How to prioritize relationships

The last article discussed why social relationships are important, so if there's any question in your mind about the importance of growing your network of friends and improving your contact with relatives, please read that first.

Every person you have a relationship with is like a bank account.  You can have a positive or negative balance on your account, depending on the current status of your relationship.  This article will discuss ways we can increase our 'account balances'.

I recently discovered what many call the Cohen-Bradford Influence Model. It makes a very nice bridge between the idea of strengthening relationships and some of the work I've recently been doing on core values.I'm really looking forward to sharing the results with you in the future. The model is based on the idea of reciprocity, that is, finding ways to give something to someone else in order to get what you want.Cohen, A. R., & Bradford, D. L. (2005). The influence model: Using reciprocity and exchange to get what you need. Journal of Organizational Excellence, 25(1), 57–80. doi:10.1002/joe.20080

I'm going to look at this from a slightly different angle. Money and barter are both examples of reciprocity at work. When you have money, you don't have to worry about getting something that the other person wants. By obtaining the money prior to spending it, you can time-shift the exchange. The way you do this is to trade something valuable, such as your time, or any other item someone is willing to pay for, and then you can use that money to buy what you want later.

It's really basic, but it's worth examining so we can make a comparison. Reciprocity, as the Cohen-Bradford Influence Model defines it, involves finding something the other person values and then giving that to them in exchange for something they have that you want.

The relationship bank account idea suggests giving the other person something they value before we need something from them. The decision will be largely determined by how trustworthy the other person is, of course. So this strategy is best used with trustworthy people. Isn't the best course of action to surround yourself with trustworthy people? By the time you finish reading this article, I'm hoping you'll agree.

Assume all are potential allies

This is the first step of the Cohen-Bradford model. And it's a life skill worth cultivating.  Essentially, it means valuing everyone you know no matter what they think of you, or how you think of them.

Why is this important?  Because we should never assume that another person has nothing to offer us.  Similarly, we should not assume they are so hostile to us that they would never help us.  There is no way to know for sure what will happen until you act and observe it. People are complex.

However, we can stack the odds in our favor.  Here are some ways to do so:

  • Try to be positive all the time.  It may be hard, but it's worth the effort.  People like to be around positive people.  Plus, they will start to behave more positively too.
  • Avoid gossiping.  It's also hard, but there's a reason "gossip rags" have a cheap reputation.  Having a reputation for gossip cheapens us too.  It's like adding a monthly surcharge to all our relationship bank accounts.
  • Don't just act positive, but try to think positively about everyone.  Is there someone you can't stand? Even they have positive qualities.  Focus on those. 
    • For example, if someone talks your ear off, think of them this way: You don't have to guess what they are thinking.
    • Then feel free to talk about those positive qualities.  Tell others.  Tell the person themselves, as sincerely as possible. 
  • Be open-minded.  You can agree with at least some of what other people say, even if you disagree with most of it.

Identify the "currencies" in your bank accounts

With the addition of this dimension, Cohen and Bradford's theory adds depth to the metaphor of a relationship bank account. What is important to one person won't necessarily be important to another, so we must take this into account when looking for ways to strengthen a relationship.  Knowledge of human values is incredibly useful here. 

Cohen and Bradford emphasize the following points about what people value:

  • Being involved in something significant
  • Having a chance to excel
  • Doing something to a high ethical standard
  • Obtaining resources
  • Increasing their skills
  • Getting backing for or assistance with a project
  • Speeding up the process of getting something
  • Access to information
  • The acknowledgment of accomplishments and abilities
  • Increased access to people in positions of power
  • A feeling of belonging
  • Opportunities to connect with others
  • To feel accepted and included
  • Having a sense of being heard and listened to
  • Feeling supported on an emotional level
  • Feeling appreciated
  • Ownership and control over important tasks
  • Affirmation of self-worth, values, and identity
  • Elimination of hassles

They categorize the above list as inspiration-related currencies, task-related currencies, position-related currencies, relationship-related currencies, and personal-related currencies. 

