Relationships take a lot of work. We have to nurture them, spending time and attention on those we care about. We do our best to listen to them carefully, share our needs honestly, and work things out. This is very good, of course – it’s crucial for getting along. But it’s also necessary to relax and play.

Having fun together builds resiliency for the relationship. If we think of relationships like an emotional bank account, there can be deposits and withdrawals. Fun times we share make large deposits into the account. This positive balance in the relationship account gives us a cushion to soften the effect when we inevitably do something difficult like forget a birthday or make an unnecessarily crabby remark. Relationships with a little “give” are stronger than those in which we always have to be on our best behavior. A history of shared good times helps us give each other the benefit of the doubt about whether someone meant harm by an offhand comment that didn’t land well.

As we laugh and play together, we internalize how it feels to get along well. This gives us an anchor, an experience we can rely on when things are less fun. It also reduces stress and helps us relax. Talking about past fun times can bring back some of the magic, too. This helps remind us about the better phases of the relationship, helping us get through any rough patches.

When we’re relaxed, we’re more likely to let trivial things slide-off our backs. If we don’t take offense at a small affront, probably unintentional, we don’t have to make the effort to get over it. We’re all human and we all do and say stupid things more than we would like. With some extra points in the account, those things will make less of a negative impact.

Likewise, when we’re relaxed, we can be more creative in finding ways to bridge differences between us. After laughing over a game of Bocce Balls with our neighbors, we can more readily listen to them express an opinion opposite ours. And perhaps they’ll be more likely to hear us out.

Even playing with a pet can bring about some of the same good outcomes, as we relax and laugh at their antics.

With all the items on our to-do lists every day, it’s easy to forget that playing is an important use of our time. Whether it’s playing tabletop games, watching movies, sharing a hike, or taking a trip to the big city, summer is an excellent time to spend important playtime with those we love.

Conservative. Liberal. Academic. Redneck. Student. Lawyer. Senior.

These are just a few of the words we use to describe people. Labels can refer to physical features, groups people belong to, ways they behave, their beliefs, or how we think they think.

This tendency to label is normal, a shorthand for referring to those who have some similarity. Generalizing about likenesses helps us see patterns. It helps us make sense of our world and communicate broad characteristics.

The trouble comes when we start thinking that our labels define everything important about people in a group. We’re on shaky ground when we decide that everyone in a group has all the characteristics implied by that label. We miss so much and make many mistaken assumptions when we think and speak of individuals as only those stereotypes. A group of burly men with longish hair and scruffy beards roaring up on Harley’s are the picture of dangerous Hell’s Angels. Yet, there are identical-looking groups who spend lots of time and money every year helping make sure disadvantaged kids have Christmas presents.

In addition, many times we simply get it wrong and the categories we use aren’t the least bit accurate. Was someone with Middle Eastern features born in Iran or Iowa? Do those tattoos on a young man indicate gang membership or a strong artistic bent? Is the woman in the long skirt a hippie or simply uncomfortable showing her legs?

People are complex. Each of us is a unique blend of our heritage, the experiences we’ve had, the beliefs we hold, and the thoughts we think. Are you just like everyone else who calls themselves a republican or a democrat? A Methodist? A Catholic? Of course not. So, we shouldn’t expect everyone from another group to be all the same, either. When we lump everyone with a given label together and decide they’re uniformly defined by what we think they think, it creates distance. We are “Us” and those odd people are “Not Us”. At best, this causes misunderstanding and the attendant frustrations. At worst, we think of others as so different from us that it’s okay to bully, mistreat, or harm them.

Labels are too often used to put others in a box. All of us have had the experience of being judged unfairly because we share one thing with someone who is otherwise completely different. When we’re treated as a stereotype, stuffed into a box someone else built for us, it doesn’t feel good. We can feel confused, frustrated, angry, and certainly not seen for who we really are. It makes us less inclined to cooperate, or even interact with them. They can feel the same way. A downward spiral of disconnection and fear happens. We don’t feel like we belong in the same community. Yet, the citizens of this country carry a huge range of characteristics and beliefs, and we have to coexist.

To counteract this separation and fear, we need to see beyond the labels we give others, to the full individual. We must question our assumptions about who someone is. This takes effort and a certain courage. It helps to start with respect. We must suspend judgment and learn what they really believe, and why. Yes, a few people may turn out to be fairly true to the stereotypes we hold. But for most people, we are likely to find we have much more in common than not.

