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Connect | Building Exceptional Relationships with Family, Friends, and Colleagues by Carole Robin Ph.D.

31 January, 2022 - 9 min read


I. Brief Summary

A guide to manage conflicts and build fulfilling relationships with colleagues, friends and family based on a course, Interpersonal Dynamics, taught at Stanford's Graduate School of Business.

II. Big Ideas

  • Deep connections require a great deal of effort. Exceptional is also not an end state, because relationships can always grow deeper. Instead, think of exceptional relationships as living, breathing organisms that are always changing, always in need of tending, and always, always capable of taking your breath away.
  • Exceptional relationships can be developed. They have six hallmarks. The first three center around self-disclosure. Why are we still talking about this, when many would say we’ve become a culture of oversharers? Because there is a difference between a presented image and sharing who you really are.

    • You can be more fully yourself, and so can the other person.
    • Both of you are willing to be vulnerable.
    • You trust that self-disclosures will not be used against you.
    • You can be honest with each other.
    • You deal with conflict productively.
    • Both of you are committed to each other’s growth and development.
  • Challenging someone can actually be a powerful way of supporting them, and yet few people feel confident they can do it well. Someone with whom you have an exceptional relationship calls you on behaviors that really bother them, and when they do, you know it’s a chance for learning, not something against which you have to put up your guard. They know that in helping you understand the impact of your behavior, they are showing commitment to your relationship and helping you grow.
  • But a fear of conflict can lead you to bury irritants that, if raised and successfully dealt with, could actually deepen the relationship. Conflicts left unspoken can still cause harm. In an exceptional relationship, it’s easier to raise and resolve issues so that they don’t lurk and result in long-term damage. You see such challenges as opportunities to learn, which decreases the chance that these same difficulties will appear again.
  • Curiosity plays a huge role within conflict management. The ring between “Comfort” and “Danger” is known as the Zone of Learning. Going outside your comfort zone is fundamental to learning. A learning mindset has several characteristics. One is a willingness to let go of the idea that your way of doing things is always best. Another is being game to try new things and take the risk of making mistakes. And a third is seeing mistakes as learning opportunities rather than something to be embarrassed about and hide. Curiosity is key. Thinking, I wonder why this isn’t working, is much more productive than blaming another person when something goes awry.
  • Every time you disclose something personal, you risk being misunderstood; the fear that the disclosure will result in judgment or rejection is very real. Others are impacted by judgmental statements by parents (“You are a lazy person”) that they hold on to for years, causing them to be extremely sensitive to any comment that might reinforce that judgment.
  • Emotions give rise to facts. The important distinction is between cognitions (thoughts), which tell what is, and emotions (feelings), which tell how important it is. The other benefit of emotions is that they actually give meaning to facts. Feelings also can indicate the intensity of an experience. Emotions provide color, drawing others to us in a way that being utterly unemotional and rational does not. If emotions are so valuable, why do we downplay them? In many cultures, logic and rationality hold sway as the coin of the realm. We also tend to stigmatize “being emotional” and are advised not to “wear our emotions on our sleeves.” Men, in particular, are socialized not to display emotion, while women who work in male-dominated environments often feel conflicted about how much emotion to show for fear of being seen as too sensitive and insufficiently tough, or as “dramatic.”
  • What comes first, safety or disclosure? Taking the risk when you don’t know the outcome is central to building deep personal relationships. On this journey, you have to trust the process, believing that in the long run, by disclosing first, you are more likely to build trust, gain acceptance, and achieve the relationship you most want. This is what “having agency” is all about.
  • If advice is so often useless, why do people continue offering it? Perhaps because another’s issues seem so much easier to solve than our own. Perhaps because we want the chance to exhibit our analytical skills. Or perhaps we want to be the Lone Ranger who rides into the distressed town, resolves the issue to the townsfolk’s adoration, and then rides away after leaving the silver bullet!
  • On personal relationships such as your partner—all relationships have trade-offs, but for a relationship to be sustainable, each person has to have enough of their needs met, and each must give things up. Over time, the benefits have to exceed the costs. The best relationships continue to evolve as each person discovers new needs, seeks different benefits, and learns to deal with and let go of prior limitations.
  • Ten ways you give away influence:

