Stephen Covey (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) uses the metaphor of the Emotional Bank Account to describe “the amount of trust that’s been built up in a relationship”. The basic tenet is that we maintain a personal “emotional” bank account with anyone who works or relates to us. This account begins on a neutral balance. And just as with any bank account, we can make deposits and withdrawals.

If we make deposits into an emotional bank account with acts of kindness, thoughtfulness, honesty and respect we are building up  a reserve.  When our trust level is high, because we’ve made lots of deposits, communication is almost effortless. We can be ourselves, and others understand and appreciate us. Then, when we make mistakes or offend someone unexpectedly, we draw on that reserve and the relationship still maintains a solid level of trust.

If someone is disrespectful, doesn’t listen, cuts us off, ignores us the trust level gets low.  Now we have to be careful of everything that we say. We measure every word, we get no slack. If a large reserve of trust is not sustained by continuing deposits, a relationship will deteriorate.

Covey identifies six ways to make deposits (or reduce withdrawals):

  • 1)  Understand the Individual

Really seeking to understand another person is probably one of the most important deposits we can make, and it is the key to every other deposit. We simply don’t know what constitutes a deposit to another person until we understand the individual.  What might be a deposit for us, might not be perceived as a deposit for them.  Once we understand what they value and hold in high regard, we can make a powerful deposit.

  • 2)  Attending to the Little Things

Little kindnesses and courtesies are  important.  In relationships the little things tend to turn into big things if they are missed.  Giving your coat to someone who is cold, making a cup of tea, offering somebody a lift or a listening ear, doing something kind and expecting nothing in return.

  • 3)  Keeping Commitments

Keeping a commitment or a promise is a major deposit; in fact there’s probably not a more detrimental withdrawal than to make a promise that’s important to someone and then not to come through. Covey believes that if we cultivate the habit of always keeping the promises we make, we build bridges of trust that span the gaps of understanding between ourselves and our children, spouse, colleagues etc..

  • 4)  Clarifying Expectations

The cause of a lot of relationship difficulties is rooted in conflicting or ambiguous expectations around roles and goals. Unclear expectations will lead to misunderstanding, disappointment and withdrawals of trust.  If we make expectations clear and explicit in the beginning, this is a major deposit.

  • 5) Showing Personal Integrity

Personal Integrity generates trust and goes beyond honesty. One of the most important ways to manifest integrity is to be loyal to those that are not present. In doing so we build the trust of those that are present. Integrity is treating everybody with the same set of principles.

  • 6)  Apologising Sincerely When We Make a Withdrawal

It takes  great strength of character to apologise quickly and sincerely. But when we see that we have violated a trust, sincerely apologising is how we make a deposit to counteract the damage we have done. If you’re going to bow, bow low says Eastern Wisdom.

Our most precious relationships (with our spouse, children, friends, colleagues) require constant deposits, because these relationships continue to grow and change, and with these changes come new expectations. As our marriage evolves, roles and responsibilities may change, and work and home lives may change over time because of career changes or children moving out or back in. These relationships require constant investment.

It can be useful to write down our most important relationships and rate each one in terms of the emotional bank account and where our investments stand.  It can be helpful in pinpointing where we should be investing more.

In the midst of this tough economy, we have to be wise about how we spend our emotions.

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