The Relational Bank Account

Relational AccountThink about the last person you interacted with. Ask yourself: If my relationship with that person is like a bank account, what is my account balance? Do I have a lot of credit with this person, or have I been making withdrawals without any deposits? The answers will give you insight into how this person responds to you and to requests you make.

The “relational bank account” is a way to think about the goodwill that another person has toward you. It determines how this person will respond to you, especially when you make requests or act in a way that is potentially offensive. The higher your balance, the more you can get away with – but each such behavior will lower your relational account balance. And when the relational account balance is low enough, the relationship will become strained, and then conflict-ridden.

You make deposits into the relational bank account by showing care and respect to the other person. Making good eye contact, asking about something that is important to them, listening intently, giving a sincere compliment, asking for their opinion, and speaking to them respectfully are all ways of making deposits. You can make even larger deposits by going out of your way to give them something they need or want, or by entrusting them with something that they know is important to you.

You make withdrawals from the relational bank account by asking them to do something for you. When you ask someone to do something for you, the way in which you make the request will have a big impact on the size of the withdrawal you are making. For example, when you ask someone to be quiet while another group member is talking, you can catch their eye, smile, and put your finger to your lips in a “shh” motion, and then smile and nod again when you see they are quiet (small withdrawal), or you could say loudly “David, you are being very disrespectful! Please be quiet when other students are talking! Is this what they teach you at home, to ignore other people when they’re talking?” (huge withdrawal).

It’s okay to ask others to do things, and a pattern of reciprocation (I’ll do what you ask, and you’ll do what I ask) is a powerful foundation for a relationship, as I discussed in a previous post about Sharing Power. When your relational account balance is high, you can afford to make some withdrawals – and, when you have a very high relational account balance, the other person may grant you “unlimited credit”, just like a bank does with its wealthiest clients. But when your relational balance is low, making a request is likely to result in grumbles or some resentment, or with downright refusal to do as you ask.

Strive to make constant deposits into your relational bank account with every person you interact with. Take a moment to give a sincere compliment (“I’m so glad you’re my neighbor”); consult with the other person about something that is meaningful for you, whether it’s relatively insignificant (“I’m trying to decide which of these two movies to watch – what do you think?”) or very important (“Can I ask for your opinion about this problem I’m having at work?”). Remember that every interaction results in a change to your relational account balance with the other person – it either goes down or it goes up. Keep this in mind, and aim to increase your account balance whenever possible.

For the next few days, try to be mindful of your relational bank account balance with people you interact with, and especially people who are close to you or with whom you interact frequently. Make many deposits, and be mindful of withdrawals. After doing this for a few days, you will probably improve your relational account balance in many of these relationships, and interactions will become smoother. Come back and share your observations in the comments section for this post. We would love to hear how your experiment turned out.

Acknowledgement: The concept of the relational account is based on Stephen Covey‘s concept of an emotional bank account, which he introduced in his excellent book the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Although closely related, the two concepts are distinct. For example, in the Emotional bank account framework, one should avoid making withdrawals and apologize for them.In the relational account framework, withdrawals are a normal part of a relationship and, indeed, can strengthen a relationship, as long as one remains mindful of keeping an overall positive relational account balance. Such differences notwithstanding, I wanted to recognize Covey’s immense contribution to the field of interpersonal relationships, and the foundational importance of his model of the emotional bank account.

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