As part of my graduate training, I had the horrendously awful but incredibly educational experience of being videotaped while providing therapy in my psychology department’s clinic. If you think that the prospect of having to watch my inexperienced-self counseling others was daunting, you would be correct. However, what further multiplied my horror was the fact that I had to sit through the wretched experience of watching my videotaped sessions in front of an audience of the other fledgling psychologists who were in my supervision group. (Can you tell that I really enjoyed this experience?)
As you might expect, young psychologists focus a great deal on implementing their novice techniques during their first forays into therapy. So, during my sessions, I experimented with my newly acquired active listening skills. I said, “I see,” furrowed my brow, and tried to nonverbally convey all the wisdom I had amassed in my 24 years on the planet. I tried to tolerate silences and pregnant pauses whilst pretending to be unaware of the video camera mounted on the wall, ruthlessly recording my every misstep to be later viewed by my colleagues.
My first supervisor, who had unlimited amounts of patience and the ability to find the nugget of goodness in our rookie attempts, consistently communicated the same message to us: the relationship is the MOST critical factor in facilitating positive change in clients. While the techniques were important, we would never be effective psychologists if we focused on interventions at the expense of building a real relationship with our clients. In fact, the research shows that the patient-therapist relationship carries more weight with respect to positive outcomes than factors such as specific techniques and level of experience of the therapist. What we needed to do, instead of spending all our efforts focusing on using technique X or Y, was to make sure we were relating to the other person as a fellow human-being with a need for connection!
In my work as a corporate consultant, I have seen too many leaders overlook the importance of relationships as well. Yes, tasks, results, and metrics are essential in the business world. But how do we best inspire people to want to dig down deep inside themselves to maximize their potential and exceed their goals, as opposed to just dutifully completing their assignments because they feel like a cog in a wheel? It is through viewing them as whole people – individuals with hopes, dreams, motivators, unique personal histories. By getting to really know your people (and letting them get to know you), you develop deeper bonds with them and gain a greater understanding of how to work with one person versus another to help them to be their best.
When I ask clients reflect back on the various bosses they have had in their careers and think about the ones for which they were willing to work the hardest, some pretty consistent themes come up. People are most inspired by working for positive bosses who cared about them as whole people, and who believed in them. Yes, these bosses held them accountable, provided them with constructive criticism, and stretched them outside of their comfort zones. But, there was a sense of security that came from believing that their boss knew them well enough to know what they could and couldn’t handle, and that he or she would be there as a safe resource to help them dust themselves off and get back on track when inevitable mistakes occurred. They knew that their boss was genuinely concerned in making them better – not just for the good of the company, but for their own personal growth. Having this sort of leadership style is almost impossible, without focusing on relationships.
One last word of caution: relationship building cannot be approached as a “technique.” For example, I have observed individuals who approach interacting with others as an item on their “to-do” list. They walk through the office, asking people about their weekends (although they really could care less about the answers) or engaging in a bit of small talk before getting to the business-at-hand. While this is a worthwhile start, it is just that – a start. Most people are pretty intuitive, and can see right through this sort of behavior. Some even become offended by it, as they view it as a technique being used to manage them more effectively. The key is to actually get to the point at which you actually do care about the people around you as whole people, and are willing to be authentic in your dealings with them. Sometimes this might require some personal reflection and work, as some of us vary in terms of our level of comfort forging deep connections with others. If you are interested in doing some additional reading on this topic, I suggest “Leadership and Self-Deception” by the Arbinger Institute.