The Art of Building High-Quality Connections

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Tuesday, February 21, 2023
By Natalie Longmire
Photo by iStock/Edwin Tan
Three ways that we all can hone our skills at fostering stronger relationships in our personal and professional lives.
  • Many people assume that relationship-building should come naturally, when in reality, it is a skill that must be developed and practiced.
  • Good listeners tune into what speakers are saying, while great listeners also make speakers feel that they are validated and supported.
  • Interpersonal skills will become increasingly important, so that people can create strong relationships whether they’re working with others virtually or face-to-face.

Strong interpersonal skills are essential for building positive relationships and achieving success across a variety of situations, especially in the workplace. When employees have these skills, they can swiftly connect with others and build relationships that are characterized by trust and goodwill. And when leaders know how to develop strong relationships, they can build more positive work cultures and motivate employees to work more effectively with others toward achieving organizational goals. 

Unfortunately, today’s educators, employers, and employees are so focused on the rapidly changing technological and economic landscape, many allow the development of “soft skills” to fall to the wayside. They often assume that these skills can be improved only with time and real-world experience.

But if people aren’t introduced early to what it takes to form rich relationships, they might underestimate the benefits they could reap from the process. In fact, they might even avoid networking opportunities altogether because it makes them feel dirty. Many might miss out on building valuable social capital resources that contribute to long-term career success.

Even if they recognize the value of building relationships, many people tend to scoff at the idea of being taught something that they assume should come naturally. Yet, believing that people are born with or without interpersonal skills is also a factor that can lead many to avoid situations that offer valuable opportunities for relationship-building.

Luckily, we can prevent such outcomes by learning how to make high-quality connections as early as possible. In my experience as an educator, I have found that taking a developmental approach to interpersonal skills in the classroom can not only be fun, but also shatter some of these faulty assumptions. 

Swift, High-Quality Connections

Many people share the common misconception that they must invest significant time and effort into relationship-building, above and beyond their regular work responsibilities. But in many situations, employees can—and often must—spark positive connections with their colleagues quickly.

For example, they might be part of a new team assembled to solve a problem or complete a project under a tight deadline. They might be tasked with promoting customer and client loyalty, which often depends on the quality of short interactions with company representatives—or even one brief conversation. Newly hired executives and top managers must gain their employees’ trust and buy-in early on in their working relationships. 

In other words, we all must work to develop high-quality connections, which are relationships (often short-term) based on positive regard, mutuality, and vitality. They generate the energy and excitement that we feel when we are momentarily and completely immersed in our interaction with another person.

Many of us mistakenly assume that these moments happen only when the stars align. But research suggests that three interpersonal skills, when developed and practiced, can help people go from forming relationships that are merely mediocre and transactional to those that are rich, fulfilling, and vibrant. 

1. Mastering the Art of Small Talk

Small talk is truly an art, and its benefits are often overlooked. Moreover, many people are not fully comfortable with the idea of initiating or engaging in small talk. They might lack confidence in their small-talk skills or worry about being able to find common ground with a particular crowd due to their backgrounds or social status. They might have some form of neurodivergence that makes this social ritual particularly challenging or perplexing. Or, they might be introverts who prefer to skip these sometimes socially scripted exchanges in favor of more “authentic” conversation.

Regardless of the reason, if we fail to build our small-talk skills, we might miss out on the benefits of high-quality connections. The first moments of a conversation matter. It is during those initial, seemingly surface-level exchanges that we make our initial impressions of a person’s trustworthiness—impressions that set the course for how the relationship will ultimately unfold. 

To build truly high-quality connections, we must set a benevolent intention toward the other person that prioritizes a sense of togetherness in the moment.

When it comes to choosing topics of conversation, small talkers might benefit from focusing on personal rather than professional subjects. Although “talking shop” might feel like a safer option, research suggests that conversation partners are often unenthused or even put off by work-related conversation starters. 

Once we have set the conversation in motion, our next goal is to find common ground. This can be intimidating for those who are walking into situations that make them feel like fish out of water. For that reason, we all should have a few questions in our back pockets that tap shared contexts or shared values. 

In New Orleans, where I teach business courses in organizational behavior, discussing the weather (yes, the weather!) is always an easy way to relate to others. Because the region experiences so many extremes of heat and humidity, as well as the near-constant threat of hurricanes, this topic is always a relevant and interesting way to find common ground. 

Besides focusing on shared contexts, we also can ask questions that uncover shared underlying values. Such values can be the basis of high-quality connections even when surface-level characteristics and interests do not align.

For example, if people mention their children, we might relate to their experience based on how much we value family relationships, even if we are not parents. If they mention a vacation to an obscure European town we have never heard of, we can create a bond based on how much we value seeking out new experiences and perspectives. 

2. Practicing Mindful Listening

While talking is important, building high-quality connections starts with listening. Yet, when we are taught skills in business school for effective workplace communication, the listening side of the equation is often minimized or omitted altogether.

