By Eric Barker
October 6, 2015
IDEAS
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Sometimes your closest and most important relationships are also the most difficult. Why?

Columbia business school professor Adam Galinsky and Wharton professor Maurice Schweitzer have an answer:

All your relationships are both cooperative and competitive.

We work together with the ones we love but we also have a bit of rivalry going on at times. It’s natural, but difficult.

That competitiveness can be why friends and loved ones can have such a positive and motivating influence on us. But it can also lead to envy and schadenfreude (taking pleasure in their misfortune.)

Sadly, neuroscience research shows the more similar we are to someone, the more likely we are to feel schadenfreude.

Via Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both:

And as you may be aware, sibling rivalry can extend into adulthood.

One study looked at pairs of sisters, both married. One works, the other doesn’t. What was the best predictor of whether the non-working one would get a job?

If her husband made less than her sister’s, she was likely to start going on interviews.

Via Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both:

This type of competition is inevitable but can hurt the relationships that matter to you most.

So how can we get closer to the people we love and make sure they feel like we’re on their side, and not a rival to be outdone?

Here’s what the research had to say…

 

1) Make Sure To Screw Up

People rarely show their blunders on Facebook but they certainly post pictures of beautiful vacations and updates about big promotions. And that can lead to social comparisons and envy.

Doing everything to make your life seem perfect may make you look good but it can also be a prescription for resentment.

What makes us trust people? Warmth and competence.

Via Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both:

When all your ducks are in a row and you’re living high, you look pretty competent. But the warmth part can be lacking. What’s a good way to make sure you don’t inspire envy?

Screw up a little.

In a classic study, researchers had people evaluate three candidates. One had lousy scores, the other was nearly perfect, and the third had the same rankings as the perfect one but during the interview he spilled coffee all over his suit.

Guess who they thought most highly of? The fumbler.

Via Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both:

Why? They seemed more approachable. They weren’t so perfect as to make people jealous.

And this is why karaoke is a great thing to do with co-workers. Embarrassing yourself makes you a lot more human.

Via Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both:

(To learn how to get people to like you — from an FBI behavior expert, click here.)

So if you want to show off your new car on Facebook, don’t forget to drive your friends to karaoke that weekend. But what’s a way we can dodge envy without looking like an idiot?

 

2) The Crazy Question That Shows You Care

Alison Brooks of Harvard had an assistant approach people at a train station on a rainy day. Half the time she asked people, “Can I borrow your phone? I need to make an important call.”

Only 9 percent of those people agreed to help.

But with the other people the assistant said, “I’m sorry about the rain! Can I borrow your phone? I need to make an important call.”

Yes, she apologized for the rain. Something she did not cause and had zero control over. The result?

47 percent of people helped her out. That’s a 400% increase. Similar results were achieved in many different situations.

Via Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both:

Research shows that just asking people, “Is this a good time to talk?” increased compliance with requests.

Little things that show you care matter — even if they’re utterly ridiculous.

(To learn the lazy way to an awesome life, click here.)

Okay, so you’re not forgetting to show concern. But what’s something simple you can do to really improve a romantic relationship? Repeat after me… actually, scratch that: repeat after them.

 

3) Imitate The One You Love

When negotiators use “perspective-taking” and think about the other side’s needs, they are more likely to close deals that make everyone happy.

Via Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both:

Okay, but that’s business and money. We’re talking about love. But here’s what’s interesting: you know what helps you increase perspective-taking?

Mimicry. Sitting like they do, folding your hands like they do, etc.

Via Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both:

Plenty of research backs this up. So can this improve a romantic relationship? Absolutely.

Ever notice that in older happy married couples the husband and wife tend to look alike? It’s true. In fact, couples tend to look more alike over time.

Via Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both:

And this is due to perspective-taking and mimicry. Smile the same way for decades and the lines in your face will look alike. And this actually leads to happier marriages.

Via Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both:

So try a little bit of mimicry — just don’t make it obvious.

(To learn the 4 rituals new neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)

So you saw that perspective-taking can help you understand others. But how can it help others understand you?

 

4) Ask Them For Advice

When you use perspective-taking it can really help. But how do you get others to see your perspective?

Ask them for advice.

Via Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both:

But if you ask the boss or co-worker for advice, won’t you seem less competent?

Nope. Total opposite.

Via Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both:

And what’s great about seeking advice is it works with almost anyone. If they’re senior to you, it shows deference. If they’re junior to you, it pays them a big compliment.

Via Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both:

(To learn what Harvard research says is the secret to being happier and more successful, click here.)

Okay, so what about when things go really wrong — as in, you did something you shouldn’t to a friend, partner or co-worker? What do you do then to stop difficult relationships from getting even worse?

 

5) Apologize The Right Way

There are a number of factors that improve an apology but one seems to stand way above the rest:

Promise to change.

Via Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both:

Why are some people so reluctant to apologize? It makes them feel less powerful and causes them to lose status.

Via Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both:

But what good is that power if it destroys an important relationship? Whenever you’re reluctant to apologize, a good tip is to try focusing on what results it might achieve as opposed to who is right or wrong.

Via Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both:

Have I made any typos yet? If so, I apologize and promise to change.

(To learn how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)

We’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it up and find out what these tips are really worth to you…

 

Sum Up

Here’s what you’ve learned about improving difficult relationships:

  • Screw up: If you’ve been presenting too perfect an image, it’s time for karaoke.
  • Show you care: Apologize for the rain if you have to. Crazy as it sounds, it works.
  • Imitate the one you love: Take their perspective and turn into one of those cute old couples.
  • Ask for advice: It flatters them and makes you look smarter, not dumber.
  • When you apologize, promise to change: It makes a huge difference.

So what’s this advice really worth?

About $236,232 a year.

That’s what economists say a good social life and a happy marriage are worth in dollars.

So give these tips a shot. Being rich in relationships makes you pretty darn rich.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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