Labels pigeonhole us and hide our uniqueness. It doesn’t feel good to be stereotyped and it doesn’t foster getting along. We can do better.

Knowing how much is enough makes a big difference in how well we get along. Constant busyness leads to stress, which leads to increased conflict. In terms of gathering more money or stuff, the quest itself can lead directly to conflict, as we compete for a finite amount of stuff, fearing that if you get more, I get less. Also, when we’re always wanting more and focused on what we don’t have, we feel unsatisfied, less happy, and so have less energy available for others.

And what counts as “enough” – enough activities, money, friends, stuff? This is an important question, but we’re usually so busy that we don’t stop to ask ourselves if we need to do all of it. Or whether we’d be happier if we let some of it go.

The kicker is that we only have a finite number of hours in our lives and we don’t know how many we’ll get. It’s something we don’t often think about until something happens to our health or the health of someone we love. While it’s not helpful to dwell on this reality too much, when we view life from this angle, it’s clear that each hour is precious. How do we want to spend our precious hours? Are we pretty much spending them the way we would choose?

It doesn’t have to be a big deal to start answering those questions. First, we become aware of how we’re filling our days, and then look at whether that’s what we want to be doing. For most of us, a good chunk of our day is spent working to support ourselves and, often, our families. While we might wish for the life of leisure depicted on TV shows about the unemployed wealthy, we choose the reality of working, if we can, rather than not having what we need to survive.

Beyond working to pay for the basics, how much work is enough? How many of our precious hours do we want to spend on making more money? More money can be great – it allows us to live in comfort, have fun experiences traveling, get or provide more education, get the latest tech gadgets, etc. On the other hand, the more we work, the less time that leaves for relationships and other things that are important to us. Where we draw that line is different for each of us. It’s important to follow our own sense of what’s enough, rather than comparing ourselves to what others have or what they do.

It takes time to make and maintain close family ties and friendships, strong indicators of satisfaction in studies of happiness. Are we tending to those connections well enough? Or perhaps we’re even spending too much time wrapped up in the dramas of family and friends. That’s part of the balance, too – enough is that sweet spot between too much and too little.

We may also be booking ourselves with activities that, by themselves, would be fine; it’s just that we are trying to do too many of them. As part of exploring what’s enough for us, we can look at which activities have given us the most satisfaction and be intentional about scheduling more of those.

We’re the only ones who can say for sure how much is enough for us. Given the importance to our happiness and our ability to get along, it’s a good question to answer. How much is enough for you?

Tolerance is a good thing, right?

In many cases, yes. We all have our annoying quirks that we hope others will overlook for the sake of harmony. We have bad days that spawn bad behavior. We do and say things we wish we hadn’t, all the while hoping our friends and coworkers will disregard our shortcomings. Similarly, if we want to get along, we regularly need to put up with such things in others.

Talk about personally sensitive subjects like land-use, politics, religion, and changing weather patterns can be particularly challenging. It’s necessary to tolerate differences of opinion, even when the opinions of others don’t make sense to us. A wonderful thing about our country is that our constitution strongly supports the right for anyone to express their opinions in public. Opinions run the whole gamut –  one person’s wacky idea is another’s cherished belief.

Even when discussions become divisive, or devolve into gripe sessions, we can usually either change the subject or find an excuse to leave. Some work groups create guidelines about when and how certain subjects are discussed at work. Managers and others with higher-level positions need to be particularly careful not to impose their opinions on those lower in the work hierarchy. People we have power over may not feel they can change or leave the conversation.

The concept of tolerance changes when ideas move into action. There’s a big difference between listening to divisive opinions and tolerating bad behaviors, especially when the actions threaten the safety and well-being of others. Bullying is a common example: While we may choose not to argue with someone who speaks poorly about others in private, we must not stand by and watch, or look away, while someone harasses or intimidates another. When we see harassment and intimidation, tolerance is not the appropriate choice; we need to identify what’s going on and take steps to stop it.

Before intervening in a bullying situation, there are several important points to consider. First, we need to make sure direct interruption is safe for us and the person being bullied. It’s possible that we may become the new focus of the bully’s attention. Likewise, we don’t want to create a situation where the harassment of the target worsens once we leave.

