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“Assumptions are the termites of relationships.”

Those words of wisdom are from that great philosopher Henry Winkler (who also does some acting).

Telling unverified stories about someone else’s motives and intentions can lead to broken marriages, failed corporate mergers, and even wars.

A common trip wire is something called the fundamental attribution error.

The fundamental attribution error is most often visible when people explain the behavior of others. For example, my neighbor Sarah saw her husband Randy trip over a rock in their garden. Sarah commented that Randy is “clumsy” and frequently bumps into things. Two days later Sarah was working in the garden and tripped over the same rock. This time, however, she blamed the placement of the rock: “That thing shouldn’t be there,” she said. “It was right in my path. It’s no wonder I tripped.” Same rock. Same placement. Clumsiness for Randy, just bad luck for Sarah.

How we manage everyday interactions with others—in fact, how we even think about those interactions—has a huge impact on every relationship in our lives.

David Bradford and Carole Robin offer value guidance in their book Connect: Building Exceptional Relationships with Family, Friends, and Colleagues. For a combined 75 years, they’ve taught interpersonal skills to Stanford University MBA students in a course affectionately known as “Touchy-Feely.” But don’t be fooled by the nickname. This stuff has serious application to every relationship in your life.

Rodger Dean Duncan: You write about what you call “exceptional relationships.” What are the hallmarks of such a relationship?

Carole Robin:  In an exceptional relationship we can both—

  • Be vulnerable and more fully ourselves without needing to spin an image and pretend we are something we aren’t
  • Be honest with each other and trust our disclosures won’t be used against us
  • Raise disagreements/conflicts, and resolve them in a way that further strengthens our relationship
  • Commit to each other’s growth and development

These characteristics exist on a continuum, as do relationships. We can use them to move along the continuum from contact with no connection at one end to at the very least, more functional, robust, and satisfying, if not all the way to exceptional.

Duncan: Many workplace relationships are friendly and collegial, but not particularly deep. What are a couple of low-risk ways to enrich a relationship with a workmate, and what are the potential benefits in terms of job satisfaction and performance?

David Bradford: We spend many waking hours at work and though our colleagues need not be our best friends, it’s certainly more rewarding when we have at least a few close, caring relationships.  We all come to work with our own needs, goals and concerns. In the same way, we can’t always leave our job at the office when at home, we can’t always leave home there, when at work.

Might you lead the way by being a bit more personal when you grab that coffee or lunch with a workmate? Are you worried about whether your daughter is going to get into that school she wants or unsure what to do about your ailing parents?  Disclosure tends to be reciprocal so this could lead to a deeper and more satisfying conversation.

People tend to signal what is going on for them and learning to pick these signals up is one way to enrich relationships at work. We need to hone two “antennae”— the first picks up what is going on for the other and the second pays attention to our reactions.  Raising our awareness along both of these dimensions expands our choices.

Beyond that, for someone else to tell you more about themselves they have to know you’re actually interested in them. So, learning to inquire with genuine curiosity is crucial. As you listen more carefully, you might also learn that Joe is getting an assignment that’s new for him but that you have dealt with before. People who work well together tend to build closer ties. In helping Joe, you are both strengthening those ties and building a relationship in which you are freer to go to him when you need him.

In addition to the psychological benefits, enriching relationships this way lightens the work burden and increases efficiency, resulting in higher performance.

Carole Robin and David Bradford

Duncan: What role does self-disclosure play in establishing and building upon a relationship?

Robin: Self-disclosure creates more opportunities to connect, as we discover more of what we have in common. The more I share, the more you understand me and the more my behavior makes sense to you (even when you disagree). There’s a cost to non-disclosure. The less I share, the more you fill in the blanks with your own stories and conclusions.

Self-disclosure also tends to be reciprocal, so the more risk I take in disclosing to you, the more likely you will too. That’s one reason disclosure builds trust. One way to manage some of the risk is to use the 15% rule, which involves making incremental, smaller disclosures to increase the size of your comfort zone. Another is to be “appropriately authentic,” which means sharing what is true for you while also considering the context.

Duncan: Many people would like to exercise positive influence in their relationships, but they inadvertently undermine themselves. What self-sabotage behaviors seem to be the most common?

Bradford: For influence to be functional and sustainable, it has to be mutual. If you are open to my influence, I am more open to yours. That sets up win-win outcomes. The most common self-sabotage is being concerned only about what I want and not paying attention to your needs. When we each want something different, we have to learn to work out solutions we can both live with.

Another form of self-sabotage is our response to conflict. Rather than viewing it as something to explore and learn from, people get defensive, avoid the issue or retaliate. Equally problematic is ignoring issues –sweeping them under the rug only causes them to grow. Facing conflict without blame and with the goal of improving the relationship is what strengthens it.

Duncan: What are the keys to giving—and receiving—feedback in ways that strengthen trust in a relationship?

Robin: First, shift your mental model about feedback. If our relationship is going to be strong, we both must believe we are better off if I know when I am doing something that’s upsetting you. Feedback is always data and as such, a gift. Mental models are easier to update with more skills.

Skilled feedback exchanges require understanding the concept of the “Three Realities” and “The Net.” In any interaction between two people there are three realities. Reality #1 includes your motives and intent. Reality #2 is your behavior—what you say and do (and the only reality we both know). And Reality #3 is the impact of your behavior on me.

