Try This Surprisingly Small Step to Build Strong Relationships

People serve to you all the time. How you respond will determine your relationship with them.

Imagine that you and I go to play tennis. We might share a pleasant, enjoyable volley that lasts for a while, leaving us both feeling relaxed and connected. It would start when one of us serves the ball, and the other responds in kind. We might not say a word to each other, but we would appreciate the back and forth of the ball and our interaction.  

What if you come with me to play, but you are a little distracted? You are still thinking about something that came up in the office. I serve to you and you look away, or steal a glance at a WhatsApp message. How would I feel? A bit blah. I served to you, and you were occupied with something else. I would feel disappointed even if you volleyed the ball back to me. We were still a bit disconnected. 

What about if we started playing, but you were upset about something. Part of you would rather not be on the court as I send the ball to you. When I serve, you slam the ball back at me. I duck and it misses me, but I get the message. Our sharp disconnect would be palpable. Immediately I think, “Mea culpa…Well excuse me for living!”

If we quantify your three responses on the tennis court using math symbols, we  could assign a plus to the first response. One of us served, another responded, and we both feel good. The second return might get a 0. It was not so great, and not so terrible either. Parve. Kacha kacha. You ignored me a bit. The last response, where I could feel your anger in the ball, would get a minus. It caused us to feel further apart, rather than connected. 

Our days contain hundreds of interpersonal interactions that are just like tennis volleys. Others reach out to us with conversations, statements, and communications such as glances or smiles, and we respond. Each response we make can be graded with a math symbol like the tennis returns. If you reach out to me and I respond in kind, then we both feel good. That would get a plus.  If you ignore it or give a lukewarm response, that is a 0. What happens if you send back a response that shows a negative emotion like anger, scorn, or disdain? That response receives a minus.

The way that you respond to communications that others send you will determine how good your day is and the moods of the people around you. If most of your responses are a plus, day after day, you will probably have successful, pleasant, fulfilling relationships. If you have more zeros or minuses, the chances are high that your relationships will be superficial, struggle or peter out. 

Responses wake up when the people around you do. For example, if your neighbor smiles at you and says good morning, he is reaching out with a small communication. You have a choice of interacting in three ways:

You can smile back and wish him a nice good morning. That would get a plus. He will feel good, and you will, too.

If you look at him groggy-eyed and respond with a half-baked, “murnin’,” that would probably be a 0. He served and you did not give him much of a response.

What would happen if you feel a bit on edge? You say to him, “if you would make sure your garbage does not blow onto my grass, then it would be a good morning!” He served the ball to you and you slammed it back in his face. That is a minus. 

Body language alone can often make or break your interaction. When you respond to someone, pay attention to both the verbal and nonverbal parts of your communication. A response of a plus includes more than the right words. It also means that you demonstrate that you are focused on what the person is saying. If you are looking elsewhere or seem preoccupied with something, that response is going to be a 0 or a minus, even if you pay lip service to being interested. When you are involved in something else and do not look at the person talking to you, your body is demonstrating distraction, even if your words tell the speaker that you are interested in listening. Your nonverbals scream and drown out the words you say. 

Responses are an essential part of any interaction, especially a marriage. The way that spouses respond to each other’s communications determines if their relationship will be close and fulfilling or superficial and unsatisfying. A couple has to be sensitive to this when they converse. If one spouse is talking and the other is glancing around, doodling, or looking in a book, his behavior shouts to his spouse that he is not that interested in listening to her (at best). That response will get a 0 or a minus. If it is a recurrent situation in their relationship, they will eventually feel disconnected and frustrated. When there are a lot of responses rated with a plus, the relationship is positive. When they are lacking, the relationship will be, too. 

A likely culprit in today’s families appears to be the cellphone. It is prevalent for a listening spouse to check his phone while his wife is talking to him (and the other way around). When he does that, he turns a situation where there could be positive bids into negative ones. His nonverbal communication shows that he is not totally listening to his wife. Even if he assures her that he is listening, his body language drowns out his words. That is a negative response, and it is almost automatic that the speaker will feel negative, too. 

In one sense, the phone and technology are merely the scapegoats for a listener’s disconnect. In reality, it is the listener himself that is culpable. He could decide to focus on his wife, or let his behavior with his cellphone scream out to her that he is distracted. Current society provides the specific medium of distraction. Yet the blame for being distracted falls squarely on the shoulders of the one who is not focusing, not on the device that facilitates the distraction. Distractions abound and they always have been around. Ten years ago, it might have been a computer that the same spouse was looking at during the conversation. Fifteen years ago it might have been the newspaper or the mail. The responsibility lies more with the person involved with the distraction than the specific medium. 

A spouse can decide if he wants his responses to be wholehearted and how he conveys that to his partner. A positive response requires him to be conscious of his remarks, body language, and nonverbal cues. If they demonstrate to his spouse that he is interested in hearing what she is saying, she will feel heard and their relationship can become connective. If he chooses to use responses with a negative score, or to use body language which suggests it, their relationship will flounder.

People you interact with are about to serve. What will you send back?

This concept was first introduced to me by my insightful and intuitive wife, Chani, based on the research and writings of Dr. John Gottman. She uses it in her own exemplary work building and strengthening people’s relationships.