Relationships for life

What are relationships, and how do they influence our lives? Recent studies and conventional wisdom continue to confirm that relationships are essential to our success, not only regarding survival as a species but also for our social, societal, and spiritual development. How do we become better at relationships, and what are some of the tools we need to develop better relationships?

The longest study of human behavior in modern times is the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which tracked the lives of 724 men for 78 years and has since expanded.

The primary finding of the Harvard study is that relationships (family, friends, and community) are a form of self-care and that a happy childhood, taking care of your body, learning to cope with stress, the absence of alcohol abuse and smoking, and a stable marriage made people outlive their counterparts. These factors act as protective factors—they stabilize the impact of life’s vagaries on you and mediate life’s challenges.

My research has found that entrepreneurial success depends on the five closest relationships you have. The five entities that are closest to you and their ability to advise you on the best way forward in a challenging business situation are far more likely to predict your ability to survive an entrepreneurial crisis than your bank account or business plan. If an entrepreneur is struggling to start a business, they can change their fate by changing their advisor network to people who have some idea reflective of their success. It is important to have promoters, advisors, catalysts, connectors, and enablers in your network, and you need to decide which of these roles you fulfill for yourself.

If you put enough people in a room long enough, they start seeking a purpose.

Eventually, they build perspective, map opportunities, develop a shared vision, plan a way forward, and develop a mission. If they stay connected, they then tend to achieve that mission and sometimes the vision. It seems that we are pre-programmed at a basic genetic level to need to resolve our shared purpose when we get together, and as studies show, this leads us to a place where, when we share our challenges, we all end up supporting each other and mostly turn out better off in the process.

Relationship action is the missing element. Just having a goal will never get you where you want to be, even if there are a million relationships to support it. You still need to engage in relationship action and action towards the goal.

So, the three essential drivers of life and success must then be summarized as goals, relationships, and action. Could it be as easy as that?

Okay—if we assume this, then step by step:

  1. Sit down and list all your relationships. Then establish a goal for each relationship and develop an action plan for building and developing that relationship.
  2. Sit down and list all your goals. Then establish an action plan for each goal and work out how your relationships can play a role in achieving your goals.
  3. Look at your action list from steps one and two and determine the work that you need to put into the relationships with others so that what you give is larger than what you seek to achieve.

Relationships are complex and depend on the ideas of reciprocity, association, safety, positive benefit, power, action, and perception of shared values. Many elements of our relationship mechanism are pre-programmed in our genetic fight or flight modes, and we acquire some through a predisposition to avoiding the triggers of complex or hurtful patterns that have tripped us up before. There is also increasing evidence that severe trauma seems to find its way back into our genetic code at some stage, and we tend to avoid things that have happened in generations before. Building strong relationships, then, is part of an evolutionary battle in which we have to overcome possibly deeply ingrained prejudices that we do not always understand.

Luckily, we can break the pattern that is in the genes by a simple idea—reciprocity.

One of the most powerful drivers that we have fundamentally wired into ourselves is reciprocity. The idea of respect and value is 100% linked to the reciprocity engine that each of us has hardwired into ourselves. People lose self-respect when they feel that they are receiving more than they are giving, and we all have a little bean-counter in our head that constantly works out if we have given more beans than we have received in our relationships. Our emotional bank account becomes empty when we give more than we receive, and we also build tremendous feelings of guilt when we receive more than we give. When you have that feeling that you need to do something to reciprocate, it is both important that you act on it and also be very mindful of what you accept as a gift—because you will always feel guilty if you do not return the favor. Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini describes how the reciprocity engine is constantly influencing people.

To build a strong relationship requires us to build reciprocity in our dealings with others; otherwise, we will not view our relationship over time as equitable or fair.

So how do we go about building good relationships?

Work out how you can give in a relationship. Wanting to get something out of a relationship is a surefire way of messing it up. You must give unconditionally and have no expectation that your giving must deliver a result of benefit. It may sound like you are opening yourself up to exploitation, but if you are not useful in a relationship, the relationship will eventually terminate. The ideas of the five love languages make an excellent point regarding the way that we can give:

  • Words of affirmation
  • Quality time
  • Receiving of gifts
  • Acts of service
  • Physical touch

Understand the shared meaning of a relationship. Every relationship has a shared meaning that involves a combination of seeking a higher purpose, wanting to create something together, seeking joint understanding, support through kindness, shielding from externalities and perpetuating a sense of justice and order, a shared appreciation of beauty, a sense of shared contribution—I lead in some areas, you in others, a sense of continuity/continuation, a feeling of accomplishment and recognition from time to time, a sense of consistency/predictability regarding the relationship, a level of safety on an emotional, physical, ideological, or spiritual level, a shared space, shared action, a mechanism to communicate.

Understand that conflict will happen and is required to move a relationship forward and to respond to change. Conflict must be an indication that I am expecting to get something that is not on offer. To make my expectation work, we need to establish a shared construct that negates the conflict. We need to work together on building a new construct that combines what you desire and I desire to build a shared proposition that we can both achieve. A newly shared construct is a positive way to approach conflict, but at some stage, we also need to consider the resources that we have. Unless we both buy-in, nothing will happen.

A shared expectation will only be respected if there is reciprocity of contribution. We must each do what is in our ability to get to the endpoint, else we will feel that there is no procedural justice and fairness in achieving the outcome.

Positive action. I must do what I say that I will do, to my ability. If there is some progress towards the shared meaning, we will continue to move together.

