Communication Approaches That Strengthen Working Relationships

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Dan Coughlin

In the July 2013 issue of Leader’s Edge, I suggested that business performance could be explained using the following formula:

Talent Energy Time = Results

Consequently, communication approaches that ruin working relationships waste the time, energy, and talent in an organization. Conversely, communication approaches that strengthen working relationships optimize the talent, energy, and time in an organization toward improving results.

At the heart of building a stronger relationship with another person is truly respecting that person. If you're only working to build a stronger relationship with that person because your boss is making you do it, then you are unlikely to make any real progress.

Do you respect the person, even though you might disagree with some aspects about him or her? Why do you respect the person? What is it about him or her that you admire? If you can't find something to base your respect upon, then you aren't going to put in any real effort toward strengthening the relationship.

If you do respect the person, then here are 10 approaches to consider in strengthening that relationship:

1. Spending One-on-One Time with the Other Person
At the very minimum, I believe you need to spend 90 minutes of quality one-on-one time with the other person every three months. This could be at lunch, in a conference room, riding in a car, over the phone, or on Skype. For those 90 minutes, have no agenda and no interruptions. Turn off your cellphone and get away from your emails. Go away from your office where you won't be tapped on the shoulder with constant requests. Ninety minutes four times a year might not seem like much, but I've been amazed to find out that sometimes people go a decade without ever having any quality one-on-one time with a key person in their part of an organization. And then they wonder why the relationship has never gotten very strong.

I suggest you make a list of the 10 Key People you want to have a strong working relationship with, and then schedule 90 minutes with each of these individuals every quarter. If you are really faithful to that, I think you will find that your relationship with each of them is much stronger at the end of the year. Then continue to do that year after year.

2, 360-Degree Respectfulness

The ultimate relationship builder is ongoing constant respectfulness to the other person. This includes side conversations when you bump into the individual at a conference or during a break at a meeting, and behind the person's back when you are talking about him or her to another person. You demonstrate how much you respect the person by the comprehensive way in which you demonstrate that level of respect.

3, The Enormous Power of the Handwritten Note
My mom is in her mid-80s now and she is just as strong as ever. My mom is a great leader. There are very, very few businesspeople who know who my mom is, but trust me, she's a great leader. When I was 12 years old and I got $10 from my Aunt Helen, Mom said to me, "Danny (and by the way, my mom is the only person allowed to call me Danny), you write a handwritten letter to Aunt Helen and thank her for that gift." When I was 18 years old and received a scholarship to college, my mom said, "Danny, now you write a handwritten letter thanking each of the committee members." When I was 22 years old and I got my first job after college, my mom said to me, "Danny, you write your new boss a handwritten letter and thank him for that job." A few weeks ago my mom said, "Danny, I see that your high school teacher's father passed away. Now, you write him a letter thanking him for all that he did for you." I've been writing handwritten letters for the past 40 years.

Last year, I shared this idea in a speech at Shell Oil. Two weeks later I received a handwritten letter thanking me for the idea from the North American Director of Operations for Shell Retail Marketing. He told me that he had just written a handwritten letter to 80 people across the North American organization.

Handwritten letters are a powerful way of thanking people and letting them know that you are thinking about them. This is especially true in an electronic world of email, text, Skype, Twitter, teleseminars, video conferencing, and so on.

4. Clarify and Bring Light to a Situation
Imagine you're sitting in the back of a well-lit room. Your boss holds up a book and says, "Could you please come here and take this book back to your seat?" That's a very simple thing to do. You just walk up, take the book, and go back to your seat. Now imagine the room is completely dark and you can't see your boss or the book and she asks you to come to her and take the book, except this time she doesn't have it in her hand. It's placed somewhere along the wall in her briefcase. Now it's a much more complicated situation. You are quite literally grasping in the dark for a book you've never seen before.

That's what it is like when a person gives very poor directions to another person. In the absence of any reasonable clarity, it is very hard for the other person to be effective at all. Unfortunately, this happens a lot.

