Nothing makes for a rich, fulfilling life quite like really great relationships. Our bonds with family members, friends, and (to a surprising extent) coworkers provide support, love, joy, and companionship and foster personal growth. They are vital to our emotional and even physical health. But have you noticed the quality of your relationships might be declining? And have you asked yourself why? Chances are, you're just not putting in the time and effort it takes.
If anything has made a difference in my life, it's the really close relationships I've enjoyed. Yet such relationships seem harder to achieve now. As we've gotten more "connected" (in the Facebook sense), we've somehow gotten less connected (in the human sense).
For example, when was the last time you spent an entire day—or even a whole weekend—with your best friend? Or asked a business associate out to lunch rather than saying, “Oh, connect with me on LinkedIn?”
Relationship atrophy happens for a variety of reasons, but much of the blame can be laid at the feet of 21st century realities. For one thing, we're all seriously overcommitted. For another, while technology is a highly useful tool, it encourages a culture in which we spend more time documenting and recording rather than fully experiencing life.
We trick ourselves into believing that our social media connections are "relationships" when (let's face it) they are not. And of course, when we're using up all our time doing all these things—photographing, posting, updating, reading updates—it's impossible to be having dinner with someone.
So if you're feeling the depressing effects of this relationship deficit, what's to be done about it? Well, plenty. The first step is to take part in what I call the "Bring Back REAL Relationships" project. (Don't worry, there's no joining fee.)
What gets focused on gets done. That's why I'm urging women everywhere—men, too—to focus on the state of their relationships this summer. This begins with realizing that great relationships are not a luxury but an important human need. And the rest of it is just a matter of making a conscious effort to change your patterns.
When you ask a friend you haven't seen in a while to meet at the coffee shop, expect some confusion or even worry. But once she realizes you're not going to hit her with some bad news—or worse, try to sell her on your pyramid marketing scheme!—she'll be thrilled you took the initiative. Here are a few tips for getting started:
- Know that while there's nothing wrong with technology, it should supplement (not dominate) your relationships. This is equally true in friendship and in business. Easier and faster isn't better. Real relationships demand that we spend more time face to face or at least having actual phone conversations than we do Facebooking and texting. Most of us have the ratios reversed.
- Make a pledge to spend (i.e., waste) less time on social media. It's amazing how much time gets eaten up posting photos and updates and looking at others' photos and updates. While we surely don't mean for it to happen, this activity consumes hours of time each day. To break the habit, I suggest setting limits—say, one or two hours a week. This will prevent you from getting 'lost' and wasting time in the virtual world that you could be spending on nurturing real-world relationships.
- Remember that face time always trumps Facebook. No matter how many photos and updates friends see, there is no substitute for an in-person visit. And if distance and finances make that impossible, a phone call is the next best thing. When you're tempted to post something on Facebook or Instagram, think twice: Instead, call a friend and TELL her about your trip to the beach, or your kid winning the spelling bee, or the great new restaurant you discovered.
- Reach out and touch someone. (There's a reason it's not reach out and text someone.) Yes, texting is convenient, but really it's nothing more than an exchange of dry facts. A phone call yields details about your friend's life and creates opportunities to connect emotionally. We text because we feel we don't have time for a conversation. But be honest: Don't you have ten minutes while washing dishes or folding laundry? The payoff for this tiny investment of time can be huge.
- Reserve some news just for a few close friends. Meaningful information about your life is the currency for relationships. When you blather your business all over social media, it ceases to be special anymore.
- Let yourself be vulnerable. One of the problems with social media is that it encourages us to put our best face forward, always. Yet vulnerability helps bond people. We just like spending time with people who don't hide behind a flawless façade. People who pretend to have perfect lives just aren't that interesting—and they may even be annoying.
- Bring back the lost art of letter writing. This notion may seem outlandish in the "easy" days of high-tech communication, but the rarity of letters is what makes them so effective. The time and thought it takes to craft a handwritten letter really says, "I'm thinking about you." Plus, letters are fun to get. Even a well-chosen card with a short but meaningful note is incredibly powerful. I love personal cards. Sadly, people just don't send them anymore, which makes the few I get even more special.
- If you haven't seen your "best friend" in a year, make a date now. We can insist all day that we cherish someone but if we won't go out of our way to see her, is it really true? Have you ever heard the line “Show me your calendar and your checkbook and I'll show you your priorities”?. It's so true. And no matter how busy you are—and yes, I know you're busy, we all are—there's no way every day of the year is so booked up that you can't find a few hours to hang out with a dear friend.
