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Passion, People and Principles

Developing Relationship Skills

post # 461 — November 7, 2007 — a Client Relations, Strategy and the Fat Smoker post

At a conference of leading management consulting firms last week, I led a discussion about the barriers to developing strong, deep relationships with clients — a “fat smoker” strategy in the sense that we all know we should be good at it, but few of us are.

As we explored the topic, I took a poll on how many people thought relationship skills were “born” and how many thought they could be “made” (i.e. developed.)

(Only) two-thirds of the audience thought they could be developed. However, very few firms said they had formal programs to help their people develop the interpersonal, social, political and emotional skills necessary to be good at relationships. As a rule, they depended either upon people developing these skills for themselves, or (if you were lucky) learning on the job by observing those ahead of you who were good at it.

The challenge was made even more difficult when it was pointed out that — ultimately — relationship skills are about values and attitudes, not personality characteristics and skills. If the discussion is about values, then it really is challenging to address the key questions:

  1. Are these born or can firms develop them in their people?
  2. If they can be developed by the organization, how?
  3. How did you learn to develop your relationship skills?
  4. Were you ever given any formal training that helped?
  5. What would you advise others that wanted to work at developing these skills?


Joe Leverich said:

Zig Zigler, a motivational speaker, has a presentation he makes about learning. I cannot paraphrase it because it’s been years since I hear it. The point is people can LEARN and too often we classify some or the learning we need to do as personality – charcteristics – gene factor. The issue is some of us are more natural or gifted at some skills and take to them easier, but most of what we do, act and treat others can be learned.

The big issue is the person who wants to gain the skills must be desirious to learn them and see the value.

In high school I took Russian for three years, to no avail. I liked the teacher and my class mates, I didn’t care about learning a 2nd language. Possilby if I was motivated to a value and reason I would have learned a 2nd language.

posted on November 7, 2007

Dan said:

This is one of my favorite areas of business to speak/learn about. As a very young professional (less than 2 years out of college), much of my success in my short career can be attributed to my relationship skills. For me, I don’t view these as a skill, they are simply who I am. Luckily for me, I work at a firm that places value on each employees strengths rather than attempting to “fix” every weakness (our attempt at strength based management). David, I am going to answer your questions from my very limited perspective:

  1. Are these born or can firms develop them in their people? – I think some people are naturally comfortable in building, maintaining and nuturing relationships. With that being said, with some coaching and developing, you might be able to help others to do the same. I do not think you can “make” someone a relationship person if that is not who they want to be.
  2. If they can be developed by the organization, how? – I do not believe this can be answered accross the board for all individuals (easy answer). For instance, you could have two people who do not possess relationship skills. The first person simply has no desire to develop relationships with his/her co-workers or clients. He/She is more into the details and mechanics of their job not the people side. The second person may have a desire to develop those relationships but has trouble knowing where to begin the conversation. Maybe they lack the ability to relate but they have a desire to. For the first person I do not think there is much an organization can do and they should not waste there time trying. For the second, a little soft skill training, some excercises and development could jump start their ability to build relationships.
  3. How did you learn to develop your relationship skills? – I think I do have some natural tendencies but I also pay attention to what others around me do. I try to listen to how my leaders talk to clients and co-workers. I am lucky enough to have good relationship people in my organization to learn from.
  4. Were you ever given any formal training that helped? – Yes, our firm frequently does some soft skills training programs that help you approach situations more confidently whether they be with co-workers or clients. We also pay alot of attention to personality testing and strength based management. Although these do not solve the problem alone, they help to make us aware of some of the traits and tendencies we have and also lets us in on some of the traits and tendencies of our co-workers. This tends to help us in a working environment.
  5. What would you advise others that wanted to work at developing these skills? – Understand that not everyone needs to be the best relationship builder. There will always be those that it comes naturally to. Work on getting yourself to a point that you are comfortable being yourself with co-workers and clients. Identify specific situations or areas that are stressful to you and ask others about them. For instance, if you have trouble at mixers there are many quick tricks that just help you become more comfortable. Don’t look for a script that will help you build relationships just look for the tools that will make things a bit easier.

posted on November 7, 2007

Steve Pashley said:

David, a quick response re: Q1.

To the extent that we are talking about values and attitudes I suspect firms can help most by asking themselves the question; “How can we design and operate our organisation so that it gets out of the way’ and lets our people be who they really are?”

If it can do this well then the key issue becomes what kind of people are we hiring. Hire for attitude, train for skill.


posted on November 7, 2007

Beth Robinson said:

I know that relationship skills can be developed because I’ve done it in my own life. I started writing a more in-depth answer, but as it grew longer I was reminded that this was what I recently started a blog for and posted it over there instead. The short version is that I learned my skills the hard way through self study and failure and believe that organizations can teach actions, but not attitudes.

posted on November 7, 2007

Mike Wallace said:

I have my own small business that deals with advising people and I do not think I am a natural people person but have learned these skills over the years. If you subscribed to the fact that you have to be born to it then it would make the recruiting job harder to get the right person for the job. There must be some point where traing etc can improve everyone to a certain level but others more natural at it may go further? In my own field it is not often your technical skill that is the most important (although you have to be competent enough) but your relationship skills with people generally and clients.

posted on November 7, 2007

Ida said:

Reading this discussion, I am reminded of a valuable set of skills I acquired by studying “Wired That Way” by Marita Littauer. They developed a personality assessment tool (really simple and easy to apply once you’ve spent a bit of time on it) that not only teaches you about yourself but also help you to find improved ways of working with others that may not think or respond like you do. It also sheds light on the entire “people-person” issue and why some are more comfortable doing it than others. However, I have seen how individuals (and very successfully so), learn to move out of the comfort zone and do it really well. But, as an organization and when you’re leading, you really should have the assessment tool to help you better utilize the skills and efforts your members are most comfortable with – we are working in teams and all have a role to play! Also, it will allow you to develop a strategy for those that want to learn, to realize which activities may be more challenging but that it is worthwhile to acquire the skills. I’ll end by noting a valuable lesson I learned in high school – pretending. What we do and think we become… so pretend you can do it and you’ll see that you will get better at it, and eventually you may not even think of it anymore, and it will come naturally for you.

posted on November 7, 2007

Wally Bock said:

Before we can adequately answer those questions we have to define what, exactly, “relationship skills” are. Sometimes you get at that by describing what behaviors you want people to exhibit or what results you want them to achieve. In any case you’re likely to find that it’s more effective to influence those already in the firm with rewards and to hire new people with the aptitudes you need.

posted on November 7, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Thanks for this everyone. One more piece of assistance needed, please. I’m developing a program to help really smart people learn the absolute basics of supervisory, managerial and coaching skills. What resources / books would you recommend I draw on (apart from Wired That Way and Dale Carnegie and One-Minute Manager?)

posted on November 7, 2007

Jim McGee said:

Take a look at Gerry Weinberg’s books. While all of them are pertinent, two good starting points would be:

The Secrets of Consulting,

Becoming a Technical Leaders

posted on November 7, 2007

Duncan said:

I think I may have said this before on this blog, but Tuesdays with Mori (Albom) and Man’s Search for Meaning yet? (Frankl)

I think they’re a good starting point for such a training session – message is ‘people are incredibly important – if you don’t realise yet, you will when you’re dying, which is a little late, don’t you think?’

posted on November 8, 2007

Michael Netzley said:

The first article that came to mind was Chris Argyris on “Teaching Smart People to Learn.” I find the part about defensive thinking to be especially valuable.

posted on November 8, 2007

Ida said:

This is one of my most favorite books – one that I learned SO much from and that I believe teach meaningful things to all of us – What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful by Marshall Goldsmith. It is also easy to read and re-read.

posted on November 8, 2007

David (Maister) said:

The people I’m working with are convinced of the why – they need help with the HOWs.

How do you get good at reading another person’s mood. How do yoiu help someone see a weakness without causing them to be defensive?

Any good references on the HOWs?

posted on November 8, 2007

Jim Bullock said:

No fair asking questions that try to make everything in my head come out at once. In order, now that there’s been time to filter:

Born or can be developed? – Firm’s can’t develop these skills in their people. People can choose to develop these skills further, which firms can choose to support. You won’t even get anywhere trying to “motivate” people to “choose” to develop these skills. The limit of encouragement on these is to make the offer, and provide an example. Everything beyond that back-fires.

How to develop them – These skills grow, or can grow through “reflective practice.” Schon’s “The Reflective Practitioner” provides a model, although the subject for relating skills is in here vs. out there in professional skills, the person in the relationships vs. something external.

How did I learn – Training: directed, reflective practice. These skills are the antithesis of read and regurgitate “learning” – the skill being practiced and refined with that is sponge-dom. The being being built is a big tank of someone else’s impression of the world. Bah! Relationships have to do with what you *do* and *are.* Some tools are Piaget-style learning, a bunch of the scientific method, a whole lot of trolling around for ideas to steal, and find coaches, mentors and missionaries. * Paiget – confront yourself with something that doesn’t fit your model of the world. Now make a model that fits. Wash, rinse, repeat. Takes some courage to go find things that challenge your world view. * Scientific method – observe, then cook up a model to fit the data. Then design an experiment to test the model. Wash, rinse, repeat. * Trolling around – the world is full of attempts to explain it, even attempts to describe or explain how people work, and how they relate together. A great many people who think they have a handle on these are loud about it. The world does not want for self-proclaimed gurus. So, cast a wide net. Maybe filter by first, they ought to be successful themselves with the expertise they propose. Divorced relationship coaches for example – What? Then filter through your own designed experience. Run some experiments. You might start with the quieter ones, first. The loud ones are selling something.

* Coaches and mentors – are where you find them, in my experience. Most of the “I’m a coach” people I’ve seen have an agenda. They’re pushing a particular message, which is fine, but makes them missionaries. A coach is looking at your performance and offering what will help you with that. The message is not predetermined, but arises from what you need. A mentor is one who contrives to take some ownership of your thriving. They’ll put you in stretch situations so you don’t get stifled, and have your back so taking a fall doesn’t end the whole game for you. So, find these folks, while remembering – you don’t have to listen to any of them. Have you been trained – Yes. I’ve had formal training – intense experiential stuff spread over several years, and very long-term coaching relationships along the way. I’ve had “course-ware” that gets filtered through corporate training which even when useful is of an entirely different, lesser order. The less useful stuff in this category is crap. Advice for others – The formal parts of the training sequence I followed are unfortunately no longer available. Also unfortunately, much of the “experiential” “human potential” kind of stuff is crap of the first order. Mentor with a skilled practitioner, I suspect is the best approach. The learning model is very close to that in the non-commercial martial arts, or other high-performance practices – acting, music, surgery, flying fighter jets, fire fighting. Also, prefer first-person material – people who know “about” something “smell of leaves” – marvelous phrase for book-learning. And get the real stuff.

posted on November 11, 2007

Jim Bullock said:

How to do it?

It’s a lot more like a lifestyle-chainging health and fitness program than “training” as usually corporately understood. So, start with that as the model of what to look for. Half a day of the Myers-Briggs model, or an “Outward Bound” half-week retreat won’t cut it any more than a diet checklist or week at a spa makes a lifestyle change. Any of that can help, in the context of a larger effort. The larger effort is the thing.

posted on November 11, 2007

Ted Harro said:


My suggestion is not directly about supervision, management, etc. but very much about the deeper level interpersonal issues that drive good management.

The book I’m reading right now is The Communication Catalyst by Connolly&Rianoshek. I think it applies to your situation because it describes ways to use better conversations to get people around you aligned for action. More action from the same amount of talking… In my work with professionals, this is where they often fall down. As you say, they understand WHY it’s important (it’s not that complicated), but they trip up on HOW to do it (and the basic fact that just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy!).

posted on November 12, 2007

George Dinwiddie said:

Absolutely, relationship skills can be learned. I’m living proof of that, though I’ll probably never reach the level I’d like. I have, however, made a huge difference in my effectiveness.

Where did I learn? At the AYE Conference, in large part. I’ve attended for three years, now, and consider it the best money I’ve ever spent from my training budget. These are my own dollars I’m talking about, not some corporation’s.

Of course, you can’t push relationship skill learning on someone else. You can only give them the opportunity. They have to want to learn. Still, the AYE Conference is a good choice for organizations that want to provide an opportunity for their employees.

Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in the AYE Conference. I speak as a satisfied customer. I have, however, become good friends with the principals and other participants at the conference.

posted on November 12, 2007