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Building Better Relationships

The Original Social Network

Interpersonal relationships are unquestionably one of the strongest assets that any of us have. They are sources of love and support, avenues for employment opportunities, new adventures, and more. Regardless of how hermit like we feel, the ways we move through the world and how we interact with the people we meet in it make fundamental impacts on our life.

As we increasingly slide through the digital age, it can be hard to keep these relationships up. Younger generations are more frequently experiencing social anxiety and uncertainty with how to communicate in face-to-face situations. Older generations continue to be prone to social isolation. COVID-19 pushed everyone inside and away from each other, creating millions of tiny islands withing broader communities that made it harder than ever to keep up our social ties.

This makes it all the more important that we nurture our relationships and keep our interpersonal skills polished.

Introversion and Social Experiences

Especially with the rise of the Meyers Briggs test and people trying to figure out which 4 letter acronyms best describes their life, people have taken to sorting themselves into classes not just based on whether they are an introvert or extrovert, but just how much of that thing they are. Perhaps I read too much into things, but a common theme that I see is with the introverted groups conflating their status with a lack of ability to deal with social situations.

This does not have to be the case.

Introversion is defined by the inclination for inward comfort – daydreaming and introspection, solace in their own company, and even exhaustion in social interactions. Their internal batteries are recharged with quiet escape from the noise and revelry. What people are often referring to when the think of introverts and avoidance of people is being shy. Shyness and aversion to social interaction is a behavior that can be learned or modified. Introversion is a motivation – the driving factor that people feel in how much and how deeply they wish to engage in social activity.

This is important to realize, because it can help people unshackle themselves from the feeling that they simply cannot develop stronger social ties because of some internal thing that is a part of their being. It can be true that an introvert may have a harder time adjusting to a social environment than an extrovert, but the focus is that they adjust (and enjoy!) differently. That doesn’t make it wrong or any less fun.

Anyway, the point in this bit is simple: Don’t label yourself in such a way that you preclude yourself from engaging. While you certainly don’t have to become a social butterfly, better social ties and interpersonal skills benefit everyone. Keep it on your terms.

The Basics

Interpersonal skills, like everything else, are a tool. The notorious “soft skills” that employers often list on job applications. How and where you use them will be up to you. Like any tool, they can be used in a positive way (building new friendships) or a negative way (manipulating people to get what you want). A fine line may need to be walked and considered with each new relationship, and it won’t always go well. Sometimes people just don’t mesh and their communication styles are too different to work effectively together. Still, there are some basics that you can focus on that will give a foundation from which you can work.

You Have to Care

No matter what relationship you are cultivating, you have to care. It is the most essential thing. When you care, you become invested in the success of the relationship and are more likely to spend time nurturing it into something stronger. Caring is what pushes people to reach out when they become distant, and hold onto the ties that bind them together when they are apart.

How much of that investment you put into any one relationship is entirely up to you. There will be a lot of cases where relationships are circumstantial – the thing the ties you together are the conditions which brought you there in the first place. Work, school, playgroups. When these things end, the relationship tends to go with it and it can be time to move on. It would be cheap to call these relationships of convenience, but it’s important to recognize them for what they are – chapters of your life that sometimes come to pass. While you might care deeply about them and even think back fondly on them in later years, an important counter-skill to caring is recognizing when it’s time to let something go.

Keys To Interpersonal Skills

Beyond the fundamental need to care, there are a few keys that help encourage more social success. They are:

  1. Learning to listen.
  2. Keeping Emotions in Check
  3. Building tools of influence.

These three things can make or break social interactions, and mastery of them will be powerful tools.

Learning to Listen

Above all else, this is crucial. Listening isn’t the same thing as hearing. Hearing is a passive act – taking in and mentally processing audible stimulants into sound. Listening is active. It’s opening your mind and truly holding onto what someone is telling you. When you listen effectively, you can hear the weight behind people’s words and find what is important to them. You can uncover conflicts before they become a problem. When we listen, we understand. When we understand, we can empathize and ensure that people are not just heard – but also seen.

So, if hearing is passive and something that just happens, this means that listening requires effort. Most frequently that effort manifests as suppressing our natural urges to interject by offering our own advice or telling our own stories. It is normal to want to relate through an oral tradition, but when someone else is talking, they need to be given your attention.

Beyond the need to place ourselves into the story, it’s easy to be emotionally responsive to what someone is saying. When we’re being criticized, a natural reaction is to become defensive (Especially if the other person has poor communication skills). We can become bored or distracted, losing our focus. In all of these cases, it’s best to try and focus on what exactly is being said. When you have an appropriate opportunity, look for a way to reaffirm what someone has told you – repeat it back to them, but in the way you understand. Seek clarity if you’re off base, and keep working at it until you’ve understood it fully.

The Power of Emotions and Language

Our language dictates our psychology. There is a strong connection with the words we use and how we move through and perceive the world. Likewise, the language we use can have a direct and immediate impact on our relationships. Harder language, like that which assigns blame, can cause someone to become defensive and shut you out. Sincerity can develop trust and foster interests.

While it can sometimes be appropriate to condemn or complain, there is a time and place for everything. Criticism, especially, can be a dangerous use of our language because if not handled carefully it will put people on the defensive and bring out an impulse to justify themselves. It is a natural, emotional response to a perceived attack (If you’ve ever had a political discussion online, you’ll see exactly what I mean).

On the other hand, a stronger skill to focus on first is to question, understand, and empathize. Fundamentally, most people want the same things. Despite outward differences, there is much more common ground than we realize. It’s easy to criticize, but it’s hard to care and position yourself from a place of understanding.

People are emotional by nature, all with their own motivations. Don’t feed into it.

The Power of a Good Idea

The final key is influence. The ability to spread and bolster support for ideas, causes, and suggestions. If you are able to gather influence, you will be able to have broader control over social situations and develop networks of people around common cause that expand well beyond the personal. It is in fluence that leadership rises.

It’s not actually that hard to develop more influence. It comes naturally with the building of social relationships – listening, empathy, trust. When people feel that you care about their interests with sincerity, your words and ideas carry more weight than someone who has not invested. Fundamentally, the quickest way to build influence is to want more for other people than they want for themselves. Invest yourself in the success of other people and your influence will grow naturally.

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