Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Experts behave differently from novices.  Think of many areas of activity: football, chess, particle physics - in all these spheres of human endeavour, we acknowledge that there is such a thing as an expert, and such a thing as a novice.  In relationships, too, some people act like perpetual novices, always making the same mistakes; and some people manage to graduate to a level which many would recognize as 'relationship expert'.  I am not just talking about the traditional 'relationship experts' - therapists, counsellors, and publicized 'gurus'.  I am thinking about those around us who seem to be able to conduct relationships in a way that leads to a good level of mutual fulfilment, respect and happiness.  What defines a 'relationship expert'?  Can we learn relationships in the same way as we learn other skills, such as chess?  And, if so, how would we recognize a 'relationship expert' if we saw one?  Perhaps an expert is good at solving problems, in which case a look at psychological research into problem-solving may help…

A problem could be defined as a goal which we have difficulty reaching.  With regard to solving simple problems, human beings have two big behavioural difficulties which are obstacles to good solutions:

1. HABIT - We are very reliant on habit, and tend to just repeat the same solutions time after time
2. IMPATIENCE - We are bad at delaying satisfaction, and tend to choose short-term solutions which may not work in the long term

A relationship novice will, therefore, show two main characteristics.  When faced with a relationship problem, they will repeat the same behaviour as last time (even if it didn't really work last time!).  And they will push for immediate satisfaction instead of playing the long game.  A relationship expert, on the other hand, is not the victim of their own habits, but is flexible enough to use a new solution if it is required.  And secondly, the relationship expert will show a lot of patience in thinking things through carefully from different perspectives.

In general, the relationship expert is characterized by this: their ability to see different perspectives, and patiently adapt their behaviour to suit them.

Another aspect of becoming an expert is the ability to learn from different situations.  This can, for example, involve the ability to 'take a hint'.  Life does not put up signposts for you  saying: 'Beware, angry response ahead'… we need to learn by analogy: to recognize situations because of a similarity in their underlying structure.  People who are bad at relationships tend to be bad at recognizing particular patterns until it is too late.  You hear them say things like: 'I always choose the wrong partners.'  What they should really say is: 'I am bad at responding to damaging situations until it is too late.'

The inability to learn from experience can be divided into two main aspects:

1. Inability to recognize - some people simply can't 'read' other people's hints or expressions.  The 'code' that is usually available to the rest of us, is not available to them.  To become relationship experts, these people need to improve their ability to watch, listen to, and interpret, others' actions.

2. Inability to respond appropriately - some people can recognize a problem, and may even know the solution.  But their problem is behavioural: they can't make themselves do the right thing.  You hear them say things like: 'I just couldn't help myself.'  This is a clue that their difficulty is one of self-control.  They can see the right thing clearly enough; but they just can't do it.  To become relationship experts, these people need to improve their ability to master their own actions.

Studies of chess expertise have found that chess masters do not necessarily have greater basic intelligence - but they do have the ability to organize their knowledge in meaningful patterns.  In other words, they can recognize and remember situations, using their experience to 'map out' the territory in a more memorable way.  If this translates to relationship expertise, then relationship experts are not necessarily more clever, but they are better at spotting important patterns and situations, and responding accordingly.  Practice seems to have a big effect - psychologists generally estimate that it takes around 10 years to become an expert in a field, and relationships may be no different.  So expect yourself to take at least 10 years of tough practice to become expert at relationships in a particular context - for example, in a new culture or work area… or even with a new person!  Learn attentively until you become very familiar with people and situations.

So, to become an expert in more complicated relationship issues, be prepared to become a little bit 'obsessed' with the subject; pay attention carefully, and get lots of practice in different situations.

In summary, perhaps there are three things that can turn us into relationship experts:

1. RECOGNIZE - Learn to interpret other people's behaviour.  Spend time with them until you feel you understand why they act the way they do.

2. CONTROL - Learn to control yourself.  Use meditation, and other self-discipline exercises, to improve your ability to defer gratification and be flexible.

3. PRACTICE - Get plenty of practice with other people - remember, it takes around 10 years to become an expert!

Further reading on aspects of relationship research: