Why Relationship Building Is the #1 Skill for 2020
Nine factors go into building strong, trust-based relationships. Master them for success.
Strong relationships are vital to a healthy career. When we can’t make real connections with others in the workplace, they won’t feel loyal to us. We become tradable commodities. When times get tough, we may be the first ones pushed out the door. On the other hand, when we have a small group of close professional relationships we’re able to get our ideas recognized and supported. We’re able to be successful leaders. We’re able to collaborate and innovate effectively and serve our clients in the way they deserve.
Trust is the foundation of strong relationships—yet it’s noticeably absent from our culture. Over the last few decades, nearly every measure of trust has declined. Andrew Sobel says this trust deficit and our professional relationship woes have grown in tandem with the rise of the internet—and they’ve crept in so insidiously we may not have realized it was happening.
“The ‘normalizing’ of digital relationships has masked the weakness of many professionals’ face-to-face relationship-building skills,” says Sobel, creator of the masterclass Building Relationships That Matter. “This is especially true for younger professionals, who have grown up on a steady diet of online ‘friends’ and connections, and are less schooled in the art of face-to-face relationship-building.
The ability to build trusted professional relationships should never be left to chance, he asserts. We must get intentional about learning and practicing the attitudes and skills that allow us to build the 15 to 25 trusted relationships that matter to our careers. (Contrast this to the hundreds of “surface” online connections people seem obsessed with racking up.)
Through 20 years of research and extensive experience working with over 50,000 professionals, Sobel has identified nine attitudes and skills that allow us to build solid, trust-based relationships. In his masterclass he teaches people how to cultivate them and gives very specific tips for implementing them in their day-to-day relationships.
If you’re looking for a good new year’s resolution, here you go: Work on boosting your relationship IQ by focusing on these nine attitudes and skills in 2020.
If trust is the universal lubricant for relationships, generosity is the fuel that gets them started and keeps them growing. Sobel describes it as the willingness to give freely of your time, expertise, experience and social capital. In other words, it’s not just about giving money (which is what most of us think of); it’s often about being willing to forgive someone who has hurt you or being happy for other people’s good fortunes.
“Most of us aren’t as generous in practice as we’d like to be,” says Sobel. “We have a ‘me’ focus. Sometimes this is due to a lack of role models. Other times it’s a fear of being taken advantage of. We need to strengthen our generosity muscle by taking small, daily steps.”
For example: Think about someone in your professional network who has experienced a success or positive development in their life. Speak to him, in person, call him, or write a short note (ideally, not an email or text). Express your admiration and how excited you are for him.
This attitude helps you learn about people, giving you a better basis to build rapport with them. It drives you to understand what’s important to others. The more you learn from those around you, the more proprietary knowledge you’ll accumulate (i.e., stuff you can’t Google!). Curiosity tends to atrophy as we age—but it doesn’t have to. We can intentionally initiate and cultivate it.
For example, when you talk to people you’re trying to form trusted professional relationships with, ask them about their goals, aspirations and dreams. What have been the most important experiences in their lives and turning points in their careers? If you feel uncomfortable doing this, “practice” with a family member or friend.
Rapport is a harmonious, sympathetic connection between you and the other person. It requires effective communication and an understanding of each other’s feelings and ideas. You can’t manipulate others into feeling rapport by, say, simply mirroring body language. People see through such tricks. To create rapport, you must come across as trustworthy, competent and likeable—and all three qualities require preparation and being present and human.
“There are things you can do to project all three qualities,” says Sobel. “Find commonalities and similarities—this increases your likeability. So does walking in and thinking, I like this person—studies show it makes them like you. Ask questions and show an active interest in the other person, which increases trust. And of course, nothing demonstrates competence like being prepared and having a well-developed point of view on the topic you’re discussing.”
Sobel says the CEO of a large, global corporation once said to him: “I can always tell how experienced someone is by the quality of their questions and how well they listen. Good questions are far more powerful than quick, easy answers.” Power questions dramatically improve the quality of your conversations and help build stronger relationships. Of course not every question is a power question, says Sobel.
For starters, a power question is open-ended: Not, “Is it a priority to bring new skills into your department?” but rather, “In your department, how will your mix of employee skills need to change in the future?” It typically surprises the other person—so don’t fall back on clichés like “What keeps you up at night?” Instead ask, “What’s the most exciting thing you’re working on right now?” A power question gets you focused on the right issues, helps you understand the other person’s agenda, and brings the strategic context and higher-level goals into the conversation.
Caring Through Empathy
Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions, and also imagine what they are thinking and feeling. It’s a fundamental skill that enables us to walk in the other person’s shoes. Sobel says the four main foundations of empathy are an interest in others, self-awareness, humility and listening skills.
