Career & Success

Building Successful Relationships: How to Effectively Communicate in Your Professional and Personal Life

In this podcast episode, we discuss how our behavior impacts our relationships and sharing our feelings can lead to more success as a leader.

February 18, 2021

Recognizing the importance of forging connections with others — and learning how to build those bonds in real time — is the focus of a course that’s been the most popular elective at Stanford GSB for decades: Interpersonal Dynamics. The iconic course has taught thousands of students and professionals what it means to have exceptional relationships and how to interact with others in a way that contributes to deeper, stronger connections.

In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, lecturer and podcast host Matt Abrahams sits down with David Bradford and Carole Robin, lecturer and former lecturer of iconic Stanford GSB class Interpersonal Dynamics, to discuss their new book, Connect: Building Exceptional Relationships with Family, Friends, and Colleagues. Listen as Bradford and Robin outline what they’ve been teaching in the classroom for a broader audience.


Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication.


Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: Some of the biggest communication challenges we face take place interpersonally, giving feedback, revealing personal information, apologizing. The key to addressing these tricky communications issues is to connect and foster mutually respectful relationships. Yet many of us have never learned how to initiate, build and sustain these types of relationships.

Hello, I’m Matt Abrahams and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast to learn more about the importance of connection and how to foster deep personal relationships. I am thrilled to be joined by Carole Robin and David Bradford, who both taught the wildly popular GSB class Interpersonal Dynamics, also known as “Touchy Feely.” Together, they have just written the book to connect building exceptional relationships with family, friends and colleagues. Thank you, Carole and David, for being here.

Matt Abrahams: Glad to be here having us. First off, congrats on your book. I really enjoyed reading it. You know, I assess the value of a book by how many clear takeaways I can immediately put into practice. And by that measure, your book was a huge success. Shall we get started? Let’s go. Absolutely. All right. So, Carole, in your book, you and David talk about exceptional relationships.

What does this mean and what advice do you have to help people develop exceptional relationships in business?

Carole Robin: An exceptional relationship is one in which both parties can feel very vulnerable with each other and more fully known by each other. It can be honest with each other and trust that their disclosures won’t be used against them. They can deal with conflict productively. They’re both committed and remain committed to each other’s growth and development. And if the presence of the combination of those things, it makes the relationship exceptional.

Matt Abrahams: What are a few key takeaways you think that can help us build these relationships?

David Bradford: So the first key is to recognize that if you’re going to have a relationship like we’re talking about, you have to build the capacity to pick up two signals from two different antennas.

One antenna is what’s going on for me internally. The other antenna is what’s going on for someone else. And the more those signals are, the more you’re attuned to those signals and the more they inform the choices you make in your interaction with someone, the more likely you are to move towards exception. I’m going to really quickly say there are three other kinds. One is to take the risk of allowing yourself to be known because the other person will be more likely to do the same thing. Be prepared to update your beliefs and assumptions about what makes you effective, particularly as a leader, and treat every interaction as a learning opportunity.

Matt Abrahams: I really like that last point, we can learn so much, and yet we tend to get distracted by just focusing on what we want to accomplish, that we don’t take the opportunity to really see each opportunity is something we can learn from. And that goes to the first point you made about thinking about not just what is going on for you, but also think about what’s going on for the other person or people you’re talking to. So thank you for that advice. I think that’s very clear and very helpful, David. One theme in the classes you’ve taught and in your book is The Importance of agency and choice. Why is this so important in building relationships?

David Bradford: It’s actually very crucial for a couple of reasons. One is, think of the difference between somebody saying they’re talking about a relationship with a friend and they say, I can’t raise it. Hmm. I choose not to raise it. It’s a world of difference. Mm hmm. First, I’m just empowering myself. I’m helpless. I’m controlled by the environment or by the other person. The second person. Second reason is I’m owning that. I have agency. I’m an active participant. Now, I may not choose to raise that, but it is a choice. So whatever the students or even our friends, because we drive our friends crazy and we come in and say, no, you’re choosing not to do that. You may want to not do it, but it’s a choice. Now, the second reason why this is important is if I own that, it’s a choice. It gets me into further exploration. I choose not to raise this point with Charlie. I wonder why. Is it Charlie, is it me? Do I need his approval? What am I concerned about? And that, in essence, is both a source of learning, but it also gives me further choices. As, for example, I may be afraid that he’s going to deny it. Hmm. All that gets me to think about how I’m going to raise it and also how I might respond. So really owning the fact that I have a choice, gives me freedom, empowers me, makes me an active learning participant.

