(From Handbook For Humans)
What does it take for understanding to deepen between two people? What does it take for someone to really open up and tell us about themselves? Is there something so important to people that our desire to understand them depends upon it?
Stephen Covey talks about a great metaphor called the emotional bank account, which conveys very clearly a simple yet profound idea about what relationships are based on.
The emotional bank account is like a financial bank account, only it measures how we’re doing with another person. And the fascinating thing about it is that it measures not how much love they feel for us, but rather, how much trust they feel in us. Its unit of measure is trust, not love, and that represents an extremely valuable lesson about relationships.
This lesson is that the caring or regard that we have for another is founded in a bedrock of trust. If we’re beginning to trust someone less we’re beginning to become more guarded. If our trust is diminishing, we may still love them but we’ll tend to be less open, less vulnerable. And others react the same way if their trust in us is diminishing.
So understanding between us and another ultimately depends upon something else—the trust between us. Many romances founder upon this principle: The trust becomes so damaged that, even though some love may still be there, the couple can no longer function well together.
The saying, “It’s greater to be trusted than to be loved,” expresses this wisdom: That those people we trust more and more we come to love more. It feels safe to love them; there’s no conflict between our trust and our feelings.
So if we want to be good at loving other people, we must first become trustworthy. No tricks or gimmicks will do, because over time people do sense where we’re really coming from. In general, people trust us more as we become more worthy of their trust.
The emotional bank account is a metaphor to measure someone’s trust in us. It measures how dependably safe they feel around us. But how do we know how high or how low the account is?
We know by using our intuition, our inner sense of what is so. If we just ask ourselves where our emotional bank account is with someone—and we’re mindful—the answer will come with great reliability.
As an experiment, let’s imagine several different people in our life and ask ourselves how our emotional bank account is with each of them, on a scale of zero to a hundred. With a little practice we’ll find that our intuition knows immediately where we stand with someone else.
When we make continuing deposits with another person through integrity, appreciation, understanding and so on, we build up a reserve in our emotional bank account with that person. Their trust towards us increases. Conversely, if we act insincere, critical, insensitive, etc. the account goes down, because withdrawals are being made from it.
When the account is high, communication between two people is easy, spontaneous, understanding. They get our meaning even if it isn’t phrased right. If there’s a misunderstanding, we get the benefit of the doubt. Because they trust us, people are willing to open up more. In consequence, we come to understand them a lot better.
If we make a mistake with that person, it’s overlooked, forgiven, discounted. If we make a serious mistake, they’ll trust us enough to share it with us and work it out rather than build resentment or disconnect. When issues arise, they’re resolved in a spirit of love.
When we have a high account with another person, we have a lot of flexibility with them. Goodwill prevails because of that underlying trust. In friendship, romance, marriage it allows for deeper and deeper intimacy: They feel and we feel “I trust you enough to show you more of the real me, to be myself around you. I trust that you can accept even those parts of me that seem unlovable.”
If the emotional bank account falls into the medium range, communication suffers. Now it’s not so free and easy. Certain subjects are touchy or need to be avoided. Trust is still there, though less so. Mistakes are considered more seriously, because there’s less of a reserve to draw upon. But still, things are usually resolved satisfactorily, and the relationship gives a certain amount of fulfillment.
In a couple, this level looks like accommodation. They respect and tolerate each other, but the real aliveness, softness and vulnerability is missing except for occasional moments.
When the emotional bank account becomes low, we have to be careful of what we say. We’re walking on eggshells. Often we put what we want to say into writing to make sure we’ll be heard. There are strong feelings of resentment and being misunderstood. Tension smolders, and often there are battles, arguments. Verbal defensiveness alternates with emotional withdrawals and cold war. Self-righteousness is very prominent.
When the account sinks lower and becomes overdrawn, the situation often ends up in open warfare. A couple will refuse to speak to each other, or go to court and confess each other’s sins. There is active mistrust. Bad motives are assumed, and words or actions are interpreted through a negative filter. The parties tend to demonize each other.
The emotional bank account is an example of reaping what we sow. If we belittle others, condemn them, blow up at them, take advantage, act deceptively and so on, we’re making withdrawals in the account and its balance is falling lower.
It’s good to understand that rebuilding an emotional bank account takes time. We can’t just see the error of our ways and expect some relationship to suddenly get better, though that is occasionally possible.
Usually there is no quick fix, since trust tends to build slowly but fall quickly, like financial markets. “It slides faster than it glides,” as the saying goes. So it takes time to rebuild. Accounts fall low because of large or repeated withdrawals, and we can’t just snap our fingers and fill up the account again. But we can make a start.
Raising the level of an emotional bank account is a process, like growing a crop. It takes time. It usually gets restored slowly, a gradual process of making periodic deposits into the account while doing our best to avoid those things that cause withdrawals.
Let’s keep this metaphor of the emotional bank account in mind as we examine the details concerning understanding and appreciating other people, and thus practicing the golden rule with them.
© 1997 by James Sloman