We’ve all experienced how hard it is to be physically separated from our loved ones—and spent most of 2020 trying to adjust our relationships to the new normal. But what about taking it one step further? Instead of just maintaining, challenge yourself to strengthen the relationships in your life. Our experts look at some ways to walk into 2021 with stronger relationships across the board, whether that’s a friend, colleague, partner, family member, or even that Facebook friend you’ve never actually talked to.
Working on your relationships can probably do a world of good to your overall health, too. “Cultivating positive connection with others will be an essential part of mental health for 2021,” says Miranda Wilcox, MA, PCC, founder, coach and consultant at Thrive Potential, LLC. “We need to mitigate the emotional toll and isolation of COVID by being intentional about whom we interact with and how we do that. Technology, which often contributes to feelings of disconnection, can also be used as a tool for building relationships. Regardless of location, the right conversation can provide a mutual sense of understanding, belonging, and commitment. Being vulnerable, encouraging openness, and providing a safe space for sharing are ways we can use conversations to deepen connection.”
So if 2020 highlighted some areas in your relationships that need some TLC, try some of these tips to start 2021 off by focusing on the relationships that are the most important to you.
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Take the time to self-reflect.
Donna T. Novak, Syd., a licensed psychologist in Simi Valley, California, emphasizes how important it is to be secure in who you are at a person—or at least striving to obtain a better understanding, combined with love for yourself. “When we are at war with ourselves, it is hard to retain and build strong relationships,” she says. Love starts with you, and only then can it flow into ourselves to let our exterior relationships grow.
Listen in a new way.
One of the things that dooms many relationships, whether personal or professional, is that we start assuming that we know the outcome of a conversation. “For example, in marriages, spouses will assume they know what their partner is about to say, so they stop listening after the start of a sentence,” says Amie Devero, president of Amie Devero Coaching and Consulting. “When we believe we ‘know’ those we spend time with, we have locked out any opportunity for surprise, discovery—and in organizations—innovation. For 2021, consider adopting the mindset of learning about them and discovering who they are and how they think,” she says. “It will transform those relationships, whether with your spouse, your dad, or your boss.”
Ask better questions.
Good questions are like small invitations in a relationship because they are a request for the speaker to go on and go deeper. “Questions are the way we show others we’re curious, we’re engaged, and we want more and—as a result—act as relational glue,” says Kate Gigax, founder of Development Corps, a leadership coaching and consulting firm. To increase the power of your questions, Gigax recommends practicing asking questions that begin with “What” instead of “Why or “How.” “Make sure your questions are truly open-ended and not a suggestion wrapped in a question,” says Gigax. “The next time someone you want to build a stronger relationship with is talking, try asking ‘What was that like?’ or “What is the best possible thing you could imagine happening?’ Not only will it prolong your conversation, but also your relationship.”
DO mix business and personal.
Okay, it totally goes against workplace 101, but that mantra may have gone out the window thanks to the pandemic. “Suddenly, our business contacts were in our homes with us (virtually), meeting our pets and our children, seeing us from a completely new perspective,” says Bri Seeley, an entrepreneur coach. “Any barriers between business and personal were instantly removed.” So instead of keeping conversations limited to professional topics, ask your business contacts how they’re navigating their work-from-home life. Ask questions to promote conversations. For example, what will their first trip be once the world re-opens? How are their kids doing with remote learning? “The more we can connect and engage with each other as humans, rather than just in transactional and formal ways, the better our relationships will become,” she says.
Plant a garden (metaphorically).
Denise P. Kalm, writer, speaker and coach with DPK Coaching, knows how important it is to do the legwork in any relationship. “You plant a seed (find someone you’d like to know better) and then fertilize, water and watch the seed grow,” she says. “There is regular maintenance required. You’ll rarely get much if you don’t put in effort. One thing I find in coaching people is that too often, getting married means they stop making an effort. The same may be true of friends or work colleagues you need to help you succeed. There’s not a moment in time when you can say ‘Ta da, I’m set.’ You have to work at it.” She models this own philosophy in her personal life. “My husband and I make sure we’ve done something for each other every day and acknowledged the person for what they’ve done,” she says. “That’s how you get the lush, resilient and happy plant you desire, one that’s there for you when you need them.”
Pay attention to your body language.
