Practical Communication

5 Tips for Cultivating Your Relationships

For the past two years, I’ve planted a vegetable garden. Last year, I really tended it. I watered every day, fertilized, fussed, and worried over it.

My reward?

A whole lot of nothing. I harvested one zucchini from my zucchini plant before worms demolished it. My cucumber plants turned gray and withered, and a mouse (and my dog) got my tomatoes.

It was very frustrating to have put so much time and effort into something to just have it fail.

When I started doing some research on what went wrong, I quickly realized my error– I’d over-watered and over-tended my garden to death.

To avoid this problem, and the associated frustration of failure, this year my philosophy began with the idea of neglect. I decided early on that I was just going to throw some plants in the ground and leave them to grow or die on their own. However, I quickly realized this wasn’t the solution either.

I’ve come to the conclusion that a garden shouldn’t be over-tended, nor should it be neglected. A garden’s success is about finding the right balance of attention and input in order to reap the harvest.

Relationships, both work and personal, are a lot like a garden. You have to find the right balance of attention and input to help them grow and thrive. Over-tend them, and you’ll drive the other person away, under-tend them, and they’ll die.

Here are five tips for cultivating your relationships to ensure they thrive:

1. Provide feedback, but don’t nitpick.
People need to know where they stand in a relationship. Employees need to know when their performance needs to improve. However, there’s only so much feedback a person can take before they shut down and give up. So, choose your battles and provide feedback on what’s truly important.

2. Listen more and speak less.
You’ll never learn anything about others with whom you are in relationships if you’re doing all the talking. In all their relationships, people feel most satisfied and connected when they feel they’ve been heard and understood.

3. Spend time with others, but don’t smother or micromanage them.
In any relationship, there’s a dialectic tension of autonomy and connection. Autonomy meaning, “I need my space to do my own thing,” and connection being the need people have to feel part of a team, partnership, or family. Employers should carve out regular time to meet with employees to “check in,” but shouldn’t hover over their shoulders asking, “whatcha doing, whatcha doing” all day. Family members should  also periodically check in with each other, either through family meetings, one-on-one time, or couple’s time.

However, people still need their space. No one wants to have to account for every move they make. I don’t want to have to tell someone where I’m going or what I plan on doing every time I get up from the sofa. Children especially need to learn to make good decisions and take responsibility for their actions (and inactions) without mom or dad stepping in to control every situation. Better for a child to learn the consequences in elementary school of not doing their homework or not getting up in time to get on the bus, than to learn that lesson once in college.

4. Encourage individuals to develop their own identity and interests beyond their role in the relationship or group.
Stay-at-home parents are the classic example of breaking this rule. Their identity is summed up in one word, “mom” or “dad.” Although they’ll always have those roles, what will their identity become when they become empty nesters? You can be a mom or dad and still be an individual with your own job, activities, friends, and interests. The same goes for employees in the workplace.

Employees should be encouraged to develop talents outside their immediate job responsibilities. Doing so will make them more valuable to the organization and more able to fill in when needed in other areas. People who feel individually fulfilled and who have developed autonomy will be happier and more productive members of all their relationships.

5. Learn to handle conflict effectively.
Sarcasm, name calling, yelling, and other passive aggressive and aggressive techniques are like overwatering a garden- they smother relationships and slowly kill them. Learn to handle conflict assertively, by finding the balance of expressing and standing up for your own needs, while being respectful and open to the needs of others, and you’ll have found the balance needed to ensure your relationships thrive.

For more information on how to accomplish the tips above, scroll back through the practical communication blog archives. There are many blog posts on feedback, conflict, and more skills that will help you grow strong and healthy relationships.

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