What if I told you that thinking hard about five simple words could develop your emotional intelligence, and improve some of your most important relationships?

It’s the type of practical exercise I explore in my free e-book, Improving Emotional Intelligence 2021: How to Get What You Want in Business and in Life, which you can download here.

The words describe types of relationships. You already know these words. In fact, you might even use them interchangeably without thinking. They’re about labels and relationships. 

Each word describes a different kind of positive relationship, but using them correctly creates guiderails, making it easier to stay in control during your interactions with people.

Let’s go to the five words. We’ll quickly summarize their definitions, explain why people get tripped up on them, and explore how thinking in an emotionally intelligent way about them will benefit you.

Just 5 similar words

The five words are: friend, acquaintance, ally, colleague, and neighbor. Let’s list the summary definitions, from Lexico.com, just to keep on the same page.

First, friend: “A person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.”

Next, acquaintance: “A person one knows slightly, but who is not a close friend.” 

Third, ally: “A person or organization that cooperates with or helps another in a particular activity.”

Fourth, colleague: “An associate or coworker typically in a profession or in a civil or ecclesiastical office and often of similar rank or state; a fellow worker or professional.”

Finally, neighbor: “A person living near or next door to the speaker or person referred to.”

Already, some readers might be thinking about how we sometimes use these interchangeably, and how it’s become easier to fall into that trap over the last few years.

Think of the word friend, and how social media has watered it down. It’s a less powerful noun that it once was, and instead has become a casual verb: to friend, meaning to add someone to your virtual world, maybe forever, with a simple click.

Compare that to befriend, which is the actual practice of making a new friendship, especially with someone who needs help or support.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Because exploring each concept, and living up to each role intentionally and with emotional intelligence, infuses relationships with honesty and makes them more rewarding.

Friendship as a concept.

It’s good that we explore friendship first, because it’s the most powerful, intense of these relationships. Ironically, it’s also the easiest one to mistake some of the lesser ones for.

(Quick clarification: When we talk about some of these relationships being “more than” others, that’s not a reflection of the value of the people in the relationship; just a reflection of the intensity of the relationship itself.)

True friendships can be rare to the point of cliche. And while that seems like a brutal truth, it’s also a blessing. Because true friendships require work. They require time, duty, and trust. 

They involve a continual effort to live up to that “bond of mutual affection” that we talked about. And, they involve your reasonable expectation that the other person will do the same for you.

Emotionally intelligent people understand that the very nature of their relationships underpins their interactions and communications. It’s why you come running when your friends need you, in a way that you might not feel obligated do for people in lesser positive relationships. 

Acquaintanceship as a concept. 

Let’s do acquaintanceship next, to juxtapose it with friendship. Acquaintanceships are positive relationships, but they are also where some people tend to lump things together, to their detriment. 

Actually, we can use a funny line from the comedian John Mulaney to illustrate part of this, talking about Jesus:

It is hard to make friends when you are an adult male. I think that’s the greatest miracle of Jesus, truly. He was a 33-year-old man and he had 12 best friends. And they were not his wife’s friends’ husbands. And he didn’t meet them a long time ago in school. He met them in his 30s!

See what I mean? Proximity plus affinity equals acquaintanceship, not necessarily friendship. That takes more work.

It’s true for everyone. Sheer math would suggest that most people have more acquaintances than friends.

But there’s another pitfall. People sometimes suggest that they understand entire groups of people–their professions, political views, even racial and ethnic backgrounds–because they have “friends” who fit those descriptions.

  • “Some of my best friends are liberals!” 
  • “My friend Larry is a cop. He told me the real story.” 
  • “I know what doctors think about this. I’m friends with a lot of them.”

If they had higher emotional intelligence, they might realize that what they really have are acquaintances. If they had even more, they might also realize that it’s hard ever to truly understand another person’s nonshared experience.

And that means they don’t actually have the broad understanding they thought.

Alliance as a concept.

Here’s an apt and timely one. Alliances are a bit transactional.

They might be relationships with people with whom you disagree on a lot of issues. Maybe you don’t even like them that much. Or perhaps it’s not even that negative, but instead that you just don’t have the base for a deeper relationship.

If you’re playing a pickup soccer game, and you’ve never met your teammates before, then they’re most likely your allies. If you’re working for a political candidate, the peers with whom you’re working or volunteering are allies.

Here’s a world-historical example: During World War II, the United States, the U.K., France, Poland, and other countries worked alongside the Soviet Union — a country they have been at odds with under any other circumstance — to beat the Axis.

Heck, they literally called themselves the Allies.

You don’t have to like everything about your allies. You don’t have to agree with them on most things. And, you don’t necessarily have to end
the alliance and cancel them if you find out about something else you don’t like. 

Again, this goes to the relationship, and your expectations, and how framing it truthfully is a sign of emotional intelligence. 

Colleagues and neighbors

I think we can group these last two words together, because they’re both descriptions of situational relationships.

We work together; we’re colleagues. We live next door; we’re neighbors.

But that level of familiarity — seeing each other even every day — doesn’t necessarily mean that our relationship ever develops into acquaintanceship or friendship. It doesn’t mean we’d be allies on any issue; we might actually oppose one another.

Writing or reading it like this seems obvious. But in practice, how many people don’t make the distinction, even privately, among their relationships with neighbors and colleagues? 

If you assume your neighbor or colleague should treat you as they’d treat a close friend — or if they assume you should treat them that way — well, that’s likely an incorrect assumption.

It’s a sign of lower emotional intelligence. And it could be a recipe for disaster.

You can, and should, endeavor to get along. You can hope that maybe some of these situational relationships will develop into closer relationships. Humans need that.

But failing to see the distinction can lead to disputes and disappointment. 

Improving emotional intelligence

Some people say they don’t like to put labels on relationships. If that works for them, great. But I think the process of thinking about relationships makes them better.

  • Imagine you’re talking with someone, and you realize she’s about to make what you think is a mistake. Is she a friend, who might expect you to offer feedback? Or a neighbor–and maybe you’re better off keeping your mouth shut, and your value judgments to yourself?
  • Imagine you email an invitation to someone for a fantastic event, and he never replies. Is your relationship such that you’d expect to hear back? Or are you simply acquaintances or colleagues, and he might have thought you didn’t expect a reply if he couldn’t go?

None of this is without exception. Heck, I tend to use the word “friend” when I’m referring to acquaintances, or even addressing audiences — expressing affinity with people I don’t actually know.

But keeping these distinctions in mind is a sign of higher emotional intelligence. It makes it easier to decide whether to devote time and effort to supporting other people. It makes it easier to limit the power of toxic people in your life.  

And it makes it easier to recognize the relationships that you’d like to improve and strengthen, and guides you toward making the effort to make that possible. 

In the end, it’s about being honest with yourself, and with the people you interact with — and improving the odds that both you, and they, will get what you want and need out of life. 

Don’t forget, friends (see what I did?). My free e-book, Improving Emotional Intelligence 2021: How to Get What You Want in Business and in Life, is available here for free.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.