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The Relationship Dance. It’s about the little things; over and over again.

The Relationship Dance. It’s about the little things; over and over again. 

Imagine this: You decide to reach out to a member of your professional network and ask her if she’d like to meet for a drink after work one evening. You craft what you think is the perfect email: professional but charming, confident, not too pushy, eager but not desperate. You’re excited to see her and catch up, to share some of your ideas with her, and hopefully to develop a deeper relationship. You hit “send”, you smile to yourself, and then…you don’t hear back.

Not so hard to imagine, right? We’ve all been there. And we’ve all experienced the anxiety that comes next. 

Whether you’ve reached out to a client or co-worker, a member of your network, or even to a friend who isn’t in your line of business, most of us react to silence by questioning ourselves. Did I say something wrong? Did I offend her somehow? Those of us who are more prone to anxiety and insecurity, in general, might ruminate: Does she not like me? Does everyone else not like me? 

Now that I’ve made you re-live that icky feeling, I’m going to ask you to think about your to-do list. Is there someone you’ve been meaning to email or call back, for days or even weeks or months?

I’ll bet there is! 

I didn’t pose this question to make you feel guilty about failing to respond to someone. We’re all busy and we’ve all been overwhelmed. The point of the exercise is, in fact, to get you to feel a little bit better about the times when you’re the one left on someone else’s to-do list. 

Most of us have found ourselves on both sides of this scenario at one point or other. We’ve been both the person who keeps meaning to finally sit down and return an email or phone call, but never seems to get to it, and the person fretting over the lack of response. 

Keeping this in mind will help us navigate the often fraught matter of relationships. Because, let’s face it: while our lives turn on our relationships, they can be complicated and confusing. That applies to all relationships, personal and professional alike. 

In the latter context, our interactions with our clients, co-workers and members of our professional network can have a significant impact on how we feel about our careers.

 

Shades of Grey

People tend to think about their relationships in black and white. Evolution has wired humans to appraise situations as “good” or “bad”, so that we could act on opportunities or threats, respectively. This is why we instinctively assess our relationships in either/or terms: good or bad, friend or foe. We also see them as fixed, taking the “good” ones for granted, while writing off the “bad” without making an effort to repair them. 

The trouble is that human relationships –like humans themselves– are grey. They are complex, nuanced, and fluid, and they exist on a continuum of “closeness” or “loyalty”, moving up and down it as time and circumstances unfold.

 

The Relationship Dance

Relationships are made up of small gestures or behaviours, both conscious and unconscious. While each of these actions might seem insignificant in and of themselves, together they are the steps that comprise the relationship dance. Because relationships really are like a dance: you take a step, she takes a step, and each step, or misstep, can change the direction or character of the relationship. 

You rush into a meeting with a co-worker, late, flustered, and apologetic. She is understanding and offers to get you a coffee while you organize yourself. You feel relieved and grateful, and your meeting gets off to a great start, albeit a bit behind schedule. Your relationship has taken a positive step forward. Then you go back to your desk and read an email from another colleague that you perceive to be curt. Offended, you fire off a cool or chippy response. That relationship has just taken a step backward. 

Obviously not all behaviours are created equal. A raised voice might have a greater impact than a text message of a questionable tone. Holding the door for someone and smiling at her might have less impact than a thoughtful message after a meeting. But all gestures, however small, have the potential to shift a relationship. 

Another thing to keep in mind is that positive and negative actions carry different weight, with those that harm relationships being both easier to make and more powerful in their effect. Research has shown that the effects of “bad” interactions are stronger and last longer – 4 times longer and stronger – than the effects of “good” ones. So if you think that you’ve taken a step that may have set one of your relationships back, it will likely take more than one positive one to offset the damage. 

To complicate matters further, not everyone reacts to things in the same way. One person might react well to a colleague’s praise of his work, seeing it as a compliment, while another might view it as patronizing. In fact, the same person might even react differently to the exact same behaviour from one day to the next, depending on what else is going on in her life that day. 

While this might make you want to throw your hands up in frustration and never communicate with anyone again, there are few principles that I find helpful.

Consider the situation from the other person’s point of view. If you are the one stewing over an unacknowledged email, stop to think about what might be going on in the other person’s life. Personal or professional, we all have busy lives involving multiple moving parts. Most of us, at one point or another, have found ourselves barely keeping ourselves afloat in the midst of overwhelming responsibilities and obligations. It might seem backwards to exercise greater compassion toward others when we feel slighted by them, but it can be helpful in gaining some perspective or peace of mind. 

Also, keep in mind that the impact of that person’s silence on you does not likely correspond to an intention to hurt or offend you. To circle back to our first exercise, take a look at your own to-do list. You might see that you too owe someone a response, and in most cases, you will have to acknowledge that your failure to respond that other person is about you, and not him. That will really help put your own frustration in perspective, calm your anxiety, and keep the relationship from snowballing in the wrong direction. (It might even prompt you to finally sit down and send that darned email and knock it off your to-do list once and for all)!

Give people the benefit of the doubt.

Our behaviours are not always or even usually intentional. And with so much human interaction now occurring via text or email, inferring tone when you can’t see the person addressing you further complicates things and can lead to misunderstandings. Keep in mind that your own texts and emails can be misinterpreted just as easily as you might misinterpret the ones you receive. If your contact agrees to meet you for coffee but doesn’t sound that enthusiastic about it to you (this can be due to something as silly as her not using an exclamation point in her email where you would have used one), give her the benefit of the doubt and meet her with a positive attitude. If it’s something more serious, reach out and ask. It’s always better to communicate and get things back on track then let the relationship drift backwards based on a misunderstanding. 

Step outside of the relationship.

Sometimes it’s hard to really see a relationship until we take a step back and try to look at it from an outsider’s perspective. One of the easiest ways to gain clarity is to imagine the advice that you would give to a friend in the same situation. We are often far more honest with others than we are with ourselves. 

Reflect on your relationships through journaling.

Journaling can have many benefits for our personal and professional lives, including helping us create deeper and more meaningful relationships. If one of your work relationships is troubling you, take some time to think about and write down the gestures, big or small, that you and the other person made toward each other in your most recent interactions. This might help you pinpoint where your relationship dance took a wrong turn. Over time, journaling can also help you to identify patterns in your relationships and the behaviours that tend to improve or harm them.  

While relationships can be frustrating in all of their complexity, the nice thing about the fact that they are so “grey” is that we can always work on them. Our relationships with our clients, our colleagues, members of our professional network, or new contacts who we’d like to add to our network, are dynamic. Every time we interact with someone, we have countless opportunities to shape and reshape the relationship. That’s a wonderful thing! Positive relationships can be nurtured and deepened, and negative ones can be repaired. With an understanding of the small steps that make up the relationship dance, we can build the professional relationships that we want. And that, in turn, can have a positive impact on how we feel about our careers. 

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