How to maintain meaningful relationships with friends

In a digital age of easier connection we’re simultaneously feeling more dishevelled or disconnected in relationships than ever before.

From studying primate groups, Dunbar found that based on brain size we are actually hard wired to a limited number of meaningful connections at any given moment in time.

If you’re looking to reconnect, here are three simple things we all can do to improve the quality of our relationships:

Quality time

Our ancestors lived in hunter gather communities just shy of 150 people. And average English village circles, circa 18th century, sat around 160 people. Yet many people in a global village try to forge a greater number of new relationships within the time it takes to drink a single cup of coffee.

Even those reaching for volume, when reflecting honestly, know that collective connections of every Tom, Dick and Harriet clumped into a happy bucket called ‘friends’ doesn’t make a relationship.

Dunbar cheekily suggests we must be careful who we date, live with or marry given we do tend to spend as much as 80% of our time talking to the same tight group of friends: likely to be as few as five. We may trade out one of those when we commit to a more intimate relationship!

The quality of time we spend with people forges healthier relationships. We may have different circles, sure, yet it’s good to consciously not spread ourselves a little too thin.

Be fully present

It’s not uncommon to see friends, colleagues, partners, and lovers spending time together yet simultaneously the relationship diminishes or dissolves regardless. How often have you found yourself sitting with a connection (any of the aforementioned categories) only to feel you’re having a cappuccino with a zombie? Their physical body may be with you yet arms are horizontal and hands wrapped awkwardly, constant thumb typing, around a device. Glued, as it were, wide eyed, or being spiritually and energetically sucked into the screen of their smart phone. And if you can’t relate to this happening to you perhaps look in the mirror and ask how often you may then be the zombie!

Relationships, like a quality game of tennis, require more than one player. If you feel you have to run around the net to return conversations or keep the relationship rally going, the point comes where you’ll be over it or burnt out.

For the less active participant in play you may find, when you do finally glance up, preferred tennis partners have dwindled in numbers, tired of the maintenance of it all. ‘Be where you are’ is a healthy philosophy to live by.

The power of personal effort

Social media companies (dopamine-dealing deviants in some ways) do their utmost to ensure their own brand users easily procure regular fixes or hits with minimum effort. Automation then, or the language of emojis (thumb likes or other cutesy icons of fake fluffy loveliness) are lazy when it comes to the deeper communication of great relationships.

We all know algorithms and reminders make it easier to remember stuff, ‘personalise’ messages or celebrate milestones. Yet it’s when we demonstrate a deeper level of both listening and action our relationships kick in another gear.  As Sean Connery in the movie ‘Finding Forrester’ alluded to when revealing the secret to a woman’s heart: it’s an unexpected gift at an unexpected time. The same is true for personal effort.

Gifts perhaps a little rough around the edges with handmade effort can melt hearts quicker or build stronger bonds than lovely pre packaged purchases or the perfect hallmark card quote. In the same way that hands on effort says ‘I care’ far greater than just a cheque arriving in the post.

Technology helps maintain great relationships, as we’ve seen with virtual and telephone connections in a world hindered by pandemic and lockdown. Yet simultaneously many folks are already feeling it’s not quite the same as real human connectedness with your besties and loved ones. So it’s a great reminder to get back to basics, minimise the noise and focus on real human touch.

Mark Carter is an international keynote speaker, trainer and coach. He has over 20 years’ experience as a global learning and development professional. His TEDxCasey talk ‘Paws and Effect: how teddy bears increase value perception was the movie trailer for his latest book Add Value.  You can contact Mark at markcarter.com.au.

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