Learning how to build healthy relationships is one of the most important aspects of being human. Barry Pokroy discusses how well-functioning relationships are completely accessible—in the workplace and beyond. You just need to know how to find them.
An old man nearing death gathered his sons around him to give them some parting advice. He ordered them to bring him a bundle of sticks, and said to his eldest son, “break it.” Despite his efforts, the son was unable to break the bundle. Each son after also tried, but none could break the sticks. “Now untie the bundle,” said the father, “and each of you take a stick.” When they had done so, he told them, “now, break,” and each stick was easily broken.
It’s all too easy to think of the colleagues, employees, and clients as individual sticks: useful, potentially pleasant, but certainly distinct from each other. However, think of these relationships as a bundle of sticks—when taken together, and built well, these relationships have an enormous impact on your work and personal life.
Good relationships at work and at home spur positive emotion, and are the bedrock of trust and collaboration. They impact job satisfaction, quality of life, and facilitate teamwork. Without good relationships, we become disinvested, frustrated, struggle with mental health, or become much more likely to leave a place of work. We become breakable—and ultimately our performance suffers.
Yet, the skills required to build great relationships require awareness and a certain level of know-how. Building strong and positive relationships in the workplace is, in fact, a choice and a skill.
Building strong relationships at work
A friendship of twenty years is much different than one of two months—clearly. This is because there is a natural trajectory that relationships follow. In other words, they take time to build. Yet most people spend more time with colleagues than with their own families, which provides plenty of opportunities to build rapport.
With time, each stage of a relationship not only has its own characteristics but its own challenges and needs. Most start out at a surface level—superficial and non-intimate connections where you exchange pleasantries and weekend plans. However, with time and exposure, people naturally deepen their relationships and start revealing more about themselves—emotions, beliefs, and details about their lives.
Notice what happens the next time you share something personal about yourself to someone you don’t know very well. Most often, you’ll find that they respond with increased warmth, a shared connection, or emotional honesty. This means you’ve moved into a testing stage, where you really are gauging what the relationship is.
Reveal too much, too soon, and you will overwhelm the other person; too little, and the relationship stagnates. But the more you do this, the deeper your bond forms—you create a deepened sense of trust and meaning by continuing to invest time and thoughtfulness and share both positive and negative experiences. As your relationship continues, you either get to deeper levels of comfort, honesty, and trust, or you may notice a dwindling or stagnation.
Why is this important to consider? Relationships that are trusting, dynamic, and genuinely collaborative—the kind that makes you want to work with someone—take time to build. Ultimately, they require awareness of your own needs and an appreciation of others. They also require awareness of where the relationship itself is at.
Every person you interact with has a whole world of experiences that you know nothing about
Every single person you interact with has needs that they are trying to get met—and these needs are only shown through their behaviour, words, and actions. There are a few universal needs: connection, physical well-being, honesty, meaning, autonomy, and safety. Being genuinely appreciative of another person is an important way to respect the need for connection and meaning. Others are more dependent on the moment: the need for recognition, or for personal space.
It can be incredibly helpful to use this as a reminder during your interactions: what does this person need right now? What do I need right now? This simply guides you toward how to best interact with someone in the moment, rather than facing an interaction through your own lens.
That said, accurately gauging your own and other people’s emotions and needs is key to effectively connecting with other people. This doesn’t mean you will get it right all the time, but by paying attention to, or considering what might be going on for the other person, will increase your ability to build great relationships and navigate conflict in a way that genuinely supports the well-being of all involved.
Conflict is an important element of all great relationships
No relationship is smooth sailing all the time. Conflict happens for many different reasons—internal or external pressures, personal factors, or biases. This is the time where many relationships start to go their separate ways. However, this doesn’t necessarily need to be the case. When faced with a work conflict, many people forget the very core basis of relationships: honesty, courageousness, and humble conversations.
I recently worked with someone whose demanding job required a constant high-profile assessment of her skills. In working together, we explored the ways that she built a wall around her to protect herself from the anxiety she felt every time she was scrutinized. This led to distancing other people to avoid conflict, including those who could best support her. A breakthrough occurred when she realized her own pattern of pulling away from others. She was honest about her own sense of vulnerability and where she was stuck, which increased her ability to connect with her colleagues and, interestingly, enabled her to improve her performance.
Nurturing relationships is the key to success
The golden rule of any interaction is to prioritize the well-being of the relationship over almost everything else. Keeping this in mind might shift how you give feedback, how you speak of others, and how you prioritize working with them. This means working with, not against, colleagues.
Sometimes it’s appropriate to ask probing questions and other times exchanging pleasantries are the way to go. In other instances, open conflict is, in fact, investing in the relationship. This means that many different factors impact the right way to build a relationship at any given point.
Ultimately, we create the relationships that deeply impact not only our work success but our sense of self. Relationships—particularly the ones we struggle the most with—reveal a lot about who we are; but they also create meaning, purpose, and the opportunity for connection and success in the workplace.
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