Matt Abrahams: So, in essence, giving yourself permission to feel that agency allows you so much more freedom in the relationship and to reflect and to to motivate yourself to act, and I can clearly see how that would help. If you simply feel like you can’t do something and you don’t have control, that’s going to change the dynamic completely, totally. You both advocate for the importance of disclosure in building stronger relationships. Aren’t there downsides to letting yourself be known, being honest and raising disengagement? Can one of you share some best practices that can help us disclose in a productive and safe manner?

Carole Robin: Sure. I would argue there’s a bigger downside to not allowing yourself to be known for a number of reasons. First of all, human beings like to make sense of things. And the less I tell you about me, the more opportunity I give you to make up stories about me. So second of all, if I don’t tell you much about me, you’re less likely to tell me much about you and to the extent that moving towards an exceptional relationship requires both of us to be willing to allow ourselves to be more known. We’re moving in the wrong direction. And third, I’d say that the downside of not being honest and not raising disagreements is you have more dysfunction in the relationship. So for best practices, maybe David’s got a couple of suggestions.

David Bradford: I would build on what you’re saying, Carole, very nicely said, is to acknowledge that Matt is right. There is a risk here. There’s always a risk.

It’s completely safe. What one can do is lower the probability of it going south. And this is why we stress in the book and we stress in the class the willingness to take a risk because that’s where you learn. But I think one of the ways to look at it is we talk about the 15 percent rule. And I want you to think of three concentric circles, the inner one, smallest one is my comfort zone where I can operate and feel perfectly safe, but I’m not taking any risk. And we urge people to take a 15 percent risk, which is the next ring around this central one. And that’s why I’m not sharing everything. But I’m 15 percent out of my comfort zone and a little uncomfortable. Now, if this doesn’t go well, it’s probably not a disaster, but in all likelihood, it’s going to go well. But it’s only 15 percent. I don’t move to the third ring, which is a danger zone. But if the second if my 15 percent works well, as Carole says, you might share 15 percent, that I might share another 15 percent. So it’s a gradual building process where we find out what is working with each other. We’re both taking some risks, but we’re not threatening the entire relationship.

Matt Abrahams: I like that. So it sounds like there’s reciprocal risk taking. And in many ways, I like the concentric circle model because I think at least for me, I often think about disclosure as binary. Either I disclose or I don’t. But what I hear you saying is that the choices you can make allow you to disclose some and then you it’s in essence an experiment, a test to see the response. And I like that. And it feeds back to your previous response, David, about agency. It makes you feel in control because sometimes disclosing you feel like you’re totally out of control. So I like that a lot.

David Bradford: But if I could add something, I’m sure it ties in your point about when we think of disclosure and we often think of disclosing as a way I put something illegal, immoral or what we’ve done in the past.

And what we find in the course is that disclosing feelings is the most powerful way to communicate how it could communicate just thoughts and feelings, you know, am I feeling uncomfortable? Am I feeling worried about where we are? Those are often the 15 percent risk that builds the relationship.

Carole Robin: Because you know what’s important to me and I would add there’s a reason the students call the course touchy feely, because the important because the importance of feelings in communication is underscored and highlighted for an entire quarter, including the fact that they all receive a vocabulary of feelings as part of the as part of the syllabus. And by the way, it’s an appendix in the book Connect.

Matt Abrahams: That’s great, because I think a lot of us might resonate with what you just said about sharing feelings, but might not have the language or the tools to do it. So it’s great that there is a guide that can help. So, Carole, one of the first times I heard you speak was on the topic of feedback. And I have to tell you, I was just totally transfixed by what you were saying. And in that conversation, you stress the value of feedback and said that feedback is a gift. Yet most people resist giving or receiving it.

Why is that? And what can people do to get better about their feedback?

