Many of us know that we should spend more time on relationships, but we tell ourselves that we will get to it when we have more time. But recent research concluded that it takes less time to start and strengthen a relationship than we think.
It is not the long stretches of talking that cement a relationship; instead, it is the positive quick interplay that builds relationships. It’s the small little investments that will pay rich dividends.
Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist from Seattle, Washington, has analyzed the way relationships are actually built. He discovered that all of us make what he calls “bids” for emotional connection. This is how relationships get started, and this means all relationships, whether with the barista at the coffee shop or with our most intimate friends. Bids fly back and forth between people as smiles, listening, questions, nods, and the like take place. In one study, Gottman found that good relationships will send over a hundred bids back and forth in the span of ten minutes. A relationship is constructed when we send a bid and it is received, then one is sent back. It often only takes a few of these interactions to make a relationship stronger or take it to the next level. Taking two minutes to really focus on the people we want a stronger relationship with can make all the difference. Taking just a minute with the people around us on the train or in the office can begin a relationship.
Gottman also found that when someone sends out a bid for an emotional connection there are three responses that are possible.
- The other person can turn into a “bid” and respond in some way (nod, smile, ask a question, tell a story, etc.). This turning into the bid can be very quick (as in seconds), but it says that the other person’s bid for some level of emotional connection was received. Then usually it is appropriate to send a bid back which lets the other person know that you want the “connection” to continue. If this back and forth takes place just a few times, then both people are encouraged by the “relationship.”
- The second way that people can respond to a “bid” sent by a loved one, co-worker, friend, or stranger is to turn against the bid. This would be a sarcastic or angry or dismissive response that lets the person know that you do not want to receive or have a connection with that person. There are times when a bid comes unsolicited and unwanted. In those cases, it is appropriate to shut down the “connection” before it begins. But most of the time, it is our thinking of the other things we could be doing with our time that causes us to react harshly to the person. Maybe we would enjoy going back and forth with the person, but we don’t think that we have the thirty minutes or hour it may take so we shut down the interaction.The sad part is that we could have encouraged the person by going back and forth a few times in just two minutes thereby strengthening the relationship, as you explain that you would love to spend more time but you are facing a deadline or a project that you need to get back to etc. We are talking two minutes tops to give the other people hope and encouragement—that’s not much time at all!
- The third way Gottman tells us that a person can respond to a “bid” for emotional connection is to avoid or disengage. This often involves turning away, walking away, looking through the person, not responding, or changing the subject. According to the research, this disengagement from the bid for emotional connection is deadlier to the relationship than even hostility. The person who was avoided or disengaged will break off the pursuit of the relationship quickly, and in many cases abandon the relationship altogether. What is tragic is that many times it is not that the person doesn’t want to have a relationship but that they are seeing themselves as so busy that they do not have the thirty to sixty minutes they think it will take to really engage with the person of the topic.But that is not what relational experts do. Those who know how to keep their relationships strong will strategize to spend two minutes interacting on this topic and then politely excusing themselves because they have a lot of things making demands on them. What this does is to keep the relationship growing for the time when the thirty minutes to an hour are available, when the relationship is ready to receive that level of attention.
Turn into the bids of those in your family, at work, or on the train. Be willing to invest just two minutes of back and forth talking to let the other person know that they are important to you. You can say that you are busy, but you will have potentially exchanged twenty bids back and forth in two minutes. People will react so much better if you are kind to them—if you treat them as you would like to be treated.
The Scriptures tell us in Ephesians 5:15, “Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time.”
If we are going to be wise, we need to strengthen our relationships. Relationships are the most important thing in your life, so be willing to invest in them all the time, even if it is for a minute or two at a time. When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, He said that the first and second greatest thing that a person could do is to strengthen their key relationships (Matt 22:37-39). The first one He pointed out was our relationship with God, and the second one was with neighbors.
So often, we get caught up in trying to impress people or pile up money or win some award or accomplish some task; those will come if we grow enough relationships. In fact, I was listening to a super-effective business leader the other day and he said the first rule of business is this: “Business is relationships.” This is so true.
Some action steps to help us put relationships first:
- Each day, set aside two minutes with the people you really want a relationship with. Set aside more time if you have it for the most supremely important people in your life. Invest two minutes of focus and watch how much the people around you will spark up, not to mention that your day will go much better. If a person is important to you, take care to not turn away from their bids for emotional connection. It is deadly to let them reach out and you reject or ignore their bids.
- Instead of being hostile when people interrupt you, turn into their interruption and engage for two minutes. Then politely excuse yourself and go work in a more private way or space. Let them know you would like to talk more but can’t right now. Maybe set a specified time to have a longer interaction.
- Open yourself up to new connections with people and engage with them for one to two minutes. You never know who might be a new blessing in your life. Be willing to invest even a minute to let them know that you would love to connect later when you can focus.
- Jump into a group at work, church, the gym, or your neighborhood, and practice giving and receiving bids. Develop relationships with people that are outside your family and work to develop friendships. You will find that it doesn’t take as long as you think, and it will sustain you and encourage you in the midst of your busy schedule.
Do not let your mountain of tasks get in the way of the really important and vital things in your life, your relationships. Invest in the people at work one to two minutes at a time, then go back to work. When you get home, be willing to invest two minutes of focused time (and maybe more) if you are really busy. Be present when you go to the coffee shop or stand in line for lunch. Engage with people. There will be enough time to get your work done, and you will live in a much richer relational world.