Intervening can feel scary; interrupt in a way that feels safe to you. In situations where we can safely intervene, one effective strategy is to ignore the bully and engage the target in friendly conversation, as though they were a friend of ours. This breaks the isolation of the person who is the target and keeps the bully from portraying them as ‘the other”. It also avoids confronting the bully and becoming the new target.

It’s not surprising that we might tend to avoid “getting involved”. But choosing not to act is an action as well. There’s just no way around that – if we’re there, we’re already involved. Many studies over the last couple of decades have shown that the behavior of bystanders is an integral factor in how both verbal and physical attacks play out. Allowing bad behavior to continue in the name of tolerance just encourages more of that harmful conduct.

So, we can look at the possible consequences of a given comment or behavior and ask ourselves: Does tolerating this increase or decrease harmony in the long-term? Listening to a friend vent about a recent governmental action can increase connection with them. Tolerating a neighbor’s loud music over Labor Day Weekend may allow us to get along the rest of the year. Leaving actions like intimidation, discrimination, and harassment unaddressed guarantees that they will happen again and again.

Trust is crucial for getting along together. We trust others to keep their word and depend on them to do their part in our community. Others trust us to do the same. It seems so basic that we don’t notice it most of the time. But without trust, we would devolve into chaos, with no connection, only suspicion and discord.

When we trust someone, we have confidence that we can rely on them. We can depend on them to be able and willing to do what they say they will. We know they have integrity, honesty, and good intentions.

When trust is there, successful communication is much easier. People who trust us will give us the benefit of the doubt when we say something wrong or say it badly. On the other hand, with those who don’t trust us, not matter how carefully we phrase something, they will assume the worst. They may even twist our words to mean something we didn’t ever intend.

The current lack of trust in our political climate is a great example of this. Instead of assuming a politician is in the position to make the world a better place, we immediately suspect their motives. Many of us expect the worst until they prove otherwise, which is very difficult for them to do. This dynamic isn’t uncommon in the workplace either. Just one person who is not worthy of trust, especially if that person is in a position of leadership, can poison the work environment. As a result, productivity falls and colleagues start to dread coming to work.

Trust is part of the foundation of society, but it’s also hard to know who to trust and about what. We shudder when we hear stories about those who trusted too much, losing their life savings, or even endangering their lives. Yet we likely also know someone who does not trust enough and has become isolated and bitter.

How do we find that balance between trust and wariness?

A good place to start is to trust openly, but conditionally. If we start by assuming trustworthiness in small matters, we can then increase trust as it is earned. It’s interesting that those who research trust tell us we have the best odds for trusting wisely by starting out trusting most people, rather than automatically suspecting them. Expect the best at first, but then take your lead from how the other person acts. If we give our trust and they show trust for us, we continue to trust. If they react by not trusting us, we stop trusting them. Using these guidelines, we would reap the benefits of deepening mutual confidence, while minimizing misplaced trust.

Most people respond positively to trust, working to live up to it. Occasionally someone will abuse that confidence and that’s not fun. We feel anger and shame that we believed the person and got “taken”. Even though betrayal is the exception, we humans are wired to remember painful times better than ordinary moments, so we tend to inflate the risk of deception. We forget that there are also significant dangers that come with suspicion, which brings missed opportunities for synergy, fun, creativity, collaboration, ease, learning, joy, love, and all sorts of other things that make life worth living.

Rely on your ability to discern how much to trust in a given situation. We usually know the answer if we stop and ask ourselves if a person is to be believed. Assume the best, but don’t ignore warning signs, like words at odds with a tone of voice or actions. Our bodies also send us messages about whether to believe someone, based on subconscious signals we’re picking up. Who we are inclined to distrust has a lot to do with our unconscious biases, so we should question our reactions to someone who looks or sounds significantly different from us.

When we rely on someone, we open ourselves to the possibility of disappointment. There is always a risk in trusting, but when trust is warranted, it usually pays big dividends in connections with others. And it is a necessary risk in order to get along and function as a community.

Some days it seems that everyone wants to share their stories and opinions. In the morning, we’re assailed by a friend sharing her outrage over what she read on Facebook last night. A co-worker takes every opportunity to share the unfolding drama of his divorce. Someone behind us at the store loudly shares their opinion on who’s to blame for this or that problem, trying to engage us in an argument about it.

