Building Effective Relationships that Work

Building Effective Relationships that Work

This article was published in Training Journal, January 2001. It was their “Article of the Year”

Relationships can often seem like fragile things – especially in the workplace where they are often built and destroyed by the actions we take. However,  by underpinning those relationships with a few simple principles, they can grow into something secure and lasting.

I have been interested in how people build relationships since 1970. I went on a week’s training event where a group of us were encouraged to look at our behaviour as it happened. My most important insight from this experience was that we have the technical resources and material to solve all the problems we have. What is missing is the willingness and the skills to work together. This requires us to listen to each other; indeed, listening is the underlying skill required in all good relationships.


In society, we need to build effective relationships for several reasons. For instance, the health of people depends on what happens in organisations and what they do.

Alongside that, organisations only function with the co-operation of their members. We all know that ineffective organisations can be very frustrating. We also know that effective organisations can demand so much from their employees, that those people have nothing of themselves left for life beyond their work environment. Either of these scenarios can result in personal and relationship stress or breakdown.

Additionally, organisations can have a profound effect on people that do not work for them but who depend on them for the necessities of life – for example, food, housing and clean water.

Society is a web of relationships, requiring all parties to work together to create something good. But what makes society work even better are relationships that are positive, cooperative and respectful. In this way, everyone works for the good of the whole and towards a common purpose. This demands effective relationships based on mutual understanding.

If you understand what people want and why they want it, you can usually find a way to make progress together. The best way to understand is to listen and observe without making premature judgements. In my experience, active listening can help you discover, remarkably, that we want the same things.

High-quality relationships make you happy. It’s often the case that some of the happiest people in the world live in the poorest communities. I have met people in Nepal who had almost nothing material but who radiated contentment because they shared life. If your key relationships are working, happiness is possible in most circumstances.


In an effective relationship, parties listen to understand others’ positions and feelings. The simplest way to understand what is important to another person or a group is to ask, then listen to the answer. We all know when someone else is really interested in us. The other person is attentive, does not interrupt, does not fidget and does not speak about him or herself. This gives us time to think and feel accepted, rather than be judged. Listening leads to understanding; if you understand someone else fully, then you know what to do to get closer and work better together.

In effective relationships, parties openly express their positions and feelings. Sometimes we expect people – particularly those close to us at home or work – to understand what we want and to give us what we need intuitively. This is not a realistic aspiration. People are so complicated and react to events in such different ways that even when they have lived together for 60 years they can still surprise each other. We need to say what we need and to express how we feel. By doing this we are more likely to get what we want, rather than expecting someone to notice what we want, then waiting for that person to give it to us.

To make our relationships more effective, we should treat ourselves and each other with respect. Respect is the core of any good relationship. We show respect by listening to the other person and by trying to understand how they view things. Quickly forming judgements based on prejudice is the complete opposite of respect. You can respect people (even if you find their behaviour difficult to understand) by acknowledging that they are doing the best they can when their circumstances and history are taken into account.

Respect is the foundation for a strong relationship – and this means respecting yourself as well as others. If you feel good about yourself, it is much easier to see the good in people and treat them with respect.

Another key to forming effective relationships is to face differences directly. Differences between people are interesting. In a conversation where each person listens to the others, you may each discover a new truth that integrates (say) two opposing perspectives. This is more rewarding than the alternatives – for example, withdrawing, fighting, grumbling to someone else or plotting. Learning to face differences takes time and can be uncomfortable, but confronting and attempting to understand them is a good, stretching discomfort.

Work towards solutions where both parties win. I believe profoundly that win-win solutions are possible and they should always be our goal. If we both feel we have gained from resolving a difference, then we will be more willing to co-operate again in future. This builds exciting and satisfying relationships.


In exploring what helps us to build effective relationships, perhaps I can pass on some advice that has been drawn from personal experience and from some of the training workshops in which I have been involved.

1. At least one party should decide the relationship is important.

If I decide my relationship with someone is important, then I will invest time and energy to understand that person’s needs and to deal with anything that gets in the way. (It’s easier if the other person thinks it’s important too, but not essential.) Even if I try and fail, I will know that I gave it my best shot and can gain comfort from that.

2. Learn to listen effectively, and without judging.

Effective and non-judgemental listening will help you to understand the other person or people. When someone listens to you, both your own sense of worth and the worth of the listener increases. Judging another person almost always creates distance and defensiveness.

3. Meet people informally, so they feel comfortable raising issues that are important to them.

Most people feel more relaxed in informal settings. If you are intending to meet with someone with the specific purpose of developing your relationship with that person, think about holding the meeting in a setting in which he or she will feel comfortable. When people are relaxed they are more able to speak about what is important to them.

4. Develop a culture whereby people can express their feelings.

We create relationships by sharing thoughts and feelings. When we express happiness, joy, contentment, anger, irritation, sadness or fear we feel more vulnerable, but we can also feel more connected. Unexpressed feelings can get in the way of building closeness. It is difficult for two people to have a useful conversation if one of them is unaware that the other is angry about something that he or she said or did. There is a good chance that this will result in a cold or aggressive atmosphere when these two people meet, and this will get in the way. Organisational cultures that encourage people to connect can generate a passionate commitment to achieve wonderful things together.


Several things can get in the way of forming an effective relationship, including:

* history of mistrust or stereotyping

* blaming the other party for a difficult relationship

* focusing on the task and excluding the feelings and needs of others

* unclear objectives, roles and expectations of each other.

Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.

* A history of mistrust or stereotyping: we get a great deal of misinformation about people who are in different groups to ourselves. There is often more difference between the members of a group than between groups. If ever we think ‘All ____ are like that’, then we are stereotyping. This destroys relationships; everyone is unique and wants to feel uniquely valuable. When stereotyping is endemic, consistent mistreatment or oppression of one group by another is common, which, in turn, reinforces people’s negative feelings that can, understandably, colour their attitudes.

* Blaming the other party for a difficult relationship: blaming another person or group is usually futile. It creates distance and defensiveness and does not help the relationship develop. If I am not happy about a relationship, it is more useful for me to think about what I need to do, or not to do, to make it better. I can change my behaviour much more easily than I can persuade you to change yours.

* Focusing on the task and excluding the feelings and needs of others: people have feelings and they bring those feelings to work. Some organisations harness the feelings and help people use their energy, joy and laughter to good effect. If you ignore people’s feelings and drive through the task regardless, then your best people will leave, you will alienate your customers and you will not get the contribution you could get. People are not machines; if you treat them with respect and understanding, and listen to their feelings, they will want to give more and work better together.

* Unclear objectives, roles and expectations of each other: if we don’t know what we want from each other, misunderstandings are inevitable and the relationship will suffer.


The remainder of this article gives a variety of methods and examples for building effective relationships in organisations that avoid any of the pitfalls that can occur when people don’t know what they want from each other. The combinations of relationships we will examine include those:

* between two people

* between people in groups

* between the groups themselves, and

* throughout the whole organisation.

Between two people

Method 1: Active listening. Here one party summarises in her or his own words what s/he hears the other person say and the feelings underlying it. S/he then feeds back to this person. The process continues until the talker is sure the listener understands. Then the roles are reversed.


I was working with a group of senior people on a management course. The group was stuck in an argument between two of the members, who I’ll call Fred and Mary. I asked each person to summarise the argument of the other in his or her own words. Mary began by saying: ‘I believe you think XYZ; have I got that right?’ Fred responded by explaining a bit more until he was sure Mary had fully understood his argument. When Mary summarised again accurately they both knew she had understood his argument completely. Then we did the same thing in reverse. When both Fred and Mary had fully understood and acknowledged each other’s position, the argument fell away. They could now bridge the differences.

Method 2: Taking turns to help each other. Each person has a turn describing an issue, idea or problem. The first person acts as a consultant and helps the second person to arrive at a solution. At the end of the turn, the person being helped gives the consultant feedback on what the other participant did that helped. Then the roles are reversed. This technique is an economical and effective way to give and receive help and build good relationships at the same time. It will work if you take turns. Then both people feel good about giving useful help and about getting it.


I use this method all the time to help me develop my business and work more effectively with clients. I found myself being a bit distant with a client recently and could not understand why. I talked this over for half an hour with another professional who listened to me and asked me good questions. I discovered that I was rather cross and sad because my client had not returned my calls for weeks and now wanted me to be available to him. Just talking about this was helpful. Now I can talk to my client more clearly about my needs as well as his, and be more understanding of the pressures that make it hard for him.

Method 3: Helping contracts. On the left-hand side of a sheet of paper, write down a list of “things I can do to help you”. Then, on the right-hand side, write a list of “things you could do to help me”. Invite the other person to add to both lists. Discuss the results and work on the changes.


I got a bit fed up with a good, but not great, appraisal scheme and decided to experiment, as above, with a more positive approach with my part-time secretary. She was very willing to help. Not only that, I discovered some things I could do to help her that I had been unaware of – like telling her where I was going when I went out of the building. She offered to help me with a job I had been avoiding but one that she said she would enjoy – clearing out, then re-organising a huge walk-in cupboard that was hitherto a jumble of audio-visual equipment. The reason I hadn’t asked her to undertake this task was that I had assumed she wouldn’t want to do it. Although this happened some time ago, I still remember it. What is it they say about assumptions?

Between people in groups

Method 1: Taking turns. Start by asking each person to talk for up to a minute about something that is going well for them, while everyone else listens. This relaxes people and they will be more positive for the remainder of the meeting. Then ask each person in the group to speak in turn for, say, up to three minutes on the topic of the meeting, while everyone else listens without interrupting. Everyone will have had a turn to say what they want and be heard. This simple process avoids the competition and frustration that make so many meetings ineffective.


I introduced a session on customer care in a district council by asking everyone in the group to take a minute each to say something that was going well for them, and why they thought customer care was important. As each individual spoke, the others listened respectfully. This quickly helped people to establish a connection with each other because they discovered that they all shared the same commitment to providing first-rate customer care. This ten-minute session set the tone for a successful workshop that also built a cooperative team spirit.

Method 2: Process review. Halfway through a meeting, ask each participant to say how s/he thinks the meeting is going. You can use phrases like: ‘What is good about the way we are working together?’ and ‘How can we improve the second half of our meeting?’ If this is difficult to do during the discussion, ask similar questions at the end of any significant meeting.


Even in one-to-one sessions, I will always ask what my client has learned (or how we are doing) and for feedback on the way I have been working with her/him. The more relaxed and natural I am, the better my clients like it. It is not so good when I try too hard. In a group, I ask ‘What is the most significant thing you have learned today?’ and ‘What has been good about it and how could it have been better?’ The first question gives an indication of the output or value added by the work. It is often surprising. In the customer care example (see earlier), the manager said his most significant learning experience was the importance of listening.

Between groups

Method 1: Image exchange. In separate groups write on a flipchart “How we see ourselves”, “How we see the other group(s)” and “How we think the other group sees us”. Then meet together in a plenary session, examine the data and discuss what lies behind it. Finally, set up mixed groups to tackle common problems.


Many years ago I ran a workshop between scientists and technicians in a research laboratory. Before the workshop, the scientists sat in their offices or the library and thought and designed experiments and evaluated the results. They rarely went into the laboratory to do bench work. They saw the technicians as “pairs of hands”. The technicians saw the scientists as idle dilettantes (polite word). After I ran this exercise, the scientists went into the labs much more often and sought out the technicians’ contribution to the design of experiments and their ideas. The technicians asked questions about the scientists’ ideas and were much more positive about their contribution. These changes ‘stuck’.

Method 2: Joint projects. Identify projects that require participation from two or more groups. Involve members of these groups in the planning of the project, and make sure you discuss with them how the meetings are going and how to improve them.


A company used variable and potentially hazardous materials to make medical products. It was a legal requirement that tests were undertaken; testing was also vital for the integrity of the business. The tests took a long time to process and there were several errors. I interviewed people from the quality control and production departments who were involved in the testing to discover what was happening. We then ran a joint workshop in which they looked at what they were doing critically and suggested improvements. The spirit was about making things better rather than apportioning blame. The company radically simplified its systems, eliminated much of the work, and designed and ran a much smarter system. One side effect was a greater understanding of the contribution each made to the whole.

Method 3: Joint activities. Creating something together can be an excellent way of building relationships between groups. This is especially true when the activity requires talents, organisational ability, social skills and contacts, which you cannot predict from group membership.


We had a Jubilee party in my street that brought together everybody. People with different organisational, practical and social skills created a great day for everyone and thoroughly enjoyed it too. We noticed each other’s contribution and people in the street became closer.

In the whole organisation

Method 1: Team building. The effectiveness of an organisation depends on people working well in teams. Team building helps a team to create a clear and shared vision of what its members are trying to achieve. Team members also identify the practical issues they face, start to tackle them together and learn how to work together.


A team had a history of uncomfortable personal relationships. Team members did not deal with these problems directly; instead, they would grumble to others. Workloads were increasing, too. Most people felt very frustrated. I encouraged everyone in the team to say to each of the other members what it was they required from that member. This proved to be a positive and helpful experience to all. The team also worked, in sub-teams, on practical issues such as the allocation of work and priority setting. Team members decided to set up working groups to meet later and follow up on the discussion. Their weekly meeting is now much more democratic and less of a top-down briefing. They have even moved on to tackle their relationships with other teams. The participants are now feeling far more positive, enthusiastic and committed. They have learned the value of listening and talking to each other directly. There is less grumbling, too.

Method 2: Survey work. An objective person who is usually external to the organisation interviews people from across and down the organisation, and collects a valid picture by asking: ‘What is working well?’, ‘Where are things hurting?’, ‘What do you or your colleagues need to improve?’ and ‘How are you managing these things now?’ The outsider feeds this information back to the organisation and helps those involved plan improvements. The process brings things into the open and makes them easier to talk about.


A manager noted that customer service on a complex product was consistently poor and needed improving. I interviewed (in confidence) key managers in the nine departments involved. The managers then met to listen to each other, look at the whole picture and work out what it meant. Group members decided to stop blaming each other for poor customer service and to work together to improve it. They set up monitoring procedures and involved their staff in creating improvements. All now took responsibility. One year after the start of the work, customer service had radically improved. Also, relationships between the departments had improved permanently.

In conclusion

The principles of building an effective relationship are universal; they apply in both private and work relationships, and they are not dependent on age and class. The methods that we have covered in this article work best when we understand three simple things. First, however it may appear, we are all doing the best we can, given our situation and history. Second, win-win solutions are always possible. Finally, every person and every group has something valuable to contribute.


* Listen to understand others’ positions and feelings.

* Allow each party to express positions and feelings openly.

* Treat yourself and others with respect.

* Face differences with others directly.

* Work towards solutions where both parties win.

Society is a web of relationships, requiring all parties to work together to create something good.

If you understand what people want and why they want it, you can usually find a way to make progress together.

Respect is the foundation for a strong relationship – and this means respecting yourself as well as others.

When someone listens to you, both your own sense of worth and the worth of the listener increase.

If you would like help using this idea, or have any comments or questions please contact me. Thanks, Nick