The Emotional Bank Account
Excerpts from Stephen Covey's best selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
We all know what a financial bank account is. We make deposits into it and build up a reserve from which we can make withdrawals when we need to. An Emotional Bank Account is a metaphor that describes the amount of trust that's been built up in a relationship. It's the feeling of safeness you have with another human being.
If I make deposits into an Emotional Bank Account with you through courtesy, kindness, honesty, and keeping my commitments to you, I build up a reserve. Your trust toward me becomes higher, and I can call upon that trust many times if I need to. I can even make mistakes and that trust level, that emotional reserve, will compensate for it. My communication may not be clear, but you'll get my meaning anyway. You won't make me "an offender for a word." When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.
But if I have a habit of showing discourtesy, disrespect, cutting you off, overreacting, ignoring you, becoming arbitrary, betraying your trust, threatening you, or playing little tin god in your life, eventually my Emotional Bank Account is overdrawn. The trust level gets very low. Then what flexibility do I have?
None. I'm walking on mine fields. I have to be very careful of everything I say. I measure every word. It's tension city, memo heaven. It's protecting my backside, politicking. And many organizations are filled with it. Many families are filled with it. Many marriages are filled with it.
If a large reserve of trust is not sustained by continuing deposits, a marriage will deteriorate. Instead of rich, spontaneous understanding and communication, the situation becomes one of accommodation, where two people simply attempt to live independent life-styles in a fairly respectful and tolerant way. The relationship may further deteriorate to one of hostility and defensiveness. The "fight or flight" response creates verbal battles, slammed doors, refusal to talk, emotional withdrawal and self-pity. It may end up in a cold war at home, sustained only by children, sex, and social pressure, or image protection. Or it may end up in open warfare in the courts, where bitter ego-decimating legal battles can be carried on for years as people endlessly confess the sins of a former spouse.
And this is in the most intimate, the most potentially rich, joyful, satisfying and productive relationship possible between two people on this earth. The P/PC [Production/Production Capability] lighthouse is there; we can either break ourselves against it or we can use it as a guiding light.
Our most constant relationships, like marriage, require our most constant deposits. With continuing expectations, old deposits evaporate. If you suddenly run into an old high school friend you haven't seen for years, you can pick up right where you left off because the earlier deposits are still there. But your accounts with the people you interact with on a regular basis require more constant investment. There are sometimes automatic withdrawals in your daily interactions or in their perception of you that you don't even know about.
Remember that quick fix is a mirage. Building and repairing relationships takes time. If you become impatient with this apparent lack of response of his seeming ingratitude, you may make huge withdrawals and undo all the good you've done. "After all we've done for you, the sacrifices we've made, how can you be so ungrateful? We try to be nice and you act like this. I can't believe it!
It's hard not to get impatient. It takes character to be proactive, to focus on your Circle of Influence, to nurture growing things, and not to "pull up the flowers to see how the roots are coming." But there really is no quick fix. Building and repairing relationships are long-term investments.
Six Major Deposits
Let me suggest six major deposits that build the Emotional Bank Account.
1. Understanding the Individual
Really seeking to understand another person is probably one of the most important deposits you can make, and it is the key to every other deposit. You simply don't know what constitutes a deposit to another person until you understand that individual. What might be a deposit for you -- going for a walk to talk things over, going out for ice cream together, working on a common project -- might not be perceived by someone else as a deposit at all. It might even be perceived as a withdrawal, if it doesn't touch the person's deep interests or needs. One person's mission is another person's minutia. To make a deposit, what is important to another person must be as important to you as the other person is to you. You may be working on a high priority project when your six-year-old child interrupts with something that seems trivial to you, but it may be very important from his point of view. By accepting the value he places on what he has to say, you show an understanding of him that makes a great deposit.
Our tendency is to project out of our own autobiographies what we think other people want or need. We project our intentions on the behavior of others. We interpret what constitutes a deposit based on our own needs and desires, either now or when we were at a similar age or stage in life. If they don't interpret our effort as a deposit, our tendency is to take it as a rejection of our well-intentioned effort and give up.
The Golden Rule says to "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." While on the surface that could mean to do for them what you would like to have done for you, I think the more essential meaning is to understand them deeply as individuals, the way you would want to be understood, and then to treat them in terms of that understanding. As one successful parent said about raising children, "Treat them all the same by treating them differently."
2. Attending to the Little Things
The little kindnesses and courtesies are so important. Small discourtesies, little unkindnesses, little forms of disrespect make large withdrawals. In relationships, the little things are the big things. People are very tender, very sensitive inside. I don't believe age or experience makes much difference. Inside, even within the most toughened and calloused exteriors, are the tender feelings and emotions of the heart.
3. Keeping Commitments
Keeping a commitment or a promise is a major deposit; breaking one is a major withdrawal. In fact, there's probably not a more massive withdrawal than to make a promise that's important to someone and then not to come through. The next time a promise is made, they won't believe it. People tend to build their hopes around promises, particularly promises about their basic livelihood.
4. Clarifying Expectations
Imagine the difficulty you might encounter if you and your boss had different assumptions regarding whose role it was to create your job description.