Listening all day can be draining, it can be a major time-taker in our already busy lives, and it can leave us feeling trapped. Overly talkative people can turn a quick trip to the grocery store into a head-down race to get our items before getting waylaid. Even positive stories about a friend’s daughter’s wedding can feel overwhelming when relayed in too much detail, at the wrong time.

Getting along doesn’t mean we have to listen to everyone as long as they want to talk. Conversation can create connection, but only when it’s balanced. When we’re hearing more than we can take in, we can feel irritable. Once we’re triggered, we can start passing along the frustration – irritation is contagious.

So, where do we draw the line? For the most part, each of us gets to decide for ourselves. That’s right, we each get to decide how much conversation we participate in and the topics discussed. (If it’s the boss whose talkativeness is a problem, that’s a different story for a different column.)

When we’ve decided that we’ve had enough, how do we stop conversations? It depends on the nature of the relationship. If the talker is an acquaintance, a simple, “Thanks for the update, but I’m afraid I have to run.”, followed by leaving, will do it. Of course, we need to make sure we’re not misleading others in how much we want to hear, too. If we don’t want to hear how a person is doing, it’s best not to ask them.

If the talker is a good friend or family member, the ongoing relationship requires a bit more openness. It’s okay to interrupt the person talking and let them know we can’t take in any more at the moment or can’t listen as well as we’d like. Let them know that we’d love to hear their comments at another time (but only say it if that’s true). Then, later, when we have a chance to really listen, ask them about what they wanted to tell us.

Each of us has different levels of comfort with talking and listening. We may be more open to listening on some days than others, too.

Overwhelm from too much input can come from virtual contact, too. Give yourself permission to unplug from Facebook, or the internet, or Twitter. Those endless streams of news and views are specifically designed to draw us in, so conscious limits are often necessary.

To be fair, each of us also needs to look honestly at whether and when we’re corralling others to listen to our long or often-repeated stories. It’s important to feel heard, but we don’t always get to choose who hears us, or when. If there’s no willing listener at the moment, we can write what we want to say. Writing a long email, or even a letter, can balance our need to be heard with the listener’s desire to have control over when they give us their attention.

We each have the freedom to limit the subject, when, and with whom conversations happen. Tell your friend that you can’t talk politics with her today. Sympathize with your coworker’s difficulties, and then politely, but firmly, end the conversation with him. Ignore the invitation to argument from the overly loud shopper. Give yourself some quiet space in the midst of the day.

Be polite, talk politics.

Those two recommendations aren’t often linked.

Politics is still big news and it doesn’t look like it’s going to fade into the background any time soon. We have created a time in this country right now where the political divide is wide, with rough edges. People are getting louder in expressing their opinions. And that can be good – the United States is a democracy and democracy works best when the citizens are actively involved. But what does that mean for getting along in our little corner of the world?

Some of us were raised not to talk about politics in a group, it wasn’t polite. These times may call for a different approach. There’s a lot going on and we are going to talk about politics. Let’s just do so politely. That is, with courtesy and respect for everyone.

We don’t have to hide our opinions from the world just to get along. In fact, in a democracy it’s crucial that we work for what we feel is right. We are the government. We must be involved to fight for what is right. That does not, however, mean denigrating our neighbors who hold different opinions.

If we find ourselves belittling the character of someone with whom we disagree, calling them names, or being mean in other ways, we need to pause. Talking politics doesn’t have to involve meanness or cruelty or assuming the other person is a monster or stupid. It is so easy for us to equate people with their opinions: If we don’t like their opinions, we don’t like the people. But two good people can have honest differences of opinion and making one of them bad only leads to increased separation.

Keep in mind that making personal attacks can say more about us than about the person we’re badmouthing. When we go for the person rather than the idea, it might be taken as a sign that we’re afraid of the ideas the other person is talking about. Or even that we don’t know how to argue against the ideas we feel are wrong.

We must respect ourselves, too. Silence is often taken as agreement, so we may need to speak up to make it clear that we do not agree with what is being said. We can do that by stating our own position and even arguing about it. That’s fine. The Founding Fathers called this “discourse”.

