You may already have one or two exceptional relationships where you feel seen, known, and appreciated for who you really are, not an edited version of yourself. Perhaps you’re not sure they’ll ever reach “exceptional,” but you know there’s room for growth. Perhaps you’d like to learn how to go from casual to a bit more personal, from detached to somewhat more connected, from dysfunctional to functional, or from competitive to collaborative.
“Connect” is about a special type of relationship we call exceptional. The concepts in this book can help you move forward anywhere along the continuum.
To Share, or Not to Share: The 15 Percent Rule
Consciously or unconsciously, you’re always assessing what’s appropriate to share in any given interaction. Those decisions are highly dependent on the context, how you feel about risk, and, especially, the state of the relationship.
One way is what we suggest to students: “Try the 15 Percent Rule.” Consider three concentric rings that represent decreasing safety as you move out from the center. The smallest ring, in the middle, is the Zone of Comfort. This refers to what you say or do that you don’t think twice about and with which you feel completely safe. The outermost ring is the Zone of Danger—things you wouldn’t consider doing or saying given the high likelihood that the outcome would be negative. The ring between “Comfort” and “Danger” is known as the Zone of Learning and is where you are unsure about how another will respond. That is typically the zone in which people learn.
The 15 Percent Rule is not an absolute; its value is in helping you consider possible choices. Imagine you’re with a friend and wonder how that person feels about you. You can stay within your comfort zone by saying something relatively safe, like, “Sometimes I worry about what others think of me.” Somewhat riskier and 15 percent outside your comfort zone might be, “I made a comment about our mutual friend Michael last week and have been worrying about how you felt about me ever since.” Going outside your comfort zone is fundamental to learning.
There are a few important caveats to the 15 Percent Rule.
- It’s subjective: a 15 percent move for me might seem low risk for you and extreme for a third person. Talking about therapy might be in your 15 percent zone if you’re thirty-five years old and live in New York but well outside your 15 percent zone if you’re a fifty-five-year-old in rural England.
- You must consider the impact of your disclosures on the other person. For example, you wouldn’t want to share a detailed argument you had with your mother with someone who had just lost her own.
- You have to gauge the situational appropriateness. What might work in a one-to-one conversation might not at a larger dinner party.
One common concern people have about disclosure is that others will see them as weak. The reality is it takes fortitude and internal strength to self-disclose. Leaders, especially, are often afraid to reveal personal information that defies the perception that they totally have their act together—what if others respect them less? If the disclosure casts doubt on the person’s competence to do the job, then sharing that information can cause a loss of influence and respect, but otherwise it helps the leader be seen as more human. A leader who is not willing to be vulnerable sets a norm that does not encourage any others in the organization to do that either. The only way for a leader to legitimize self-disclosure is to model it.
Helping Others Be Known: Curiosity, Questions, and Advice
Being curious is a lot more complicated than it seems. At one end of the continuum, you truly don’t understand something at all, and at the other end, you think you know all about it and are just asking questions to test your hypothesis.
The best way to make sure your curiosity is authentic is to hold the mindset that, in spite of how perceptive you think you might be and how well you think you know another person, you don’t actually know what’s going on for them. That keeps you naïve in the best sense of the word. And with this naïve curiosity, you are more likely to use questions that encourage disclosure.
While there’s no one right approach to asking questions, there are certainly ineffective ways. Here are two of them:
- The most effective open-ended questions don’t begin with the word “why.” “Why” questions tend to drive people into their heads and out of their feelings. Such questions carry an implicit request that the other person justify themselves. For example, if someone asks you, “Why are you so worked up?” you might feel defensive and feel the need to come up with a logical explanation.
- Closed-ended questions, which usually can be answered with “yes” or “no,” narrow the conversation and are more likely to be felt as intrusive and judgmental.
Advice Is Rarely Useful
Rarely do we come up with an option the other person hasn’t already considered (and likely discarded).
Giving advice can also increase the power discrepancy between two people. The person with an issue might feel one-down to start with, and if the other person acts as though they have the answer, that can exacerbate the gap. Second, it can keep you from discovering what is really going on for the other person.
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
In spite of all the reasons advice can be problematic, there are times when it works. But that requires certain conditions. If you are going to provide someone with advice, you have to understand the situation fully, really know what the other wants, and take their style and approach into account. Most important, you have to set aside what you would do. All of that is easier said than done. Furthermore, advice-giving doesn’t necessarily contribute much to knowing the other person, other than learning their response to your suggestions.
Why Feedback Is the Breakfast of Champions
Feedback goes awry when the person giving it thinks they’re describing someone’s behavior. Behavior is something you can point to—words, gestures, and even silence are all forms of behavior.
What exactly did the other do that has led you to draw that conclusion? Did they interrupt and talk over others’ comments? Or dismiss the value of another’s contributions? Or keep on pushing their point until others gave way? This can seem like nitpicking, but insofar as the other has a tendency to deny your feedback, the more specificity you provide, the more difficult it is for them to do so. It is harder for them to dismiss the feedback when you point out the four times in which they didn’t let others finish their point. It is those behaviors that led you to see them as dominating the discussion, but that is your conclusion. Another common problem with feedback is that you’re not always aware of all the ways you have been impacted by someone else’s behavior.
Beware the “Feedback Sandwich”. Too often, people use the “feedback sandwich,” thinking it will make difficult feedback easier to hear. By “feedback sandwich,” we mean starting with something positive (to soften up the other person), then saying something negative, and ending with something positive so they will feel good. “Joe, you really do a good job here. But there’s an issue that we need to talk about. But you really are a valuable employee.” Unfortunately, this approach rarely works. When you’re using feedback sandwich, as soon as you start with the positive, the other’s defenses go up as they wait for the “but.” They brush aside the good news and don’t take it in.
How to Use Feedback Effectively
There are four critical stages when it comes to addressing complex issues
STAGE 1: GETTING THE OTHER PERSON TO TAKE THE FEEDBACK SERIOUSLY
People will usually consider your concerns if they see that your intent in doing so is in their best interests. There are a few ways to do this, none of which are mutually exclusive:
- “This is how your behavior is affecting me.” This basic approach works when the other person cares about you. For example, “I’m bothered because three times in the meeting you changed the subject while I was still talking.”
- “Your behavior is not meeting your goals.” This assumes that the other has stated their goals: “Hans, you said you wanted others to speak up, but the way you shut down Simon is likely to get people to hold back.”
- “You might be meeting your goals, but you’re paying some unnecessary costs.” When another person’s behavior bothers you, ask yourself, “Are they paying a cost as well?”
STAGE 2: SHARING ALL THE ISSUES
When problems are complex and intertwined, things can feel messy. Imagine there’s a muddy swamp, and you need to cross it to get to the high ground on the other side. At first, you carefully look for rocks to step on so as not to get mud on your shoes. But halfway across, the rocks end.
You have a choice: “Do I go on and wade through the swamp, or should I turn around?” Turning around ends the discussion, with one person stalking out of the room or, just as dysfunctional, saying, “Let’s just agree to disagree.” Agree to disagree makes sense when it comes to politics or large ideological differences, but not in the context of building robust relationships.
STAGE 3: RESOLUTION
First, you want to ensure the discussion has solved the initial problems in a way that satisfies both people. These sorts of problems usually have more than one viable solution.
Second, you want the discussion to improve your problem-solving ability. This may include understanding how you got into this problem in the first place, but it also should examine how you went about resolving it.
The third and fourth objectives deal with aspects of the relationship itself. Do you know each other better because in the discussion you’ve shared relevant parts of yourself?
STAGE 4: REPAIR
Saying “I’m sorry” is often a critical component of repair, but many people can’t bring themselves to say the phrase. Some see it as “losing face,” while others fear being misinterpreted. For example, the words can be heard as you taking full responsibility for any harm, even when you’re just sorry the two of you are in this situation.
Yet saying “I’m sorry” is very powerful. It extends an olive branch that can stop an adversarial exchange in its tracks, help people reconnect after a disagreement, and serve as a form of disclosure that makes you vulnerable and increases the chance of a reciprocal response.
That requires you to actually feel sorry, since most people can fairly easily pick up whether you genuinely mean it.
Meeting People Emotionally
There are two ways to think about meeting others emotionally. One is what they need to feel, and the other is what you need to do. When people feel emotionally met, they feel fully heard, understood, seen, accepted, and not judged. That requires hearing beyond the words and listening for underlying meaning.
There are a variety of behaviors that help someone else feel emotionally met. They include:
- Active listening that assures the speaker that you understand them. Listening slows the conversation down in an important way. Giving someone plenty of space to stay in their feelings as opposed to talking them out of them or countering with your own is the key.
- Paraphrasing/acknowledging feelings. Repeating what you’ve heard someone else say is a powerful way to convey you have heard them, and to find out in the moment whether you heard them correctly.
- Active empathy—for example, saying things like “That sounds really crummy,” or simply being with the other person and listening actively while they stay in their feelings. That may require that you temporarily set aside your feelings, if yours are different.
- Conveying care. Again, this can be done with words, but it can also be nonverbal such as a hug or a simple touch.
- Suspending judgment and engaging in curiosity and inquiry. This means asking open-ended questions and really trying to understand what is going on for the other person.
Obviously, one rarely uses all of these behaviors at one time. However, meeting someone emotionally is likely to require a number of them.
Overcoming Fear to Connect
You’ve probably resisted making a commitment to someone else because you were afraid they wouldn’t reciprocate. Perhaps you’ve been hesitant to try something new because you’re afraid of making mistakes. You may not have asked for what you needed, or confronted others when they hurt you, because you feared damaging the relationship. Even more basic is the fear that if someone really knew you—all of you—they would reject you.
These fears limit growth and learning and reduce willingness to take risks and experiment with new behavior. They keep you stuck in unhappy situations you are loath to confront, and they consume a huge amount of energy. They cost you real connection. “Fear” is sometimes an acronym for “false expectations appearing real.”
Time and again, it is only when we can manage our fears and take the necessary risks that exceptional becomes possible. At the heart of an exceptional relationship is a unique experience of freedom that feels almost magical. Because you know the other cares for you and will be honest, you can hear their feedback. This results in knowing yourself in a much fuller way. You know specifically what you do well and how to leverage those strengths. You see your weaknesses not as something to beat yourself up about, but as a part of being human that gives you opportunities to grow.
You’re perfectly positioned to be a lifelong learner. And you have the capacity to profoundly connect with another human being.