"When am I going to get my job description?" you might ask.
"I've been waiting for you to bring one to me so that we could discuss it," your boss might reply.
"I thought defining my job was your role."
"That's not my role at all. Don't you remember? Right from the first, I said that how you do in the job largely depends on you."
"I thought you meant that the quality of my job depended on me. But I don't even know what my job really is."
"I did exactly what you asked me to do and here is the report."
"I don't want a report. The goals was to solve the problem -- not to analyze it and report on it."
"I thought the goal was to get a handle on the problem so we could delegate it to someone else."
How many times have we had these kinds of conversations?
"No, you're wrong! I said..."
"You did not! You never said I was supposed to..."
"Oh, yes I did! I clearly said..."
"You never even mentioned..."
"But that was our agreement..."
The cause of almost all relationship difficulties is rooted in conflicting or ambiguous expectations around roles and goals. Whether we are dealing with the question of who does what at work, how you communicate with your daughter when you tell her to clean her room, or who feeds the fish and takes out the garbage, we can be certain that unclear expectations will lead to misunderstanding, disappointment, and withdrawals of trust.
Many expectations are implicit. They haven't been explicitly stated or announced, but people nevertheless bring them to a particular situation. In marriage, for example, a man and a woman have implicit expectations of each other in their marriage roles. Although these expectations have not been discussed, or sometimes even recognized by the person who has them, fulfilling them makes great deposits in the relationship and violating them makes withdrawals.
That's why it's so important whenever you come into a new situation to get all the expectations out on the table. People will begin to judge each other through those expectations. And if they feel like their basic expectations have been violated, the reserve of trust is diminished. We create many negative situations by simply assuming that our expectations are self-evident and that they are clearly understood and shared by other people.
The deposit is to make the expectations clear and explicit in the beginning. This takes a real investment of time and effort up front, but it saves great amounts of time and effort down the road.
When expectations are not clear and shared, people begin to become emotionally involved and simple misunderstandings become compounded, turning into personality clashes and communication breakdowns.
Clarifying expectations sometimes takes a great deal of courage. It seems easier to act as though differences don't exist and to hope things will work out than it is to face the differences and work together to arrive at a mutually agreeable set of expectations.
5. Showing Personal Integrity
Personal integrity generates trust and is the basis of many different kinds of deposits. Lack of integrity can undermine almost any other effort to create high trust accounts. People can seek to understand, remember the little things, keep their promises, clarify and fulfill expectations, and still fail to build reserves of trust if they are inwardly duplicitous.
Integrity includes but goes beyond honesty. Honesty is telling the truth--in other words, conforming our words to reality. Integrity is conforming reality to our words--in other words, keeping promises and fulfilling expectations. This requires an integrated character, a oneness, primarily with self but also with life.
One of the most important ways to manifest integrity is to be loyal to those who are not present. In doing so, we build the trust of those who are present. When you defend those who are absent, you retain the trust of those present.
Suppose you and I were talking alone, and we were criticizing our supervisor in a way that we would not dare to if he were present. Now what will happen when you and I have a falling out? You know I'm going to be discussing your weaknesses with someone else. That's what you and I did behind our supervisor's back. You know my nature. I'll sweet-talk you to your face and bad-mouth you behind your back. You've seen me do it. That's the essence of duplicity. Does that build a reserve of trust in my account with you?
On the other hand, suppose you were to start criticizing our supervisor and I basically told you I agree with the content of some of the criticism and suggest that the two of us go directly to him and make an effective presentation of how things might be improved. Then what would you know I would do if someone were to criticize you to me behind your back?
For another example, suppose in my effort to build a relationship with you, I told you something someone else had shared with me in confidence. "I really shouldn't tell you this," I might say, "but since you're my friend..." Would my betraying another person build my trust account with you? Or would you wonder if the things you had told me in confidence were being shared with others?
Such duplicity might appear to be making a deposit with the person you're with, but it is actually a withdrawal because you communicate your own lack of integrity. You may get the golden egg of temporary pleasure from putting someone down or sharing privileged information, but you're strangling the goose, weakening the relationship that provides enduring pleasure in association.
Integrity in an interdependent reality is simply this: you treat everyone by the same set of principles. As you do, people will come to trust you. They may not at first appreciate the honest confrontational experiences such integrity might generate. Confrontation takes considerable courage, and many people would prefer to take the course of least resistance, belittling and criticizing, betraying confidences, or participating in gossip about others behind their backs. But in the long run, people will trust and respect you if you are honest and open and kind with them. You care enough to confront. And to be trusted, it is said, is greater than to be loved. In the long run, I am convinced, to be trusted will be also mean to be loved.
As a teacher, as well as a parent, I have found that the key to the ninety-nine is the one--particularly the one that is testing the patience and the good humor of the many. It is the love and the discipline of the one student, the one child, that communicates love for the others. It's how you treat the one that reveals how you regard the ninety-nine, because everyone is ultimately a one.
Integrity also means avoiding any communication that is deceptive, full of guile, or beneath the dignity of people. "A lie is any communication with intent to deceive," according to one definition of the word. Whether we communicate with words or behavior, if we have integrity, our intent cannot be to deceive.
