You probably work with at least one person who you’d describe as relationship-savvy. Their marriage is happy, they have contacts throughout your firm, they know people from every part of your industry, they have friends on three continents and it seems like in a pinch they could call in a favor from anyone. You can see a direct link between their ability to manage relationships and their level of success. Nobody makes it through the world alone. Relationships open doors, solve problems and help to get results.
So how do relationship-savvy people do it? What do they know about relationships that you don’t? Here are five keys for you to begin unlocking your relationship potential.
1. FIRST, KNOW YOURSELF. “The best relationships are with people who have a good idea of who they are as a person, what they want, and where they’re going,” says Lorraine Banfield, a Denver-based life coach and psychotherapist. Relationships are two-way streets, and in order to be good at them, you have to have a clear, objective idea of how you come across to other people. There are worlds of techniques for getting to know yourself: daily journal writing, a weekly solo walk, personality-type tests like the famous Myers-Briggs . Just pick one and start, and remember that you’re trying to arrive at an idea of what it’s like for others to be in a relationship with you. Are there key words or patterns that trigger outbursts or make you withdraw? Are you overly accommodating or demanding? Do you avoid confrontation? Are there certain kinds of people you’re always attracted to or always experience friction with? This kind of self-analysis is a crucial first step for anyone wanting to increase their relationship savvy. “The more you understand yourself, the easier it is to figure out how to communicate and deal with other people so that you can be influential with them and build strong relationships,” says author and executive coach Bud Bilanich, The Common Sense Guy.
An important part of self-knowledge is having a very clear idea of your goals. Jim Cathcart has developed a formula for Relationship Intelligence® in which a crucial element is one’s desired outcome. What do you hope to gain from any particular relationship, or, more largely, from your life? A sale? A promotion? A mentor? Advice? Is your goal to become a portfolio manager at a major Wall Street firm? Knowing what you want will help you pursue the right relationships and go about them in the smartest way. Talk to a career counselor, write down your priorities, keep a journal of your goals. The more sharply you can define your desired outcomes, the smarter your relationships will be.
2. BUT . . . IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU. Author and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar has said, “You can get everything you want in life if you just help enough other people get what they want.” Therein lies the real secret to relationship success: a relationship, as defined by Cathcart, is a connection in which value is exchanged, and if you aren’t offering value, the attempted relationship is a bust. “It’s not who you know that counts,” Cathcart says. “It’s not who they know that counts, and it’s not who knows you that counts. It’s who’s glad they know you. That’s the only point at which you have an asset. Prior to that you only have an address.” If you want to have a relationship with someone, you need to find out what they want, because people are glad to know you only when they see a connection between you and their desired outcome.
Forget, for the time being, your own immediate goals, and assume a genuine attitude of service to the other person. “You have to help with no expectation of return,” says Bilanich. “Some people think that means you’ll get taken advantage of. I think the opposite is true. Demonstrating a willingness to do things for other people even if they don’t do something back for you is how you build relationships.” Think of the “Pay It Forward” concept, or of karma: Your task must be greater than simply achieving your goal – it sounds loopy, but you’ll build much stronger relationships if your focus is to make the world a happier place, to put good stuff out into the universe. Of course there is an inherent contradiction between consciously seeking out relationships with a desired outcome in mind and being selflessly interested in helping others. Yet successful people seem able to negotiate that paradox, letting go of their own desires without losing sight of their goals. It’s a mindset that comes with practice, says Cathcart. “You have to cultivate it. People are born selfish because survival is our greatest instinct. Try to find a two-year-old who’s willing to put his desires aside to help you. It doesn’t exist. Selflessness is learned, mature behavior.”
3. BUILD THE RIGHT RELATIONSHIPS THE RIGHT WAY. Choose your relationships wisely. Who will help you reach your goals? This doesn’t mean always kissing up to the most powerful person in an organization. “You don’t want to ignore people just because they don’t seem to be in a position to do something for you in the immediate moment you’re considering it,” says Bilanich. Besides power brokers, we need relationships with people who will make us happy, who will give us confidence, who will be our cheerleaders – and who we’re in a good position to help. There’s nothing wrong with approaching powerful people with your goal in mind, or hitching your star to a mentor. But it must be done in the right spirit, which means that you must always bring something to the table, to make them glad they know you. This means approaching with an open mind and a genuine curiosity about what makes them tick and what they most want – a mindset that is impossible if you’re too caught up in your own desires.
Always be selective about who you choose to surround yourself with. “There’s a saying that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with,” says Lorraine Banfield. “So you want to spend time with people you value and respect.” Beware of cynical people, especially in the workplace; they can be quite alluring but will do little to help you move forward.
As you enter into a relationship with someone – a romantic partner, a client, a new boss, an employee – set some ground rules. Experts speak of establishing a “relationship map,” in which the two parties lay out their expectations for dealing with each other and what they hope to gain from the collaboration. This is where the self-knowledge you’ve acquired comes in handy. If you’ve come to realize that you crave structure and organization, let your partner know that from the outset. Perhaps the other person is the same way, in which case you’ll probably work well together. Perhaps not – but knowing that about each other will go a long way toward ensuring the success of the relationship. Some personality-type tests such as the Forte allow you and your partner to be analyzed together, and flag potential problem areas for your working together.
Judith Glaser, the founder of the Creating WE Institute, believes that every relationship should be based on the concept of creating the “I” within the “We.” This means that each party is equally valued and honored. When you’re starting up a relationship, Glaser says, “Think about what the pull of energy is. When you start to pull people toward you, the We is what emerges. Start asking, ‘How can we create something together that’s bigger than both of us?’ In all relationships, the idea is to find ways to pull people toward you, to get people excited and passionate, and then to find things to work on together that will make your lives fuller and richer and more meaningful. That’s what binds people together in great relationships and results in the power coming from both of you.” Think of the relationship-mapping session as what Glaser calls a “co-creating” conversation: “How will we support each other in making sure that the work we need to do together gets done in the best way possible?”
Learn more about The Art of Connecting with the online course The Power of Connection.