The Key to Transforming Your Relationships at Work

Knowing people is different than knowing about people. When we know people, we connect. Connection is essential in everything we do, whether we’re trying to influence change, hold people accountable, or create new visions. As an HR specialist, connection is especially critical in addressing difficult issues.

But, most of us don’t have an intentional way to connect with others. And we don’t explore how we get better at it. So, missed opportunities for connection pass us by.

So, how do we actually connect with others? First, we need to get to know them.

How Knowing People Saved Us

See, I grew up in a really small, rural community. We moved to this town of 200 because my dad always dreamed of living in the country during his years growing up in the city. We didn’t end up in a suburb-with-a-big-yard kind of “country.” This was Little House on the Prairie kind of “country.”

In these two square miles in Yorkville, Indiana, there was no school, no streetlights, no post office — it was just us and the woods. We lived on top of a really steep hill. As a kid, I thought it was normal to sled for a quarter of a mile out your front door. Although the sledding was great, that big hill meant it was tough to get to our house in the winter. One year, we could only get to our house by hiking from January to March — our road was just too treacherous.

We had another obstacle in our remote location — water. We lived too far out to get city water, and we didn’t have a well. So, we had to rely on a truck that delivered water once every two weeks. In the winter, the truck refused to come if the roads even slightly affected by the weather. And if the truck did get there in the winter, the water was often frozen. So, we went for long periods of time without our own water. Knowing people in our community was essential.

In our community, we knew people like Old Red, who would take time away from tending his prize horses to help us shovel this long driveway. We knew Anna Jo, the town matriarch who’d have us over for a warm meal and showers. And we knew Betty, whose humour could make the worst situation laughable. Knowing people made all the difference.

When I was in middle school, we moved to Boca Raton, Florida. Talk about culture shock!

There were more opportunities, more innovations, more people… but less connection.

How could we live in a town with so many people and feel so isolated, when before we had been so isolated and yet felt so connected? It’s because we didn’t really know people anymore.

See, knowing people requires connection. And these connections only come when we’ve had real interactions  — interactions that help us learn more about their lives and result in shared experiences. Just because we share affiliations with work, religion, or our neighbourhood doesn’t mean we’re connecting. Connection must be cultivated.

Be Curious

So, how do we do it? Step one: Curiosity

I’m an intensely curious person. And I’m struck when others aren’t. I naturally ask questions to get to know people, but not everyone does. It’s easy to spend time with people without connecting with them. We’re with one person, but texting another. We answer questions when asked, but don’t think to reciprocate the effort.

But there’s good news — curiosity is easy! And it only takes small acts of curiosity to make a big impact.

Curiosity’s Bonus Side Effect

Curiosity leads to connection. And when we’re connected with people, life transforms. We understand each other a little better and can work better because of it. We see it in crucial conversations and negotiation in particular.

Negotiation is a lot like crucial conversations — you want A, I want B, let’s work it out. In negotiation research, they find that connection and curiosity lead to better results. And they’ve found that inquiry can have an interesting side effect. See, emotions impact negotiations. And negative emotions (anger, sadness, disgust) negatively impact the results — even if those emotions have nothing to do with the negotiation itself.

Harvard’s Jennifer Lerner identifies it as “emotional hangover.” When a negative emotion hangs over into the negotiation, we’re less adept at analysing our interests and we make more errors which directly translate into lost dollars at the negotiation table.

So, researchers wanted to figure out how to curb it. The University of Michigan and the University of Virginia crafted a clever study. They called people to survey them about their life satisfaction. They called half the people on a sunny day and the other half on a rainy day. They found that rainy day responders rated their life satisfaction lower. Somehow the weather caused them to rate their life differently.

Then, they did the study again but added one question when they called. At the beginning of the call, they asked, “How’s the weather there?” and things changed. The people in the rain answered the question about life satisfaction as positively as those in the sun. Acknowledging the bad weather diffused its impact — and inquiry helped make that happen.

Curiosity At Work

Translate this to the workplace. One little question can make a difference in our emotions and connection. So, what if you came to meetings a little early so you could ask your coworker, “How are you?” They have the chance to say, “Oh! My commute was awful!” or “I’m so frustrated at…” Now, that emotion is less likely to hang over into your meeting.

When you allow others the chance to acknowledge their emotions, and you genuinely seek to connect with them through it, the results improve.

But be careful — just asking questions, doesn’t mean we’re curious. We can ask manipulative, controlling, self-serving questions too. At best, these interactions are transactional. We’ve all been there — we know when someone cares more about when we’ll turn in a proposal than they care about us.

Yet, when we ask questions that value the other person, our curiosity builds connections. And those connections have the opportunity to be transformational. They transform our workplace from a place where people know about their colleagues to a place where people really know each other. And when we have solid relationships at work, our jobs get so much easier.

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