    • Assuming that your needs are secondary to the other’s
    • Not listening to your feelings
    • Letting yourself be interrupted
    • Backing down when someone disagrees with you
    • Avoiding conflict—not disagreeing with the other, keeping things nice
    • Not giving feedback, assuming the problem is probably yours
    • Being concerned about being liked/approved of and seeing that as most important
    • Minimizing the importance of your comments
    • Not taking credit for your accomplishments
    • Not pointing out a problem unless you have a solution
  • There are four critical stages when it comes to addressing complex issues.

    • First is getting the other person to take the issue seriously.
    • Second, they have to be willing to fully share what’s going on for them.
    • Third, you want to arrive at a mutually satisfying solution, not just settle for the minimum that will end the discussion.
    • Fourth, you need to determine if the relationship is in need of some repair work, because when the discussion has been contentious, it is easy for each person to feel bruised and the relationship to suffer. Each stage is helped by following the feedback model, and each stage can be sabotaged by violating it.
  • Feedback starts a conversation. It doesn’t end it. Once you’ve shared your feelings, the work begins. Emotions are central to the feedback model, so it’s crucial that we not only have access to them but actually express them instead of using one of the following justifications for staying silent. When you own your part in a disagreement, it often makes it easier for the other person to own theirs. Together, you can search for a solution that more closely fits each person’s needs. One final key point to consider is that feedback says as much about the giver as the receiver. When someone’s feedback is about the other’s motives or intentions—“The problem is that you want to win every argument”—the implication is that the problem is all about the other person.
  • One emotion that is especially difficult to manage well is anger. Most people don’t realize that anger is a secondary emotion. When someone feels too exposed to express certain emotions, such as hurt, rejection, or envy, it often feels safer to express anger. This is especially true of men, who have been socialized not to express vulnerability. The transfer from a more basic, vulnerable feeling to anger can be so automatic that the person who is upset is unaware of the underlying feelings.

III. Quotes

  • In these relationships, you feel seen, known, and appreciated for who you really are, not an edited version of yourself.
  • Relationships exist on a continuum.
  • Be yourself, everybody else is taken. — Oscar Wilde
  • Editing and spinning who you are not only costs you your ability to be authentic but leads others to create their own spin.
  • Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off, every once in a while, or the light won’t come in. — Alan Alda
  • The important distinction is between cognitions (thoughts), which tell what is, and emotions (feelings), which tell how important it is.
  • The only way for a leader to legitimize self-disclosure is to model it.
  • We’re so accustomed to disguising ourselves to others that in the end we become disguised to ourselves. — François de La Rochefoucauld
  • Hiding one part can lead to hiding much more, resulting in progressive impoverishment.
  • You can’t grow closer with someone who never ventures beyond small talk.
  • Open-ended questions widen the scope of the conversation by generating options.
  • Those empathetic statements are likely to encourage the other to express their feelings more fully.
  • Reciprocity is a crucial element in self-disclosure, but whose job is it to disclose first?
  • Saying “I’m sorry” is often a critical component of repair, but many people can’t bring themselves to say the phrase.
  • Once we make up a story, an attribution is an easy leap.
  • Your emotions are your emotions, and if you’re feeling angry, you’re feeling angry. It’s what you do with that anger that can be problematic.
  • Defensiveness can lead to escalation and prevent both parties from learning.
  • Feedback given with the intention of being helpful is always positive.
  • All feedback is data. But it is all data, and more data is better than less.
  • Behavior is something we can change, and feedback on it is an opportunity to improve.
  • Behavior is something you can point to—words, gestures, and even silence are all forms of behavior.