But our business courses should recognize that good listening skills are the key to effective interactions with customers, clients, patients, and a myriad of other potential stakeholders. Whether or not people are viewed as leaders at work can also depend on how well they listen to others.

Good listening requires us to give the speaker our undivided attention; we must eliminate distractions, such as the constant deluge of electronic communication we receive every day. Good listening also requires us to tune in to the information others convey through their body language and tone. For this reason, during conversations, it’s often helpful if we occasionally paraphrase what we hear and seek clarification, to ensure that we fully comprehend what the other person is saying.

Great listening, however, is so much more than attention and comprehension. To be great listeners, we must set a benevolent intention toward the other person that prioritizes a sense of togetherness in the moment. Speakers need to feel that they are being not only comprehended, but also validated and supported in what they are seeking to convey.

Mindful listening allows us to focus on being present and engaged with the other person. To listen well, we must focus on uncovering what the speaker ultimately needs from us.

In other words, it’s easy to perform the behaviors of a good listener—making eye contact, nodding, paraphrasing—without actually being mindful of what others are saying. We can spend so many of our cognitive resources on trying to listen well and formulate the best responses that we miss opportunities to connect with others. Are they asking for advice, or do they simply need a listening ear? Do they want someone to challenge them or to better understand them?

Mindful listening allows us to focus less on “doing” during our conversations and more on “being” present and engaged with the other person. To listen well, we must focus on uncovering what the speaker ultimately needs from us.

Imagine, for example, how challenging it might be to listen well when a co-worker tells us something about his or her personal success—particularly when we feel threatened by that success. But mindful listening can open us up to opportunities to learn something new or strengthen the relationship. It helps us direct this scenario to work in everyone’s favor. My own research suggests that by reacting supportively to a colleague who shares good news, we can inspire the sharer to engage in more pro-social behaviors toward listeners.

3. Empathizing With Another Person’s Experience

Empathy is a third critical skill that supports high-quality relationship-building. Empathizing is often used interchangeably with perspective-taking and sympathizing, but the distinctions between these reactions are important.

Perspective-taking, for instance, is the cognitive process of putting ourselves “in someone else’s shoes.” Engaging in perspective-taking does have relational benefits. For example, it can enhance discussions of controversial topics, lead to more feedback-seeking behavior, and increase the efficacy of diversity trainings.

While perspective-taking might be a first step in the process of empathizing, it often doesn’t go far enough. Moreover, the other problem with perspective-taking is that it often fails because we are so susceptible to egocentric biases—tendencies to imagine that others’ thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs are overly similar to our own. As a result, perspective-taking can lead us to inflate our understanding of others’ perspectives—it can even lead to advantage-taking in contexts that encourage competition.

Sympathy is similar to pity, or feeling sorry for others’ misfortune. While this feeling can create the illusion of high-quality connection in the mind of the sympathizer, in reality, it can drive disconnection through the “othering” of a person. For instance, if we feel any inkling of superiority in our benevolence toward others after hearing their experiences, we have likely sympathized, not empathized, with them. 

Empathy, on the other hand, refers to truly seeing and sharing in a person’s emotional experience. It fosters a sense of equalizing and creates a feeling of togetherness that cannot be achieved through sympathy. Likely for these reasons, cumulative research favors empathy over perspective-taking for fostering high-quality connections.

While sympathy can create the illusion of high-quality connection, in reality, it can drive disconnection through the “othering” of a person.

Empathy allows us to enter in alongside another person’s emotional experience, whether positive or negative. To truly empathize with someone, perspective must be gained (not simply taken), often through mindful listening. 

In the moment, it can be challenging to distinguish between these various ways of understanding and internalizing the experiences of others. However, we can hone our skills by reflecting on times when we have been the recipients of perspective-taking, sympathy, and empathy. In the classroom, educators can help students make the distinction by integrating the practice of empathy into relational listening exercises. In these exercises, speakers and observers can give feedback on the quality of a person’s empathizing. 

Relationships in the Age of Hybrid Work

With the rise of remote and hybrid work, employees often face added challenges as they try to build relationships in virtual environments. Many of the features inherent to remote work—such as asynchronous communication and geographical and cultural distance—work against processes that help to humanize others. Such distance and dehumanization serve as major barriers to small talk, listening, and empathy. 

By developing our interpersonal skills, we all can add crucial value to organizations that rely on high-quality connections for carrying out knowledge- and service-related goals—even when we are working remotely. That’s why, now more than ever, we must learn to build close relationships, whether we are educators, employers, employees, or students. By doing so, we will not only deliver the best results for our institutions and organizations, but also enrich our day-to-day experiences and build strong support systems for our own long-term career success and well-being. 

Natalie Longmire
Assistant Professor, Management, Freeman School of Business, Tulane University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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