“Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Are your personal relationships bringing out the best in you? Are they making you a better person? Do you find yourself feeling uplifted, encouraged and emotionally supported by your family and friends?

Certainly, the quality of our friendships and close personal relationships varies across our social networks. The quality of our relationships have long been shown to influence various aspects of our psychological and physical health. Researchers often refer to the high quality relationships as those high on social support [1]. Connecting with others has lots of positive consequences for one’s ‘biological profile’, whereby people with high quality relationships have lower markers for cardiovascular and immune system problems [2]. Good relationships, in addition to making us feel good, are also important for our health and longevity [3].

Richard Boyatzis, a professor of psychology and organisational behaviour, contrasted high-quality relationships with low-quality relationships in his work on leadership. Extending on work done on personal relationships, he highlights that different quality relationships are also evident in the workplace. High-quality relationships are ‘resonant’ in nature, whereas poor-quality relationships are ‘dissonant’. We may share a resonant, positive relationship with one boss — a relationship characterised by mutual trust and respect. This relationship may be constructed with a more dissonant, conflict-prone relationship with another boss [4].

Boyatzis states that the key difference between these relationships is due to a different underlying neurological mechanism that trigger when we form connections with others. When asked to recall experiences and memories with resonant leaders, participants in one study showed activation in parts of the brain associated with positive emotions. Recalling memories of dissonant leaders triggered parts of the brain linked with avoidance, decreased attention, compassion and, generally, the experience of negative emotions [5]. Our brains react to and remember the quality of relationships we have with others. Emotions are central to both encouraging us to approach and connect with certain people, while avoiding others.

Developing positive relationships

Boyatzis and his colleagues propose that leaders be mindful of their relationships with their followers. One such way is to develop more positive, encouraging forms of coaching. For the leader, this means encouraging a growth mindset by asking followers to envision their best possible selves, and by offering compassionate responses that help them grow. The same could apply to personal relationships. We can begin by asking ourselves, “Am I mindful about how I interact with my friends and family? Do I react positively and encouragingly when they share good news with me?”

Indeed, by reacting negatively — when we respond passively, and critically towards another’s good fortune — we may be damaging our connections and overall relationship with that person [6]. When we downplay our friend’s recent promotion by saying things like, “Well, that’s great, but you know, Gary has recently won a really prestigious scholarship award”, we’re not resonating with positivity in our relationships. We should strive to be mindful about how we come across to our friends, how we interact with and support them. Of course, we need not expect that all of our relationships are resonant — or even that they should all be resonant — but we can certainly reflect and be more mindful of whether we are partly contributing to how our family and friends are treating us.

Reacting and responding

It’s beneficial to be mindful of the connections we have with colleagues, friends and family. Are we being mindful of how we relate to them? What could we do to move neutral, normal relationships to more resonant ones? Perhaps more importantly, what can we do with dissonant relationships? Avoiding the dissonant relationship may seem like an easy solution, but it does little to resolve any further potential conflicts.

One part of mindfully assessing one’s relationships is to consider your relationships more holistically. Consider one dissonant relationship, and think about the person’s background and circumstances, along with all other factors which may shape how this person interacts with you. A mindful assessment of personal relationships is to not take them personally, or at least at face value. Think about your own reactions and responses to individuals with whom you don’t like very much. Do they remind you of someone you had a run-in with before? Have you heard rumours that they have something against you? All of these conceptions shape your emotions which, in turn, shape how you respond to others.

Being mindful when relating to others has been shown to be useful in close relationships. Married couples, for example, were better able to identify and communicate each other’s emotions and regulate their anger more effectively [7]. Being mindful also enhances friendships, with one recent study suggesting that friendship quality and subjective vitality were both enhanced when participants reported higher levels of emotional and cognitive mindfulness [8]. Mindfulness is that crucial element that helps us fine-tune our interactions, helping us connect meaningfully, and resonantly with others.

References

[1] Uchino, B. N., Cacioppo, J. T., & Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (1996). The relationship between social support and physiological processes: a review with emphasis on underlying mechanisms and implications for health. Psychological Bulletin, 119(3), 488-531.

[2] Uchino, B. N. (2006). Social support and health: a review of physiological processes potentially underlying links to disease outcomes. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 29(4), 377-387.

[3] Heinrichs, M., Baumgartner, T., Kirschbaum, C., & Ehlert, U. (2003). Social support and oxytocin interact to suppress cortisol and subjective responses to psychosocial stress. Biological Psychiatry, 54(12), 1389-1398.

[4] Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2013). Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope and Compassion. Harvard Business Press.

[5] Boyatzis, R. E., Passarelli, A. M., Koenig, K., Lowe, M., Mathew, B., Stoller, J. K., & Phillips, M. (2012). Examination of the neural substrates activated in memories of experiences with resonant and dissonant leaders. The Leadership Quarterly, 23(2), 259-272.

[6] Gable, S. L., Reis, H. T., Impett, E. A., & Asher, E. R. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of personality and social psychology, 87(2), 228-245.

[7] Wachs, K., & Cordova, J. V. (2007). Mindful relating: Exploring mindfulness and emotion repertoires in intimate relationships. Journal of Marital and Family therapy, 33(4), 464-481.

[8] Akin, U., Akin, A., & Uğur, E. (2016). Mediating Role of Mindfulness on the Associations of Friendship Quality and Subjective Vitality. Psychological Reports, 119(2), 516-526.

 

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