The 7 keys to building positive relationships

Building positive relationships can go a long way to improving our emotional wellbeing and our general quality of life.  Sometimes this is easy and we just “click” immediately with someone.  Sometimes, however, it takes a bit of work and when this is the case, it helps if we understand the basics of what underpins positive relationships between people.  The seven principles I’m going to outline here are influenced by the work of Robert Cialdini, whose theory of influence is based on six key principles: reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, authority, liking and scarcity.  It also incorporates lessons I have learned from broader study and my experience of life in general.

Understand the other person’s world view

Much to my surprise Cialdini never mentions this, but in my opinion, it’s the single most important factor in building positive relationships with people.  Everyone acts in the best way they can according to their world view.  That’s true of all people in all situations, even with regard to the most annoying and anti-social behaviours and the most hideous crimes.  You can fundamentally disagree with a person’s world view but you do need to make the effort to understand it if you are to have any hope of building any sort of positive relationship with them.  The good news is that it’s often possible for people with widely differing world views to find enough points of commonality to get along very well.

Initiate and reciprocate positive behaviours

If you want to build a good relationship with someone, then you should make every effort to initiate the sort of behaviour you would like them to reciprocate.  You should also reciprocate positive behaviours.  The challenge for most people (including me) is to avoid the temptation to reciprocate negative behaviours.  When someone is doing something you consider to be annoying (or worse) and, particularly, if you believe (or know full well) that they are doing it deliberately, it can be really tempting to “give them a taste of their own medicine”, but resist.  If need be, deal with the behaviour in an appropriate way, but resist the temptation to copy it.

Commit and be consistent

People need to know where they stand if they are to have confidence in you, which is a prerequisite for a positive relationship.  If you want to build positive relationships with others then  you need to keep an honest eye on your own behaviour towards them, including whether you’re sending them conflicting signals.  In other words, if you’re having an issue with someone else’s behaviour, think about whether or not something you are doing could be triggering it.  Given that it can be very difficult to assess your own behaviour objectively, it can be good to get a second opinion from someone you trust.

Demonstrate how a relationship supports another person’s values

Cialdini spoke about the principle of social proof and this is the same sort of idea.  People are driven by their values (and beliefs) and hence if you want to build a positive relationship with them, you have to demonstrate that this relationship is in line with those values.  The more you can align the relationship with the values, which drive them, the easier it will be to build it and the stronger it may ultimately be.  It’s important to note here that there can be a huge gulf between behaviours but a fair degree of commonality in values.  For example, a vegan and a meat eater may seem polar opposites, but if the meat eater only eats meat which has been produced to high welfare standards, then there is scope to find common ground in that both parties value animal welfare.  There are basically only two ways to convince someone of anything.  One way is to appeal to the heart and the other is to appeal to the head.  Generally speaking, emotional arguments are far more powerful than logical ones, however many people will want to see some level of objective support for an emotional argument because they understand, even if only subconsciously, that emotions can be manipulated. 

Foster trust and show you are worthy of it

This is my interpretation of Cialdini’s point about authority.  In my opinion, authority is ultimately based on trust.  Voluntarily recognizing someone’s authority (as opposed to having it foisted on you as can happen in the world of work) means that you accept that someone has more knowledge and/or expertise than you in a particular area, meaning that you trust their judgement in that area.  Most adults learn that there is a big difference between confidence and genuine authority and hence need to be reassured that when someone does assert themselves as an authority in an area, they can walk the walk as well as talk the talk. 

Find points of commonality on which you can build

Cialdini talked about the importance of being liked.  There is a lot of truth in this.  If you want to build a positive relationship with someone, it helps a lot if they like you and it helps a lot if you genuinely like them.  One of the easiest ways to build sincere liking is to look for points of likeness, i.e. to see what you have in common.

Give praise when it’s due and only when it’s due

This relates to Cialdini’s principle of scarcity.  The more frequently you praise someone, the less meaning it has and, frankly, the more it looks like flattery.  When someone has done something special, you should absolutely recognize it, but praising someone for just doing what is reasonably expected of them can actually have a negative impact on a relationship.  As a corollary to this, be prepared to be gracious about accepting praise when it is genuinely due to you, rather than just trying to brush it off, perhaps due to embarrassment at being singled out, even in a positive way. 

Final point

After many years, Cialdini identified a seventh principle of influence, which he called "the unity principle"and which basically said that the more we identified with someone else, the more that person could influence us (and vice versa).  To be honest, I personally just see this as another way of describing the importance of liking between individuals.

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