How to Build Better Relationships

Carole Robin
November 25, 2023

Think of the best relationships in your life.  What makes them so valuable, so enriching? What is happening for you when you are with one another?

One of the hallmarks of exceptional relationships is the extent to which we each feel known by the other. We may feel intimacy, trust, familiarity, acceptance and support; we may feel love.  We feel seen. We can be ourselves instead of spinning our image. And all of these depend upon knowing and being known. That’s true in our most precious personal relationships, but also (to lesser extents) in our work life, family life, and everyday interactions.

Developing our capacity to know others and allowing ourselves to be known by them—along with the learning and growth that follows—is at the center of interpersonal mindfulness.

As human beings, all of us have, in a sense, two “antennae.” One receives signals from our external world, and the other observes what is going on for us internally. They both play important roles in our ability to be interpersonally effective and build functional and meaningful relationships. In listening to both, you are more likely to act in ways that best fit the situation and your collective needs, as well as to truly connect—especially across differences.

Mindfulness is a way to keep those antennae highly tuned. It tunes the external antenna to listen closely, and to regard every interaction as an opportunity to learn, rather than as a threat or challenge. And it tunes the internal antenna to the small movements of mind, heart, and body that inform us how we are feeling.

The more I notice my feelings and remain curious about what is happening for you, the more we are going to learn about ourselves, each other, and our dynamic. And that’s either going to help us get closer, trust each other more, and connect more deeply. Or it’s going to distance us and cause us to trust each other less.

Feelings, after all, are loaded with data. They give meaning to facts. They indicate the importance of something. If I tell you I just got back from a great trip, for example, you don’t learn nearly as much about me as you would if I told you that I felt deeply satisfied because of how connected I felt to my husband while we were traveling. 

Feelings also help us de-escalate potential conflicts. They’re an early warning system. Lower intensity feelings such as irked, worried, disappointed, and unappreciated, when expressed early, might be less likely to escalate into enraged, terrified, miserable or rejected.

And yet, because so many of us have been socialized to suppress our feelings, especially in business, we end up feeling less known.  We give others more opportunities to make up stories about us (the less I disclose, the more you will fill in the blanks).  And we are less likely to surface “pinches” that eventually build up and turn into “crunches.”

Interpersonal mindfulness is a way of counteracting this socialization and becoming more in touch with our feelings, more vulnerable with others, and more able to listen to what others are telling us.

When we listen to what our bodies are telling us, we become more in touch with our feelings. This expands our choices. For example, if you say something that “triggers” me and I’ve learned to notice and name my feelings, I’m less likely to respond in a defensive and kneejerk way that could shut you down. Instead, I can explore what’s happening for me and you, so we can both learn more and “be” with each other before diving into “doing.” To the extent we do this, we also encourage others to help us become more aware of the impact our behavior is having on them.

Similarly, by sticking with what we know right now—our feelings in the moment, as opposed to others’ motives—we are more likely to decrease defensiveness and engage in productive problem solving. By remaining curious, we can stay engaged with what’s going on here and now. 

Ultimately, interpersonal mindfulness can be profoundly empowering.  We can experience a higher degree of choice in how we communicate and interact with others, and we can learn to accept what we can and can’t control. This can help us connect more deeply, build more robust relationships, and open ourselves to more learning and growth. 

Carole Robin is the co-founder of Leaders in Tech, and, alongside David Bradford, taught the most popular elective course at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Officially, the name of the course is Interpersonal Dynamics, but everybody calls it “Touchy-Feely.” Together, Carole and David have written the new book, Connect: Building Exceptional Relationships with Family, Friends, and Colleagues.

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