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 disrespected? 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. Healthy relationships can reduce stress, prolong life, and enhance the quality of experiences. We learn from others, and they, in turn, learn from us.
Want to enhance your relationships? Here are five strategies to improve communication, build trust and deepen intimacy.
1. Give your undivided attention
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. But trust and connection are built by being present with a person and giving them the gift of your undivided attention. This means putting away the cell phone, setting aside that task list, and quieting the internal monologue in your head.
Next time you’re in a conversation with a friend or partner, try shutting out all distractions and just focusing on 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. Let’s take a hypothetical example — a friend says that they’re having trouble keeping it together, and you pop in to agree, “I know, me too!.” Notice what just happened? One story stopped, and another began. While shared experiences and commiseration are a valuable part of social interaction, it can also serve as an interruption or — worse — as a one-upmanship. As in “hey, you think you’ve got it bad. I’ve got it WAY WORSE!” Without intending to do so, you hijacked their story. You’ll never know where it 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 seven 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 DON’T. WANT. SILENCE.
But a funny thing happens when you allow for silence — that conversation that you were just having may go deeper. The person who left off talking picks up again with more details, emotion, and exploration, Sometimes people need a pause to gather their thoughts, take a breath, and get over whatever may be blocking them. By staying with someone in silence, you are showing that you care and are there to support them.
4. Open up your language
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 questions, such as those that start with “how” or “what”. Such questions invite exploration and communicate curiosity and lack of judgment. In contrast, closed-ended questions that begin with “when”, “is” or “are” tend to elicit a simple few-word answer. And asking “why” can spark a defensive reaction by implying judgment or dissent. Consider the last time you heard someone ask “Why did you do that?”. I bet it wasn’t very inviting, was it?
Next time you’re in a social situation, try adjusting your question style to be open and permissive. This will give whoever you’re with the opportunity to explore their thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
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 nothing more than a simple computer click.
One of the most basic tactics to keep a relationship alive is to reach out regularly to remind someone that you care. Express curiosity about their life and communicate that you are grateful for their gifts. We forget that our loved ones, friends, and colleagues don’t have easy access to our thoughts. Caring for others is not enough. We have to show our love and respect through our words, body language, and actions.
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