The key is to identify:

  • What is important to you.  These things will fall into two categories:
    • What you need from the other person.
    • What you are good at, and can give to the other person.
  • What is important to the other person.  

Once you have identified the items on the list that match the last two bullet points above, you have determined the currency of that relationship.  You can either wait until you need something from the other person and then use the "currencies" you have identified to bargain for something you need from them, or the currencies can now be used to build a big positive balance in the relationship bank account for a time when you may be looking for their help later.

Let's take a few examples.  If you recognize that the other person values opportunities to connect with others, obtaining resources, or increased access to people in positions of power, try to think of someone else you know that can provide what they need, and make the introduction.  This may be one of the easiest, highest-leverage actions we can take.  What does it require of us?  Mostly to be aware of the strengths and needs of each person we know.  Keeping a relationship journal with a section for this kind of information can be a big help.  People in sales use customer relationship management (CRM) software to help with this, but it isn't just salespeople that can benefit from tracking relationships.

Another high-ROI action we can take is simply to sincerely give people attention, approval, acceptance, and appreciation as much as possible.  Notice how many of the values on the list this addresses.  We all need to have these emotional needs met.  You may have many social contacts who are very emotionally well-nourished, but who would mind getting more?

While we're on the subject, our ego is constantly trying to find ways to get attention, approval, acceptance, and appreciation from other people, but it frequently tries to use the wrong methods to do so.  Gratitude is an effective antidote.  Keeping a gratitude journal can not only keep ego at bay but be an excellent way to remember things we can appreciate about others.  Combining the two journal styles can multiply the benefits.

Your life will be enhanced if you express gratitude, and its effects will compound over time.I love this quote I found in a Psychology Today article: "It is the foundation of the type of society in which people can look after one another without coercion, incentives, or governmental interference, which, unlike gratitude, demean rather than exalt us."  I agree 100%.  Extending gratitude when we desire something from another person has limited benefits.  It's much better to make small, frequent deposits.

Sharing information you know or teaching skills can be tremendously valuable to the right people.  Just keep in mind the saying: People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.

More ways to grow our relationship bank accounts

  • Learn how to be a good listener.  Knowing how to truly listen is a superpower that will be a force multiplier in all your relationship-building efforts.  Besides, it makes you a better person.
  • Open new accounts.  That is, find someone you admire or would like to know better, or someone who could help you, and send an email.  I recommend Reach Out: The Simple Strategy You Need to Expand Your Network and Increase Your Influence by Molly Beck.  Especially if you have a blog or social media presence.
  • Responding to phone calls, emails, and invitations shows that you care.
  • Instead of being jealous of people who succeed, be happy for them.  Then let them know.  Their success may someday help you succeed.
  • Randomly call someone you know whom you haven't seen for a while.  Let them know why you thought of them.
  • Identify the people in your life who are really good at introducing people to others. Ask them to help you meet new people.  Stay in touch.

Of course, as with all things in life, balance is necessary.  This isn't easy, but keep these things in mind:

  • Boundaries are important. 
    • Sometimes you'll have to limit contact with people to get things done. Make sure they understand they are important but so are other things in your life.  Friends worth keeping will understand.
    • You will also need to set limits regarding others' behavior.  Make sure to patiently communicate what you need and expect.  Then be firm.  Having a large network of friends will make it easier to do this because your risk is lower.
    • We become like our friends.  If a friend is becoming someone you don't want to be like, it's best to limit your time with them.
  • Make sure you don't overwhelm them either.  Try to develop a reputation for respecting other people's time and priorities.  Leave while they still want you to stay.  They won't resent you because they'll want to see you again.

For most people, social relationships are more valuable than money.  For that matter, having a rich network of relationships often leads to more money too.  I hope the advice in this article will contribute to your successful efforts to build a happier, more satisfying life.