How to Save a Relationship and Get Engagement at Work or at Home

Got a person you’re struggling with? Want a simple method for better communication? Snickers, my cat, taught me the key to salvage a relationship, whether at work or at home. This one thing she does will help you build engagement with colleagues, co-workers, customers, constituents and loved ones.

Relationships tips and communication skills

Here’s what she does: As soon as she sees my son head for the stairs to our basement, Snickers runs over and sticks her paw through the railing. When her paw appears, Brett reaches through to scratch her head and pet her back. Then she flops on her side and rolls around to get her belly rubbed. (You may want to skip the belly-rubbing with some people.)

It’s now a game. She initiates it, Brett responds and she wiggles around in delight. The more they engage in this ritual, the more my son expects it and actually gets quite a kick out of it. She makes a “bid” for his attention and he falls for it every time. I don’t know how she’d cope if one day he didn’t respond.

THE KEY: RESPOND TO “BIDS”

“Bids” for attention can strengthen relationships when they result in a positive response. When we say something to another person, place a phone call, send a text, email or letter, we usually want a reply. It sets up a give-and-take exchange that meets our social needs for human connection and validation.

Just like Snickers, we all want our bellies rubbed (figuratively speaking of course). It fires up those endorphins, builds trust and leads to relationship retention. Some people want more of it than others. Some are downright needy and tire people out. But most of us have a set point based on reasonable expectations.

interpersonal communication

Basically, people want recognition. That doesn’t mean they are fishing for compliments or a plaque on the wall. They want to know that somebody “sees” them – that they matter. And the more we respond to those bids, the better results we get in terms of acceptance, cooperation and engagement. Socially astute people learn how to fulfill this human need and as a result, win friends and become a welcome addition to the neighborhood BBQ.

Those who ignore someone’s “bid” may discourage the other person from making an effort in the future. They could interpret the lack of response as apathy or flat out rejection. The more often this occurs, the less likely the relationship will survive.

RESEARCH AND BENEFITS

People are people and human behavior is pretty predictable, whether you’re dealing with someone at work or at home. Studies of successful marriages have found that couples who divorced six years later had responded to bids only 33% of the time, while those who stayed married had positively responded to bids 86% of the time.

The more often we engage, the stronger our relationships. And the stronger those social connections become, the longer we live, as described in The Longevity Project by Howard S. Friedman, Ph.D and Leslie R. Martin, Ph.D. This eight-decade study tracked the loves and lives of 1500 Americans from childhood to death.

The way in which we respond is also important. Delivering lukewarm, unenthusiastic comments can kill a relationship about as quickly as no response at all. Read about the four styles of responding to others in this article.

Reciprocity rules! Positive responses build good feelings and encourage people to open up and offer more of themselves. And reciprocity is one of the seven laws Dr. Robert Cialdini explores in his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Positive responses show you are enthusiastic, interested, supportive and encouraging. It sets up a chain reaction that moves us to higher ground together.

HOW TO AVOID MORALE PROBLEMS

So often I hear people say they have communication problems within their organization, which usually leads to morale problems. Chances are, it’s because some folks don’t realize how important it is to let others in on the backstory. Maybe they don’t believe there’s a strong enough “need to know.” But as Simon Sinek explains in his TED talk on the Golden Circle, understanding the “why” is crucial to better leadership and also better branding.

To improve your organizational or personal brand in the eyes of others, explain yourself now and then. Don’t let people guess. Don’t force them to make up their own story about your motivations, otherwise you may not come out on the better side of that story. Once people understand the “why” behind your motivation, they tend to be more tolerant and cooperative. But keeping it to yourself can be perceived as arrogant and unfeeling. No wonder morale problems occur!

4 WAYS TO AVOID TROUBLE

Relationship Cure by Dr. John Gottman

Dr. John Gottman, author of The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family and Friendships, is an expert in predicting which couples are prone to divorce. After studying thousands of couples, he identified four things that doom relationships. I’m willing to bet these four behaviors may also have a bearing on how successful we are with people at work as well as those we live with. They are:

Criticism: when someone says their partner’s personality or character as the problem. (Based on Gottman’s research, this is something women tend to do more than men.) Before we open our mouth, consider whether the thing we’re about to say is based on a minor irritation or is it something more serious. Is it worth the cost of damaging the relationship to voice this concern? Will the world stop or somebody die if the behavior continues? I’ve written about a way to raise an issue using a non-critical approach here.

Defensiveness: counterattacking, whining or responding like a victim. When we’re attacked or criticized, instincts kick in and we try to protect and defend ourselves. But the more we protest, the more likely we are to: 1. not hear what the other person is saying, 2. not learn how to do things better in the future and 3. reject the other person’s opinion which can undermine the relationship. It’s hard to stay objective under these circumstances and it takes practice. Sometimes a simple, “Thank you for the information. Can I get back to you on this?” is all that’s needed.

Contempt: acting like you’re a better person than they are. (This is the #1 predictor of breakups.) This can also occur as we talk about the other person to a third party. Acting morally superior is usually a telltale sign.

Stonewalling: shutting down or tuning out. It implies “I don’t care.” (85% of the time it’s the men who do this.) There’s very little belly-rubbing going on here. Closing the door to interaction can make things worse. While sometimes tuning out is a way to avoid saying or doing something you’ll regret, neglect is a dangerous place to go. Stonewalling can also be a passive-aggressive way to get back at the other person.

IN SUMMARY

Respond in positive ways to the bids for attention you get from colleagues, co-workers, customers, spouse or family members to strengthen relationships. Research studies also prove that if you avoid the four deadly behaviors of contempt, defensiveness, criticism and stonewalling, your marriage (and likely other connections) will last longer. Don’t default to a position of neglect or apathy. Put in a little consistent effort if you want the people in your life to stick around. Err on the side of communicating too much.

Next Steps: Know of someone who’s at risk of ruining a relationship at home or at work? Help them out and forward this article.