“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…” The seventeenth-century poet John Donne wrote these words as part of a series of meditations as he was recovering from a life-threatening illness.
While a serious illness or some other life-altering event such as the loss of a loved one, a divorce, a move to a new city may make us pause and think about the profound importance of the other people in our lives, most of us are aware that our relationships have a lot to do with how happy or unhappy we are. We know now that the ability to have good interactions with others helps define us as emotionally intelligent human beings. All models of emotional intelligence include this measure, but what can we do to enhance our interpersonal relationships?
Benefits of Strong Interpersonal Relationships in the Workplace
Satisfying human relationships can greatly enhance the quality of our lives—and this is as true in the workplace as any other aspect of our lives. Although many of us spend a majority of our time in the workplace, we may not recognize the tremendous significance of our everyday interchanges with colleagues.
In Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, acceptance and belongingness come right after the basic physiological and safety needs. When there is a culture of trust and openness in the workplace, executives, managers, and employees can all feel that they “belong,” that they are accepted, and that their contribution is significant.
But there’s more. When we feel that we are accepted and respected within the workplace culture, we can gain inspiration and support among colleagues. We can experience that distinctive enjoyment that results from being understood by another human being. And we can be pleasantly surprised at the result of interweaving our own ideas and perspectives with those of others.
Self-Actualization, Creativity, and Innovation
A sense of belonging is also necessary for a attaining a higher-level need—that of self-actualization, the ability of an individual to reach for and realize his or her potential. In today’s workplace, collaboration and teamwork are highly valued. We know that working together often leads to greater productivity and the fulfillment of an organization’s strategic objectives. But perhaps more importantly, the sense of connection to others provides individuals with a solid footing that encourages them to be creative and innovative beyond mere expectations.
So what can we do to encourage better interpersonal relationships in the workplace?
Below are some simple suggestions for increasing your ability to relate to others in the workplace. If you are seeking to enhance this competency and to raise the level of your Emotional Intelligence, try out one or two of these in your workplace environment. Then just observe the effect that your action has on your interpersonal relationships.
1. Seek to increase diversity. No, this is not a new idea. As a nation, we’ve been working at this for many years, and the numbers of women, minorities, and other underrepresented groups in the workplace have grown. But we sometimes forget just how limiting the old boy network was, and how easy it is to fall into hiring people who look and sound like ourselves. A true appreciation of diversity will include a broad spectrum of the categories we insist on placing people in—gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, culture, religion, political perspective, and educational background.
2. Make each communication meaningful. John Donne would be astonished to know how many ways we have to communicate in the 21st century. As an observer of the human heart, however, he might not be so surprised to find that despite all our technological gadgets, we are still learning how to communicate in ways that truly connect us. Try thinking of each communication in your day—whether by telephone, email, an informal chat, or a presentation at a formal meeting—as an opportunity to connect with another person. Recognize that emotions are the true currency of such communication.
3. Be curious. Developing (or perhaps it is simply remembering) our inborn sense of curiosity about people, events, and objects can greatly increase our connections to our colleagues while also broadening and deepening our perspective about the world. Every person you work with has a story. Being curious about even a part of that story—what that person at the next desk is passionate about, where that person who works down the hall went on vacation, how the hospitalization of a spouse or child has affected yet another colleague—can result in increasing your own empathy but also in building strong connections and support networks.
4. Experiment with providing appreciation, interest, and service. Expressing your appreciation of even the more or less expected work of a colleague—whether a boss, a peer, or someone you supervise—can result in much more than continued good work. The connections forged through demonstrating genuine interest or in performing acts of service for others in the workplace are in themselves valuable. By becoming interested in others, you will create new pathways for the neurons in your own brain, enriching your satisfaction and your experience of the world.
5. Share an experience that is not work-related. A team can prepare and consume a meal together. Several people can team up to introduce ideas for recycling or promoting physical fitness. Plan a brown bag lunch in which one or more colleagues shares an interest outside of work—a passion for opera, or soccer, or bird watching, or travel, or a service organization’s project. The possibilities for learning something are endless, and the connections you form with others by listening to them are perhaps even more valuable.
6. Involve others in decisions. While we may all be a bit cynical about the political polls that seem to be ubiquitous in these months before a major election, the idea of polling can help us recognize that the very act of asking people about their opinions can provoke them into thinking about an idea that they hadn’t really considered. In the workplace, asking people for their ideas and opinions, especially if they will feel the effects of a decision, can result in increased options, greater understanding of the issues, and enhanced interpersonal relationships. Of course, any decision must then be followed up with both appreciation and feedback.
7. Provide a gift of the senses . We are familiar with this idea in romantic relationships. We give flowers, candy, perfume—all intended to please the senses of the recipient. In the workplace, which is often a rather sterile environment, people appreciate those things that please their senses even in very small ways. With a bit of increased awareness, you can add pleasurable sensations that will be acknowledged at some level in others’ brains. Such “gifts” can include a smile (vision), a few flowers from your garden (smell and vision), a plate of cookies (taste), a brief touch (oh yes, we have to be careful these days—but an appropriate touch on the arm or shoulder can be powerful) , a genuine laugh, or a shared piece of music (hearing). All of these “gifts” will influence the recipients to experience positive feelings.
8. Avoid or minimize reactions to those who complain, gossip, attack, blame, or suddenly explode. It seems that every workplace has one or more of these characters. Some of them are executives, some are managers, some are employees—and all are difficult to work with. We’ve all wondered how best to deal with such people. It is worth repeating the truism here that it is not in our power to change them, but it is in our power to choose our reactions to them. One technique for changing our own reactions is to search for even a tiny bit of empathy for what that person is experiencing internally.
As John Donne knew way back in the seventeenth century, we are all connected. By increasing our ability to relate to each other, we contribute to a more emotionally intelligent world. Who will you connect with today?