If a relationship breaks down, then double down on the effort you put in. Every once in a while, we lose touch, and our last phone call does not get returned, or we get into a fight. Take the initiative and make the call even though it may not be your turn. Go and visit and find out what is going on. The idea of doubling down on effort is the essential element that buffers the relationship and what creates a sense of dependability and depth of a relationship.

Okay—so that gives us an idea of why we need to build relationships, how we need to build relationships, and what is in the relationships. One missing question is how many?

The first step to defining how many is to understand that having a relationship and having a network is not the same thing. Having relationships and being a social butterfly is not the same thing either. We sometimes confuse being social in the sense of having a link or attending a similar event as having a relationship. This is not a good enough relationship. I believe that a good measure is that you should be able to pick up the phone to someone that you have a relationship with and have a 10-minute conversation. If that person is in town or in your neighborhood, there should be a natural instinct to spend at least 10 minutes with the person. Put that idea into your customer relationship management system and see how many real relationships your company has.

Bernard and Kilworth repeatedly found that humans have a natural limit of about 290 stable relationships. The now-famous Dunbar number for the number of stable relationships that a group can maintain is 150. Dunbar informally defines a relationship as a person that you will not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a crowd or social occasion. Interestingly, the “definition” by Dunbar includes the idea of embarrassment, which relates to the reciprocity counter in our heads. He states that this number is a direct function of the neocortex size of primates and that our brain size defines our ability to process information about these relationships. Another finding in anthropology studies seems to indicate that the size of our eyes and ears determine how much we are willing to listen, see, and otherwise interact with people—also due to the processing capability of these organs. As we get older, the number of relationships we maintain reduces as we edit and select fewer relationships that have more value and stronger contributions, compared to more and weaker relationships when we are younger.

Another finding of Dunbar’s research is that primates spend 42% of their time on “social grooming,” and this is what allows those tribes to remain together. Primates spend 42% of their time maintaining the reciprocity principle in their relationships. Language has lowered that percentage in humans as more complex communication can be achieved in a shorter time, taking some of the logistical functions of co-survival away, but we still have a need for intimacy (into-me-see), procreation, and shared meaning. A Reebok and Censuswide Survey (2015) shows that out of the 25,000 days in your entire life (an average life of 69 years), we spend about 1,769 days quality time with loved ones. That is 7% of our time on earth. Primates spend 42%, and we spend 7%. I wonder which is the smarter species?

Another key message from Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi is that you must never assume that another relationship will be more beneficial than the one you have now. I am sure we would all love to hang out with billionaires and get the latest and greatest secrets of how to make money and have a wonderful and successful life. If you choose to neglect a relationship that is important to you because you measure that another relationship may be more profitable or beneficial to you, you are missing the point. The fact that you have strong relationships with people will propel you forward. The strength of relationships puts the wind in your sails, not the specific people with whom you have these relationships. We will all share and reciprocate, and our shared meaning and value will make us happy. It is true that we may have to from time to time expand our relationship base, but it is also true that the people you went to primary school with are more likely to help you out in a pinch than the richest and most famous person on earth. Which relationship is truly more valuable?

So then the question of how much becomes one of saying:

  1. Build up your relationships one at a time. Make sure you give and put effort into the relationship and that you spend time grooming the relationship. Do what you can to make it fun, enjoyable, and beneficial (on a relational, not financial, level). Give it time and create opportunities for others to reciprocate.
  2. Realize that you can typically maintain about 150 relationships and that the number and quality of relationships that you have at the age of 50 are likely to have a massive impact on the length of your life. Also, realize that even a small number of good relationships is far better than hundreds of superficial relationships.
  3. Spend time on “grooming” and maintaining a relationship. It does not have to be regimented, but it must be reciprocal. Write a letter occasionally, make a call, visit, give a gift, and give a small gift on a birthday. Invite people to your house, spend the time to talk and to share. Spend time with people, assist with things that you know something about, and find ways to contribute to the lives of others.
  4. Mend fences. If something is broken down, engage with it and without repeating the patterns that got you there, work on your part of the fence, to the point where either the other person helps, and when you both fix the fence together, then you should have a better relationship. If you have fixed the fence, and there is still no reciprocity, then the other person has nothing to do with your life anymore, and you can move on. Let go of grudges and rewrite the past to leave it where it belongs.
  5. Realize that your friends mediate your self-image. You will see yourself through the eyes of others, and you will only know that someone is talking nonsense about you if you hear differently from other people. Your friends hold your self-image in their hands.
  6. Double down on the relationship effort and action. If you find yourself wondering about someone that you have a relationship with, contact the person immediately and find out how they are doing. Your contact reduces your anxiety and builds the value of the relationship.
  7. Relationship goals define what you can do for the relationship and not necessarily to decide what you want from a relationship.

The alternative to good relationships is loneliness and isolation. You can be lonely in a crowd. You can be single but have excellent relationships that take you forward. We tend to ostracize people who do not fit into our relationship world. There is increasing evidence that self-image, feelings of loneliness and isolation, and the stress of having to do everything by yourself are some of the major causes of illnesses. It is as if we are pre-programmed to be useful in society and as soon as we feel we are not, we get lonely, get sick, and die.

How much time do we spend on getting better at having relationships? Relationships are such a critical component of our natural lives, and yet we seldom reflect on how to have better relationships. We are good at conflict as humans because it is part of our fight or flight response, but our predisposition to use language has lowered our sense of needing to groom our relationships with others. We can change this, and to do so requires us to take time to become conscious and deliberate in our relationship-building efforts. The payoff is a longer and happier life. The downside is that we tend to live only as long as we have good relationships with others.