11/13/2011 02:33 pm ET Updated Oct 11, 2012

Sending Messages to Build Connections

Humans are social animals and part of successful socializing is understanding the person we're talking to.

To smooth the communication process, we continually signal who we are by fiddling with the spaces in which we find ourselves. We read and interpret "signals," whether they're sent by family members or others: throw pillows here, a vacation photo there, painting a wall a color linked to a particular university (how else can you explain all of that orange stuff in the home of Princeton graduates?). Personal touches signal to others things that we value about ourselves. This is the second article in a series about creating spaces that build powerful family bonds.

As a species, we want people to feel comfortable when they're talking with us, we want them to have cues about who we are -- and we benefit from being reminded about ourselves. Informed conversation is key for building connections among family members.

Both individuals and families can customize spaces; the things added to a place or modified in it create territories that individuals and groups feel that they own. Having a territory is important because we can only relax completely when we're in one we own, either alone or with others. There we can order our thoughts. We can make sense of all that has happened to us recently. We can deal with issues that are important to us.

Positive family relationships depend on individuals having their own personal territories and the family collectively owning other spaces in a home. Individual territories can have floor-to-ceiling walls and a door that closes -- the classic single occupant bedroom -- but they don't have to. Edges of area rugs can be borders in shared bedrooms, and so can changes in ceiling heights or the light cast by a lamp or window. In individual territories, that single owner is showcased -- the space sings out who they are -- and the people who own it are reminded of the things about themselves that they value as they send the same information to the world at large.

The shared territory is just that, shared, so it should highlight common experiences and ideas. If multiple family members row crew, an image of the water is a great way to enhance the space, if family members prize learning and reading, books on tables and on shelves send that message.

For positive family interactions, we need to acknowledge and appreciate who we are as individuals as well as team members. We need to emphasize our shared ideas, while respecting our individual points of view. We need territories, both individual and communal.