6. Apologizing Sincerely When You Make a Withdrawal
When we make withdrawals from the Emotional Bank Account, we need to apologize and we need to do it sincerely. Great deposits come in the sincere words.
"I was wrong."
"That was unkind of me."
"I showed you no respect."
"I gave you no dignity, and I'm deeply sorry."
"I embarrassed you in front of your friends and I had no call to do that. Even though I wanted to make a point, I never should have done it. I apologize."
It takes a great deal of character strength to apologize quickly out of one's heart rather than out of pity. A person must possess himself and have a deep sense of security in fundamental principles and values in order to genuinely apologize.
People with little internal security can't do it. It makes them too vulnerable. They feel it makes them appear soft and weak, and they fear that others will take advantage of their weakness. Their security is based on the opinions of other people, and they worry about what others might think. In addition, they usually feel justified in what they did. They rationalize their own wrong in the name of
the other person's wrong, and if they apologize at all, it's superficial.
"If you're going to bow, bow low," say Eastern wisdom.
"Pay the uttermost farthing," says the Christian ethic.
To be a deposit, an apology must be sincere. And it must be perceived as sincere.
Leo Roskin taught, "It is the weak who are cruel. Gentleness can only be expected from the strong."
The Laws of Love and the Laws of Life
When we make deposits of unconditional love, when we live the primary laws of love, we encourage others to live the primary laws of life. In other words, when we truly love others without condition, without strings, we help them feel secure and safe and validated and affirmed in their essential worth, identity, and integrity. Their natural growth process is encouraged. We make it easier for them to live the laws of life -- cooperation, contribution, self-discipline, integrity -- and to discover and live true to the highest and best within them. We give them the freedom to act on their own inner imperatives rather than react to our conditions and limitations. This does not mean we become permissive or soft. That itself is a massive withdrawal. We counsel, we plead, we set limits
and consequences. But we love, regardless.
When we violate the primary laws of love--when we attach strings and conditions to that gift -- we actually encourage others to violate the primary laws of life. We put them in a reactive, defensive position where they feel they have to prove "I matter as a person, independent of you."
In reality, they aren't independent. They are counter-dependent, which is another form of dependency and is at the lowest end of the Maturity Continuum. They become reactive, almost enemy-centered, more concerned about defending their "rights" and producing evidence of their individuality than they are about proactively listening to and honoring their own inner imperatives. Rebellion is a knot of the heart, not of the mind. The key is to make deposits -- constant deposits of unconditional love.
Dag Hammarskjold, past Secretary-General of the United Nations, once made a profound, far-reaching statement: "It is more noble to give yourself completely to one individual than to labor diligently for the salvation of the masses."
I take that to mean that I could devote eight, ten, or twelve hours a day, five, six, or seven days a week to the thousands of people and projects "out there" and still not have a deep, meaningful relationship with my own spouse, with my own teenage son, with my closest working associate. And it would take more nobility of character -- more humility, courage, and strength -- to rebuild that one relationship than it would to continue putting in all those hours for all those people and causes.
In 25 years of consulting with organizations, I have been impressed over and over again by the power of that statement. Many of the problems in organizations stem from relationship difficulties at the very top -- between two partners in a company, between the president and an executive vice-president. It truly takes more nobility of character to confront and resolve those issues than it
does to continue to diligently work for the many projects and people "out there."
When I first came across Hammarskjold's statement, I was working in an organization where there were unclear expectations between the individual who was my right-hand man and myself. I simply did not have the courage to confront our differences regarding role and goal expectations and values, particularly in our methods of administration. So I worked for a number of months in a compromise mode to avoid what might turn out to be an ugly confrontation. All the while, bad feelings were developing inside both of us.
After reading that it is more noble to give yourself completely to one individual than to labor diligently for the salvation of the masses, I was deeply affected by the idea of rebuilding that relationship. I had to steel myself for what lay ahead, because I knew it would be hard to really get the issues out and to achieve a deep, common understanding and commitment. I remember actually shaking in
anticipation of the visit. He seemed like such a hard man, so set in his own ways and so right in his own eyes; yet I needed his strengths and abilities. I was afraid a confrontation might jeopardize the relationship and result in my losing those strengths.
I went through a mental dress rehearsal of the anticipated visit, and I finally became settled within myself around the principles rather than the practices of what I was going to do and say. At last I felt peace of mind and the courage to have the communication. When we met together, to my total surprise, I discovered that this man had been going through the very same process and had been longing for such a conversation. He was anything but hard and defensive.
Nevertheless, our administrative styles were considerably different, and the entire organization was responding to these differences. We both acknowledged the problems that our disunity had created.
Over several visits, we were able to confront the deeper issues, to get them all out on the table, and to resolve them, one by one, with a spirit of high mutual respect. We were able to develop a powerful complementary team and a deep personal affection which added tremendously to our ability to work effectively together.
Creating the unity necessary to run an effective business or a family or a marriage requires great personal strength and courage. No amount of technical administrative skill in laboring for the masses can make up for lack of nobility of personal character in developing relationships. It is at a very essential, one-on-one level, that we live the primary laws of love and life.