As John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote in their 1967 song, we all “Get By With a Little Help From My Friends”. Family, friends and colleagues help us overcome what life throws at us, and can toss us a life line when we are floundering. They are key to our ability to thrive. Fellow travelers on life’s journey help us reach destinations we could not gain on our own; they are a key component of a life well lived. Just as managing ourselves requires intention and focus, so do managing our relationships.
Nowhere is this clearer than the famous Harvard University study launched in 1939. One of the longest longitudinal studies on human flourishing ever conducted, it followed the lives of 268 students, both poor and rich. When all was said and done, social connection and generativity (making a contribution) were found to be the two most important factors in achieving happiness and life satisfaction. George Vaillant documents the findings in his fascinating book Aging Well and summarizes the findings, “it is social aptitude, not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.”
Successful relationships are just as important in the work sphere. Employees who have a best friend at work are seven times as likely to be actively engaged in their work, researcher and author Tom Rath discovered after analyzing over 8 million interviews in the Gallup organization’s database. Employee engagement is a hot topic among employers, and with good reason. Engaged workers are enthusiastic, focused and go the extra mile.
Relationships are so key to human flourishing that psychologist Chris Peterson was frequently quoted as saying that the entire field of positive psychology and human flourishing could be summarized in three words: other people matter.
Some of our relationships are by choice, others (inward groan) are thrust upon us. Some are energy producing; others are energy depleting. Your gut reaction during a look at your calendar for the upcoming week will quickly reveal which are which.
Why does it matter? Because as we progress in our careers, and life in general, our success becomes increasingly dependent upon the efforts of others, requiring collaboration to accomplish our goals. We need to be able to get on and work effectively with a variety of other people. We must communicate clearly and diplomatically, and deal with conflict appropriately. Successful people build deeply trusting relationships. They lead by example and actively encourage others to deploy their own unique talents and strengths.
This can all seem quite nebulous and ill-defined, but successful relationship management is really the combination of a few distinct skills, all of which can be improved with focus and effort. They’re not a matter of “you have it or you don’t”, contrary to popular opinion. And the skills can be summarized as:
- Emotional and Social Intelligence, also known as EQ, is an awareness of our own emotions alongside awareness of the feelings and motivations of others. It’s our ability to use this awareness to adjust and choose our response; not just react to what we are feeling or how others are acting that counts. At its core, EQ is the ability to work with people we don’t like – not to freeze them out, avoid them or go to war with them. We can all get along with people whose values we share, whose personalities are pleasing and who agree with us. It’s the other crowd who call upon our EQ. Want a quick read on your own emotional and social intelligence? Take an assessment like Emotional Intelligence 2.0 at talentsmart.com. Not only can EQ skills be developed and improved, EQ is a better predictor of success than IQ, which interestingly, is stubbornly resistant to change.
- Trust is at the bedrock of our relationships. While trust can be viewed several ways, we very much like Charles Feltman’s definition of trust: choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions. Trust is a delicate thing. For most of us it takes a while to establish; if broken, it takes significant effort to rebuild. In his book, The Thin Book of Trust, Charles Feltman articulates four ingredients of trust:
- Sincerity – being authentic and genuine
- Reliability – doing what we say we will do
- Competence – displaying the ability, skill and resources necessary to contribute
- Care – demonstrating willingness to put the needs of others on par or before our own needs
- Communication skills help in maintaining trust; they’re also critical in collaborating with others. Effective communication covers output (say what you mean and mean what you say), and input (genuine listening). Our most effective communication is both respectful and truthful. Genuine listening involves selectively turning off the tape of our own internal dialogue and choosing to pay attention to what the other person is really saying, including the more subtle, unspoken meaning beneath the words. This deeper awareness allows us to ask better questions. Short, simple and powerful questions, and paying attention to the answers yield insights, allowing others to feel heard and understood … “you get me”.
- Managing conflict. “Conflict is inevitable; combat is optional.” With the myriad ways we think, the unique perspectives and values we hold dear, conflict in relationships is part of the bargain. What helps? Several things. Knowing our “go-to” conflict style, and how to deploy different styles as the situation calls for it. Recognizing the “stories” we tell ourselves and avoiding attributing negative intent to the actions of others. A good dollop of patience and curiosity to explore others’ points of view, along with the courage to voice our own thoughts, truthfully and respectfully. Embracing differences in outlook, and skirting the opposite poles of artificial harmony at one end and mean-spirited personal attacks at the other. Or, as one saying goes “being able to listen to anything without losing one’s temper or sense of humor”. All of these are skills that can be developed with awareness and effort.
So, what do we do with all of this? How can we use this knowledge to build and manage our relationships? We offer three suggestions.
- Relationship skills check-up. Take a piece of paper and make three columns: Relationship Skills, Strengths & Weaknesses and Planned Action. In the Relationship Skills column, list the four skills we described above: EQ, Trust, Communication and Managing Conflict. In the Strengths & Weaknesses column, identify two or three strengths and one weakness for each skill. In the third column, identify one or two actions that you will take to enhance your relationships skills. This combination of insight and action will help amplify your strengths and mitigate or improve upon your weaknesses.
- Vital Friends. Take a few minutes to reflect on those people in your life who are your vital friends. They’re the ones you count on and who count on you. Consider sending them a note, or phoning them, to say why they made the list, and what you value most about your friendship. You’ll be amazed at how much this simple act can deepen your friendship and enhance your appreciation for the vital friends in your life.
- Energy audit. Identify the top three relationships in your life that are the most energy producing, and then, the converse – the top three relationships in your life that are energy depleting. Cherish the former. Actively think about how you might express appreciation for the energy producing relationships. For the energy depleters, identify one action that is in your circle of control (hopefully not homicide) that you can take to minimize the depletion impact. We cannot change others’ behavior but we can set firm boundaries and choose how much we allow it to impact us.
As we Live Life on Purpose, we do so with others. Our relationships embody a full range of human emotion: joy and sorrow, gratification and disappointment, loyalty and betrayal. Thankfully, at our disposal are the tools of emotional intelligence, trust, communication and conflict management to help us navigate the highs and lows, and to achieve together what could never be achieved alone.