I learned the value of intentional connections first-hand in high school. Because I moved four times before 8th grade, I found myself with only one close friend as I entered 11th grade. In a plot twist right out of a teen TV series, my friend and I decided to break into the elite group who worked on the school yearbook and newspaper. With the blessings of their incredibly understanding parents, they started giving parties every other weekend and inviting these kids to their homes. The parties were small at first, but as the word got around, the parties grew in size and popularity. The new friendships we had craved became a reality. We won’t admit to the number of years that have passed since then, but we will say that this group continues to meet by Zoom even now! By intentionally creating her own inner circle of friends, I realized my dream social life.
Authors of “The Leadership Challenge”, James Kouzes and Barry Posner, claim that “The best way to lead people into the future is to connect with them deeply in the present.” The time and energy spent on creating good relationships are repaid in countless meaningful ways. The most memorable and meaningful people in our lives are usually those who focus on us and our needs, making us feel valued and important.
Leadership is built largely on influence, and influence is based largely on the quality of your relationships. Keith Ferrazzi, in “Leading Without Authority”, says it well: “It’s through these real, human connections that we build permission to lead our teams, achieve our goals, and elevate our teammates – and ourselves – in the process.” Paying thoughtful attention to others and investing the time to get to know, encourage, listen to and care about them is one of the clearest paths to success.
Here are four key elements to building those intentional connections – be intentional about the people you associate with, learn and practice active listening skills, develop constructive conflict resolution techniques and make sure to focus on positivity as much as possible in your interactions.
Intentional Connection Building
Making sure to stay connected to the key people in your personal and business life has never been more important and challenging. COVID 19 has changed the face of how we maintain contact with others and requires even more commitment and attention. Setting up some sort of routine check-in, whether it’s in person, by phone, Zoom or some other virtual option or even texting, gives the structure to make sure that you stay in a relationship with others. This commitment can often take a backseat to our task list, projects or issues that demand our immediate attention. The trick is to do your best to really understand how they are, going deeper than the perfunctory check-in.
Monitor Your Inner Circle
Another beneficial area of focus is to pay attention to who is in your inner circle. Although there are certainly exceptions, there is evidence that proves Jim Rohn’s claim that “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.“ Consciously surrounding yourself with supportive and positive people can encourage you to accomplish more and think more positively. After reviewing a lot of articles that provide evidence of this, I settled on this interesting BBC study that clearly shows the influence that the people around us can have, whether we are aware of it or not. Take charge of the relationships in your life on all levels, from friends to business associates. As I found out, it’s possible to completely change your inner circle. Often we hang on to people out of habit, even those that are less than productive. This is true of employees, vendors and others that we keep even when we are frustrated with their service. We are much better off making those hard decisions and cutting ties as needed. When one door closes – or one person leaves – another opens or shows up.
Practice Active Listening
Many of us listen with the intent to respond, so we are not paying close enough attention to what the other person is saying. Stephen Covey advised us to listen with the intent to understand, not to reply. There are some helpful tricks that can increase your listening skills.
Beware of Interrupting
We all know how frustrating it is to be interrupted. We feel cut short and minimized. Holding our tongue until the other person is clearly finished speaking is one of the simplest active listening tools we can implement. We have two ears and one mouth, so try to listen twice as much and let them finish their thoughts before adding your own.
Mirror and Label
While it can seem a bit artificial at times, repeating back in your own words what the other person has said can be a clear sign that you have been listening carefully. You can start by saying “what I heard you say is…” or “it seems like..” are handy phrases to use when you want to mirror back what the other person has said. Thinking about how to do that is also a good way to stop you from quickly adding your thoughts to the conversation before you’ve acknowledged the other person.
Oh, how we love to have an opinion on things! Holding off and giving the viewpoint of the other person before jumping in is very helpful in building rapport and improving communication. Asking questions might clarify some assumptions you might have made. Being curious is a productive alternative to letting your preconceived notions inhibit your conversation and relationship.
Constructive Conflict Resolution
As leaders, we often find ourselves in the middle of arguments or personality conflicts that we have to manage. Even for people that are not actually in leadership roles, handling uncomfortable situations can be challenging. Hoping that a situation will resolve itself on its own rarely works – taking a proactive and positive approach to creating resolution will produce results much more quickly and purposefully. Here are some good techniques.
Approach the Situation Positively
We are often inclined to take sides and let our emotions get the best of us. Using your emotional intelligence and non-judgmental listening skills, try to understand the position of both parties. If you are one of the people involved in the conflict, do your best to minimize your emotional involvement and look at the situation from the other person’s perspective. Taking a win-win perspective can help create an outcome that will be more acceptable to both sides. Go in with the commitment to finding a solution.
Clarify the Point of Contention
Clearly defining what the disagreement is about might actually clear up some misconceptions. We often make assumptions that are not accurate. As Brene Brown recommends: ask, “What is the story I am telling myself?” You might be pleasantly surprised to find out the issue is less significant than you thought. Sometimes just saying what the problem is out loud can lead to greater understanding and possible resolution. If the issue is a personality conflict, perhaps it’s a matter of working around the differences in ways that minimize the areas of conflict or contact.
Create Space for Openness and Reconciliation
Either as a leader or as one of the people involved, starting with a commitment to ease the tension goes a long way to creating a more beneficial outcome. One of Abraham Lincoln’s greatest strengths as a leader was his ability to lead a very diverse cabinet, which he intentionally developed in order to have the widest-ranging conversations possible. It helped him think more creatively and beyond his own experience. Conflict handled correctly can often produce growth and generate new ideas.
Focus on Positivity
Celebrate the Wins
People thrive on encouragement. Saying thank you or opening praising even small accomplishments helps to motivate others and show you are paying attention. This type of positive reinforcement also helps validates the behaviour you are looking for. Actively looking for ways to uplift and notice others – and yourself – helps create stronger relationships. Mary Kaye Ash used to say that people wear an invisible sign around their neck that says, “Make me feel important.” Smiling and saying well done or thank you is a great way to do this.
Beware of Negativity
I’ve always thought that Eeyore was very lucky to have such good friends because we are often inclined to avoid people that are gloomy and despondent all the time. We tend to be attracted to people that look on the brighter side of life. Yes, COVID has certainly shifted our typical conversation to be bleaker, but even with that, it’s possible to look for the silver lining in almost every situation. Being helpful, hopeful and optimistic produces more energy, increases our ability to problem solve and makes us happier.
Paying attention to our relationship is a critical component of not only effective leadership but a happier and more successful life. Taking the time to evaluate how you treat people, who you hang out with, how you handle conflict, how well you listen to others and the tone of your interactions will help you elevate your relationships and your life.