Difficult Relationships: 5 Easy Ways To Improve Them, Backed By Research
Sometimes your closest and most important relationships are also the most difficult. Why?
All your relationships are both cooperative and competitive.
We work together with the ones we love but we also have a bit of rivalry going on at times. It’s natural, but difficult.
That competitiveness can be why friends and loved ones can have such a positive and motivating influence on us. But it can also lead to envy and schadenfreude (taking pleasure in their misfortune.)
Sadly, neuroscience research shows the more similar we are to someone, the more likely we are to feel schadenfreude.
Neuroscience research led by Hidehiko Takahashi of Japan’s National Institute of Radiological Sciences finds evidence that the experience of schadenfreude is more pronounced the more similar the person experiencing the misfortune is to us.
And as you may be aware, sibling rivalry can extend into adulthood.
One study looked at pairs of sisters, both married. One works, the other doesn’t. What was the best predictor of whether the non-working one would get a job?
If her husband made less than her sister’s, she was likely to start going on interviews.
The power of social comparisons even extends to adult siblings. Consider two sisters. One sister works outside the home and the other does not. What influences their decision whether or not to enter the workforce? Surprisingly, the total amount of household income does not matter much. What really matters is whether their household income is more or less than their sister’s household income. David Neumark of the University of California, Irvine, found that a wife whose husband earned less than her sister’s husband is far more likely to feel compelled to work. Why? Because without her participation in the job market, her household income would be less than her sister’s household income!
This type of competition is inevitable but can hurt the relationships that matter to you most.
So how can we get closer to the people we love and make sure they feel like we’re on their side, and not a rival to be outdone?
Here’s what the research had to say…
1) Make Sure To Screw Up
People rarely show their blunders on Facebook but they certainly post pictures of beautiful vacations and updates about big promotions. And that can lead to social comparisons and envy.
Doing everything to make your life seem perfect may make you look good but it can also be a prescription for resentment.
What makes us trust people? Warmth and competence.
Research shows that people who inspire the most trust are those who exhibit two distinct traits: warmth and competence.
When all your ducks are in a row and you’re living high, you look pretty competent. But the warmth part can be lacking. What’s a good way to make sure you don’t inspire envy?
Screw up a little.
In a classic study, researchers had people evaluate three candidates. One had lousy scores, the other was nearly perfect, and the third had the same rankings as the perfect one but during the interview he spilled coffee all over his suit.
Guess who they thought most highly of? The fumbler.
Strangely enough, it turns out that they thought more highly of the high-performing person who spilled coffee than of the high performer who had been less clumsy.
Why? They seemed more approachable. They weren’t so perfect as to make people jealous.
And this is why karaoke is a great thing to do with co-workers. Embarrassing yourself makes you a lot more human.
Why does singing off-key, revealing a secret, or making a mistake build trust? As most of us have learned the hard way, karaoke can be embarrassing. But it is precisely for this reason that it can help build trust. When you sing karaoke with your friends, sometimes the louder and worse you perform, the more you bond.
(To learn how to get people to like you — from an FBI behavior expert, click here.)
So if you want to show off your new car on Facebook, don’t forget to drive your friends to karaoke that weekend. But what’s a way we can dodge envy without looking like an idiot?
2) The Crazy Question That Shows You Care
Alison Brooks of Harvard had an assistant approach people at a train station on a rainy day. Half the time she asked people, “Can I borrow your phone? I need to make an important call.”
Only 9 percent of those people agreed to help.
But with the other people the assistant said, “I’m sorry about the rain! Can I borrow your phone? I need to make an important call.”
Yes, she apologized for the rain. Something she did not cause and had zero control over. The result?
47 percent of people helped her out. That’s a 400% increase. Similar results were achieved in many different situations.
Regardless of how superfluous the apology was, as long as it conveyed care and concern, it boosted perceptions of warmth and increased trust.
Research shows that just asking people, “Is this a good time to talk?” increased compliance with requests.
Little things that show you care matter — even if they’re utterly ridiculous.
(To learn the lazy way to an awesome life, click here.)
Okay, so you’re not forgetting to show concern. But what’s something simple you can do to really improve a romantic relationship? Repeat after me… actually, scratch that: repeat after them.
3) Imitate The One You Love
When negotiators use “perspective-taking” and think about the other side’s needs, they are more likely to close deals that make everyone happy.