To be an effective communicator, clarify what you want done and why it is so important. And then make sure that the environment is clear and well explained so that the other person can move forward with a minimum of uncertainty. This isn't always possible, but try to put as much light on the situation as you can by explaining items of importance to the other person.

5. Understand What Makes the Other Person Feel Important
In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie quoted another as follows: “The deepest urge in human nature is the desire to be important.”

I first read How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1988. That sentence has remained stuck in my brain ever since. I find the book extremely thoughtful. In my opinion, it is the master book on effective communication.

If you can understand what drives another person more than any other factor, then you will have an opportunity to communicate with that person in a way that matters the most to him or her. It takes time to understand what makes the person's heart race faster and care to a greater extent. Once you know what that is for the person, you can gear your comments toward that nerve center in meaningful ways.

6. Totally Listen
The ultimate sign of respect is to totally listen to what the other person is saying. There is nothing greater than sincerely listening to what the person considers important at that moment. For five minutes, really let go of everything else in your life and totally tune in to what the person is saying and how he or she is saying it. In general, people don't listen very well to each other. I think that's a fair statement to make after all these years of watching people interact with others. Letting go of life's distractions and attentively and empathetically listening is a remarkable gift that you can give to another person.

7.The Incredible Impact of Patience and Calmness
It's quite easy for people to get frazzled. There are a lot of things in life that can create tension both at home and at work. That tension can quickly escalate at work into very dramatic situations. The person who can stay calm and patient is the one who can maintain strong working relationships with a diverse set of people and help get the group from a state of tension to one of collaboration, problem solving, and innovation.

8. A Willingness to be in the Moment at a Moment's Notice
You show how much another person means to you by setting aside what you had planned for the day to be with that person. If that person is dealing with a crisis at home or at work and you let go of what you had on your agenda to step into his or her world, you are clearly saying, "You are more important to me than what I was doing." Of course, you can't do this every day for every person you know because you would no longer be getting any of your work done. However, when you do this, it sends a very loud message about your priorities.

9. Apologize. Really Apologize with Sincerity
We still are human and we still make mistakes.

When you make a mistake, even if it you intentionally made that mistake, it's rarely irreversible in terms of being unable to sincerely apologize for what you did. Go to the other person, look him or her in the eye, and say, "I'm sorry for what I did. It was the wrong thing to do, and I sincerely apologize." Of course, your future actions have to support the sincerity of that apology. You can't then go berate the person again behind his or her back.

10. Walk a Day in the Other Person's Shoes

Most complaints about people in other departments are based on not really knowing what they are doing. People in marketing complain about people in operations and IT and strategy and vice-versa. The comments are constant and never-ending from organization to organization that I've worked in. It usually goes like this, "They have no idea how hard we are working and how many hours we are putting in. They don't do anything in that department to really go the extra mile, and I'm sick of being taken advantage of." I've now heard that comment from many, many people in operations, finance, marketing, human resources, sales, IT, event planning, research and development, and senior executives in charge of the whole organization.

If people in every group feel that way, then there's a very good chance that most people don't understand what other people are going through. One way to make some progress toward resolving all the complaining is for people to spend time in each other's roles. Then maybe the complaining will transform to greater understanding and appreciation of what other people do.

Communication occurs in any organization with two or more employees. It's very easy to fall into negative communication habits that drain the organization of its talent, energy, and time. By consciously working to communicate in effective ways, you are increasing the chances that more of the talent, energy, and time in your organization will go toward improving results.

Continue to learn about effective communication to improve employee relationships by signing up for our webinar on creating friction-free relationships at work.

About the Author(s)

Dan Coughlin  works with business leaders to improve their impact on teamwork, execution, innovation, and branding. His clients include McDonald’s, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Abbott, GE, Marriott, Coca-Cola, Shell, Toyota, RE/MAX, Boeing, Subway, BJC HealthCare, Shawnee Mission Medical Center, St. Louis Cardinals, Prudential, Land O’Lakes, ACE Hardware, Jack in the Box, Denny's, Land O'Lakes, Holder Construction, Kiewit Construction, McCarthy Building Companies, and more than 200 other organizations. Visit him at