Many of our problems come down to one singular issue — relationships. There are misunderstandings, miscommunication, and just generally taking others for granted. Even with the best of intentions, we sometimes fail to give our loved ones, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances the respect, affection, and understanding that they deserve.
Think about it — have you ever been shocked when a friend, family member or partner shared that they felt unappreciated, unloved or even mistreated? We’ve all probably experienced this to some degree, and we’re left puzzled and ashamed that this person that we valued wasn’t exactly feeling valued.
Strong relationships are essential to health and happiness. It plays out in our day-to-day life through our jobs, community, hobbies, and at home. Having healthy relationships can reduce stress, prolong life and enhance the quality of experiences. We learn from others, and they, in turn, learn from us. Optimizing our relationships, therefore, is in the best interest of all.
How do we do this? Here are five strategies that improve communication, enhance trust and deepen intimacy.
1. Give your undivided attention
This one may sound like a no-brainer, but it is getting increasingly hard to shut off our multitasking brains and focus on a person, even if that person is our child, spouse or dear friend. After all, this means putting away your cell phone (yes, it is possible to do), keeping those roaming eyes in check, and not tapping your fingers in frustration as you are forced to tame your ever-racing thoughts. But if you want a relationship to grow, the first thing you need to do is block out all the distractions, focus and just be with another person. Without your attention, you may be there but not really there. And most of us are smart enough to notice this, and it doesn’t lend well to enhancing the connection between anyone.
Next time you’re with someone, try giving your undivided attention to them. Listen closely to their words, observe their body language and look for the emotion behind what they’re saying. Be there not only with them but for them as well.
2. Check your personal agenda at the door
Too many of us listen only enough to relate another’s situation to ours. For example, a friend says that they’re having trouble keeping it together and you may pop in to agree, “I know, me too!.” That’s when their story stops, and yours begins. While shared experiences and commiseration are part of the value of social interaction, it can also serve as an interruption or — worse- as a one-ups-manship. As in “hey, you think you’ve got it bad. I’ve got it WAY WORSE!” Their story, in a sense, becomes hijacked by yours. You’ll never know where theirs would have gone if you had just stood back and checked your personal agenda at the door.
Hard as it may be, attempt this little experiment. When a partner, family member, friend or acquaintance starts talking, resist the urge to chime in with your parallel experience. Let their story play out. You’ll likely discover something about them that you’d never have learned otherwise.
3. Give space and allow for silence
Silence is often considered a dreaded circumstance in social circles. Some have even timed it out as occurring every 7 minutes or so in a group setting. When the gap in conversation happens, we sometimes rush to fill the space, stuttering out words that don’t even make sense because we just DON’T. WANT. SILENCE.
But a funny thing happens when you allow for silence — that conversation that you were just having goes deeper. The person who left off talking often picks up again with more details, emotion, and exploration, Sometimes people need a pause to gather their thoughts, to take a breath and get over whatever may be blocking them from going further. By staying with them in silence, you are showing that you care and assuring them that you are there to help work through that moment when they could either stop at the superficial level or go deeper.
4. Open up your language and your body
Relationships only grow as much as the people involved are willing to open up to each other. One way to foster this is to use open-ended up questions (think those that start with “how” or “what” rather than “when ” “is” and “why”), which invite the other person to discuss a topic more so than they would have otherwise. Close-ended questions are just that — closed. They ask for a “yes”, “no”, or few word answer, which is not conducive to a rich discussion. And questions that begin with “why” can spark a defensive reaction, by implying judgment or dissent. Consider the last time you heard someone ask you “Why did you do that?” — I bet it wasn’t very inviting was it?
By using open-ended questions — particularly those are specific — this gives whoever you’re with the opportunity to explore their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Similarly, open body language (arms uncrossed, leaning forward) symbolizes to the other person that you are open to receiving whatever they give. So next time you encounter a family member, friend or acquaintance, try adjusting your body language and question style to be open and permissive.
5. Remind them that you care
With the ever-increasing number of social networks to manage, a Facebook friend list that often tops 1, 000, and family and friends scattered around the globe, maintaining contact is becoming more and more of a chore. Too often we extend our reach so far – to so many people – that, in the end, everyone is getting the short end of the stick. Years can go by with some loved ones and friends getting nothing more than a cursory like on Facebook. Such insignificant contact can leave many people feeling like their relationship is worth — oh — about nothing.
One of the simplest tactics to keep a relationship alive and kicking is to reach out regularly to remind someone that you care about and appreciate them. If it’s a friend or family member in a distant location, take a few minutes to send a personal message or even (gasp) pick up the phone and call them. Express curiosity about what is going on with them — this small action of reaching out and reminding someone that you care can brighten their day beyond you might expect. If it’s someone closer to you, regularly communicate that you appreciate having them in your life and are grateful for their gifts. We forget that our loved ones don’t have easy access to our thoughts. Caring for others is not enough. We have to show our love through our words, body, and actions.