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How to Build Your ‘Emotional Bank Account’

The term “Emotional Bank Account” was made popular in Stephen Covey’s book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” and it provides a solid understanding of how trust is built and maintained, as well as how it can be destroyed. 

An Emotional Bank Account (EBA) is a metaphor for describing the amount of trust that’s been created in a relationship – the amount of safeness or trust we have with another human being and how much they have with us. When EBA levels are high, communication is easy and effective. When EBA levels are low, communication is more guarded and requires more work.

Here’s the concept. Every time we meet someone, an Emotional Bank Account is instantly established. It’s subconscious, but each action and attitude displayed is interpreted as either a deposit or a withdrawal. Since the building of trust requires ongoing investments, it behooves us to pay attention to the deposits we are making (or not making) when we interact with others.

Actions that constitute deposits:

  • Seek first to understand 
  • Keep promises
  • Be kind and courteous 
  • Clarify expectations
  • Be loyal to the absent
  • Apologize sincerely if you make a withdrawal
  • Be open to feedback 
  • Attend to the “little” things
  • Withdrawals are actions and attitudes that take away feelings of trust. They include:  
  • Seeking first to be understood 
  • Breaking promises
  • Being unkind and discourteous
  • Being disloyal 
  • Being prideful or arrogant
  • Ignoring the input of others

Anyone who wants to become more aware of how different attitudes and actions impact their EBAs can do a simple exercise for a few weeks. Here’s how it works: 

  1. Obtain four envelopes and a box of paper clips
  2. Identify four people with whom you interact daily and assign one envelope to each person
  3. Place five paper clips in each envelope

Each of the five clips represents an assumed level of deposits each person has made with you. At least once a day, evaluate your interactions with each person. If the person made a deposit into his or her account with you, transfer a clip from the bank (your regular box of paper clips) to that person’s envelope. For example, if the person kept a commitment, transfer a clip. If the person was open to feedback or apologized after making a mistake, transfer a clip. 

Transfer as many clips you believe are necessary to represent the size of deposits that person made in his or her account with you. Just be sure to be specific about what action or attitude you observed – do not simply transfer clips based on a vague emotional perception. Be specific.

Conversely, if the person made withdrawals, then transfer clips from that person’s envelope back to the bank. Again, be specific about the reason why. If the person makes so many withdrawals that you run out of clips in that person’s envelope, create IOUs on small pieces of paper and place them in that person’s envelope.

Do this exercise every day for 2 to 3 weeks at minimum. Then swap the roles by resetting the envelopes and transfer clips based on how you treat those other people. Again, be specific. In a month or two you will be vibrantly aware of ways to build – or diminish – trust.  

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