How to Make Relationships Work

(at least in my case)

After several years of watching friendships melt down -- and others succeed -- I am beginning to see some regularities. This document is as much advice to myself as it is a roadmap for people wanting to be my friend.

Tom Pittman

Rule #1: Never criticize anybody anywhere for any reason.

Unfortunately, Rule #1 fails catastrophically when you are responsible for getting a job done when it depends on what other people do -- in two different senses. It is catastrophic to your job when you cannot control what you are responsible for, and it tends to be catastrophic to the relationships with your suppliers. Unless they need your money.

I try to mitigate the problem with two strategies: First I avoid getting into such a predicament. I can be responsible for what I do, but let the client be responsible for the other suppliers. That way it becomes their problem if the suppliers screw up, not mine. But I can't always do that. The other strategy is to figure out ways to soften the blow when delivering necessary criticism, like "Do you suppose you could do it this way?" Relationship experts recommend, "Attack the problem, not the person." This is good advice.

Another way to deal with the problem -- this really runs against my grain -- is to allow for failure. There will always be circumstances I cannot control; I just need to remember that other people is one of them. I can get more creative inventing ways to take the blame when the other people screwed up. No wonder American products are so shoddy.

Exception: It's Not About You

I run an occasional blog chronicalling my life experiences. Not many people read it, maybe a couple dozen at most. Before that, I had a regular column "Heads In the Sand" syndicated out to Macintosh User Group newsletters. Both have the same flavor, usually pillorying some foolish activity I see or experience.

Public persons are fair game, so long as what I say about them is true. Everybody launching missiles at anybody needs to make sure what they say is based on objective criteria, not suppositions of what somebody might have been thinking (but not saying). So I can criticize Bill Gates or Presidential wannabes or the banker by name.

Otherwise, I mostly try to describe my victim in general terms that could apply to any of several individuals, and often does. If what I say is true and accurately describes you, then it's about you and you should clean up your act. If there are discrepancies between what I posted and yourself, then it's not about you, don't get your dander up.

Exception: It Is About Me

I have never met anybody who likes being criticized, myself included. But I'm rather more pro-active about it than most of the people I have met. I take every criticism seriously, examining the data carefully to determine if it is true, and if so, how to prevent it -- so it will not be true next time. I also examine the circumstances surrounding the critique. The full analysis is very time-consuming, but there are two circumstances to mitigate the loss, both involving the person of my critic. Ad hominem attack is anti-social, but this is defensive.


The first line of defense is to look for anger or evidence of retaliation. Everybody knows the angry person is not able to think coherently, so the entire criticism is probably bogus. I immediately stop paying attention and get on with other pressing matters. If you want to instruct me in any matter that you think I need help, you must not do it in a context where your own ox has been gored. I won't listen. Wait for some other time, or some other person to do it.


The second line of defense is to look for hypocrisy. People are most sensitive to faults they know themselves to be guilty of -- so much so that they often accuse where there is no such fault in the other person. When I see this coming, I do a brief preliminary analysis on myself to see if the charge is true, and if it's true, fix the problem. In the more common case that it's bogus, I ignore the rest of the critique. Or more likely, point out the hypocrisy. It shuts up the attacker more effectively than disregard.

Hypocrisy nullifies criticism. Jesus said so.

Of course I have been known to fail the same way. If I am offering a criticism -- recall, I am trying not to do that at all -- finding me to be hypocritical is a valid defense. But claiming it does not make it true, and I probably already thought about the similarity; you must be prepared for me to explain why the behavior I condemn is different from what I do.

Rule #2: A Positive Balance

People seem to operate a kind of "ledger" for each person they interact with, with two columns for credits and debits. So long as the net balance on the bottom line is positive, the relationship gets along just fine. But if the negatives ever exceed the positives, they throw you into debtor's prison and a trapdoor snaps shut locking you there. No amount of positives will ever clear the balance due, because everything, regardless of actual intent, is now viewed as more negatives, more criticism, more violations of Rule #1. The only way to avoid this catastrophe is to make sure you keep the positive affirmations flowing, so any accidental negative has a balance to draw on.

Me, I don't do that. The ledger is still there, but if you admit your mistakes and promise not to repeat them, I will consciously believe you and wipe them off the slate. God commands me to do that, and I take His command seriously. You don't even need to admit to anything, as long as the promise to prevent future recurrence is credible. Of course if you refuse to promise to desist, that is the same as a promise to [feel free to] repeat the offense, and I will be inclined to put up a wall and iron bars around you for my own protection. I consider the teachings of the Bible in this matter both reasonable and workable.

Rule #3: Respect

No relationship ever works without mutual respect at some level. I earn my respect from most people by a high degree of competence in several useful skills. Other people earn my respect by competence in areas where I lack it, or by an eager teachable spirit, or by any of several other laudable attributes.

Early in my career I became competent in programming tight (small) code for the new "itty bitty" computers. One of the early adopters of the technology asked the manufacturer to recommend a programmer, and my name was offered. I went in for the interview, and after seeing their engineering diagrams, proposed some suggestions for improvement. The design engineer showed how his design was better in those points, and thus earned my undying respect for his technical competence. He likewise obviously felt the same about me; I once visited him in his mortgage-free million-dollar mansion, and he commented, "I owe this house to you," a reference to the success my software gave his company. We were good friends for several decades until his death a couple years ago.

An asymmetrical relationship still needs respect. The student needs to respect the teacher's knowledge or he will not learn. The teacher needs to respect the student's ability and will to learn, or he will not teach. Even the slave respects his master's whip and the master respects the slave's muscles.

rev. 2007 November 13