Healthy relationships help us meet our basic needs. How can this be? Matthew Lieberman, a UCLA neuroscientist, explains it perfectly in his TED talk. He gives an example that infants and young children rely on crying to pull at the heartstrings of an adult capable of providing them with food, water and shelter.
With this in mind, how do we establish and maintain positive relationships? Healthy relationships require empathy, communication, and a capacity for trust.
Build Your Empathy Muscle
Empathy is the ability to relate to another person’s thoughts and feelings through imagination. Empathy differs from sympathy because it is an understanding rather than a sharing of emotion. This is important in relationships because empathy motivates us to help others, inhibits aggression and encourages cooperation, all of which are key factors for bonding. With practice, empathy can be developed, just like a muscle.
- Look for ways you are similar to others. Recognition of basic similarities such as having the same birth month or liking the same color establish empathy.
- Experience life differently. For example, grocery shop on half your normal food budget for a month, attend church of a different religion, use only public transportation for one week, or work a 60+ hour week.
- Be more observant. Spend time watching people. How do they respond to their environment? What does their body language say?
- Laugh at yourself. Recognize and be open about imperfections. Being imperfect is one thing you will always have in common with others.
Learn to Listen
On a daily basis, we engage in conversation. However, it does not always mean we are communicating. Communication is an exchange of information, which can only take place when it includes active listening. Active listening means focusing on the words and meaning of what someone is saying. More often than not, we anticipate what will be said and begin to mentally prepare a response. Improve active listening skills with these techniques.
- Make eye contact. Observe body language to add depth of understanding.
- Find comfort in silence. Pause before responding to allow the brain time to process.
- Set aside your emotions and empathize with theirs. Pause, take a few deep breaths, consider their point of view, and then speak.
- Summarize what you heard. Repeat, in your own words, what you heard. It demonstrates active listening. At the very least, the speaker has an opportunity to correct misinterpretations.
Relationships are built in circular patterns and require practicing good communication skills and empathy to establish trust. With trust comes greater commitment. In turn, commitment heightens the desire for communication to maintain a strong, healthy relationship.