However, we may not want to get into it right then. In that case, we can say something as simple as, “I do not agree with your position. I don’t want to go into it, but I need to make it clear that I do not agree.” Then, we can change the subject or leave the conversation. (What will not foster getting along is to drop a big bomb of insults and then say we don’t want to talk about it!)

All of this doesn’t mean we must accept views we strongly disagree with or even find abhorrent. And, yes, there are a few people who do not have the common good in mind. Yet we have a much better chance of making positive change if we bring others along. Community doesn’t work if we decide the opinions of others are not worth considering. We need to remember that we’re all in this together.

Wherever two or more are gathered, there are politics! We don’t have to be quiet around politics. Go ahead and talk about politics; just be polite about it.

A family member makes an inflammatory political comment at a family gathering. A co-worker makes a snarky comment about another of your colleagues. The person behind you in the checkout line makes a “funny” comment about the chocolate and potato chips in your basket relative to your weight. What do you do?

These are baited hooks. The speakers are fishing for attention, trying to get a rise out of you. And it’s often easy for them to be successful. We initially perceive these kinds of provocative comments as threats, activating the same fight or flight reactions that saved our distant ancestors from being a leopard’s lunch. We may fire up an argument with the speaker, to convince them that their opinion is wrong and they are a jerk for voicing it – always a losing proposition. Or we may make a non-committal sound, a false laugh, and then try to get away from them as soon as possible. These reactions are automatic, we usually start to do them without consciously thinking.

Such encounters often leave us feeling rattled and derailed. As if that weren’t enough, sometimes we carry the incident with us for hours or even days, replaying it in our minds, wishing we’d made some brilliant put-down, ignored them completely, or calmly expressed that we felt the comment was inappropriate. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have done that?

Often, though, we do get hooked. We let the person trolling for a reaction catch our attention and provoke an angry response. Or we let the offending person, the bully, get away with making hurtful comments to us or others. And then we feel bad about it later.

So, what can we do, especially if our threat reaction is triggered? That threat reaction, after all, is automatic and quicker than our conscious thought. But there are ways to train ourselves to insert a short space between the stimulus of the comment and our response. That little pause gives our conscious mind time to catch up with the situation and decide what we should do.

We then have time to quickly consider such questions as: Do we want to be having an argument with this person now? Ever? Does the comment require a response in this situation? Would speaking up disrupt an incident of bullying? Would it be physically safe for us to speak up? Will we regret it later if we get into an argument with this person, or if we pretend the comment wasn’t hurtful? And so on.

The best way to train ourselves to put a pause between stimulus and response is to rehearse mentally before we get into such a situation. We can take time now to decide the response we’d feel best about in any of the situations where we often get hooked. And then we can practice those responses ahead of time. Some people even memorize a short script to use, such as “Uncle John, let’s not talk about politics.” and have another topic of conversation ready. Or “My groceries and appearance are not your concern. Please keep your comments to yourself.” and practice turning away from the person.

Regardless of how we respond to baited hooks, we can learn from each reaction. And then let it go. It is not helpful to anyone if we continually berate ourselves for not responding perfectly every time. Bottom line: is our relationship with this person worth any more of our time and attention stewing over it?

We may not be able to avoid an emotional reaction inside ourselves, but can learn to choose our outward response. That will help us get along better, as well as helping us feel better.

Yikes! Holiday cheer seems to be tempered this year with uneasiness among family, friends, our community, and the nation.

The election took a turn that was unexpected for most of those on both sides. Unfortunately, though the election is over, there continues to be an ugliness to whatever communication happens across political lines. Whether our preferred presidential candidate won or lost, the underlying divisions are still present. It seems the divisions were already there, but were deepened during this interminable election cycle. Fear is running high. There is lots of uncertainty about the future, which fosters fear. Fear can quickly become anger as we push back against what we fear.

Anger gets a bad rap, but it’s an extremely important emotion. Anger brings our attention to something that’s wrong in our lives, a need that’s not being met. We need to acknowledge our anger and then look to see what’s behind it. What need is not being met for us? Safety? Respect? Fairness? The basics of food and shelter? Compassion for others?

We need to distinguish between acknowledging our anger and expressing it, however. How we express anger is key to our success in getting along together. Anger is not a pleasant emotion. Sometimes we seek to soothe it through a natural tendency is to blame someone, so then we can lash out at them. We think that if we can just hurt the Other, we’ll feel better. And we may, for a little while, but then it comes back, because the real need has not been met. This can too often lead to an upward spiral of violence in word or deed.

