Understanding Relationships

When you interact with other people, is your primary aim to get something from them, or is it to give something to them? Or are you just too awkward in company to do anything positive at all? If you fall naturally in the ‘giving’ category you will most likely excel in interpersonal relationships and need no help at all. However, there is good news even if you fall into the ‘get something’ and/or ‘awkward’ categories: you can do something to improve your social skills.

Researcher John Gottman and his colleagues at the University of Washington have concluded that we tend to keep an unconscious account of interpersonal behaviour – rather like a balance sheet with positive and negative instances set against each other. To stay in good standing with another person we need to have a balance of four or five positives to offset one negative. For example, when you do four good deeds for a friend – i.e. compliment them, encourage them, help them and indulge them – but then thoughtlessly hurt their feelings, they may forgive you this last but your emotional account with them takes a hit and you need to work to top it up.

Avoid leaving an encounter on a dud note – i.e. with a bad behaviour causing a negative balance: resentment will grow and, furthermore, interest will be added to the emotional debt, putting the good standing of the relationship at risk. (The opposite is also true so that a healthy balance will grow into emotional credit if you leave an encounter with a positive behaviour.)

Here are some easy-to-implement tips for building up a healthy balance in those emotional accounts.

  • Enthusiastic greetings – great to see you again!
  • Compliments – you look fab in that red shirt!
  • Listening attentively – even to a boring story…
  • Surprise presents – cupcakes all round on a wet Wednesday!
  • Share – offer your chips around!

Did you know that, actor/producer, Sarah Jessica Parker always greets journalists with a compliment on something they are wearing? The result is that she rarely gets bad press.   Check out this list of Nice Things to Say.

Off we go to do good things and we will all end up in the ‘giving’ category – leading growing emotional bank accounts and spreading happiness along the way.

And if you want a spring/early summer read about relationships – especially friendships – look no further than the novelist Elena Ferrante and start with the first book of a series of four My Brilliant Friend.