Now imagine a metaphorical net between your Reality #1 (your motives and intent) and your behavior (Reality #2). For example, “When you repeatedly arrive to our meeting late” (Reality #2, known to both of us), “I feel irritated, disappointed, and worried. That leaves me less inclined to involve you in more projects, as you have requested.” (Reality #3).

In this effective feedback exchange, I stayed on “my side of the net” and reported Realities #2 and #3. I was behaviorally specific and conveyed the cost of your behavior.  I am even more effective if I also add my intent, “I want to address this because I am invested in you and our relationship, and I don’t want this issue to escalate”

Once feedback is delivered this way, we can move into joint problem solving, which is the purpose of constructive feedback—not changing the other person. Next we can move to inquiry “What is making it difficult for you to arrive on time and how can I help?” The result is stronger relationships and increased abilities to communicate accurately.

Duncan: When they’re interacting with others, you advise people to “stay on your side of the net.” What does that mean?

Bradford: When we are “over the net” we are now in the other person’s reality (Reality #1 from earlier in this conversation). That’s playing in someone else’s court. If in the previous feedback example I say, “You obviously don’t care” or “This doesn’t seem to be a priority for you” I am over the net.  For the record, “I feel that you don’t care” means the same thing and doesn’t include a single feeling word. To stay on your side of the net, remember, “When you do X, I feel Y—not when you do X, I feel that Y.

Duncan: You suggest that “asking encouraging questions” can help prime the pump for a good relationship. Please give some examples of how that works.

Bradford: “Encouragement” works best when you invite someone to be better known by being genuinely curious and suspending judgment as illustrated in the previous example of addressing someone’s tardiness. However, not all questions are created equal. Open-ended questions widen the scope and typically start with how, when, where, or what: “When was the last time you felt that way?” Or “Tell me more; what is it that you find especially exciting?”

What doesn’t work as well are closed-ended questions that can be answered with “yes” or “no,” imply you have the answer, and are experienced as intrusive and judgmental: “Have you considered doing X?”  Also less useful are questions beginning with “why” which carry an implicit request for justification: “Why did you do that?”

Duncan: Some people seem to think emotions should be “off limits” in the workplace. What’s your view?

Robin: Those people probably use emotions at work all the time. They express excitement about an idea in order to inspire, frustration and disappointment when something hasn’t worked out, and appreciation when someone has gone beyond the call. Making emotions “off limits” asks people to leave half of themselves in the parking lot (the part of them that makes them human and much more likely to connect with others.) On the other hand, sharing feelings is among the best ways to become more known and to inspire others.

Emotions give meaning to facts. If I tell you I went zip lining with my family, that doesn’t tell you much. “I went zip lining, and I was terrified but didn’t want to be left behind” tells you much more. Feelings also indicate the intensity and importance of an issue. You might have done something that left me feeling mildly annoyed, upset, angry or furious.  Or something that left me feeling satisfied, happy or thrilled. The more I include my feelings, the better you will know me.

People who see no place at work for feelings are sometimes thinking of strong emotional outbursts that tend to occur when emotions have been delegitimized and built up. Feelings, however, are at the center of effective interpersonal dynamics and connection.

Duncan: In accommodating the needs of others, what’s the key to calibrating your own personal style without forfeiting your autonomy and authenticity?

Bradford: This question suggests that we each have only one style. People are more complex than that and there are many ways of being authentic. I may relate quite differently to a colleague, a friend and my significant other while being authentic in all three. I can modify my behavior to fit the situation, and still be myself. I might choose to foreground certain parts of me and background others. The goal is to discuss what each of us needs and then work out a way of relating so that each of us can be authentic and interpersonally effective.

Inter-personal relationships have to take account of both of our needs. If I want to work completely alone and ignore you I really can’t have a relationship with you. On the other hand, if I have to forfeit too much of my independence it might be too hard for us to have a relationship. If both our sets of “antennae” (as previously mentioned) are sufficiently tuned, the openness of our discussion will help us find a way to neither sacrifice autonomy nor authenticity.

Duncan: Making up stories about other people’s behavior can lead us down a troublesome path. What’s your advice on how to avoid faulty attributions?

Robin: First, recognize when you are doing that (internal antenna.) Once you become aware that you’re making up a story, it may be easier for you to own it as your story and allow for the possibility that you don’t really know what is going on for the other. Then get curious and move into inquiry.

One suggestion is to pause when you’ve made up a negative story about another person’s intentions or motives and come up with an alternative, positive story for their behavior. I might initially make up a story that you are trying to dominate a meeting because you have repeatedly interrupted me and others and then think, maybe you are trying to be really efficient and respectful of everyone’s time by moving the meeting along. Seeing two plausible reasons for your behavior surfaces the fact that I don’t actually know and it makes it easier to get into inquiry.

Duncan: You write about “Pinches.” What are they, and why are they important to raise?

Bradford: Pinches are those small annoyances that inevitably arise in all relationships. Many are minor and we let them pass. But others can fester when repeated. Dealing with them early is much easier than waiting until they become a “crunch.” The next time you think “it’s not worth it,” try substituting the pronoun—“I’m not worth it, You’re not worth it, We’re not worth it.” And then decide.

This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.