‘We need connection’

Connect: Building Exceptional Relationships with Family, Friends and Colleagues by David Bradford and Carole Robin is published by Penguin Life. Emily Hutchinson asks the questions.

You’ve both worked in the area of improving relationships for many years, what prompted that interest?

David: I have always been interested in this topic. My doctorate is in Social Psychology with a focus on interpersonal and group dynamics. But my interest started way before that. CONNECT is largely based on the landmark MBA elective, Interpersonal Dynamics (that students refer to as ‘touchy-feely’) at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (GSB).

The basis of that course is the T-group where students meet over the term in 12 person groups and learn how to build effective relationships from peer feedback. They learn how to be more open and authentic and that their ‘real self’ is much more attractive and influential than a presented image.

This powerful learning modality was first developed in the late 1940s and one of the founders was my father, Leland Bradford, so I grew up in that environment. I personally experienced the impact of more open and direct relationships.

Carole: I am not a career academic, having had 6 different careers in sales and marketing, management, consulting and non-profit. The through line for me has always been my insatiable fascination with people and human behaviour.  

I circuitously found my way to the GSB and to David Bradford after I went back to get a PhD at age 40 and one of my mentors recommended that I meet with him. I started out facilitating in the ‘touchy-feely’ course David describes. A few years later I was asked to join the faculty to teach one quarter long section per year, which suited me since by then I was a principal and partner at an international consulting firm and travelled a great deal the rest of the year. Eventually, the School asked if I would consider a fulltime appointment and I agreed since I was ready to cut down on my travel.  

The lesson I have underscored for two decades with my students and clients is that people do business with people – not just with ideas, strategies, products or even money. I have seen from my own experience, over and over, how paying attention to relationships is a determinant of both personal and professional success.

 

How do you think our ability to relate to each other has changed, especially in the last year?

David: It has certainly changed in the last 50 years that we have taught the Interpersonal Dynamics course. Then, not infrequently, students would be asked, ‘How do you feel?’ and they would respond, ‘I don’t know’. Today, we rarely get that response. People now may struggle with exactly what they are feeling – which is why we have an extensive list of emotions in the appendix of the book – but they know they are feeling something.

The other change is the growing recognition of the importance of relationships – especially in organisations. It is this web of relationships that allows organisations to function. From CEOs down, there is an acknowledgement that it is the ‘soft skills’ that make for individual and organisational success. Part of that is due to how organisations have changed with much more interdependence and part is the impact of Daniel Goleman’s seminal work on Emotional Intelligence.

Carole: The plus side to the last year is that it has helped us recognise how much we need connection, how much a meaningful conversation with someone who really knows us, feeds us. The cost of the pandemic has not only been the loss of physical touch. It has also resulted in tasks being foregrounded and relationships being backgrounded (especially in business.) Even among friends and family, Zoom conversations have tended to stay much more surface level. 

Not every relationship has to be exceptional, but chances are we have let too many linger at the middling level when they could become so much deeper. Where have we held back what was really going on with us? Where did we not fully listen to the other, or fail to convey the extent to which we valued them? When were we put off with a comment that they made, without expressing our hurt? Where did we play it too safe? This is a time to double down on the lessons of Connect as part of our overall recovery.

 

It feels like all of us would benefit from being taught more about managing emotions and how to communicate well – do you think it would help to do more of this from a younger age, perhaps at school? Is there evidence that children can learn this, or do you need to get it wrong a few times, or be in different situations in life to be able to relate to the models that you present?

David: I totally agree that this should and can be taught at an early age. I personally benefited as a teenager having some of these skills. And these relational competencies are being taught in different ways in primary and secondary schools in the United States – not as often as they should, but increasingly so. I believe that if people had these competencies at an early age, there would be less stress at school, better relationships with parents, healthier dating relationships and more successful marriages. Relationships play a central role throughout our life.

Carole: One of the things I find tragic is that we delegitimise emotions from an early age.  We end up actually socialising feelings out of kids’ conversations. We bombard them with messages such as ‘You shouldn’t be mad at your baby brother’ (even if you no longer get as much attention), ‘You shouldn’t be hurt; she didn’t mean it’, ‘You shouldn’t feel sad; this too shall pass’. This is further exacerbated as they grow up and enter the professional world where the message is ‘there is no place for emotion in business’. After a while we have so much trouble accessing or identifying feelings that we need items like the ‘Vocabulary of Feelings’ that was in our course syllabus and the book’s appendix.

 

You share a lot about your relationship and provide some really interesting case studies. Was it harder to write about your reflections when you are more emotionally involved? 

David: The important distinction is the level of emotion. When I feel flooded – overwhelmed – it is difficult to reflect. I might need a little time to bring it down to a manageable level. But emotions tell me that something important is going on. I don’t want to wait until the emotions have passed because I may lose the motivation to explore what is going on. 

And this is where relationships are so important. What we found in writing the book is that we could help each other clarify what was going on. It wasn’t that the other had the answer, but in asking open-ended questions and sharing our part in the situation, each of us gained greater clarity.

Carole: Our ability to explore what we were each feeling and what was behind those feelings is one of the most rewarding outcomes of our collaboration. We did not only each learn a lot more about ourselves and each other, but our commitment to this joint exploration made us feel safer, that much more trusting of each other and brought us even closer.

 

I love your concept of exceptional relationships. It feels to me that these are not that common (partly because we are not taught, or perhaps don’t see examples in our role models)? 

David:  First of all, we don’t want or need all relationships to be exceptional. As we stress in the book, we need a range of relationships and the characteristics that lead to exceptional can also strengthen others. Exceptional relationships take a lot of work and if we have four or five, that might be enough. 

But many people do not have four or five – maybe they have none at all. Partly this is due to lack of skills, and we hope the detailed explanations and examples in the book will help the reader develop these. But part of this is hesitancy to take risks – building these relationships involve taking risks.

Carole: I think it is important to remember that relationships exist on a continuum. At one end there is contact with no connection and at the other is what we call exceptional. The characteristics of an exceptional relationship are, to a lesser degree, also the characteristics of robust, functional relationships and we can all benefit from moving many more of our relationships up the continuum to at least that level (in the book we refer to it as ‘reaching the upper meadow’) which you have to get to on your way to the summit.

Relationships that get to the meadow require some risk as well, and they aren’t as common as they could be. That creates a lot of the dysfunction we see in families, schools, teams and organisations. One of the reasons the course was so life changing was that students learned what they needed to move many more of their relationships along the continuum to at least the robust and healthy level and how to take a handful to the exceptional level.

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