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Five Behaviors To Build Healthy Relationships With Anyone

Trust is built and sustained with five practices that work in your organization, classroom, or home

What can a divorce researcher teach us about relationships? As it turns out, plenty.

Divorce researcher John Gottman became famous for creating a scientifically based model of predicting divorce with more than 90 percent accuracy. Decades of studying the interactions of various couples revealed patterns of behavior that literally make or break relationships. Good relationships, he found, are based on a deliberate nurturing of fondness, of attention to knowing the goals, worries, hopes, and dreams of the other person.

As a teacher who often taught in challenging situations, I found the ability to form and repair relationships was a vital skill I hadn’t learned in “teacher school.” Could Gottman’s research work in the classroom? I wondered.

Adapting his work helped me to develop five practices to build trust, safety, and empathy with students and their parents, along with the adults in the building. A side bonus was finding out how well these worked in my own personal relationships with family and friends.

This chart is a snapshot of what he found and how I adapted the behaviors:

These actions lower stress and fear in both ourselves and others. This, in turn, helps the brain learn faster and more efficiently. All of us do better within a climate of positivity — we’re more creative and resilient.

Many of my students, by the time they got to my high school classroom, had a kind of music of disapproval in their heads that was difficult to change. That tune can only change with the deliberate development of trust behaviors.

Why Trust Matters

A “neuroscience of trust” exists and research shows that it’s correlated with the levels of the brain chemical oxytocin. The more oxytocin in your brain, the greater your ability to trust others as well as increase your empathy.

Over a decade, Paul Zak, the lead researcher, looked at what boosts this neurotransmitter and what suppresses it to determine why trust varies in people and environments. Chronic stress inhibits oxytocin, which blocks collaboration. Oxytocin, he found, is enhanced with specific activities.

Zak identified management behaviors correlated with higher levels of trust and uses this matrix to gauge trust in organizations. Most of those behaviors track with suggestions of activities in my new book like introducing “challenge stress.” That happens with a difficult but achievable goal. This can look like small open-ended tasks or group collaborations that promote bonding. Likewise, choice — of how, when, and where people learn — combined with encouraging students’ own solutions to existing problems — creates a dynamic learning experience.