We live in an interdependent world. We can’t do everything by ourselves. If we could, we wouldn’t need others. No matter how much we might be independent, we are living in an interdependent world. We rely on others for getting things done, and I mean this in a broad sense. We couldn’t function by ourselves. The emotional/social aspect of our living is an important one. As humans, we are social. We want to be able to share our ideas (and to connect) with others. We rely on others to do the work, and we trust others to do the work. We depend on others to create change in the world, so it’s in our (and others’) best interests to have deep, fulfilling relationships.
Let’s start by explaining how relationships work. There is no better analogy of this than the one given by Stephen Covey, in which he explains the emotional bank account. He describes it as the amount of trust built in a relationship or the feeling of safeness we have with others. The idea is akin to where we make (financial) deposits and withdrawals at a bank, we make (emotional) deposits and withdrawals with relationships.
By deposits, he means being courteous, kind, honest, and making (and keeping) our promises to others. We make withdrawals in relationships when we are disrespectful to them, overreact about things, ignore them, and when we betray their trust in some way. The idea is that we always make deposits in our closest relationships because we’ll inevitably make withdrawals for understandable reasons (we are not perfect, we make mistakes, and because life is difficult).
All this is to say that trust is the currency of our relationships. Only when we have built that trust (by way of deposits), can we have the leeway to make withdrawals from those relationships.
When it comes to building (and continually improving) our relationships, the most important thing is to always focus on what you can do to build (and improve) it. Stop trying to change others. Realize that the best way to change others is to not change them. The best way to influence others is through our actions. Only by working on ourselves can we improve our situations. Also, remember that our success does not have to depend on our circumstances at all.
Here are some ways of building (and improving) our relationships.
The most important way I know of building relationships is to make (and keep) our promises to others by way of personal integrity. These promises don’t have to be big promises. In fact, more often than not, it’s usually the small ones that mean the most.
A promise is saying that you’ll do something for others on/by a specific day/time). For instance, if you’ve committed to meet someone on a specific day/time, then you need to be there. Arriving late (by more than a few minutes) for our meetings or not showing up is unacceptable. Of course, there might be times when we can’t keep our promises due to unavoidable circumstances, at which point we need to negotiate our commitment with the other person as soon as possible so we don’t break it.
Another instance could be telling your kids that you’ll take them out to the movies on the weekend. This is an implicit promise you’ve made (whether you realize it or not). Now, when the weekend arrives, you might forget that promise, but you can be sure that your kids will remember. Making promises to others without following through lowers our trust level with others. Following up on our promises is part of keeping our integrity.
Relationships cannot exist without expectations. A lot of times we might say in our relationships that we don’t have any expectations from the other person. But, we do; otherwise, there wouldn’t be a relationship in the first place.
A lot of times, we have conflicting or vague expectations in our relationships between each other. Having our (implicit) expectations violated is a chronic problem in most relationships, but we never think about clarifying our expectations with others. We expect others to know what we expect (and want) without telling them explicitly. Of course, there are times where we understand them and know their expectations without making it explicit, but that is rare. Assuming that they know all but the important expectations would be presumptuous, and that is not how relationships work.
For example, in a marriage there are implicit expectations between the two, and, most of the time, these expectations remain implicit because they are never actually clarified by the couple. Another example takes place at work: figure out your dealbreakers with your colleague at the start of a project by crafting a social contract. Figure out what is important for the two of you and how you’ll accomplish everything. This small time invested at the outset will save a ton of time and energy later on. Not to mention, the project gets done quickly, not the least of which is because the two partners involved understood each other well.
Doing the small things in relationships is often the most important thing. This requires being thoughtful, considerate, and being able to understand the other person before you can do things for them. It also includes being kind, courteous, and respectful to others.
For example, do something for your most important relationships every week. This could be getting a cup of coffee, making them breakfast on a Sunday morning, or (in my case) giving them a paper notebook every couple of months or so when we see each other. Put simply, it is our way of appreciating them. We do things for them because we like doing things for them and we are happy to do it. More than doing the things, it’s the thought that counts. That builds “deposits” for us in others’ hearts.
We need to understand others before making ourselves understood. Regardless of how things are in any relationship, we should take responsibility for it. We focus on what we can do to improve it, and when things turn sour in any relationship, we need to understand and empathize with others without feeling the need to agree or disagree with their perspective. Once the conversation turns logical (from emotional), we can make ourselves understood. When someone is emotionally driven, they are not in a state to listen, let alone understand things.
Stop trying to “win” in your relationships all the time; the issue you’re debating with others is never worth the cost of your relationship with them. In other words, your relationship with them is more important than trying to win some petty argument.
Here are some other things we can do to improve our relationships:
- Always see the good in others. Learn to appreciate and affirm them. Learn to focus on the positive in any situation. When things get challenging, use it as an opportunity to improve your relationship and/or result with others.
- Be aware of ego and its role in relationships.
- Always talk positively about others in their absence. By doing so, you’re both loyal to those who are absent as well as retaining the trust of those who are present.
- Always think win-win, meaning what is in the best interest of others as well as yourself.
- Always be solution-oriented, not problem-focused. Either you’re part of the problem or you’re part of the solution.
- Get regular feedback from those you trust and interact with the most.
- When you’ve made a mistake, ask for forgiveness quickly. Also, be quick to forgive others so you can both move on in your relationship.
The fact is that we depend on others for doing things as part of an interdependent society. It’s how the world works. Without building relationships with others, we wouldn’t be able to get along very far in our lives. Of course, few deep relationships can be greatly rewarding in one’s life. That said, you can’t have those kinds of relationships with everyone. If everyone is your friend, then no one is your friend. Building, improving, and repairing relationships takes time. They are long-term investments, not quick-fixes.