Making Relationships Work

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Few things will have as pervasive and positive an effect on your career as relationships skills. They help you collaborate, lead, and solve problems with greater ease. They allow you to leverage the abilities and skills of others. And they’ll get you noticed as someone with whom others like to work. 

I’ll highlight four relational skill domains, and within each we’ll characterize skilled actions that bring these domains to life. The four domains are: 1) learning from felt tension; 2) building bonds of trust; 3) creating clarity of purpose; and 4) initiating & sustaining purposive action. 

We’ll also note the stage-like themes that characterize the way relationships develop in the workplace, especially in groups. These themes - forming, storming, norming, and performing - represent the dynamics we must navigate to build high-trust, enduring, and effective relationships. (For more see my article on the Tuckman Model.) 

Learning from Felt Tension

Interpersonal tension can lead to stress, strain, and conflict – negative stuff. When it builds, persists, and becomes chronic, it exhausts us, depleting our social, emotional, and mental capacities to function well. But it’s also normal and can be a stimulus for growth – it depends on what we do it.  

Tension grows and becomes negative when we react defensively, or by denying our feelings rather than using them as data. That lets fears and discomfort govern us. And it only reinforces our tendencies to avoid things that feel difficult. We see them as beyond our control, threatening to our well-being. 

But fears grow in darkness. So, when we learn to simply notice our felt tension – in our body, our mood, and our thoughts – and treat our feelings as data, we free ourselves to discover their source, course, and meaning. We see what they’re about – the worries, troubled thoughts, and fears that underlie them. 

Try it first in a safe relationship. Notice when tension builds: How does it register within you? What do you and others do with it? Does it evoke curiosity, examination, discussion? Do you give conversation time to breath? Or do you “run” and try your best to not discuss the “elephant in the room.”  

Building Bonds of Trust

A readiness to notice and discuss episodes of tension with others, to be curious about what it means, and to do so with patience and empathy, requires trust. In the beginning, however, we create trust with a leap of faith. We must believe that our positive intentions and sincere efforts will be recognized as such – as we relax our guard, suspend judgment, and slow down.

Just as fears grow in darkness, trust grows in light and transparency: when our self-disclosures make us vulnerable; when we acknowledge our role in creating tension; and when we seek to understand others. Each time we do this we build confidence in our joint capacity to operate from a position of trust.

Of course, we want to trust the integrity of others. But at work, we must also trust their competence to be a reliable co-worker. That means we must review our joint work, exchange feedback on how things are going, what’s working and what needs to improve. Withholding concerns or misgivings only amplifies mistrust. Mixed signals will bleed through any pretense to trust and good faith.  

Notice the importance of emotions. Tensions and trust are felt before they’re rationally known. If we’re too cautious to express our feelings, we’ll slow the growth of trust and the efficacy of relationships. But if we use emotions as data and seek to understand what they’re telling us, we’ll find the right words.

Creating Clarity of Purpose

This is the “forming” stage. It’s about getting aligned on goals, our rationale for pursuing them, and the roles we’ll play in the process: Are our interdependencies understood? Are our actions aligned with our aims? And even if we are aligned at the outset, do we know how we’ll prevent drift during execution?

We may need to adaptively redefine both means and ends based upon experience and feedback. We’ll usually recognize drift as much by what we feel (emotional data) as by what we know (rational data). That means that timely notice of concerns must be voiced. And we must be ready to tolerate some momentary defensiveness (“storming” stage) as we work through our differences. 

In the storming stage, we put our thoughts, feelings, concerns, and points of view on the table. We can choose to examine them or retreat. When we’re able to face up to the differences, use emotions as data to inform our deliberations, we are usually able to improve our knowledge of one another, even as we adaptively redefine a “truer” version of our purpose and strategy.   

Initiating & Sustaining Purposive Action

Learning from tension and taking risks to build trust in the early days of working together on a project are vital to getting through the storming stage. They enable us to: 1) notice tension as a signal that we need to talk; 2) discuss our feelings and concerns in a spirit trust and openness; and 3) evaluate our progress based on feedback. We thereby establish norms (“norming” stage) for adaptive action. 

Aligned, interdependent action is initiated, sustained, and lost daily. Managing this is the key discipline of the “performing” stage. When we drift, and lose focus, momentum, and efficiency, we’re tempted to react poorly, blaming others and defending others. But now, with confidence in well-tested norms, we adaptively notice, examine, and learn from our felt tensions. We do some productive storming.   

Over time, this normatively positive response prevails. We learn to welcome feedback, view issues with curiosity, thereby allocating more mental bandwidth to positive, solution-focused thinking. This is the heart of great relationships. It’s believing that we’ll survive the tension if we face it squarely with fresh eyes. We’ll come out the other side in a better place. We’ve entered the “performing” stage.