The Art of Deliberate Relational Practice

by Gary Gilles

Practicing relationship buildingWhat does it take to have meaningful relationships? How do you become adept at using empathy, listening deeply, validating others and picking up on emotional cues?

It’s difficult to give a concise answer because relationships are complex. But, let’s start with 10,000 hours of practice. That’s the benchmark for mastering a task popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s book the Outliers. A quick calculation breaks this out to 20 hours a week for 10 years. Does that sound overwhelming? Yet, that’s apparently the type of commitment it takes to become a renowned concert violinist, a Grand Slam tennis champion, or a Pulitzer-winning scientist.

Though most of us have no interest in devoting that much time and effort into any one task or discipline we are often inspired by this type of commitment to mastering a skill. Commitments like these are closely linked to one’s values. Who would spend 10,000 hours playing tennis or the violin if they didn’t intrinsically value what they were doing or how it might help them?

What are your values?

If you are like most people you would say that family is one of, if not your highest value. You want meaningful relationships with your spouse, children, grandchildren, siblings and other family members. So if family is one of your highest values, how much time do you practice at making those relationships better?

When I say practice, I don’t mean just being in the presence of family members or carrying on small talk around the dinner table. I mean deliberately practicing substantive relationship skills in the same way that a concert pianist diligently works to memorize and perfect a new composition.

Deliberate practice is intentional. Deliberate practice could be choosing to defer your opinion so you can carefully listen to your spouse. Deliberate practice could be learning to empathize with your child’s emotion instead of just correcting their behavior. Deliberate practice could be taking full ownership of your mistakes instead of blaming someone else for them.

The need to practice implies that we don’t yet have it perfected. People ask me what I do and I tell them I have a “counseling practice.” I say this deliberately because I am still “practicing.” Even though I’ve counseled thousands of people over the past 25 years I am still learning new ways to do what I do even better. There are always ways that I can be more sensitive, attentive, observant and responsive to my clients as well as to my own family. But if I am not actively looking for ways to improve, I will stop growing and so will my ability to connect meaningfully with others.

How much deliberate practice do you really need?

The truth is, you don’t need to practice 10,000 hours of relational boot-camp before you can claim some competency at building healthy relationships. But I would like to challenge your thinking on one point.

We live in an era where superficial interaction is the norm. Think of all the ways we “connect” with people through social media, voice mail, texting, email, etc. The modern person interacts with more people in one day than a person living in 1900 would encounter over several months. But, most of that interaction is trivial. “Connecting” with others is not the same thing as building an emotionally satisfying relationship with them.  It requires much more of you to build an emotionally satisfying relationship. And that’s where your ongoing, intentional and deliberate practice comes into play.

It’s not only the number of hours you practice but the mindset you take toward developing those relationships. So, if you say you value your family relationships, make deliberate practice a way of life.

If you want some resources to get you started, try these:

Using the power of empathy in relationships

Boundaries for healthy romance

How to be an emotionally intelligent parent


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