Whether it be at work, at home, with friends or family - we can all admit we have aspects of our relationships we’d like to improve. And just like any aspect of our lives we might want to change, they take work. But the rewards that come from that work can be some of the most profound we might ever make. Bettering our career prospects, life satisfaction and widening our support network. So to get an expert view on how to go about improving your relationships, we spoke to the brilliant Anna Machin. A relationship expert who has been studying the science behind human interactions for over 20 years. In this journal, we share her wisdom with you, dialling in on some common relationship issues and how to fix them.
You want to be someone people want to be around
Anna notes how this all comes down to attractiveness - and no not how hot your new hairdo looks. We’re talking about your levels of openness, how good you are at listening and mirroring others around you. A lot of this comes down to genetics and upbringing, where we often play out the sort of behaviours we’ve seen during our early years. But even if you don’t have this ‘upper hand’ there are a few things you can focus on.
- Be yourself: easier said than done, we know, but putting up a front is not only tough for you to keep up but prevents anyone from getting truly close to you.
- Be a listening ear: one that doesn’t impart judgement.
- Be open: this doesn't necessarily mean telling all to everyone you meet. But be authentically open - to a new relationship, to a variety of topics and opinions.
You want to build or rebuild your work teams’ connection
Remote and hybrid working is part of the working landscape. But how do you rebuild that closeness in your team? Anna highlights that connection is built from the amount of input we get from the people in terms of facial expressions, body language and conversation. With face to face being the gold standard in terms of connection and the number of relationship hormones it activates in the brain. So what can you do to reforge your team?
- If remote, always use cameras: the more visual input the better. Set aside time where you can connect with the team in a non-work setting too.
- If returning to the office, take it slow: understand that it might take a while for people to warm up. Focus on the fun here too - giving your team the opportunity to bond.
- Key to both of these are what Anna calls ‘bio-behavioural synchrony’: this is when both people in an interaction experience synchronised increases in the levels of oxytocin or dopamine (the love and happiness hormones). These synchronised increases promote feelings of connection and wellbeing. So doing something fun with your team either on camera or in person can really help to rebuild those bonds.
You want to have more empathy for others around you
Empathy is just as important in the office as is out - allowing us to be better leaders, friends and partners. Anna says, “empathy is about listening and stepping into the other person’s shoes without taking on that level of emotion”. And again, this is something that is somewhat genetically predisposed and also dependent on our upbringing. Linked to both the presence of specific hormone structures and also how we’ve seen people empathise around us. But how do you practice empathy?
- Understand the other person's perspective: and that’s not to say you have to totally ‘get it’, but to better understand the other person’s experiences and what may lead them to that perspective.
- Actively listen: concentrating on the conversation and the key points they’re trying to get across. Tapping in with advice or response when it’s asked for, rather than when you think you should.
- Make the interaction about them: don’t interrupt with stories of your own that may be related. To empathise you have to give them space to explain the full picture.
You want to better communicate with your partner
Finally, we have communicating with a partner. Often with close relationships, two people might have completely different communication or conflict styles. You might be very open and want to collaborate when you are in conflict, whereas your partner might feel more closed up and will take their time to communicate how they feel. Neither is inherently right or wrong, but here are some of Anna’s tips on how to bridge that gap.
- Understand your communication and conflict styles: are you to the point or more indirect, do you like to deal with conflict straight away or take your time to find the right words? Again, these may be genetically and socially predisposed, so have some empathy toward the person you’re trying to communicate with and don't make them feel bad for how they communicate.
- Meet them where they are: don’t expect things to go from 0 to 100. Be patient and allow the other person (or yourself) to open up. It might be a short conversation to start with, or even sharing that they don’t feel comfortable talking openly. Then build from there.
- If you’re the more open one, show your partner it’s safe to share: your partner may have some reservations about opening up. You have to show them with your behaviour that there are no negative repercussions for honesty - that it’s a safe space and that you won’t negatively react.
Well, there we have it - some science-backed relationship fixes. We hope you’ve found at least one takeaway to improve your connections with other people in your life. Anna goes into much more detail on the science of relationships in her talk on The Weekly, so be sure to catch that on demand. Or, if you’d like her to share your knowledge with your team or even your whole business, get in touch - Anna is available for private PepTalk bookings too.