“Few people are mind readers. Let them know they matter.” — Dr. Christopher Peterson
Developing high-quality relationships is critical to a happy, healthy, and resilient life. High-quality relationships provide four key benefits (and have been positively associated with feeling psychologically safe at work)—they are empowering, they provide a sense of trust, they enable you to be your authentic self, and they are built on respect.
At work, having high-quality connections leads to quantifiable gains in performance. Workplace friendships are one of the strongest predictors of productivity, and those people who say that they have strong, supportive colleagues at work get sick less often, are more focused, are more loyal to their organizations, and change jobs less frequently.
Good relationships make you more resilient to stress and literally impact how well (and how fast) you age. I have long been a fan of Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel’s research on the impact stress has on your telomeres, the repeating segments of noncoding DNA that live at the ends of your chromosomes and shorten each time your cells divide. Importantly, telomeres help determine how fast your cells age and when they die. Blackburn and Epel’s research reveals that stress and other factors accelerate the shortening process, and thus speed up aging. When it comes to relationships, good friends help to protect your telomeres. Conversely, mixed-quality relationships (a relationship with both positive qualities and less helpful interactions) are related to shorter telomeres.
It’s important to be aware of who you surround yourself with, as your connections directly influence your happiness. Research shows that social networks have clusters of happy and unhappy people within them that reach out to three degrees of separation; each additional happy friend increases your probability of being happy by about 9 percent. This is because emotions are contagious. “Mirror neurons” in your brain literally catch another person’s mood, much like catching a cold.
So how do you make your relationships more resilient? Here are five strategies you can apply at home and at work, across the spectrum of your relationships:
1. Be there when things go right.
Human beings are hard-wired to notice and remember negative news and events. That’s why you stand at the ready when your partner says, “I have a problem.” But what do you do when your work colleague, partner, or child says, “I’ve got great news”? How you respond to good news is as important for the health of a relationship as how you respond to bad news. Killing the conversation by offering a short acknowledgement (“Hey, that’s great”), hijacking the conversation by making it about you (“I’m training for the marathon, too!”), or poking holes in the good news (“Are you sure you really thought that through?") are quick ways to weaken a relationship.
2. Have hope.
When my ex-fiancé and I broke up years ago, three months before our wedding, I was devastated. It was a time in my life when I felt truly lost and without hope. Whether you’re dealing with a sick child, contemplating a divorce or breakup, or wondering how you’re going to pay the bills, resilient relationships require hope.
The three elements of hope include having goals (identifying pathways), feeling empowered to shape your daily life (remembering where you have control, influence, and leverage), and identifying multiple avenues toward making your goals happen (think of the obstacles and ways around them). Hope has been shown to be a strong predictor of life satisfaction, and even called a "symptom" of happiness.
3. Be an active listener.
I once read that many conversations have two modes: talking and waiting to talk. Recently, I co-led a workshop for 80 medical students, and we asked them to pair off. We told one of the partners to talk about a topic for one minute straight. The other partner simply had to be present and listen. At the end of the exercise, many reported that it felt really weird not being able to interject something, but they all remarked that they retained much more of the story.
4. Reframe your thinking during tough times.
When a relationship hits a rough patch, it can be easy to think pessimistically. Thinking optimistically doesn’t mean you ignore the bad; rather, it’s about being realistic. Optimistic thinkers are able to identify solutions that haven’t yet been tried and immediately think about what they can control, influence, or leverage. One question I always ask myself during tough times is, “Will I still be dealing with this problem in the next month or year?” Sometimes the answer is yes, but often it’s no, which helps give me some perspective.
5. Practice empathy. The ability to understand another person’s experiences and emotions is a powerful relationship tool. In addition to promoting forgiveness, empathy is also a hallmark of resilience. Empathetic people tend to be less selfish and have a genuine interest in the well-being of others.
Relationships are such a vital part of your health and well-being that it’s important to spend time making sure they are as resilient as possible.
Paula Davis-Laack, JD, MAPP, is a lawyer turned stress and resilience expert. Having burned out at the end of her law practice, she now works with organizations and individuals to build stress resilience.