Simply urging negotiators to think about the other side’s interests prompted them to ask more critical “why” and “what” questions, which led to innovative solutions that met both parties needs.
Okay, but that’s business and money. We’re talking about love. But here’s what’s interesting: you know what helps you increase perspective-taking?
Mimicry. Sitting like they do, folding your hands like they do, etc.
…mimicry facilitates perspective-taking: It helps us truly understand what another person is experiencing.
Plenty of research backs this up. So can this improve a romantic relationship? Absolutely.
Ever notice that in older happy married couples the husband and wife tend to look alike? It’s true. In fact, couples tend to look more alike over time.
…research has shown that couples do look more alike than two randomly chosen people… Robert Zajonc of Stanford University took photographs of couples when they were first married and again after they had been married for 25 years. After showing the two sets of photos to objective third-party observers, he found that the couples were judged to look more similar 25 years after being married than when they were first married.
And this is due to perspective-taking and mimicry. Smile the same way for decades and the lines in your face will look alike. And this actually leads to happier marriages.
…married couples with a greater capacity to mimic each other’s facial expressions form stronger bonds. It is why couples that become physically similar over time report more joy in their marriage.
So try a little bit of mimicry — just don’t make it obvious.
(To learn the 4 rituals new neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)
So you saw that perspective-taking can help you understand others. But how can it help others understand you?
4) Ask Them For Advice
When you use perspective-taking it can really help. But how do you get others to see your perspective?
Ask them for advice.
Asking for advice is a particularly effective mechanism to get other people to take your perspective as well. As our research with Katie Liljenquist of Brigham Young University’s Marriott School has shown, when we ask others for advice, they put themselves in our shoes and look at the world from our vantage point.
But if you ask the boss or co-worker for advice, won’t you seem less competent?
Nope. Total opposite.
In a project led by Alison Brooks at Harvard, we found that people fear that by asking advice, they will appear less competent. But this is a perspective-taking failure: When we ask for advice, as long as the request is not completely obvious, we appear to be more competent. After all, we have just flattered someone by seeking their advice.
And what’s great about seeking advice is it works with almost anyone. If they’re senior to you, it shows deference. If they’re junior to you, it pays them a big compliment.
Because asking for advice signals respect, it is a strategy that works equally well up and down the hierarchy. It clearly works up the hierarchy because it shows deference and respect. But asking advice of someone below you on the hierarchical ladder — like when the boss asks a subordinate for their opinion — can have a powerful effect as well. The person below you in the hierarchy will be delighted to be acknowledged for their opinions and thrilled to have their expertise acknowledged.
(To learn what Harvard research says is the secret to being happier and more successful, click here.)
Okay, so what about when things go really wrong — as in, you did something you shouldn’t to a friend, partner or co-worker? What do you do then to stop difficult relationships from getting even worse?
5) Apologize The Right Way
There are a number of factors that improve an apology but one seems to stand way above the rest:
Promise to change.
In our own research, we have found that a promise to change is one of the most important components of an apology… Though the simple apology helped, it was the promise to change that had the most impact on how much trust their partner placed in them in subsequent rounds of the experiment.
Why are some people so reluctant to apologize? It makes them feel less powerful and causes them to lose status.
…as Tyler Okimoto of the University of Queensland has found, people who refuse to apologize feel a greater sense of power than those who apologize.
But what good is that power if it destroys an important relationship? Whenever you’re reluctant to apologize, a good tip is to try focusing on what results it might achieve as opposed to who is right or wrong.
As soon as you start to feel defensive or begin to rationalize some action that might have caused harm, take a moment of reflection. Take a step back and consider what an apology might accomplish. Even when we are justified in our actions and even when we acted with the best of intentions, there are times when an apology is the right course of action.
Have I made any typos yet? If so, I apologize and promise to change.
(To learn how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)
We’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it up and find out what these tips are really worth to you…
Here’s what you’ve learned about improving difficult relationships:
- Screw up: If you’ve been presenting too perfect an image, it’s time for karaoke.
- Show you care: Apologize for the rain if you have to. Crazy as it sounds, it works.
- Imitate the one you love: Take their perspective and turn into one of those cute old couples.
- Ask for advice: It flatters them and makes you look smarter, not dumber.
- When you apologize, promise to change: It makes a huge difference.
So what’s this advice really worth?
About $236,232 a year.
That’s what economists say a good social life and a happy marriage are worth in dollars.
So give these tips a shot. Being rich in relationships makes you pretty darn rich.
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