Anger is also one of the easiest emotions for others to manipulate. Once we get angry, we can’t access our higher brain function, our “thinking”. Our anger rules us, so those who feed our anger control us.

With the current unrest and lingering tears in the national fabric, our skills for getting along are being tested. Perhaps it’s harder right now, but the same behaviors apply:  Reach out and engage with those we see as the Other. Learn the names of those you disagree with. Learn their stories, why they believe what they do, how they think. Not to change them, but to change us. How can we learn from them? What can we learn? Listen to what they have to say. Retreat into our comfort zones as needed. Repeat.

In this way, we expand our comfort zones. As we talk with others, it also helps us get more clear about what we really believe. Maybe we will end up changing our minds a little bit after we hear another perspective. Or maybe we will realize that we still feel the same way, but we know more about why.

We can create connections with others in our community, beyond our habitual circles. It may be really tough, because we’re most comfortable with others who are like us. A great starting point is to concentrate on values we do hold in common with each other. For example, we all love our children, our valley, our country. We all want life to be better. We should not make our neighbors into the Other, the enemy. Always, always remember that we’re all just human, doing our best.

We may communicate in different ways than those outside our usual circles. There may be more or less directness, more or less formality, different words used. Forgive yourself and others for inevitably making mistakes in communicating across our differences.

This is hard work. Democracy isn’t easy, but we must find a way to get along. Floating aimlessly in our waves of fear, blame, and anger will not magically bring us what we need. We should make sure we leave plenty of time to enjoy comfort and the connection of family and friends, but we also have to make the effort to reach out of our comfort zones toward the Other. We owe it to our community and our precious country.

We are finally coming to the end of this presidential election cycle. It has been long and brutal. This column was written prior to the election, so the results were not yet known, but that hardly matters. Whichever candidate becomes president, we have some serious bridgebuilding work to do.

Much of what has been reported at the national level during the past several years has focused on sowing divisiveness. So many media sources want our attention, and dramatic conflict is a great attention-grabber. Everything is exaggerated for maximum shock value. Fears are promoted and manipulated.

But we’re all in this together and must find a way to work with those who have very different ideas about what needs to happen. We have to put things into perspective. While this campaign has been extremely divisive, remembering the horrendous events of the Civil War can give us pause to reflect on how bad it once got.

It’s not that we are bad people – in fact, we are good most of the time. We are just so busy and the issues are so complex, that we try to simplify to make sense of it all. One way to do that is to pick a stream of information that feels comfortable to us, out of the hundreds now available, and just listen to that. Comfortable means non-threatening and known, so we often choose streams that reinforce ideas we already hold.

With so many sources of news, we can now stay in our own little information bubbles. We get out of the habit of listening to those who hold different views. Before long, we start to defend our own preferred ideas as the only truth. We begin to see not only other ideas, but the people who hold them, as threatening. Once we feel threatened, our brains start thinking of ways to protect ourselves from Those Other People. Sometimes we even see a good offense as the best defense and become threatening to others.

As the Civil War so vividly reminds us, that seldom ends well.

So, what can we do? We can choose to counteract the drama. To decrease drama, we should pay attention to the words we use, even when we’re upset. We can avoid distortions in the things we say and avoid using misleading words like “never” and “always”. The vast majority of our communication is non-verbal, so we can choose to pay attention to how we say whatever we say. We may moderate our tone of voice, avoid disrespectful behaviors (rolling our eyes, snorting, and disdainful sighs), and refrain from interrupting.

We can use our best listening skills: separating the person expressing ideas from the ideas they are expressing; cutting people some slack for not expressing themselves eloquently; looking to see what important needs are not being met for others and what needs they are trying to meet through their positions on issues; seeing the good intentions in others.

It also doesn’t hurt to stand back and question our own thoughts. We can allow ourselves to listen to views different from our own. We can even listen to what others say about our favorite ideas! Surely our ideas are strong enough to survive some questioning, and they will likely even improve with some fresh air.

It takes courage to listen to others and consider changing our ideas. Yet this is the home of the brave, so let’s challenge each other to see how well we can move away from this divisiveness and get along better.