There is a growing body of research showing the importance of having positive relationships in our lives. In fact, the kinds of relationships as well as the number of social relationships we have greatly contribute to our overall mental and physical health
One of the keys to making and maintaining connections with others is the ability to develop and foster relationships. This ability is known as “interpersonal skills”. Like any kind of skill, interpersonal skills can be learned. That’s the good news! The bad news is that this is a skill set that is often taken for granted. It is true that some people seem to naturally be able to socialize with others in any kind of setting. These are the folks who tend to have lots of friends because people want to be around them. But for many of us, this seemingly easy and natural ability does not come quite so easily. Lots of people struggle to meet others or to deepen their connections with friends, even partners.
Social Relationships and Health
What we know for sure is that interpersonal skills are directly linked to our ability to make and keep relationships. What we are now finding out is that these social connections have a huge influence on both our physical and mental well-being.
In one study (Cohen, Doyle, Skoner, Rabin, & Gwaltney, 1997) the number and diversity of social relationships was found to be important to one’s susceptibility to cold and flu. Of 276 participants in the study, those who had three or fewer types of relationships (i.e., spouse, parents in-law, children, other close family members, close neighbours, friends, workmates, schoolmates, fellow volunteers, religious and non-religious group affiliations) were 4x more likely to catch a cold than were persons with six or more relationships! They tested this by injecting all participants with rhinoviruses that cause cold and flu symptoms.
There are also many studies that show that social isolation (i.e., not having social relationships) is a significant health risk factor. In fact, the negative health risks of social isolation is comparable to the health risks of smoking, having high blood pressure, being obese, or not getting enough physical activity. (To read more about the studies that looked at the impact of social isolation on health see Kiecolt-Glaser, McGuire, Robles, and Glaser, 2002; Bowling & Grundy, 1998).
Finding Your Bearings
There are six main interpersonal skills that are necessary to developing supportive and healthy relationships. They are:
Finding Supportive Relationships
The first two, finding supportive relationships and giving support, are explained further here in the City of Social Connection. You must travel a little further into the Springs of Emotional Expression to learn more about self-disclosure and emotional expression. Since conflicts can arise in any relationships, you may find it useful to venture into the Forest of Conflict to learn about how to handle relationship tension and trouble. Be careful to not get lost and tangled-up in the forest though – there’s some good information on Forgiveness, Spirituality, and Meaning on the other side.