How to build closer relationships

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Advice from 7 TED speakers on creating better connections.
“Why don’t I feel closer to my parent/sibling/friend/co-worker?”

It’s a question that many of us have pondered at some point, and it usually comes out of our desire to feel more connected to the real VIPs in our life: that is, the people we care about, the people we share DNA with and/or the people we spend a lot of time with. There are a number of reasons — such as timing, competing commitments, differences of opinion, geography — why emotional distance can creep into the most important bonds. Here’s advice from seven TED speakers to help bridge some of them. Warning to the emotionally squeamish: Yes, we’re entering touchy-feely territory. But we can promise that none of these tips will hurt, and they could even make your relationships stronger.

1. Accept imperfection.
Brené Brown counseled patients for a decade before she began doing research. The area she chose to study? Connection. As she explains in one of her TED Talks, “By the time you’re a social worker for 10 years, what you realize is that connection is why we’re here.”

After conducting her interviews on connection, she divided subjects into two rough groups: those who had a strong sense of love and belonging and those who did not. What did people in the former group have in common? One of the most significant traits was “the courage to be imperfect,” says Brown, professor of social work at the University of Houston. “They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others.”

Think about it: At times when you’ve felt closely bonded to someone, how much were you worrying about coming across in a certain way? Conversely, at moments when you’ve been focused on someone else’s shortcomings — or your own — how close have you felt to that person? This insight can apply to different kinds of relationships, from your family to your professional colleagues. When you’re at work, for example, try to notice when a critical inner voice is keeping you from connecting with others, and also recognize how much you might gain by revealing your vulnerability.

2. Show up.
It’s not just your laptop — you probably have too many open browser tabs in your mind, too, says life coach Charnita Arora. If you doubt that, recall your last few encounters with other people you’d like to be closer to. Then, suggests Arora, ask yourself: “Do the people I love feel loved?”

The next time you’re with someone who’s important to you, Arora says to remind yourself: “I will spend these five minutes completely offering my true presence to this person.” Listen to what they’re saying, and try to refrain from judging or rehearsing what you’ll say next. Look them directly in the eyes. How do they look compared to the last time you met? What about the first time?

This is no five-minute miracle cure for achieving intimacy. After all, you can’t control other people’s browser tabs or anything else that’s going on in their minds or their lives. But you can still bring your whole self to the moments that matter.

3. Make some space for solitude.
“Solitude? I thought this story was about being closer,” you might be wondering. MIT professor Sherry Turkle, who studies technology and the self, believes alone time is essential if we want intimacy in our lives.

“Solitude is where you find yourself so that you can reach out to other people and form real attachments,” she explains. “When we don’t have the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people in order to feel less anxious or in order to feel alive. When this happens, we’re not able to appreciate who they are.” And if we can’t see them as real people, the more likely we are to look at them transactionally (more on that below) and view them as objects who can deliver us the things we want.

What’s more, spending time apart from others can give us the time we need to reflect on what matters most to us and space to recharge our creative and emotional energies.

4. Identify whether you’re a giver, taker or matcher.
Our relationships aren’t built instantly; instead, they develop and evolve from all of the interactions we have with other people. And if you want to be closer to someone, you might look at how you’re approaching these exchanges, however minor they may be. Wharton School of Business organizational psychologist Adam Grant specializes in studying workplace behavior and categorizes people into three types: Givers (people who are constantly trying to help someone), Takers (those who are focused on what they might receive from the exchange) and Matchers (those try to keep an even balance of give and take). He says, “The more often people are helping and sharing their knowledge and providing mentoring, the better organizations do on every metric.”

But this idea isn’t limited to the workplace. The more you can give to other people in any aspect of your life, the closer people will feel to you. Takers who ask “What can you do for me?” have a more difficult time building relationships because they are too self-serving and ungenerous.

Grant points to serial entrepreneur Adam Rifkin as a successful example of someone who has mastered the art of giving by doing “five-minute favors.” Finding small ways to add value to others’ lives — from making an introduction to saying a thank you and meaning it — can strengthen your bonds.

5. Give up on old grudges and outdated beliefs.
Sometimes in life, it’s not until the worst happens — death, illness, divorce, job loss — that we make it a priority to reassess our relationships, to cultivate the ones we already have and to mend ones that have been broken.

But, says wellness specialist Elizabeth Lesser, “you don’t have to wait for a life-or-death situation to clean up the relationships that matter to you, to offer the marrow of your soul and to seek it in another.” She experienced this firsthand when her sister needed a bone marrow transplant for a rare blood cancer — and Lesser was a match. The illness motivated the sisters to address their relationship with the help of therapy, uncovering years of stories and assumptions about each other, as she puts it, “until all that was left was love.”

Building closer relationships can involve the hard work of recognizing years of long-held beliefs, committing to honesty, and wiping away old grudges. But, as Lesser says, “We can be like a new kind of first responder … the one to take the first courageous step toward the other.”

6. Talk through your differences.
Particularly in today’s climate, political differences can create hard-to-mend rifts between family members, friends and colleagues. But instead of settling for relationships that atrophy and wither, it’s possible to take a cue from two friends who have tactics for making it work.

Best friends Caitlin Quattromani and Lauran Arledge have always been on opposite sides of the political spectrum, and they’ve chosen to engage in honest dialogue about topics like attending the Women’s March and voting for Donald Trump. How? By not taking the other person’s comments or opinions as a personal affront to their own values and beliefs. The two women have learned to “replace our ego and our desire to win with curiosity, empathy and a desire to learn,” says Arledge.

The essential ingredients to maintaining their bond are respect and curiosity. What’s been critical for the women is to feel — and act — as if their relationship always comes first, while elections and issues will come and go. “We have made the commitment to each other that our friendship is way more important than either of us being right or winning a conversation about politics,” says Quattromani.

7. Share something new.
Who has time anymore for hours-long phone calls or long afternoon brunches? There are so many demands competing for our attention that it’s often easy for relationships to fall to the end of the to-do list. But maintaining them doesn’t have to be exhausting.

Actress and activist Jane Fonda has found that a little attention can go a long way. She makes an effort to plan “play dates” with her friends — but between get-togethers, she’ll mails them books she thinks they’ll enjoy, giving them a new thing to talk about and a new common bond.

 

 

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