by Bonnie Nelson, Advance Humanity Partner
This week Peace Corps Volunteers around the world are celebrating Peace Corps Week. As a Returned Volunteer it offers a moment to reflect on what I learned as a Volunteer and as an aspiring Everyday Humanitarian.
Time and again, relationships have been the most important piece of my service experience that I reflect on. I had positive interactions with wonderful colleagues, close friends, and a host family that accepted me the day I entered my new home. On the other hand, I had a very negative work environment, an apartment building supervisor that yelled at me every time he saw me, and I struggled to keep close ties with my fellow American Volunteers. Further, I had a huge network of acquaintances who were interested in my presence in Mongolia, both personally or professionally, though I didn’t quite know how to best engage them.
During Peace Corps trainings, rather than discussing how to build relationships, we discussed things in terms of “capacity building.” This term is more easy to quantify, but it doesn’t begin to capture the impact of the human to human interactions that a Peace Corps Volunteer experiences. I was trained on how to improve someone’s English vocabulary, but not on how to be a good friend or neighbor. This is a skill set that all Volunteers are expected to be equipped with, but we all have varying levels of expertise in this skill- even in cultures we know well, let alone a new one.
While in Mongolia, I felt like it was dumb luck that I was able to build friendships that got me much further in my projects and in my personal and professional success as a Volunteer. But the more I read about relationship building, I realize there are specific things we can all do to create, grow, and sustain positive reciprocal relationships with others. Now that I have had time to reflect, I thought Peace Corps Week offered a good chance to offer my own tips on relationship building to Volunteers currently serving and to all aspiring Everyday Humanitarians, as well as continue to reflect on my own relationship building skills.
1. Give Before Taking.
This aligns most closely with the idea of “capacity building” that Peace Corps trainings focused on. If one of your goals is for people in your network to think of you and provide opportunities to you, it’s vital to think of them first. As a Volunteer, this meant offering to teach someone else English before asking for local language lessons. It meant spending time working on a project you may be less interested in, only so you can get to know others who might want to work on your dream project with you. As an Everyday Humanitarian, it can be as simple as sending an interesting article to an acquaintance, offering to pick something up for another while you’re out of the office, or writing a thank you note to recognize someone else’s kind deed.
People are more likely to begin relationships with you if they know you, trust you, and like you from the start. Of course, this begins with the assumption that you are trustworthy and likable to begin with! As long as that is the case, don’t be afraid to let people see that. If you love meeting people at parties, don’t stop being that person. If you’d rather spend time one on one with others, take advantage of that skill and invite people out to settings where you can have in depth conversations. As the quote goes, you are the best you, you will always be the second best anyone else.
3. Dig Deeper.
Some relationships will be personal and some will be professional. The truly rich ones in my experience as a Volunteer were the ones where I bridged the gap between those two categories. By taking an interest in the children of my work colleagues, I gained their trust as a person and that resulted in a higher interest in working with me professionally. By helping my friends to organize events and provide them with professional skills, I strengthened friendships and created new colleagues in different organizations. By playing basketball on the weekend with my students, they were motivated to work harder in my classroom. Digging deeper requires observing others, realizing what is important to them (not just what is important to you!) and finding ways to strengthen those areas of your relationship.
4. Say No.
This one might not seem like a great way to build relationships. But it is vital in order to maintain respect and trust from friends and colleagues. I witnessed Volunteers who always said yes, and later ended up exhausted and resentful of others. Remember, the key is building reciprocal relationships. This does not mean doing everything for another person; this means, having a mutually respectful relationship where you are not taken advantage of or asked to do too much. By saying, “no” in a polite way occasionally, you can maintain much healthier relationships.
5. Stay in Contact.
It is easy to create a contact, but it is the maintenance phase that makes sustaining reciprocal relationships more difficult. As time passes and you fade from the forefront of a person’s mind to the back, you need to actively keep your relationships strong. Short emails, lunch or coffee invites, and posting relevant or fun articles to their Facebook walls are all ways to keep your relationships active. When a job posting comes up or you need a recommendation, it is a lot more comfortable to ask someone who you are in constant contact with instead of someone who you haven’t talked to in a year.
These were all methods of success that I found as a Peace Corps Volunteer, but of course no two Volunteer experiences are the same! Happy Peace Corps Week to all current, future, and former PCV's!