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Strengthening the Soft Side

Strengthening the Soft Side: Building Better Relationships


Jeff Zimmerman, Ph.D.

March, 2009

Soft is stronger than hard,

Water stronger than rocks.

Love stronger than force.


We often hear that being warm, empathic, speaking from our heart and genuine is “soft” or weak. For men it is often deemed as not being masculine. Yet, choosing to communicate in such a manner is perhaps one of the most difficult things to do on a sustained basis and most central to a strong interpersonal meaningful relationship. Relationships at home, at work, with life partners and with children do not thrive because of logic and fact or because of force of will. They thrive because of the emotional connection and “realness” of the interaction.

The power of a relationship does not come from one person dominating the other. It comes from the synergy of two people connected in understanding and respect. This connection comes from each person being able to access their own needs and emotions and then taking the risk to be vulnerable and present these to the other in a respectful fashion that honors the meaning and importance of the relationship.

When we deny or do not cultivate this soft side we weaken our ability to connect with others in this way and then weaken the strength of our relationships. “Strengthening the soft side” means building our skills and abilities to first understand our feelings and then taking the risk to express our feelings in a manner that is appropriate to the situation and the other person with whom we are communicating.

Strengthening the soft side does not mean being tough and gruff. On the contrary, it means being better able to communicate with empathy and compassion; especially when one feels angry, hurt or disregarded. It is all too easy to key in on the pain or disappointment, rather than on the importance of the connection. In fact, it may very well be the importance of the connection and the relationship that makes the feelings so intense. In other words, one question to ask at these times is, “If a stranger said or did this to me, would I have the same reaction?” If the answer to this question is “No”, then it may be reasonable to stop for a moment, before reacting. Too often, people sabotage the relationships that mean the most by striking back in a way that is hostile and hurtful, thus leaving both people wounded and feeling victimized by the other.

Instead, imagine bringing a sense of peace into the difficult moment. In a caring or loving relationship, it is difficult to fight and be at war when your partner is at peace. What if you took the high road and became the partner bringing peace and love into the relationship, even when the conversation is difficult or the moment is tense?

While this is not an easy task, it is something that you might find easier by thinking of one or more of the five following concepts:

Gratitude: Before you begin the discussion, think of what you are grateful for regarding your partner. Focus on your love for them and the meaning of them in your life. Think of all they do, have done and more importantly who they are in the entire context of the relationship (not simply the issue in front of you).

Receptivity: Try to allow yourself to be open to what you will hear. A discussion on a difficult topic is not about defending yourself and speaking up as soon as the other person has started expressing themselves. It is not a matter of mind-reading what you think is certainly there. Instead, truly seek to understand (not necessarily agree with) their position.

Attunement: After you have heard their position and have made sure you truly understand, it is important to tune into your partner’s feelings. Even if you are sure they are completely mistaken in their views, how do they actually feel, given the views they have? Do they feel hurt, misunderstood, anxious, sad, or victimized in some way? You can take the time to really be attuned to their feelings.

Compassion: Imagine shifting the fighting or warrior position to one of softness and compassion. Compassion is often thought of as related to trying to reduce the other person’s suffering. If you are tuned into your partner’s suffering or emotional pain, and wanted to respond to them in a loving and compassionate way, would your usual response qualify? Or, would you need to address them differently, perhaps in a way where you were concentrating on their pain, instead of how right you are or your own pain.

Even Keeled: While the technical term for this is equanimity, the point here is to make sure your own emotion is not spilling over and spraying like a soda can which has been shaken before opening. If you keep your attitude loving and kind, your partner does not need to respond to aggression and hostility on your part, making the situation even worse.

Of course, this is not easy. It takes practice, especially during difficult discussions. It, in essence, takes more strength over oneself to dominate one’s own ego and feeling of needing to strike back, or set the record straight, or not let them get away with that, than to simply respond in a way that is loving, allows for a real discussion of the issues at hand and brings more softness and grace into the relationship. Give it a try and see what you can experience and hear back from your partner. You and they may be pleasantly surprised.

As water is stronger than rock, having a strong soft side can bring GRACE (Gratitude, Receptivity, Attunement, Compassion, Even-keeled) and the enriching and healing strength of loving-kindness into your life.