Carole Robin: Well, this is going to tie in a moment to feelings, the feelings you were talking about, but let me start by why most people have experience stepping in a pile of doo-doo when they either tried to give somebody feedback, somebody tried to give them feedback, they observed a feedback exchange. And so what happens, as David likes to say, a cat never sits on a hot stove twice, but it never sits on a cold stove again either. So what happens is we don’t get better at giving feedback by not giving feedback. We don’t develop more skill. And this mental model, we hold this assumption and belief that it’s going to harm the relationship. Something is going to go terribly awry, gets reinforced because we have no new data to update it. So we hold these beliefs. And by the way, one of the reasons the course is so powerful and thousands of alarms for decades have found it so transformational is that they got an opportunity to experiment with giving feedback and updating these mental models that they hold and have discovered that it actually builds relationships. It doesn’t ruin relationships. Now, one way you can you’re more likely to move into experimentation is with a little more skill. So a big part of the book is dedicated to some of the skills that you need in order to be more effective at giving feedback. There’s a central model to the course and the book called The Net, and that’s a very specific way of giving somebody feedback. It’s both behaviorally specific and includes the reaction of other person’s behaviors, your reactions to their behaviors. So, for example, my husband comes home. This is now many years ago, the stories in the book many years ago. He comes home from a long day in the valley. He’s been working very hard. He collapses in the chair, in the front room and grabs the newspaper. I hear him. I come running out of the bathroom. And I start talking, oh, my God, you’re home, thank God.

And he does not make it does not raise his eyes from his newspaper. And the only thing he responds with this now, that’s the behavior. No eye contact, a grunt. My reaction is that I feel dismissed and I don’t feel heard and I feel hurt. But here’s the problem, in an exchange between two people, there are three realities. There’s the behavior, which is the reality. Number one, what’s going on for Andy? Reality number two, the behavior he’s engaging in, the only reality that’s known to both of us. And there’s reality number three, which is what’s happening for me. And we talk about a metaphorical net between what’s going on for him, his reality, number one, and the other two. So I don’t know what’s going on for him. But what I do when I don’t understand the concept of the net is I say, you’re not listening to me. Well, that assumes that I’m in his head and I don’t. And I don’t. You’re not listening to me is over the net and it gets worse. I feel that you don’t care. First of all, it is not a feeling. And second of all is an attribution. It’s imputing a motive. I don’t know whether he cares or not unless he says I don’t care.

So until I learn to say, when you make no eye contact and the only thing I get is a grunt, I don’t feel heard in that and I feel hurt and dismissed. And I’m telling you this because it makes me less inclined to want to be there for you. That’s the complete package of a piece of feedback that’s entirely on my side of the net. And it’s likely to make him less defensive and saying, I feel that you’re not sensitive or I feel that you don’t care. Because, by the way, that’s incredibly unfair. He’s the most sensitive man on the planet.

David Bradford: If I could add a little bit to that, which is a great description, is we also say around the GSP and this is part of the notion that feedback is a gift and it takes two. One, as Andy needs Carole to know, and he needs to know the effect of his behavior.

We don’t know the effect of our behavior, we’re shooting in the dark and you don’t hit the target when you’re shooting. So that’s why feedback is a gift when it’s given with the intention to help each other out and to help the relationship.

Carole Robin: And if we go back to your question about receiving feedback, by the way, if you want others to be better givers, then it behooves you to become a better receiver. Sure, we say it’s a gift. And by the way, sometimes it’s wrapped in a really ugly wrapping, really hard to tell.

But if you can respond to a piece of feedback, even if it’s over the net, because the person didn’t read the book and they don’t know what they’re doing, you can respond with curiosity and inquiry. What is it that I’ve done and what exactly is the result of that? How is that making you feel? You can push them back over the net.

Matt Abrahams: Wow. Well, thank you both for giving us the gift of insight into how to give better feedback from my perspective, what I hear you talking about is it’s about the approach you take. It’s about understanding all parties involved in what information they have access to and taking time to be deliberate and thoughtful in giving feedback is critical. So thank you for that. And I, for one, have received many gifts that did not appear to be gifts at first. But in hindsight, they certainly were.

I’m curious to get your suggestions for how we can better connect and develop our relationships now that so much of our communication is virtual. Do you have some suggestions for us?

Carole Robin: Yeah, well, first of all, everything that we’ve been talking about and everything that’s in the book, I think is something to consider doubling down during this time. So the fact is that I think we’ve become much more transactional as a result of the pandemic and much more task oriented, especially in business, at the expense of relationships.

So we have a lot of contact maybe, but not a whole lot of connection. And if we want more connection, then we’ve got to make a little bit of time to ask each other, how are you really doing? What’s really going on. I have a CEO that’s in my program and my leaders and tech program right now who starts every meeting by having every one of his team, every member of his team. Start with two minutes of “if you really knew me.” And then he times them. And for two minutes they have to complete that phrase.

Matt Abrahams: That distinction between contact and connection opened up so many doors for me. I’ve really been struggling because I’m thinking to myself, I’m talking to so many people. I’m teaching so many people. And yet I don’t feel the same connection that I used to. And thank you for helping make that distinction. So we have to take the time to actually connect. It doesn’t mean that we’re looking at faces on a screen. You actually have to connect with those faces. Thank you.

