How anyone can build exceptional relationships: ‘touchy feely' advice from Stanford professors

an exceptional relationship, empathise with others

The ability to create strong relationships with others is crucial to living a full life and becoming more effective at work. Many of us, however, struggle to build solid connections, or are unable to handle the challenges that arise when we grow closer to others.

Recognising the importance of forging deep connections with others is the focus of the most popular elective at Stanford Graduate School of Business for decades: Interpersonal Dynamics, better known as the “touchy feely” class.

David Bradford and Carole Robin have taught interpersonal skills to MBA candidates in California for a combined 75 years on this course and have coached and consulted hundreds of executives. Now, the two have teamed up to write Connect: Building Exceptional Relationships with Family, Friends, and Colleagues, published in 2021.

According to Robin, an exceptional relationship is one in which “both parties can feel vulnerable, fully known, be honest and trust that their disclosures won’t be used against them. They can deal with conflict productively and are both committed to each other’s growth”.

an exceptional relationship, empathise with others

David Bradford and Carole Robin have taught interpersonal dynamics at Stanford for a combined 75 years.

Bradford shares that while his students were very bright, with straight As, they also believed that they had to pretend to be something that they were not to be influential leaders. In their book, Bradford and Robin write: “We’re so used to disguising ourselves to others, that in the end we become disguised to ourselves.”

During the 10-week course, students take the risk of letting themselves be known, sharing parts of themselves that might otherwise lead to rejection.

And what they experience, says Bradford, “is their peers saying, ‘now that I know the real you, you’re more relatable and influential and I’d want to follow you if you were a leader’, which is personally validating and – to many – life-changing”.

To build robust relationships, he continues: “You have to raise the issues that could risk it. One of the key principles of the course is how to raise issues without going ‘over-the-net’.”

To understand this principle, Bradford explains that when we interact there are three realities: the first reality is a person’s intention and motivation, the second is a person’s behaviour – what they do and say, their words and tone, and the third is the impact on the other person in the relationship.

an exceptional relationship, empathise with others

David Bradford believes that sharing feelings can lead to more leadership success.

“I don’t know the third reality and you don’t know the first, so each of us only has two of the three realities. Unfortunately, when we raise issues and give feedback, we often do it in a way that isn’t functional because we don’t speak from our reality.”

He shares the example of having a colleague who has been late four times. “You might snap and say, ‘well, obviously this meeting isn’t important to you!’ This, however, is ‘over-the-net’ because you have no idea if this meeting is important to him or not. You are playing in ‘his court’ and this response won’t lead to a problem-solving discussion but a defensive argument.”

Robin emphasises that the purpose of feedback is to move into a problem-solving conversation – not to change someone else. Net jumping leads to more net jumping, inaccurate judgment and accusations.

Robin describes the example of her husband’s return home from work. She would talk about her day; he would respond with grunts from behind a newspaper. Robin reacted by saying ‘you’re not listening,’ but this was ‘over-the-net’ and caused him to be defensive, making her more angry.

“Eventually I learned to say, ‘honey, when I’m speaking and you make no eye contact, and your only response is a grunt, I don’t feel heard.’ By speaking from my reality, in a way that didn’t accuse his motive or intention, I provided indisputable feedback that led to a problem-solving conversation and deeper connection.”

To have such conversations, Bradford believes that we need to be in touch with our emotions.

an exceptional relationship, empathise with others

Carole Robin, Stanford professor and co-author of Connect: Building Exceptional Relationships with Family, Friends, and Colleagues.

“It’s the ability to be in touch with one’s feelings and empathise with others, raise disagreements and resolve them productively that is so important in organisations,” says Bradford.

Robin explains that we all need to build the capacity to pick up two signals from two different antennas – one that picks up what’s going on for yourself internally, the other that picks up what’s going on for someone else.

“The more you are attuned to those signals and the more they inform the choices you make in your interactions, the more likely you are to move towards exceptional relationships.”

an exceptional relationship, empathise with others

Twenty-five years after taking the Interpersonal Dynamics course, in 2014 Andrea Corney started teaching it.

A CEO in Robin’s programme starts every team meeting by having each member speak for two minutes on “if you really knew me”. He has discovered that the sooner they trust each other, the sooner the teammates can connect and work more productively.

Andrea Corney, who took the course in 1989, when she was an MBA student at Stanford, facilitated training groups the following year and has been teaching the course since 2014.

“The course was transformative for me, and the skills I brought to my marriage are largely why we have survived and thrived as a couple.”

Corney recalls the time she resisted going ‘over-the-net’ when her new roommate never emptied the dishwasher.

“I felt resentful, thinking she was lazy but said, ‘My sense is that most of the time I’m the one emptying the dishwasher, do you agree?’ She agreed, saying I was neat and particular, and that she worried about putting things in the wrong cabinet, and we calmly found a solution.”

Corney believes that if more leaders developed an awareness of interpersonal dynamics, everyday interactions would be less stressful and more productive.

“We tell students that they can use their authority as managers to get ‘compliance’ but they will only get high performance through the quality of the relationships they create on their teams.”

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