Relationships, good, bad, professional, peripheral, are at the heart of human existence. I’m not even talking about romantic relationships, but the connections between us as humans. It is what drives community, positive workplaces, and is (I believe) central is giving us a sense of belonging and wellbeing.
I build relationships pretty easily. I really like people and I’m mostly fairly confident (or at least I seem so). I like to think I am kind. I’ve really focused on building relationships with students over the last decade of teaching – our students have a really strong appreciation and need for relationships with teachers. They need to know that you care, and that they have become a part of your extended community. So here are some of my top ideas for building positive strong relationships
This is huge. Every year I have to learn about 150 new names in the first week of Term 1. I do it pretty quickly and feel terrible if I get a name wrong or I blank. Knowing and using a person’s name tells them that you think they’re important enough to remember. I once helped a boy on the playground when he was trying to make the right decision to not retaliate against a bully. I asked him his name. Every time I saw him after that I addressed him by name and we would stop and chat. It’s been two years and he still looks delighted every time I see him and say hi.
If you forget someone’s name, just ask. I had fantastic neighbours a few years ago. One particular wonderful couple my ex-husband and I would often chat to. We’d met up at a bar and introduced ourselves and would often say hi to Gregor over the fence. One day I came straight out with it. “Gregor, I’m so sorry but we’ve forgotten your partner’s name.” He looked intensely relieved: “Oh thank god because we’ve forgotten your husband’s name!”
Being honest about your forgetfulness and making a renewed effort to remember is appreciated. It builds relationships.
I have always thought of myself as a friendly person, but I’ve become aware that in some situations I can appear quite intimidating or unwelcoming. I was at a writer’s conference and sat at a dinner table with a well known NYT bestseller of whom I am a MASSIVE fan. I watched her as she worked, very naturally, to put people at ease and ask them genuine questions about themselves, their writing, their lives. One of the women she was making feel welcome had sat next to me earlier and I’d only got as far as discussing her very fancy spectacles. Seeing how this author I admire so much put so much effort into connecting with this older woman made me question how much I had really tried to overcome my reserve and draw her out.
As a result, I try really hard with students to show a welcoming face when I see them around the school or they approach with a query. I don’t usually have to try hard, it’s more a case of remembering sometimes. None of us feel comfortable when people are (or appear to be) unwelcoming. It is hard to build relationships and connections when people are too nervous to talk to you.
Remember stuff about them:
The same top author whom I so admire remembered what I was writing about the next time she saw me. It made me feel like a million dollars.
When I remember what students do outside the classroom (sport, music, job) or even just remembering that they were doing a maths test that one time I relieved their class and making the time to ask them about it – that’s several bricks laid in the relationship build.
Showing people that you remember what is important to them shows them that they are important to you – such is the stuff that great relationships are made from.
It also gives you stuff to talk about!
As a teacher, it means when you’re in the playground and you need to move a group of boys on from playing ball where they shouldn’t, you can capitalise on the relationship you’ve made with a couple of them and they will get their mates to do what you’ve asked.
Listen to people:
I’m a talker. I always have been. My mother explained to me when I was young that if I was going to talk so much I had to become a good listener. Being a good listener to me means actively hearing what someone is saying. Letting go of the ‘waiting for my turn’ half tuned ear and giving someone your complete attention.
We all want to be heard.
Being a good listener also means noticing when people need you to stop talking.
Being a good listener also means noticing when people are trying to be heard or to speak and allowing them a space to do so.
Being a good listener means that you will become someone people feel comfortable opening up to. That openness and connection is integral to a good relationship.
Laugh with People:
Sharing a joke with someone builds an instant rapport, an instant connection. It breaks the ice and shows that you have more in common than you do otherwise. Crowded trains are normally silent places full of people ignoring each other. When I was in London I was on a train that was getting stopped constantly on the way into Earl’s Court. The driver started making jokes, snarky comments on the delay, silly puns. We all began laughing, and then we began chatting, and we were still laughing and chatting about it when we finally drew into Earl’s Court. Some people left and others hopped on. The new people couldn’t quite understand why we were all so cheerful and relaxed. More than one looked as if they were wondering if they’d stumbled into a private carriage. Humour builds connections.
I use humour a lot in the classroom. I do it without thinking, but it is something that I recommend to other teachers. I’ve often said that our boys in particular really need you to have a joke with them. This is not to say that you aren’t firm and hold to your boundaries – they want you to be strict but they also want to know that you will laugh at their stupid jokes, that you will make stupid jokes and crack up yourself. Humour is a great equaliser.
Be an encourager:
Build people up. Support them. Encourage them and help them to reach their potential. Cheer them on. Don’t sabotage their goals. I think that’s fairly self explanatory.
Those of you who have followed my blog will know that kindness is really important to me. We crave kindness. If you show consistent kindness to people that’s the majority of the battle to build and maintain a relationship won. It is the kindness that I showed to students that keeps them coming back year after year to say hi, even after they leave.
It’s okay to show that you aren’t perfect. It’s okay to show that you don’t have all the answers. It’s okay to not have the amazing Instagram ready life. It’s okay to be vulnerable. My friends and my family know that I am not a perfect person. They know that I can have a temper, that I am disorganised, that I don’t always have the best self-esteem. They have seen me cry. Vulnerability is authentic. It is an equaliser. It allows for a completely honest relationship.
Relationships give us a lot but to get the most out of them we need to put the effort in.