October 14, 2019 ~ 5 min read

The relationship layer in communication

Weekly TipsSpeakingWritingListening

What's the point of small talk?

Why spend time at the beginning of a meeting talking about the weather, or the weekend, or something else?

And why do some conversations dance around the point so much as to almost seem like the participants aren't focused on the outcome?

The reason is simple: Direct outcomes are only one layer of conversation, building or maintaining a relationship is another.

Communication has multiple layers

There's a common trope that women communicate on many levels while guys communicate on only one.

To quote Jim Butcher, a Fantasy/Sci Fi author in one of his books:

...when women have a conversation, they're communicating on five levels. They follow the conversation that they're actually having, the conversation that is specifically being avoided, the tone being applied to the overt conversation, the buried conversation that is being covered only in subtext, and finally the other person's body language.

.......When I, and most other people with a Y chromosome, have a conversation, we're having a conversation. Singular. We're paying attention to what is being said, considering that, and replying to it. All these other conversations have been going on for the last several thousand years? I didn't even know they existed...... I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one.

This is overdone for effect.

It's certainly not purely a gender thing (though men tend to be less aware of multiple layers of communication, and women tend to be more aware).

It's also not as static as this makes it out to be - not every conversation occurs on many levels, or on the same levels.

But what is true and important here is that there are multiple possible layers to a conversation. And those layers are learnable. The more you learn about them, the more effective you'll be able to be in your conversations.

Relationship as a layer of conversation

The layer I want to focus on today is relationship. Relationship refers to how we connect to each other as humans.

Unlike a direct objective like "I want to convince you to hire me" or "I want to teach you something", which may be very transactional, relationship building is a longer term goal.

And in every conversation, every written communication, and every presentation or speech you can focus on that relationship building more or less.

It's certainly possible to have a conversation where you don't focus on relationships at all - few of us bother with it when we're making a purchase at a big box grocery store, for example - but if you are systematically unaware of the relationship layer you will struggle to succeed at work or in your romantic relationships.

What builds a relationship

While to some folks it is immediately obvious and intuitive what builds a relationship, I think it's worth drawing out a set of examples because for many of us it is something we learn over time.

One big item is shared experience. This is why "team bonding" events can have an impact, by creating a shared set of experiences, but is also something that can come up more naturally in communication.

For example, one of the big purposes behind small talk is to find and connect on shared experience. We all experience the weather, many of us have similar experiences of family or sports or the like. When we engage in small talk we are identifying what those shared experiences are and using them to build our connection.

Another big relationship-builder is feeling understood. If I take the time to really listen to you, and can show you that I understand your feelings or concerns, that helps build the relationship. This means listening to understand, not just to respond.

A final relationship builder to think about is around concession and giving value. If you give me something that I want, that will make me feel more warmly about you. The more often you create value for someone, or sacrifice your goals for theirs, the more you can build some rapport for them.

Becoming more aware of the relationship layer of communication

We all have different instincts around how much we focus on or are aware of cultivating relationship in our conversation.

As the stereotype above highlights, men are often much less aware of and focused on this aspect, while women are often much more so.

It's not purely gendered though. I've known men who focus on building relationship with no regard to their own self or objectives, and I've known women who seem extremely transactional and blind to the impact of their objective-focus on their relationships.

Neither is good.

Better is to become increasingly aware of this dimension and use it deliberately.

Notice when you're saying things that negatively or positively impact your relationships.

Do you tend to focus relentlessly on the objective and let the chips fall where they will?

Do you sacrifice your own wellbeing over and over again to preserve relationships?

And when you notice your predilections, ask yourself - is that the right approach? What if you approached it a little more deliberately, balancing a focus on long-term relationship building with your short-term outcome priorities.

There's no one size fits all approach, but this is a dimension of all interpersonal reactions, and the more you bring it under your awareness and control, the better communicator you will be.

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Kevin Ball

Hi, I'm Kevin Ball (alias KBall). I'm a software engineer turned trainer and coach focused on communication and leadership skills. You can follow me on Twitter, or check out my software-focused work at Zendev.com.