Laying Down Our Weapons. Sometimes the rightest thing is being wrong

What is relational intelligence?

I define relational intelligence (RQ) as being both intra- and inter-personally skillful. Intrapersonal intelligence is of primary importance because healthy relating starts with knowing oneself. One can undoubtedly obtain behavioral tips that might enhance social skills, but relational intelligence goes deeper. It concerns how we cultivate connections by learning to listen and speaking to be heard. It is about curiosity, connection, and willingness. Relational intelligence means learning to identify what’s on your “side of the street” and what’s on another’s. It’s avoiding trying to figure out who is “right” and who is “wrong” and getting to the heart of the matter, repairing, and reconnecting. 

As Brene Brown says, “Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others; it gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it, there is suffering.”

Through the science of adult attachment and polyvagal theory, this innate drive toward connection has gained visibility over the last decade. These concepts help to explain that our neuronal networks get formed in relationships with others. Even tears are an evolutionary function designed to bring us closer together (Hasson, O. 2009). Yet, if you were raised in the United States, you are taught to value rugged individualism. Individualism certainly has advantages, but it does not help to move us toward closeness. 

A friend called me this week, and our conversation reminded me again of the centrality of connection. He was in conflict with his close friend and wanted some advice. He started sharing what was happening between them by explaining the specific chain of events that had transpired. He intellectually analyzed the conflict from his perspective and said that what he did wasn’t “that big of a deal.” 

Then he pivoted. I watched him step toward taking responsibility for hurting this person—a friend who he deeply cared about. But just as soon as he began to take some accountability, in came the shame. He began to feel that he had done something “wrong” and was “bad.” The shame enveloped him, and to protect himself, he quickly reversed back to analyzing whether or not his friend’s feelings were valid. He turned his shame into blame. 

The advice I gave him was inspired by my relationship with my best friend, a friend with whom I have felt deeply connected for many years. I believe our relationship’s strength is due to our each caring more about being close than we do about being right. This shared value creates so much space for discovery, understanding, and connection—even when things get tough. Because we have a common goal (being close), we enter into conflict feeling like teammates rather than opposing players trying to win the game. Rather than falling into a divisive “right vs. wrong” binary, we work together to deepen our understanding of one another. 

So I offered my friend this: “What if you go to her with the sole purpose of trying to understand her experience? What if you lay down your sword of pride and let go of needing to be “‘right?’

Dr. Becky Kennedy, a parenting expert, shares a theory called “good enough parenting.” The idea is that “good enough” parents only get it right 30% of the time. The other 70% percent of the time, they’re messing up. This means that a relationship’s quality is not just defined by moments of alignment but by its ability to repair. This concept is not just about relationships between children and parents. It applies to friendships, romantic relationships, and working relationships. 

To avoid the idea that we’ve hurt someone, we focus on how we’re “right,” and they’re “wrong.” Or we spiral into shame and turn inward, isolating ourselves from our loved ones. We worry that if we take accountability, we’re admitting we’re wrong rather than accepting that we’re human, which means being complex and flawed and sometimes making mistakes. And for whatever reasons (cultural influences, family of origin dynamics, etc.), most of us have a very low tolerance for sitting with this complexity.

Somehow we can easily accept this complexity in children. When a child throws their legos across the room, we (hopefully) don’t think they’re a “bad child.” We think they’re angry and need to learn more effective ways of expressing difficult emotions. We don’t condone the behavior, but we don’t shame them either. To be relationally intelligent and care for our relationships, we need to extend this same acceptance and compassion to ourselves.

Brene Brown also talks about the birthplace of joy being the same birthplace of shame, pain, and sadness. If we’re bypassing those difficult emotions by over-intellectualizing, or building narratives that justify our stance of rightness, then we’re bypassing our capacity for joy and connection.

So my offering is to try it out. What happens if you hold the intention of being connected, of being close, rather than being right? 

What if you can hold the seat of the beginner’s mind? How much room might you discover?

Like what you have read? Join me and my co-facilitator, JP Posnak, in our upcoming class, Building Relational Intelligence (BRI), where you will learn new skills to break free from ineffective patterns and build healthier, meaningful relationships.

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