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Clever relationships

I've now spent quite a few years in relationship management. Relationship management, engagement and communications is what I do for living and do it well. In fact, I'm passionate about relationship management. Here are some thoughts on relationship management - be it business or personal relationships, honestly I don't see them very differently, the principles behind them are always the same.

First and foremost I disagree with the term 'relationship management'. Relationships shouldn't be managed. Management for some reason sounds like attempts at manipulation, or some kind of mechanical process. People aren't silly kids or robots. Even the most silly of us can sooner or later sense that we're being manipulated and we start resenting the manipulator. The smarter of us will sense a manipulator well before the interaction becomes destructive.

Relationships can be built or shaped, maintained and nurtured. That is, if we indeed want to build a relationship with a person. Because at the end of the day we have the power to decide what kind of relationship we want to build, if any. We can decide to have minimal interaction with a person, or even ruin the existing relationship. As long as this is a conscious and well-informed decision, I don't see why not.

People sometimes wrongly assume that relationship building implies that we should have good relationships with everyone and anyone. Not true at all. It's impossible and unnecessary to have good relationships with everyone. But if we make a conscious choice to build a relationship - any type of relationship - we should take care and time to maintain and nurture it. Otherwise why bother building it?

So what does clever relationship building look like?

Whether it's a business or personal relationship, below are some things to consider:

1. Why bother?

Define your purpose. Why do you want to build this relationship? What do you want to achieve through this relationship?

Relationship without a purpose can't succeed because you don't know where you're going with it. You can't measure its success, either. Neither can you have a meaningful conversation with your counterpart or set any expectations for them or for yourself.

2. Who are you?

Know yourself: who are you and what value do you bring to this relationship? What are your behaviour patterns, strengths and weaknesses? What triggers you? What makes you passionate?

It's a mistake to think that you can get away with bringing absolutely nothing to a relationship and expect that people will somehow get excited about this. You may be bringing creative ideas, knowledge and expertise, listening and facilitation skills, any kind of practical support - whatever that is, it's important to realise that you should be bringing something. Even if it's just time spent listening to your friend's troubles over a cup of coffee - you're still bringing your time and attention.

Knowing yourself will help you be authentic in your communication. Authentic people are more likely to be liked and trusted, because they like and trust themselves.

3. Who are you dealing with?

Study the other person: what’s their relationship goal, behaviour patterns, triggers, strengths and weaknesses? What makes them passionate?

Relationships don’t live without ongoing conversation. How can we build any kind of sustainable relationship with a person if we aren't taking the time to understand who they are and what's in it for them?

Please don't make assumptions and jump to conclusions. Assumptions are dangerous. So many things have been said about assumptions. If you do make assumptions, then please don't complain afterwards that your relationship hasn't gone to plan. Whose fault is it now?

4. Fit-for-purpose

Use fit-for-purpose tactics: your behaviour and communication should be aligned with your relationship purpose (point 1 above) and your own communication style (point 2), and tailored to your counterpart (point 3).

This is obviously an almost step-by-step process and you can't immediately jump to point 4 in this process. Well, some people are very lucky to be born with clever relationship building skills, so they can intuitively make the right judgement calls about interactions with other people (and by the way they follow these same principles, albeit intuitively). The rest of us have to take the time and effort to learn to follow a certain process to build good relationships.

5. Ask them

Check in on how the relationship is going: ask for feedback, provide feedback and keep talking. Based on feedback, review your goals.

Some people are quite vocal and will make sure you hear their concerns even if you don't ask. Some people won't speak up for whatever reason - maybe they're not as self-confident or maybe they have other things on their agenda and plan to backstab you. Unless you ask, you won't know. You may not know even if you ask, but at least you've tried.

We can sometimes feel that we're too busy or too scared to review relationships. Well, it's a mistake. Relationships that are ignored tend to review themselves in a big, sometimes, dramatic way. Why? Because there's always someone at the other end of the relationship and that person is most likely not a silly child and not a robot. If you aren't proactively shaping your relationship, the other person will and by then you may be well out of touch with their goals and tactics.

6. Adapt and flex

Be planned but flexible: you now have a plan, but that doesn't mean you can't deviate from it. Learn to play it by ear and be prepared to change your engagement and communication tactics as you go.

Remember that you change and other people change, too. Your communication should grow with you. The way you interact should take into consideration your counterpart's changes. Make adjustments to your relationship.

Playing it by ear doesn't mean acting on impulse, assumptions or making rush decisions for whatever reason. Instead, develop your emotional intelligence, listening skills and keep talking with your counterpart. That way you can come closer to those lucky ones born with excellent intuitive relationship building skills. That's what 'playing by ear' means - using intuitive insights (e.g. intellectual plus emotional insights) when planning and building relationships.

Last but not least, remember the three Ts

Talk with them

Don't talk to them or at them. Talk with them. Have a conversation. A conversation means a dialogue, not a monologue. A conversation includes listening and responding to what you've heard, not to what you imagine you've heard.

This sounds very basic and obvious, yet so many people get this wrong. I myself still sometimes get this wrong even though I specialise in relationship management.

Years and years ago there was that girl who attempted to become my friend. She loved monologues. She'd ring me and start talking. It was impossible to interrupt her. Once I let her talk on the phone and left the room (hello, the landline phones era). I was curious to see how soon she'd notice. She went on for 40 minutes or so. Then she hang up and later told me she was offended. This story is a perfect example of things not to do in any kind of relationship, on both sides, by the way.

Trust is key

Relationships are built on trust. I'm not talking here about total trust and transparency where people have absolutely no secrets from each other. I'm talking about some kind of predictability: people should be able to trust each other within the parameters of a given relationship.

Every relationship, depending on its nature, depth and duration, will have different parameters (principles) of trust, e.g. what people might expect from each other in various situations. Better yet, if we take the time to discuss and even document these expectations (principles). Obviously, trust parameters for a business partnership will be different from trust expectations in a long lasting friendship or marriage. And trust parameters in a short passing friendship will be minimal, but there'll be some.

Playing games with trust will always backfire in one way or another, sooner or later. I've always 'admired' the recklessness (or naivety?) of people who play games with trust and then get surprised by the results.

Timing matters

Speak the right words and ask the right questions at the right time. Act at the right time. In any kind of partnership, business or personal, timing is important. Once the right moment is gone, the right words don't matter any more. In fact, any words won't matter.

There's nothing worse than giving information to a decision maker who has already made the decision based on wrong information or no information at all. Trying to build a rapport with an audience lost half an hour ago when you started your boring presentation. Telling your talented employee how much you value them after they quit the job. Chasing your ex in a desperate attempt to prove how much you love them when they've already found another partner.


To summarise, building good relationships is reasonably straightforward but requires a thoughtful approach. Like anything else really.

Know what you want to achieve, know yourself and the other person, tailor your interaction to the audience, ask for feedback and adjust your approach. Talk with them, build trust and engage at the right time.

Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success. - Henry Ford.

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