- Plan regular weekend getaways with girlfriends. Spa trips and beach vacations are great, of course, but if you can't afford that, an overnight stay in a nearby city can work wonders for your relationship. When you can stay up into the night chatting, you delve into deeper territory than if you have to eat dinner while watching the clock and then race home to the kids. And speaking of kids: Don't bring them. This is a getaway, remember.
- Include a friend in something you're already doing. (Exercise is always good.) This is a great way to integrate relationship building into an already jam-packed life. For instance, you might invite your friend to join your Zumba class, or have her meet you at the rec center for a power walk while your kid is at baseball practice. If it's a recurring event, so much the better—she will become part of the fabric of your life, and the regular doses of time together will deepen your friendship.
- Make birthdays special (not obligatory). Facebook messages or texts don't count. Neither does grabbing the first card you see at the drug store. Put a little thought into it. You don't have to buy an expensive gift, but a book you know she'd like is great. Sharing a bottle of her favorite Chardonnay after work is even better. A small token that says, “I know who you are or what you like,” or a few hours stolen from a hectic week that says, “Your special day deserves my undivided attention,” can mean a lot.
- Make a big deal out of your friends' important milestones. Whether you're celebrating good news (a promotion or a new home) or expressing sympathy over not-so-good news (a divorce or the loss of a loved one), go out of your way to acknowledge what has happened. Set aside an evening to make a phone call that you don't try to rush. Or send a thoughtful letter. Or take her out to dinner. The idea is to let your friend know, “This is important to you, so it's important to me.”
- That thing that's been bothering you about your friend? Get it out on the table. No one is saying to be confrontational. But also don't allow your worries to go unspoken or for resentments to fester. Withholding your genuine feelings puts up a wall between people. Real relationships can handle the truth. They'll be richer and deeper for your bravery.
- In business relationships, sincerely seek out what you can do to help the other person. Rather than asking, in effect, "What can you do for me?" ask, "What can we create together?" This is the essence of what I call Connecting 2.0. You're creating a dynamic that works better, and feels better, than the shallow, self-serving business card exchanges that most people think of as networking.
- Sure, connect with people on LinkedIn. But call them when you do. Sure, LinkedIn is a valuable tool for connecting with colleagues and looking for jobs. Yet too often we use it as a quick and easy substitute for true relationship building. Go ahead and reach out on LinkedIn or even ask for a recommendation—but don't let that be all you do. Call and ask first. It will make an impact and you will be remembered. No one ever does this so it will really set you apart.
- Yes, email is convenient, but for complex problems, pick up the phone (or even meet in person). There is absolutely no substitute for the "give and take" of a conversation to clarify crucial issues, resolve misunderstandings, and innovate solutions. Plus, regular conversations add a deeper dimension to your business relationships that may serve you well in the future.
- With friends, family, and biz associates, get mindful. Tune out all distractions and really focus on what the other person is saying. Don't just half-listen or go through the motions. Often when we're talking to another person our mind wanders. Doesn't it? Instead of giving her our full attention, we may be focusing on what we're going to say next or formulating our own story to try to trump hers. It takes conscious work to break these bad habits, but it can be done.
- From time to time, take "work" friendships out of the office. We spend so much time with coworkers that it's natural to develop a strong bond (with some more than others, admittedly). But even if you both love your job, talking about work projects all the time can make for a pretty one-dimensional relationship. Shake things up by meeting for after-work drinks or having dinner now and then (and don't let the conversation drift back to the office).
- Once in a while, show up in person at the bank, or the insurance office, or the accounting firm. Sure, you can often handle this business over the phone but don't settle for impersonal transactions every time. These are relationships that really can have a big impact on your life, so it just makes sense to nurture them. Your banker, your insurance rep, your accountant—they all have a professional interest in serving you, but they'll almost certainly do a better job for those they like. We all do this.
Here's the thing: It's natural to want to improve efficiency, to conserve our energy, to make our lives easier and less stressful. It probably has something to do with the survival instinct. Yet a great life is about more than survival—and when we neglect relationships, we're cheating ourselves of the full human experience.
Great relationships take time and effort. But living without them is like living without bright colors, or ice cream, or music. Sure, you could do it, but why would you want to? iBi
Nancy D. O'Reilly, PsyD, is an author of Leading Women: 20 Influential Women Share Their Secrets to Leadership, Business, and Life and founder of Women Connect4Good, Inc. For more information, visit drnancyoreilly.com.