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63. Instrumental Relationships

Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy.
Howard W. Newton (20c American author)

As already mentioned, instrumental relationships are a means to an end – their main goal is not relating itself but some sort of benefit: this can be self-benefit, mutual benefit or others-benefit. Let’s consider these three categories in more detail.

Self-benefit relationships

When one is concerned just with his own benefit, others are treated as objects, a means to an end. This leads to valuing them only when they are useful and to attempts to dominate and control. Those on the receiving end may feel used or undermined. This can happen in a wide range of interactions (e.g. a pushy salesman); even intimate partners are not immune to it. If you catch yourself relating in this way, think about how you would feel if you were on the receiving end. If it happens that you are, you have four options (they correspond to general strategies):

  • Avoidance: simply move away if you can (e.g. change your job) to avoid this type of relationship.
  • Isolation: close down, distance yourself. This can minimise the effects of such behaviour, and reduce emotional reactions.
  • Adaptation: adapt, accept your part in the relationship (you may want to do so for the sake of something more important, such as providing for your children). Awareness that this is your conscious choice can help you deal with it.
  • Confrontation does not necessarily mean a fight, just making the other aware that you are not going to put up with such an attitude. If you feel that you don’t have enough power and resources to do so, work on building these first. For example, document or record the other person’s behaviour, or try to win support of others (e.g. colleagues).

When choosing between these options, take into account what the possible short- and long-term consequences are, what your priorities are, and which is most likely to be successful.

Mutual-benefit relationships

Mutual-benefit relationships appear in many situations: playing sports, trade, sharing a flat. They all may need negotiating (the goal and how to achieve it, the value of what is traded in, and the rights and responsibilities of each person in the relationship, respectively). Let’s see what successful negotiation entails.


A ‘must win’ mindset might lead you to approaching negotiation in a demanding, hostile, or critical way, which is likely to generate more heat than light – and get very little cooperation. Negotiating is better seen as clarifying your own views to others, and getting clarity on their views, in order to find an acceptable solution for all. Some see openness to various possibilities as weakness, but in fact, it can be a great strength when used well. Let’s now consider the stages of the negotiation process.

1. Really wanting to engage

Unless everybody involved wants to ‘make a deal’, negotiation is doomed to failure because it will be sabotaged. So, check first that you really want to sort things out. Self-deceit may make you feel better in the short term, but it is unproductive long term. If somebody else prefers the status quo, you can do the following:

  • Appeal to common goals or shared values
  • Make resolving conflict more appealing than otherwise

2. Preparing

  • Gather as much information as you can (e.g. know the rights and responsibilities of everybody involved).
  • To build confidence, make sure that your view on the situation is accurate and that you are doing the right thing.
  • Set your priorities: what really matters to you and where are you prepared to be flexible, i.e. where do you draw the line?
  • Consider possible outcomes: what you may lose and what you may gain. Do you have a backup plan, just in case?
  • To avoid naivety, resolve to keep in mind a wider picture.

3. Acting

  • Deal only with one issue at a time; otherwise the other side may feel overwhelmed.
  • Define the real problem: unpick different threads and separate those you agree on from those where you disagree (e.g. you both want a clean kitchen, but disagree on who should clean it).
  • Give others a chance to clarify what they want before attempting to clarify what you want.
  • If there is a difference in this respect ask them to suggest a way forward and only offer yours if they don’t come up with anything acceptable. If this doesn’t work, brainstorm together until you arrive at a solution acceptable to both.
  • Be open to considering many options and their combinations.
  • You may discover further possibilities if you steer negotiating away from specific objectives to the underlying reasons (i.e. why one wants or doesn’t want something).
  • Once you agree on an option, make a plan how to implement what has been decided: who will do what, where, and when.
  • If they don’t stick to the plan, ask them what the snag is and whether you can help them to overcome it.
  • If this doesn’t work, clarify the rights and responsibilities of everybody involved and discuss the consequences (but avoid making empty threats).

Negotiation rehearsal: think about a real situation that may need negotiation (e.g. you flatmate doesn’t clean after herself, you and your colleague need to discuss a project, you are ask to do something you rather wouldn’t). Try to implement the above steps in your case.

If you are put under pressure

One form of manipulation is reducing a decision-making time. It is advisable to resist this pressure and not let others put you on the spot. Many decisions are not as urgent as presented. So when asked to make a decision, insist on having some time on your own (even a minute or two) before you commit yourself to anything.

Team work

Team work increases productivity (a group can do more together than individuals alone) and reduces the risk of errors, but it requires that individual aims do not override the common aim. Here are some suggestions as to how to make a team work:

  • You may have, as a team, to compete with another team but avoid internal competing – even if you win such a competition, your team as a whole is likely to lose.
  • Maximise the strengths of team members. To do so, everyone should be aware of different roles and have the opportunity, if possible, to try these before deciding who will take which one.
  • To avoid endless discussions, decide in advance how to make final decisions or who will make them.
  • Doing your work well does not automatically lead to rewards, recognition, or appreciation from others. People may value your work without valuing you. If you feel this way, don’t try to force it. The more you seek recognition, the less you will get it. Reduce your expectations instead, rely on enjoyment, meaning and a sense of achievement to motivate you, but most of all do not let others take you for granted.
  • If you are a group leader, remember that the most important thing is that your team trusts you. The second most important thing is that you trust them. And finally, lead by example: do not expect others to do what you don’t (e.g. to respond to your emails quickly if you don’t respond quickly to theirs).

Others-benefit relationships

These relationships are about helping others. Research suggests that this is ‘one of the most powerful mood-changers’(1) (probably because it reduces the focus on oneself). However, if asked for help, it is worthwhile bearing in mind that a refusal is less disappointing than an unfulfilled promise, so it is better not to undertake more than you can and are willing to do. Also, ‘forced’ or excessive help, even offered with the best intentions, can reduce in others a sense of being in charge, which doesn’t feel good. So this type of relationship should always be voluntary on both sides.

(1) Goleman, D. (1995) ‘The Master Aptitude’ in Emotional Intelligence. London: Bloomsbury, p.75. 


PWBC (Personal Well Being Centre)
United Kingdom


PWBC (Personal Well Being Centre)
United Kingdom