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Almost everyone I know wants a better relationship with someone. Usually, it’s a spouse or significant other, but many of us also want better relationships with our direct reports, boss or peers. At home, we often want better relationships with our parents, kids or friends.
Lately, as I’ve coached clients, I find myself giving some of the same advice repeatedly. Here are the top four practices that have consistently resurfaced in my conversations with clients.
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1. Think about “love” as a verb, not a noun
All too often, we talk about “love” as if it’s a noun. Something to be found, something that happens to us. The most successful people I know don’t view love as a noun; rather, they treat it as a verb. They practice it. Don’t wait for others to do things that make you feel love. Proactively choose love. Act lovingly. When we show others love, it’s amazing how much more we simply feel love. Love, like happiness, is something that we can create ourselves. Ask yourself, often, “what would a loving person do right now?” Whatever the answer is, do it.
Recently, I had a difference of opinion with my partner, David, before we both started our workdays. For most of that day, I didn’t feel much love toward him. In the late afternoon, however, I realized that I could simply choose to love him. Typically, David does our grocery shopping. That day, even though I felt angry and frustrated over our discussion that morning, I got in the car and headed to the grocery store myself. I knew David had a busy day planned and doing all our grocery shopping that week would greatly help him. By the time I returned home, I already felt much more love for him.
2. Regularly ask (and talk) about feelings
So often, when there’s a difference of opinion, we forget to both ask about feelings and share our own. Saying: “I feel alone, hurt, disappointed or surprised because of X” is much different than saying: “I don’t like it when you do X.” For most of us, talking about our feelings is like emotional oxygen and psychological air. When we get to talk about our feelings, we often feel seen, heard, valued and appreciated. Hearing about someone else’s feelings and sharing our own reminds us that we’re on the same team, not opposing sides of a battlefield.
After hearing the feelings of others, it often makes sense to paraphrase or repeat back what you heard; this is a way of checking for understanding. You might say: “It sounds like you’re feeling betrayed because of this; is that right? Gosh, I’m so sorry to hear that. That must be so difficult.” Don’t forget to both ask how others feel and also share your own feelings. Once feelings are on the table, it’s amazing how quickly we can move toward solutions.
Related: Dealing With Feelings: How to Be an Emotionally-Aware Leader
3. When you screw up, apologize authentically and genuinely
We are human. We all make mistakes. When you do, apologize, but do so genuinely. First, get specific. Don’t just say: “I’m sorry for what happened Saturday night.” Instead, let the other person know you’re truly sorry for exactly what happened by stating it, out loud. Also, take the time to (once again) state how you imagine (or know) the other person feels. Acknowledge how your behavior affected them.
Finally, make a point to commit to change. Talk about what you’ll do to ensure that the same thing won’t happen again. You might say: “I am so sorry that I was late to our appointment and kept you waiting for 25 minutes. I can see I didn’t respect your time, and this made you feel like I don’t care about our relationship as much as you do. I value our relationship very much, so that’s not going to happen again. Going forward, I’m going to set an alarm before I need to leave for our meetings, and also put a reminder on both my personal and professional calendars.” Additionally, taking the time to apologize in person or over the phone (instead of via email or text) can carry a lot of weight. This shows the relationship really matters to us, and we’re serious about our apology.
Finally, don’t make excuses or blame outside factors for what happened. Sure, the weather or traffic might’ve helped cause your tardiness, but citing those things in your apology only shifts responsibility away from you, and what you’re wanting to show is that you’re ready to take accountability and own it. So, remain focused on what more you could’ve done; not anything else.
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4. Recognize and respect your differences with others
All too often, people say things like: “She shouldn’t have done this. I would never do that.” We tend to think that our way is the right way — or worse, the only way. Don’t fall into this trap. Beliefs, values and paradigms are not all universal. Remember that the person you’re interacting with probably learned different social norms than you did when you were growing up.
Avoid judging those who don’t share your default ways of behaving. Instead, get curious. Take the time to ask questions and learn about why someone does what they do. Then, respectfully talk through your way of doing it (and your why). The best relationships are ones where two people or a group decide together, as a team, what the established norms and rules for the relationship should be.
When we practice these four things in relationships, our relationships not only work better and last longer, but we’re also able to move through conflict more quickly. Many people who follow these four practices find their relationships can withstand more conflict or confusion, and misunderstandings are easily recoverable.