Regardless of your abilities, regardless of what you do, regardless of the role you play in doing it, a key element in getting where you want to go in your work and your life is the strength of your relationships.
That’s why learning, polishing, and making good use of your relationship skills is – or should be – a never-ending process.
The Ins and Outs of Relationships
One of the first things you must realize about your relationships is that you almost automatically categorize other people into either your “in group” or your “out group.” Certainly, it’s natural to do this, and to the extent you get this right your life becomes much easier and more pleasant. That’s because you generally give your “in group” more of your time, attention, and trust, while you give your “out group” far less of these same things.
The problem is not that you make these distinctions, it’s that you may make them poorly:
- For shallow reasons,
- Without much evidence,
- Too quickly, and
- Too permanently.
Once you categorize someone this way, even subconsciously, your treatment of them often makes you less likely to ever again see them clearly enough to revise (and improve on) your original judgment.
For this reason, one of the best ways to strengthen your work and life relationships is to exercise more caution in categorizing people as “in” or “out” of your favor. Taking more time and paying more attention to who you’ll let “in” and who you’ll keep “out” will result in sounder judgments, and quite possibly some valuable surprises.
Once you accept that your judgment of others may be somewhat flawed, you can begin to recognize the importance of treating both your “ins” and “outs” with fairness and respect.
One important strategy to remember is that asking people questions tends to build relationships, particularly when you listen carefully to the answers.
It’s also important to give everyone you know every opportunity to live up to your highest expectations. The sad truth is: if you expect too little from another person, that may be all you’ll ever get.
Appreciation is one of the important salves that soothe and smooth human relationships. From the lowest to the highest, from the least to the most trustworthy person you know, everyone deserves a measure of your appreciation as often as you can deliver it.
The simple truth is: it’s easy, quick, and helpful to acknowledge what someone did well, and express your appreciation for it. You can and should do this after any superior effort or outcome, of course. But appreciation is always in season; you don’t need a special occasion to spread it around.
Build Alliances Early and Often
Sure, as soon as you recognize the opportunity, you can start buttering up the person who’s suddenly in a position to help you. But you’ll build stronger relationships when you make the effort to build interpersonal alliances before you actually need them.
This strategy is helpful at least two ways:
- Alliances built on the basis of immediate mutual advantage are likely to weaken or fall apart as soon as (sometimes even before) those advantages are exercised or disappear.
- Alliances built on general principles of longer-term cooperation often lead to extra opportunities and advantages that develop only within such alliances.
Face Differences Head On
Even the most compatible “best of friends” encounter personal friction and disagreements from time to time. That’s part of the nature of human relationships. Many people dislike these problems, and seek to sweep them under the rug.
However, when you face these issues directly, openly, and immediately, you tend to strengthen your relationship with that other person, even if you aren’t able to resolve the actual differences.
This is because openly and honestly working through difficult conversations tends to drill down toward deeper layers of each person’s character, and this nearly always creates opportunities for earning additional respect and developing a more meaningful bond.
Relationships are not easy to begin or maintain, and strengthening them tends to require extra effort and personal attention. Yet this extra work always pays off, because the number and strength of our relationships are the primary factors in determining our long-term health, happiness, and success in both work and life.