For relationships to be successful, there must be rules – and people must follow them. Think about a game of Monopoly. You wouldn't want to play with someone who grabs money that you have won, or puts the card he chose back in the pile because he didn't like it, or turns the board over because he doesn't like how the game is going. Communication rules are very similar. It's more fun when people play by the rules. When people don't play by the rules, the rest of the players experience chaos, confusion, anger, anxiety and depression, which is exactly how we feel around people who refuse to follow the rules. These are basic rules that help people feel loved, loving and safe in their relationships. (Many of these rules are based on the conflict resolution work of Dr. Susan Heitler. Her books, workbooks and DVDs are readily available.)

In Ethics of our Fathers, we are told to "Be like the disciplies of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace..." To love peace does not mean that one must give in all the time or allow oneself to be exploited. Peace requires that we learn certain skills which will lessen the distance and defiance of those we want to be close to.

Thinking we can get along with everyone and have great communication is a myth. It is also a myth that if we just show tons of love and respect for people, they will automatically treat us the same. Rules don't work for people who lie, betray or scorn. They don't respect rules, because they don't respect people. With them, real communication is impossible, as their goal is not to create love and trust, but to exploit or control others. In their presence, you must adopt self-protective tactics, such as being physically or emotionally distant. If you must spend time with them, however, you will inevitably feel tense, threatened and frustrated, if not endangered.

Rule #1: Frequently ask, "What appeals to you about that idea?" To me, these seven words are the key to success. This phrase expresses love, which is based on a desire to understand. This is not easy to do. As a therapist, I love to give advice and help people make good choices. Thus, when someone mentions what I think is an unwise choice, my impulse is to jump in and propose a better idea! I must catch myself and say, "What appeals to you about that choice?" In this way, I discover their underlying concerns. And it is only by helping people uncover and define their underlying concerns that you can hope to open them up to new possibilities or attitudinal changes.

Rule #2: Heitler suggests, "Listen to love. Listen like a sponge." Don't listen in order to defend, argue, scold or even influence. Show with your whole being that you really care to learn more about their reality, thoughts and feelings, and also their fears and insecurities.

Rule #3: Avoid contempt. Do not respond in a way which will make the other person feel inadequate, stupid or rejected. Scorn kills relationships. If you give advice, even the best advice, the other person may think, "I must be stupid to not have thought of that myself." And if you express scorn, such as, "That's ridiculous!" or "You must be crazy!" the other person will become angry or defensive, or surrender and adopt your idea out of fear, while smoldering with resentment inside.

I'll take a common example. A friend called before Passover to say that she wanted to invite all her children and grandchildren to the Passover seder, but that she felt it be too demanding, given that she has back problems. My immediate desire was to protect her and tell her, "Don't invite so many people! You'll suffer terribly." Instead, I asked, "What appeals to you about that choice?"

She said, "I love having my kids and grandchildren all sitting at the same table."

"Anything else?" I asked.

She responded, "And I want to give my kids a break. They work so hard all year."

"Are there any more concerns here?" I probed.

"Well," she admitted, "If I don't invite them all, they'll think I don't really care and I'll feel guilty, as if I'm not a good mother. It's like admitting that I love some and not others and that I'm getting older and can't handle so much. That's hard to accept."

I encouraged her to share more, writing down a list of her concerns. This is an extremely important step in communication. When I read them back to her, she was surprised to realize how many different concerns were riding on this one decision. It was only then that I asked, "Is there any way that you can satisfy these deep needs without jeopardizing your health? Let's take them one by one. We'll discuss a bunch of ideas and try to come up with a win-win solution." For example, we discussed if she could ask her children to make even one dish, or if she could cater some of the meals, etc. She sighed with relief and told me that it was so helpful to express these concerns, some of which had been almost hidden from consciousness. Eventually, she decided to ask everyone to prepare part of the meal and that relieved much of the pressure.

Practice! Practice! Practice! Playing by these rules is not always easy. Start today. When you think someone is locked into a position which you think is unwise or unsafe, practice saying those seven beautiful words: "What is it that attracts you to that idea?" Imagine how you'd respond if your spouse said:

  • "I want to take up sky-diving/go to Alaska/take a cruise."
  • "I want to quit my job and learn full time."
  • "I want to stop learning and go to work."
  • "I want twelve kids."
  • "I'd like to get a dog."

This might prepare you to respond to teens who say things like, "I'd like to dye my hair green" or "I want to quit school."

Life is full of conflicts and decisions. The more willing you are to follow the rules and explore concerns with others, the more receptive they will be to your feelings and needs. G‑d usually gives us lots of opportunities to practice the rules!