Building Relationships, One Conversation at a Time

Can you build a trusting relationship when you’ve never had an actual conversation? (And no, IM, email, text, Twitter and blog “conversations” don’t count!) While it may be possible, it’s pretty unlikely.

Most business conversations tend to focus on tasks and priorities, whether to review the progress of a current project, delegate actions or make decisions. To build relationships, a certain kind of conversation needs to take place that goes beyond the usual checklist review or status report. While this type of conversation requires more effort, it’s almost impossible to collaborate successfully without it.

Here I offer guidelines to create opportunities for conversations expressly designed to build relationships. In the case of virtual teams, conversations can take place at different times (asynchronously) or at the same time (synchronously). Each team, whether a team of two or a team of 10, needs to find the combination that works best for them. For our examples, we will focus on conversations between two people to keep things simple.

  • Be clear about your intentions, both your ultimate desired outcome and what you want in each conversation. Know what level of connection you really want to make with your colleague. For example, will you need to know that you can rely on her to fulfill commitments now but also in the future? Do you want him to know that you will always operate with his best interests at heart? Are you reliant on each other to achieve your immediate goals? Future goals? With clarity of intention, you can begin to design the next conversation, and all others to follow.
  • Communicate your goals. Let the other person know what you have in mind for the conversation, in no uncertain terms. If your primary goal is to better understand what motivates and challenges your colleague, say so. Sure, you may also have to identify some to-do’s and make some decisions during the same call, but this way, you’ll be sure to allocate enough time to build the relationship and come better prepared for a thoughtful exchange of ideas and feelings. When you don’t have the benefit of visual cues, all the more reason to be explicit about your intentions, in advance of your next conversation, so neither of you is taken by surprise.
  • Discover whether the feeling is mutual. While you may have relationship-building in mind, your colleague may care more about simply completing the task at hand, or so she thinks. (Many people may seek to build trusting relationships, but their need to plow through near-term tasks overrides the desire to take the time or invest the energy to build trust, as least for now.) If you get a sense that your colleague doesn’t share your desire to cultivate a deep relationship right now, don’t push it. Instead, take small steps that will naturally lead to a stronger connection over time.
  • Frame the conversation for intended results. Some subjects are more likely to prompt a trust-building conversation than others. For example, a frank discussion about the level of commitments and contributions you need from each other can help build trust if you’ve just started to work together. But if there have been recent disappointments leading to an erosion of trust, tread very carefully when broaching this topic. There may be relationship-repair needed before anything else. Then you must decide: Do you want to start out by solving a problem or expressing your feelings? It may be better to start by describing how you feel about a recent incident and then invite your colleague to do the same. This way, you open a stronger opportunity for a discussion where both of you can agree on operating norms that can help avoid missteps in the future.
  • Consider your topics carefully. Some topics may be out-of-bounds and are likely to shut the other person down, especially if your colleague sees you as patronizing or prying. In some cultures, for example, discovering more about each other’s families or educational backgrounds is vital for cultivating a trusting relationship. Other cultures may see this as intrusive and unacceptable. Err on the side of playing it safe when in doubt.
  • Take your time to work up to the key topic. To build trust, it’s wise to start early relationship conversations with safe opening lines such as “How was your weekend” or “Is it still snowing where you are?” As the relationship develops and trust builds, a more candid question becomes appropriate such as, “Is there something about how we work together that isn’t working for you right now?” It may be helpful to map out key points to follow and keep them visible, especially if you have a tendency to blurt out ideas in the moment, rather than exercising discipline and patience.
  • Determine how and when to have needed conversations. For a phone call that requires undivided attention, remove yourself from all distractions. That means pushing aside all electronic devices, including laptops. Much better to have a pad and paper to record to help sharpen your listening acuity and give you a chance to reflect on your next points. When face-to-face is impossible, plan your conversation point by point, and make sure to allocate sufficient time. Anticipate that tough conversations will not always go according to plan, and have contingency plans just in case (such as extending the call if you can, taking a brief break, rescheduling a follow-on conversation ASAP, or jumping in the car in extreme cases).

Our willingness to collaborate depends on building trust through relationship conversations. Without them, deadlines are more likely to be missed, delivery on commitments delayed, quality of results jeopardized, or budgets overrun. For virtual teams, emails, IMs, blogs and other forms of electronic communication may work well to get things done. But to build relationships, nothing can replace real-time (if not same-place) conversations.


Read our related Communiqué:  Get and Give What You Bargained for With Clear Agreements That Make Sense.

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