Confidence coach and body language expert Karen Donaldson believes positive body language cues are key to building stronger relationships. “When in conversation with someone, how you position your body matters,” she says. “Make sure you align your body so it’s parallel with the person you’re talking to. It shows you’re engaged in the conversation.” Slightly lean in towards the person you’re speaking with, which shows that you’re listening attentively. Finally, keep your palms open when speaking to another person. “Open palms signify openness, acceptance, honesty, and sincerity,” she says.
Explore online experiences.
Zoom isn’t just for work calls and family chats. “There is now an enormous range of experiences you can still enjoy, even from inside your home,” says Alexa Doman, a career and life coach at Alexa Doman Coaching. “There are online cooking classes, online murder mysteries as well as online beer and cheese tastings where the companies deliver the tasting products directly to your door. You can virtually take part in these with your friends or family, and share these new experiences together.”
If you went to networking events pre-COVID, you know how important it is to build your contact list and make connections in your industry. “Meeting new people is something we’ve all missed,” says Doman. “A great way to meet new people and create new professional relationships and possible friendships is via Lunch Club.” The online networking site allows you to have a short conversation with someone who has similar interests as you. It may not have the same feel as an in-person chat at happy hour, but it’s still a great way to create new connections in 2021.
Be vulnerable—and thoughtful.
It may feel challenging to open up, but this level of honesty can actually be the step in making your relationship stronger. “By opening up to a trusted friend or loved one, you will deepen your relationship,” says Linda Mueller, a certified life coach at The Expat Partner Coach. “Emotional vulnerability takes courage as there is a risk that you will be hurt, but the reward of a stronger, more intimate, relationship is worth the risk.” Just remember that being open goes both ways. If a friend mentions something they like or need help with, be thoughtful. “Use this information to buy a thoughtful gift or serve preferred food when the person visits,” she says. “Offer to help the person in a specific way and be true to your word. All of these thoughtful actions will create a bond.”
Declan Edwards, a thought leader in the field of well-being and the founder of BU Coaching, emphasizes the importance of building shared experiences and memories. “Even though 2020 threw massive challenges our way and prevented a lot of people from connecting face-to-face, there are still plenty of ways to create memories and experiences with your friends, family and romantic relationships,” he says. Whether it’s an online trivia session with friends or a simple conversation with a family member where you can share your goals for 2021, any shared memory or experience will definitely help to strengthen your relationships.
Schedule some time together…and apart.
For most of us, January is the time when we make our calendars for the year, create a schedule, and determine where our time (and our priorities) are going to be for the year. “If you’re looking to build a stronger relationship with a spouse, significant other, coworker, or family member—build them into that schedule,” says Jason Lee, relationship science and data analyst with Healthy Framework. “And when you do spend that time with them, put down the phone and focus on being present.” But if you’ve spent almost every waking moment in quarantine with the same person, the last thing you may want to think about right now is planning another at-home date night. So just like you’d schedule that date, schedule some time away from each other. Whether that’s an afternoon taking a walk by yourself or even just some time watching your favorite TV show alone, this is a great way to come back to your relationship feeling refreshed.
Double down on your close relationships.
Jeff Harry, a speaker and coach with Rediscover Your Play, encourages everyone to write down all of the people they’re close to, and then all of the people they want to have a strong relationship with. “Once you have your list, write down how you want to spend more time with each of these people,” he says. Once you figure this out, reach out to them and let them know your intentions. “Whatever you end up doing, the more you are willing to be vulnerable and the more quality time you are willing to spend with your friends, giving each other the freedom to be themselves, the higher the likelihood you’ll end up with a stronger relationship at the end of the year.”
Think about what you want.
A lot of people out there say they want stronger relationships, but few know what that means specifically. “An important step is to list the values you want in a friend, romantic partner or a professional mentor,” says Lisa Concepcion, certified professional life coach and founder of LoveQuest Coaching. “Then go inward and get real on what you have to offer in a relationship. Where do you want to learn, grow and advance? Then, think about who you can get around more. Make it a point to reach out to these people and initiate meaningful interactions.”
Connect with your acquaintances.
Concepcion believes this is a good time to look at all of your relationships, past and present, and reach out to people who “fell off.” “I’m not saying to go back to people who were toxic,” says Concepcion. “I’m talking about that social media friend who always comments on your stuff, shows support but whose voice you’ve never heard. Consider picking one social media friend and having a 30-minute conversation with them. You never know where it could lead.”
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