me.

Being more honest and transparent is a really interesting and complicated goal, because it might actually turn up the heat between me and my partner. If I say some things that are a little harder for my partner to hear, it’s going to put some pressure on my partner to hold steady while they hear what I have to say. If my partner is really challenged to hear disclosures from me–maybe my partner starts to cry easily, loses their temper easily, what have you–it’s still important to me to do it for my own reasons. I don’t want to let my partner’s reactivity get between me and the person I want to be in my relationship. That’s why it’s important to figure out why you want it for your own reasons, because you may get some pushback, even for a very positive change. It may turn out to be a more complicated project than you think, and yet you still need to make the rubber meet the road if you want to get all the benefits that will accrue to you and probably to your relationship as well.

If you need some help with this, by all means get yourself a coach or a counselor or a therapist. Or if you treat this as a self-help project, roll up your sleeves and dive in! But before you do, make sure you’re thinking about the change process in your relationship in terms of what you can actually change. You’ll have much, much better results if you can figure out what you’re doing or not doing that makes it hard for your partner to do what you want them to do: What am I doing, or not doing, that makes it hard for my partner to give me what I want? Then you’re on your way to something that is in your wheel-house to change: am I lined up, showing up in this particular situation, in a way that I believe in, and that sets us both up for success?

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