Building Trusting Relationships (part 3 or 4)


Greetings and welcome to my blog post. My intention for this blog space is talk about how we do relationships. How do you relate to people? What are your thoughts, feelings, attitudes, approach or even avoidance when it comes to how you relate to people? Whether the person in your life is a spouse, sibling, friend, child, parent, or co-worker, etc, it does not matter, to live life is to face the reality of dealing with people.

In my last four-part blog post series, I invited you to consider what ingredients you are not willing to put into building healthy relationships. (If you have not read this series, I would invite you to read this). In this new four part series, I want to invite you to consider some necessary healthy relationship ingredients that I know will greatly improve your relationships. Just like the song states: “Just A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down” is also true when it comes to participating in these four ‘healthy spoonfuls’ to help make your relationships work.


The third trait that I want you to consider when it comes to your most important relationships is this topic of how you respond. The question is this: Are you a reactor or are you a responder? In some ways, I am asking this question similar to the comparison of a rabbit or a turtle.

Let me explain. It is a given that we all have moments in which we are reactors like a rabbit. We get excited, passionate, jump up and down, let out a shout, and celebrate a particular moment. If you are a sports fan like me, you know those moments in which you react with excitement over your team scoring the winning goal, the buzzer beating basket, the two minute drive down the field for the winning touchdown or the walk off home run to win the game. These are exciting winning positive moments in which you are excited and express your emotions over the thrill of the moment. It is good to be a rabbit and feel that passion.

But when it comes to our personal relationships, most of the time it is the turtle like response that really makes the relationship work. Like the tale of the hare and the tortoise, in the end the tortoise wins. And the reason why the tortoise wins is because the turtle slowly and daily responds to the people around him with proper healthy responses.

For example, when you think about your most important relationships, how you respond or react will be the test to building trusting relationships. You see, our emotions need to be kept in check when it comes to our most important relationships. You can be passionate and happy when your favorite team wins a game. Or you can be angry and mad when you hear the news that a child has been sexually abused or a person has been innocently murdered. This type of emotional reactions are normal.

But when you are demonstrating reliability and availability, you now want to go deeper with your most important relationships and demonstrate sensitive response comments. Let’s just cut to the chase. Despite all of our efforts to not be sensitive, we all are sensitive. We can try to overcome being sensitive by showing that we are macho, tough, controlling, and aggressive. But the reality is that we all are sensitive and where we are most sensitive is when we sense and feel that we are being accused or criticized.

Consider this type of description from Sue when she describes her friend Mary: “I trust Mary as a really good friend. She rarely wavers and she is consistent. She seems to be available for me and we seem to like spending time with each other. But when I start to open up and go deeper with her, sometimes I get a critical or accusing comment; ‘Why are you doing that? That won’t work! Don’t do that!, or Why did you say that?’ When Mary responds with these words, I just stop right there and shut down.”

The challenge is this: when you approach that most important and personal relationship in your life, how does your friend, spouse, partner family member respond? Do you feel and notice that this person does respond to you with empathy, understanding and care? Can you feel that the other person does want to slow down and be like a turtle and carefully respond by listening with warmth and support without being a reacting rabbit who is judging, criticizing, nagging, or problem solving? A reactive rabbit comment, “I can’t believe you said that!” or “I can’t believe you did that!” is not going to build trusting relationships.

Therefore, consider how you can respond like a turtle with slow, intentional, reliable and consistent patient sensitive responses by really listening and focusing on the other person’s innermost thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires without judgment. Imagine if both parties in this exchange wanted to really build a trusting healthy relationship by both people responding in a way in which each person felt understood, validated, and cared about. This type of response only leads to each person sharing with one another without the fear of rejection, criticism, or disinterest.

As this type of turtle response gets played out and practiced between two people, each person carefully considers how they want to respond when they listen to their partner. Listening for the sake of understanding only leads to responding for the better of the relationship and for the two of you, not just for the sake of giving your reaction out of your own interest. Reactions can be about you; responses can be about the two of you. Make it about the relationship and not about you.

If it is only about you, then the relationship gets filled with repeated reactions of negativity, criticism, judging, and withdrawing. If one partner thinks the other person is going to be critical or judgmental when they approach them, then the one party is going to stop sharing, withdrawal and shutdown. A wall will go up. Obviously, it leads to the unfortunate conclusion, “Why would I open myself to you when I fear I’m going to be judged or criticized or feel that I am going to be invalidated, criticized or shut down? If all I notice is you shutting me down, dismissing or discounting what I am sharing with you, then I will proceed with caution, feeling uncertain that I can open up to you again.”

So find a way when you listen and respond to the most personal and important people in your life by acting like a turtle and slowly and patiently say to the other person that you will give your full attention to them. Practice and see evidence that when you listen with warmth and respond with caring phrases such as “Really?” “Then what happened?” “What was that like for you?” “How did you feel or experience these events or encounters?” These types of phrases inform the other person that you do like them, care about them, you are interested and totally accepting of them, and in the process of being patient, like a turtle, you say to the other person, “I will respond to you with words of sensitivity and acceptance.”

Phil Kiehl, LMFT, M.Div.
Licensed Therapist

P.S. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what ingredients you would put into building a healthy relationship. Share your comments and share this article with others. Thanks.