How to Build More Meaningful Relationships

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Have you ever met someone who rubbed you the wrong way?

Perhaps the person was arrogant, disrespectful, or vain. Perhaps he held political beliefs that made you cringe, aggressively hit on your girlfriend, or condemned you to the infernos of hell for eating meat.

You avoid these people. You label them boorish plant-eating psychopaths and move on.

But sometimes, you encounter them again. And everything has changed.

You have a killer conversation. You discover that you’re both interested in the environment, have an ungrateful and demanding boss, and love playing pranks on your left-handed cousin from Florida.

You can’t believe how this person has changed or, gulp, how wrong you were about him. And weeks or months later, that person is your best friend, spouse, or business partner.

Most people have experienced some variant of this situation. It’s a classic tale of faulty first impressions and second chances that end in beautiful friendships and romances.

But this tale is the exception.

Consider how many more times you never gave someone a second chance, forgot about them, or continued to think they were ignorant ass faces. Too many.

While there are undoubtedly unpleasant people in the world, these perceptions we hold onto are worth questioning.

Often, people fall victim to cognitive biases – mental errors in thinking and decision making – that prevent them from understanding and connecting with others. These perceptions lead to missed opportunities to build new, meaningful relationships.

By becoming aware of these unconscious cognitive biases and practicing two relationship building techniques, you can reduce the mental errors you make and start connecting with more people.

4 Cognitive Biases that Influence Relationship Building

There are four cognitive biases that limit our ability to build meaningful relationships: naive realism, the fundamental attribution error, the confirmation bias, and the in-group bias.

Naive Realism

Remember when you complimented your friend on her nice black shirt and she said that it was dark blue, not black? A small back and forth ensued, but who was right? You were of course. This is naive realism in action.

Naive realism is the tendency to believe that you perceive the world objectively and accurately. If others disagree with you, you think they are misinformed, irrational, or biased. If your friend sees the shirt as dark blue, she just isn’t seeing the world correctly and probably needs to get glasses.

When you believe you see the world objectively, you develop a false confidence in your own perceptions. Your instinct is to write off people who hold beliefs different than yours. You believe they are biased.

This bias creates a hurdle to understanding and building relationships with people who perceive the world differently than you.

Fundamental Attribution Error

Have you ever seen a mom yelling at her kids in the grocery store?

You wonder why she is such an angry person. But did you consider that she was just diagnosed with cancer and told she only has six months to live, or that she was laid off from her job and doesn’t know how to make rent this month?

Unlikely. The fundamental attribution error is the tendency to associate people’s behavior with their personality and not the external events in their lives. This bias leads you to form inaccurate impressions and beliefs about the people you encounter.

When you see a mom displaying angry behavior, you believe she is an angry person. You underweight the external situations that are influencing her behavior.

And when you believe that someone is an angry person, you naturally avoid them. And your chance at a meaningful relationship is now zero.

But this “angry person” may be a cheerful and kind soul 99 percent of the time. And by equating their behavior to their personality, you might miss out on a future mentor, Friday night Netflix buddy, or romantic partner.

Confirmation Bias

What do you believe about a plant-based diet?

Is it the healthiest and most ethical way of eating, or is it a hippie fad that deprives you of the essential nutrients? Maybe you’re somewhere in the middle.

Whatever you believe, the confirmation bias is the force that will keep you holding close to that stance. It is the tendency to search for, interpret, and favor information confirming your existing beliefs while simultaneously devaluing information that is inconsistent with your beliefs.

If you support plant-based diets, it’s likely that you will only read articles and books that support this belief. You’ll surround yourself with friends who also choose a plant-based diet. When you hear information against a plant-based diet, you will devalue it and question its credibility.

The confirmation bias is powerful. It creates overconfidence in your beliefs, even when valid evidence contradicts them.

It leads you to surround yourself with people and sources of information that agree with you. But in doing so, you miss out on understanding and hearing other perspectives that may enrich your life and lead to meaningful relationships.

In-group bias

Imagine a startup CEO interviews two candidates for a marketing role. One candidate attended his alma mater and joined the same fraternity. The other has deep marketing experience and went to an Ivy League school. Who gets the job?

The candidate who went to the CEO’s alma mater has an advantage. The in-group bias is the tendency to favor people in your in-group, the social group you psychologically identify with. Your in-group is often associated with your race, gender, age, religion, or culture.

Because the candidate shared an alma mater and fraternity with the CEO, he will likely be evaluated and treated more favorably than the more qualified candidate.

With relationship building, the in-group bias can limit the diversity of your social circles. You are likely to be more comfortable with individuals in your in-group. You will miss out on engaging with smart and interesting people that fall outside of that group.

How to Overcome your Cognitive Biases

A natural question about these cognitive biases is “How can I stop them from happening?”

To start, you don’t necessarily want to eliminate these biases. While they can hinder relationship building, these deeply ingrained mental shortcuts help us navigate the world more effectively.  

Believing that you see the world objectively keeps you sane. Evaluating people by their behavior keeps you safe. Holding your beliefs close gives you confidence in an uncertain world. Favoring your in-group helps you quickly relate to people.

But sometimes these mental shortcuts don’t work the way they were intended. And you want to address those cases where they don’t serve you.

Writers who discuss cognitive biases often assert that the best you can do is be aware of these mental errors. With awareness, you can at least catch yourself every now and then.

Awareness is certainly the first step. By understanding how these cognitive biases can limit your ability to build meaningful relationships with others, you are well ahead of the pack.

But you can do more than simple awareness. You can take intentional action. There are two principles that can immediately help you build more meaningful relationships.

Seek to understand, not judge

Throughout your life, you will encounter people with radically different behaviors, beliefs, and appearances. It’s natural to pass judgment on the people you encounter. You can’t and won’t be friends with everyone.

But often people pull the judgment trigger too early. Combat this by attempting to first understand everyone you meet.

Instead of avoiding people with different political, economic, or religious beliefs, ask them where they grew up, what they read, and why this belief is important to them.

Instead of labeling a new acquaintance as an angry or arrogant person when they behave that way, seek to understand what’s driving their behavior and ask how you can help.

Instead of attending a political rally for a cause that you and your friends will die for, try going to an event supporting a cause you despise and calmly talk to 10 others at the event.

You’ll learn a lot more from people when you seek to understand, rather than judge them. You’ll also be more likable and a better conversationalist.

What can I learn from this person?

You will transform your interactions with others if you approach each person with the idea that you can learn at least one thing from them.

This principle will help you develop a genuine interest in other people, ask better questions, and learn from people with different backgrounds and beliefs.

Bankers can learn from janitors and janitors from bankers if both parties put their humility hats on and have a conversation.

You’ll be surprised by the wisdom that people keep locked up within and what they are willing to share if you have a genuine curiosity about their lives.

And when you approach every conversation this way, you’ll spend a lot more time listening, learning, and connecting with others.

Everyone is just navigating the world the best they can.

Be aware of the cognitive biases that can be barriers to building meaningful relationships. Address them by seeking to understand others and learning one thing from everyone you meet.

You’ll quickly develop deeper and more meaningful relationships that will help you better celebrate the victories, weather the challenges, and understand what it means to be a human.

If you enjoyed this essay…