Carol Bruess wrote that most of us are aware that having close, supportive relationships benefits our overall wellbeing and happiness, and human connection affects our mental health but also is key to how long we’ll live and how physically healthy we’ll be. Robert Waldinger, the Director of the Harvard “longest study of happiness”, stated people who were more socially connected to family, friend and community, were happier, healthier and lived longer than those less connected.
They weren’t just talking about extremely close relationships like your spouse/partner, they were talking about professional, social, volunteering and even the person behind you in the queue for the grocery checkout. Bruess came up with six small changes we could make to yield big results in improving relationships:
“1. Change the words we’re thinking about other people – Words matter. Not only the words we use when we speak to others, but the words we say to ourselves about others.
Our internal narrative — especially the story we tell ourselves about other people, their decisions, behaviours, quirks and irritating habits — has a profound effect on how we interact with them. When we tell ourselves “they’re so controlling” or “they never listen to me” or “they’re so self-centred” before or during a conversation with a partner, colleague or sibling sets us up to be more likely to find evidence of their controlling/non-listening/self-centred behaviour because we’ve primed ourselves to spot it.
By creating micro-moments of positivity, we’re starting a wave of good feelings that spreads through our life and through the lives of those we encounter.
There are three simple steps we can take here. The first is to recognize when one of these judgmental thoughts enters our head that reinforces a negative narrative. Next, stop ourselves from telling this story. Finally, replace it with a more positive word or phrase. Pick a word or phrase that reminds us to show some compassion (“They’re trying their best”), acknowledge the journey we’re on (“We’re all works in progress”) or capture what we want to do more of in our relationships (“Listen — really listen”).
Bruess suggested we’d be surprised how quickly changing our words can also change the quality of our relationships
2. Create tiny moments of positivity during your day – Want to experience more connection in our day-to-day life and a healthier and more connected sense of being in the world?
Turns out, we can do this wherever we are and wherever we go. Just take five seconds to learn the name of that nice person in the apron at the coffee shop who helped you decide which one to have. Or, look the pharmacist in the eye and thank them for showing up during this challenging time, or stop by a co-worker’s office and ask how their aging parents are holding up.
Whenever we share a tiny, positive moment with another human — even if it’s just a warm smile or our eyes meeting as we acknowledge each other for existing on this planet — we unleash a cascade of positive reactions in us and them.
3. When you and your partner argue, hold hands with them (really!) – When couples are in conflict, it’s important for them to remember they’re on the same team despite their differences. One of the easiest ways to do so is to agree to hold hands while you argue. This simple gesture helps couples feel more connected and, as a result, they’ve been found to be less destructive as they fight. If this doesn’t work for you, come up with your own way to reinforce your bond.
Maybe you and your partner decide to interrupt each disagreement — at least once — with a 10-second kiss. Or, you could both agree, while fighting, to hold up three fingers at the beginning, middle and end of a tense discussion, a nonverbal symbol that means “I love you.”
4. Ask an open-ended question of someone in your life every day – Actively listening while letting someone else speak is also communication, and it’s one of the most undervalued methods of building relationships with others. This means listening simply to better understand the other person and giving them space to share their story, express their fears, articulate their hopes or just tell us what irritated or delighted them today.
One of the easiest resolutions we can make to improve any of our close relationships is to listen more, speak less and ask open-ended questions. Ask someone near you: “What’s been the best part of your week so far?”; ask a neighbour when out walking: “What’s keeping you going these days?”; or ask someone over dinner: “What are you most afraid of happening in the next year?”
Then, be fully present with them as you listen to them answer, without interrupting them with your own response or turning away. When we do this, we show the people in our lives that we really care about them.
5. Schedule time to spend with your best friends – Strong, quality relationships require maintenance and ongoing investment. Friendships have been shown to be key to our happiness and longevity, especially as we age, but even the best of them will wither if we don’t nurture them.
One easy way to do this is to carve out time in your weekly or monthly schedule to connect with your friends. If you can, meeting them in person is best, but even a regular Zoom or phone call is enough to provide you with benefits. And whenever you’re invited to do something with someone who is not one of your key connections, ask yourself this before you say yes: “Is this best for me and the relationships I value?”
These small, regular investments of attention made regularly in our relationships are essential to growing and sustaining them.
6. Deliver an overdue apology – Many of us — because we’re only human and imperfect — have ended a relationship in a clumsy or careless way. Or, maybe we’ve been on the receiving end. Regardless of which role you played, we walk around with grudges or resentment towards a colleague, boss, cousin, roommate, neighbour, ex-partner, etc.
Why not start the year by picking one of the people in your life with whom you had a falling out and write them a note or send them a voice memo? Keep your apology short and simple, and accept responsibility for what you did or didn’t do well. When we embrace our humility, we’re not only more likely to forgive and be forgiven but we can get a significant boost in our happiness as well.
However, if you choose to do this, don’t expect to get a response. If the other person takes in your words and says they forgive you, that’s great. But keep in mind that forgiveness is partly an internal process when you can lighten your load by letting go of unnecessary emotions weighing you down.”
For me, number one is a biggy. I know that I have certain views of certain people that stick with me in every interaction I have with them. Usually this is born out of an experience I have with that person, and then I hold that opinion of them. I have spent some time this year considering this and how I might change my own mindset toward that person in an attempt to develop a better relationship with them. I have plans on how to go about this and will look for an early opportunity to get started on it in the new year.
I’m ok with positivity generally. I’m fairly neutral about most things, I don’t get overly depressed about much but then I don’t get overly excited about stuff either.
C and I never argue. We have periods of time when we don’t speak to each other, but that’s usually fairly short-lived.
I always try to ask open questions. I remember when R was at school and C used to ask her whether she’d done her homework or not, to which she’s reluctantly say “yes”. I’d follow that up with something more specific about the task she had to do, or how she’d got on with a particular thing. That would eventually elicit whether she’d actually done it or not.
Scheduling time for friends and family is something we have to do anyway. We have so much going on, as do most of the people we meet, so we have to book in in advance for anything like a family visit or lunch with a friend. I do feel that I could do more of this on a slightly more ad-hoc basis, there is room to be made, particularly on my non-working day, and some weekends. Again, plans under development for the new year.
I feel that I have apologised to those that I know I need to apologise to. If others feel I haven’t apologised for something, it’s because I’m not aware I need to, so you’ll have to tell me what it is I’ve done to upset you. I think the one thing I do need to apologise about is the words I use to myself about other people that shapes the way I interact with them.
One thought on “6 Tips to building improved relationships”
Another interesting topic. I find some of the points easier said than done though. Mr and I don’t argue and I think I’m quite good at asking people about their day/week/experience and listening to their answer. Guess I need to try to make some new connections before I can work on them 🤔