Over the past decade, I’ve met or interviewed countless executives, managers, and entrepreneurs. Many of these people built careers and businesses based on blood, sweat, and tears … but when it comes to work ethic, not one of them could hold a candle to my mother-in-law, Margret. Margret (“Mom” to me) was born in Poland in 1958, in hard times. She knew what it was like to struggle, so she never took anything for granted. She taught her two daughters to do the same — to enjoy the good times, prepare for the hard times, and cultivate strong relationships.
This last one came naturally to Mom. From those whom she had just met to others who knew her for years, everyone sensed that Mom cared — and this drew them to her. For example, when she decided to leave a job cleaning the office of an executive at a major car manufacturer, his secretary begged her to stay. She trusted Mom immensely and had grown accustomed to their refreshing chats. Mom still decided to move on, but she had left a lasting impression. That secretary never lost contact, periodically stopping by Mom’s home to catch up over a cup of coffee.
Or how about Laurie and Verdis, the couple Mom made friends with on one family vacation to Hawaii. Laurie had been introduced as a friend of a friend, but she and Mom quickly became close. They were soon inseparable, and when the vacation was over, both were in tears as they said goodbye. Mom and Laurie stayed in regular contact over the years, mostly through letters and emails. None of that may sound extraordinary, except for one small detail …
Mom didn’t speak English. She and Laurie communicated through translators (usually my wife). Yet somehow they managed to form an unbreakable bond.
Even in her final hours, Mom was still making friends. She wouldn’t stop thanking the doctors and nurses working at her hospital station, and she wanted to introduce all of us when we went to visit. Mom was amazed at their ability to remain positive, kind, and compassionate despite the nature of their job, which had them seeing pain and suffering every day. They deserved recognition and appreciation. Mom helped give it to them.
I could go on about Mom’s ability to connect with others — the years she spent caring for her own aged mother and mother-in-law, the endless hours volunteering her time to help others. But of all the lessons Mom taught me through the years, this was the greatest: Cultivating meaningful relationships is hard work, but it’s more than worth the effort.
The value of strong relationships
Our lives depend on our relationships with others. From the moment we’re born, we rely on others to help raise us, nurture us, care for us. No matter how independent or self-reliant we become, we will always accomplish more with the help of others.
But achievements are only the beginning. Research indicates that good relationships also make us happier and healthier.
So, how can you cultivate better relationships? Simply put, great relationships thrive on trust.
At times, we hand over trust to complete strangers without a second thought—the pilot tasked to fly us home or the chef who cooks our food when we go out to eat. But this type of trust is circumstantial; it comes and goes depending on the situation. To build trust into deeper relationships requires providing others with benefits over a longer period of time.
We might imagine each of our relationships as a bridge we build between us and another person. Any strong bridge must be built on a solid foundation — and for relationships, that foundation is trust. Without trust, there can be no love, no friendship, no lasting connection between people. But where there is trust, there is motivation to act. If you trust someone is looking after your best interests, you will do almost anything that person asks of you.
One of the best ways to improve the relationship between you and another person is to help them.
Think about your favorite boss or teacher. Where they graduated from, what kind of degree they have, even their previous accomplishments—none of this is relevant to your relationship. But what about the hours they were willing to take out of their busy schedule to listen or help out? Their readiness to get down in the trenches and work alongside you?
Actions like these inspire trust.
The same principle applies in your family life. It’s often the small things that matter: an offer to make a cup of coffee or tea, pitching in with the dishes or other housework, helping carry in groceries from the car.
In fact, a spirit of helpfulness is what actually helped me woo my wife. We had been friends for a year before I asked her out, but she turned me down. I took it hard. She said we could still be friends — something I wasn’t sure I was capable of. But I knew she was special and I wasn’t ready to let her out of my life completely, so I agreed.
Somehow, we did manage to remain friends. A year later, I could sense her feelings toward me had started to change. … so I asked if she’d reconsider.
In 2018, we celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary.
Once we were together, I asked her what changed her mind about me. “You never stopped being kind and helpful,” she said. “Other guys, if you weren’t interested in them romantically, they would get mean, or blame you, or become some completely different person. But you didn’t. You helped me through some difficult times, even after I rejected you. After we were friends for so long, I got to thinking: I know he’d make a great husband for someone. Why not me?”
Remember, whether you’re cultivating a relationship with a friend, a romantic partner, or a colleague: Trust is about the long game.
Help wherever and whenever you can.
EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence teaches you how to make emotions work for you, instead of against you.
This article first appeared on Thrive Global and wasan adapted excerpt of EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence.