2015.09.11 Relationship Skills

"Is there something wrong with your telephone? You seem to keep interrupting me."


I try to remember why I have two ears but only one mouth. After the above comment many years back when I had recently arrived in the U.S. I succeed more often. (I should thank the person; only at the time I was deeply hurt.)

There is an increased awareness that Emotional Intelligence – the ability to "read" other people and relate to them on an emotional level as well as an understanding of one's own strengths and weaknesses – is just as important for success as technical skills.

I have in earlier posts written how technical skills and factual knowledge can get a person into upper management, but lack of the skill set required for building and maintaining relationships can get one out again.

In this article, Edward Lewellen, who teaches this stuff to executives, encourages the reader to build relationships first – without looking at what may come out of the relationship down the road.

What if this is more difficult than you would anticipate?

"Learning relationship skills can be helpful if a person grew up in an environment which had no structure for teaching them the behaviors that are appropriate in varying settings like business, romantic relationships, families, etc. " writes Lewellen.

"Learning relationship skills" typically means practice and get feedback. That can feel humiliating. We didn't like it much when we were 3 years old, and we don't like it more later. Unless it is done skillfully and when we are open to the feedback.

Two very different but otherwise normal kinds of people may be in particular need of learning these skills: Expatriates and people glued to their phones.

Most children learn – almost by osmosis – which facial expressions and tone of voice sync with which emotional underpinnings.

Move to another country and both intonation and body language can be very different. Just like it is almost impossible to become fluent in a second language you pick up later in life, getting the non-verbal language right is also very hard if you learn it as an adult. You just don't feel authentic while you try to emulate the locals.

If intercultural agility can seem like social skills squared, the task is even more daunting if the person is stunted in his/her social skills to begin with. This is where the second group is at risk. There are no facial expressions or tone of voice clues to the other person's emotional state if all communication is in writing (except for the occasional emoticons and they don't necessarily activate your mirror neurons.)

The less you communicate face-to-face with your peers, the more alien and stressing will it be to communicate face-to-face with people who prefer this kind of communication - ex. your managers, teachers, parents. It can almost become as if face-to-face communication is something you only have in relationships where power-difference is an issue.

Needless to say, if eye-contact is experienced as very stressing, an ambiguous interaction easily becomes a negative conversation where only the challenging end of the emotional spectrum is explored.

Unfortunately, I can also add small children as a group that prefers face-to-face communication but don't necessarily get it from their screen obsessed parents. They learn that "Yeah, that's great, dear" can be said with totally flat tone because the parent is not really listening but glued to the screen around the clock.

Trust me, I know how annoying this is: I have had teenagers. People disagreeing with you at least engage with you. People who don't recognize that you even exist can kill your spirit. Homo Sapiens have used shunning much longer than we have had smartphones. We are hardwired to dislike being ignored.

I am as guilty as anybody. Not by willfully shunning the people I love more than life but by not always being present in the moment.

There is a reason little kids instinctively keep pulling at their mother's leg and wait for her to turn her head and look at them when the want to get heard. You can gently touch the screen-locked person on the arm before delivering your message if you want to get a reply that is even remotely appropriate in both tone and content.

Don't try the pant-pulling if you are more than 5 years old.

But you can watch/read Fred Kofman's excellent series of talks on LinkedIn and/or check out the COM-19 workshop at Stanford's Continuing Studies Program. There is a reason this class is always booked very fast. (If you are in the U.S. but not in the San Francisco Bay area, you can check out NTL's website for similar courses.)