Business, social media, donors relations, non-profits – everyone will tell you that ‘building relationships’ is the key to success.  Everyone tells you that because it’s true.  Building relationships is the key to success, but not in the way we think.  Like so much else, ‘building relationships’ has become transactional and formulaic, and it’s lost value as a result.

I’m in the process of selling my house and have had plenty of opportunities to distinguish between the real relationships I’ve built and those which are transactional and formulaic.  I’d like to share why I think building real relationships are so important, how I’ve done it, and how it feels when the relationship isn’t real.  

Before we start, let me bluntly state that my natural personality is more along the lines of the Dr. Spock from StarTrek or Alan Turing in the Imitation Game.  I’m a highly analytical, logical, problem-solving, introvert.  My two favorite phrases are ‘I just read some interesting research’ and ‘according to statistics.’  My parents raised me to be kind and treat others with respect, but I’m not naturally wired to be the warm, fuzzy type, so no group hug recommendations here.  And yet, forming real relationships ranks as one of my most highly held values and gives me some of the greatest pleasure in life.  Relationships with friends and family for sure, but also the casual relationships that mean more than we think.

My epiphany came 25 years ago when I moved to London and then to rural France.  Being alone had never bothered me, but it turns out that isolated and lonely is an entirely different kettle of fish.  Of course I found my way – I made lasting friendships, explored the areas, took fun classes, got another master’s, and my very best thing ever, became a mother – but I also realized that those casual interactions that make up our day-to-day life can literally get us through each day.  Amal at the post office.  Arlene at the bakery.  Madame et Monsieur Roux at the butcher.  The apricot man at the market.  They were consistent, kind, and friendly constants in my day.  I’m not talking meet for coffee, share stories, have-a-laugh relationships – I’m talking the most basic exchange, a friendly smile and a brief but polite exchange.  But it mattered.  A lot.  There were days when it kept me sane.  Not once have I taken ‘building relationships’ for granted since then.

It doesn’t take much to build a relationship.  When it comes down to it, basic human decency is enough.  A genuine respect for the full range of talents and life experience.  Genuine curiosity about the whole person, while respecting the boundaries they set.  Kindness.  Patience.  A genuine smile.  Did I mention genuine?  We all know how to build relationships, but here’s a great (research-based, of course) article if you want a refresher course. 

What has happened so often now is that ‘building relationships’ is fake, not because people are doing the wrong thing, but because the motivation is not a relationship, it’s a transaction and it’s often expected that a relationship be formed quickly with little real effort.  Yet, as the article points out, it’s always better to build relationships before you need them. 

I’d add a critical caveat:  build relationships expecting to never need them.  

Build relationships just because it makes life so much better, what goes around comes around, and you never know how your decency will ripple out to change someone else’s life, even if you never hear about it or benefit from it. 

Back to my house sale experience.  I’d done intensive research into realtors that are active in my market.  They all talked about ‘building relationships’, but it was pretty clear that the only relationship they wanted with me was to generate as fast a commission as possible and please use me again and refer me.  I’m sure they all believe what they are saying, but it feels transactional at a gut level.  By contrast, I’ve spent 15 years building relationships with my painter, my handyman, the guy who does the heavy-duty spring yard clean up, and so many more of what many would view as essentially transactional relationships.  I chat (too much, I’m sure!), ask about their families, ask for and take their professional advice on when work needs to be done, and refer them to others every chance I get.  Not because I want something from them, but because I do genuinely respect their work and enjoy talking with them.  In the last 2 weeks though, I’ve been well and truly touched by the support I’ve received.  When I decided more rooms need to be painted, I texted Chris and he replied, “I’ll be there at 7:30 tomorrow morning”.  He delayed a job and added crew to get my house ready in record time.  Emailed John, said I was selling the house and could I get bumped to the top of the spring cleaning list and he replied ‘sure, mulch too?’.  To point out the obvious, these guys are stepping forward to help me even though there will be no more work on this house.  I’m not paying double-time (though I always pay fairly and promptly, it’s the respect thing).  I’m not bullying.  I’m getting the support I need based on 15 years of relationship building.  A relationship built not because I might want something from them, but because it makes life so much better.  

I can’t begin to count the number of times in my life when the kindness of others has sustained me, but I know it is a two-way street and it’s my responsibility to make the first move, to demonstrate genuine respect, to be kind.  It’s not that hard, but listening to so many others as I build relationships, it’s still fairly rare.  There are a lot of nasty people out there who treat others like dirt (you wouldn’t believe the stories I’ve heard while we chat).  So yes, if you want to get ahead, build relationships, but make them real. Make them genuine.  Your day-to-day existence will be more enjoyable, and one way or the other, what goes around comes around.