“Take listening skills,” says Sobel. “We may not think of listening as an expression of empathy, but it absolutely is. And most of us have bad listening habits: rushing people through conversations, finishing their sentences, ‘faking’ paying attention. We check emails while on the phone with them. All these tell people, ‘I don’t care about you or what you’re saying.’“
Trust reduces the inevitable frictions inherent in working with others, the way oil keeps a car engine running smoothly. It enables the creation of deep, resilient connections at work and at home. When people trust each other, everything is easier. You can work together faster and more efficiently, because you don’t need to check up on each other all the time. You can express yourself to others without fear. Collaborating becomes a pleasant experience. In a high-trust workplace, you need fewer rules and controls.
To build trust, demonstrate that you are always acting with the other person’s best interests in mind. You need to meet commitments, keep confidences and answer questions without hedging. Make these qualities tangible by sometimes doing something for the other person that is clearly not in your interest, and telling people quickly and openly about mistakes or bad news. Prepare carefully for meetings to showcase competence.
On the other hand, trust-busting behaviors include criticizing others who aren’t in the room, exaggerating and always ensuring that your needs are met first.
A person’s agenda is that person’s top three to five priorities, needs or goals. It’s what is really important to him over the next six to 12 months. We all have both a professional and a personal agenda. When you understand a person’s agenda, you can add value by helping him meet their goals—by sharing ideas or introducing him to others who can help. You may even anticipate or help shape his future agenda.
“Anticipating what may impact someone in the future is extraordinarily valuable. It’s the difference between saying, ‘Here’s an idea to help you climb your career ladder faster and better,’ and, ‘I think your ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.’ You’re looking ahead and giving the big picture. But be careful: You must be certain you understand what they’re focused on today. Don’t be one of those boors who tells people what to do without first getting to know them.”
Simply put, influence is the power to change or affect someone. If you have it, you’ll be able to convince others of your ideas and proposals and gain support for your goals. The foundation of influencing is having a strength of character and depth of knowledge that commands others to listen to you and follow your advice. This is your “pull” strategy. The second part of the influence process involves “pushing” via the use of persuasion strategies.
There are seven main persuasion strategies: self-interest, rational appeal, emotional appeal, consistency, reciprocity, social proof and scarcity. All are valid in certain scenarios. “I typically use the first three in combination, as they work well in most situations,” notes Sobel. “Then I may draw from the other four to supplement these three. I tend to avoid scarcity—I find that it’s close to scaremongering. Appealing to self-interest and rational analysis is more powerful.”
Your ability to help resolve conflicts and heal broken relationships is paramount to your own well-being and those around you. Unresolved conflicts will fester, fueling anger and resentment. That’s why Sobel says it’s crucial to be able to hold healing conversations. But first you must be able to forgive the other person.
“Forgiveness is often misunderstood,” says Sobel. “It doesn’t mean that what the other person did is now OK or that you absolve him. Rather, true forgiveness is when you drop your demand to make him pay for what he did—you stop seeking revenge and compensation. This means you absorb the pain in the short-term, but then enjoy long-term peace.
“The alternative is to try to punish the person—perhaps badmouthing him to everyone or somehow sabotaging him,” he adds. “But if you don’t let go of your anger and resentment, you’ll become, as my mother used to say, an ‘injustice collector’ who is perpetually angry at everyone and stuck in a spiral of unending retaliation.”
Becoming a master at developing and nurturing strong, trusted relationships may be the best new year’s resolution you’ve ever made. It can impact every area of your life—professional and personal—in a profound way.
“Life is complicated, and it’s easy for us to put off relationship development until ‘things settle down’ or we have more free time,” says Sobel. “The problem is, that day never comes. This is how people lose touch, and how relationships atrophy. You have to carve some time out of your schedule, put it on your to-do list, and commit to making it happen. Relationships rarely stay the same—they either deepen and grow, or they wither on the vine.”
Andrew Sobel, creator of master class “Building Relationships That Matter,” is the leading authority on the strategies and skills required to build the relationships that truly matter to your career. He is the most widely published author in the world on this topic, having written eight acclaimed, best-selling books on developing enduring professional relationships. His books have sold over 250,000 copies and have been translated into 21 languages.
Sobel’s programs have been delivered in 52 countries for many of the world’s most successful companies, including public corporations such as Citibank, Experian, Hess and Lloyds Banking Group, as well as private firms such as Booz Allen Hamilton, Bain & Company, Grant Thornton and Deloitte.
He spent the first 14 years of his career with Gemini Consulting (formerly the MAC Group), where he became a senior vice president and country chief executive officer. He lived in Europe for over a decade and speaks four languages. For over 20 years he has led his own international consulting firm.
He can be reached at www.andrewsobel.com.