Matt Abrahams: Before we end, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everyone who joins me. Are you guys up for that? So, Carole, if you were to capture the best communication advice you ever received as a five to seven word presentation slide type, what would it be?

Carole Robin: To have interpersonal success, it depends on who you’re talking to and for what purpose.

Matt Abrahams: OK, that’s a little extra. But we’re going to let it slide because it’s really insightful. Tell me a little bit more.

Carole Robin: So one of the biggest mistakes people make is they think one size fits all. One of the most important things students learn in “Touchy Feely” is the exact opposite, which is why we were going to write five easy steps to be more interpersonally effective. The fact is connecting with someone else is new, it is nuanced, it’s idiosyncratic to that particular relationship.

What works for you and me to connect more deeply may or may not be what works for David and me. And so to the extent that I want to be effective in connecting with you, I’ve got to take you and me and our relationship into consideration in the context of the relationship. Are we work colleagues? Are we friends? And so I think that’s kind of what’s underneath the seven words or them at nine words or however many words I have.

Matt Abrahams: Great. Well, Carole, it is a true pleasure to have you as a work colleague and a friend. So thank you. Who is a communicator that you admire and why?

David Bradford: I’m going to pick two people if I can. First person is a therapist I had many years ago. And Lawrence was so effective because I sensed that she really wanted to get to know me. One thing, she was very honest and she pulled no punches, but she was also aware of, as a therapist would say, when their stuff gets in the way. And when she was hurt by something I’d say, she would stop and say, oh, that’s me. I’m sorry. And it was just wonderful. The other person I’m going to name actually is Carole. And we’ve tested the communication now for many, many years, but especially over the last three and a half years. Carole, why I pick you is most of the time you’re clean in terms of what you say. And second, when you’re not, I can raise it. And I rarely experience you getting defensive or explaining yourself. You really do live with the notion that feedback is a gift and you’re doing something and we clean it up right away. And I find after we have cleaned it up, I feel closer to you. It has built the relationship. So I mean that and I have really valued you as a coauthor and as a very close friend above all.

Carole Robin: Thank you, David. I’m really touched. And right back at you in every regard.

So who do I admire? The first person that springs to mind for me that’s obviously famous is Barack Obama. And obviously, he’s a great orator and he’s very, very succinct and articulate and just a pleasure to listen to. But the reason he came to mind for me was to and I’ve had the immense privilege and pleasure of meeting him in person. And what you see is what you get. And I mean, of course, he’s got as a public persona, but I feel incredibly drawn to him. And the reason I feel drawn to him is he’s not afraid to show his emotions. He’s not afraid to talk about always feeling he has conviction and strength, but also a vulnerability and a willingness to be wrong that is inspiring.

Matt Abrahams: I totally agree, I’ve had the great fortune not to meet him, but I met one of his speechwriters who echoes everything that you just said. So thank you both for sharing that. So, David, what are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe from your perspective?

David Bradford: I’m going to build upon a point that’s really very important. We sometimes communicate to get the task done. But I want to talk about the interplay between communication and relationships. First thing is that of the three that you asked for, is that I have to take account of this relationship and not treat relationships as a general statement. What is the other word, is the other person right now, what do they need? What do I need? How robust is our relationship? So that’s the first part: I take account of the relationship. Then I need to take account of the fact that in most of my conversations. I want to communicate in order to build this relationship, and this isn’t just with. Intimate people that I have, but I find, for example, when I go to the store, I do the shopping for the household. I like to have a more personal relationship even with the clerk.. And can I communicate in a way that shows that person? I see that person as an individual. It’s only a two minute interaction. So I want to see communication as a way to build the relationship. And the third one is, if I have done that and I have built a strong relationship, I can communicate in so many more ways, I can share so much more about myself. I can even make more mistakes because I know we have the foundation to recover from. So for me, the communication has to be closely tied with the relationship. They’re intertwined and they have to be seen together.

A very powerful and important point is that communication happens within a relationship, and I like how you layer that description where you start with appreciating the relationship, building the relationship, and that frees you to have a variety of different types of communication. Thank you both. Your insights and ideas have been incredibly helpful to my mind.

They boil down to agency introspection and connection and especially balancing out both thoughts and feelings. I believe everyone who has listened in can see why the class you helped build and have taught for so many years has been so successful.

And speaking of success, I wish you much of it with your new book. All the best.

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