Six steps to effective relationships. Mastering our craft (part 3 )

This is the third in my masterclass series that focuses on seven key areas I found helped develop my technique, performance, and delivery. In this post I share my thinking on how we ensure that we are effective in our relationships and communication.

In the remaining posts I look at what it takes to master our craft, then how we become masters of our purpose, behaviour, professional development, frameworks, service mindset, and ourselves; and then how to develop a personal action plan and goal map that ensures we can progressively master whatever we choose to do.

Note: While this post deals with relationships and communication in the workplace, much of the thinking is applicable elsewhere for us too.

Mastering our relationships

What do we mean when we talk about our relationships?

Unless we work by ourselves alone, we have relationships with others as part of our regular working day: fellow team members, delivery partners, internal and external customers and suppliers. Even if we are a sole-trader (e.g. a freelance or contractor), we will still have customers, suppliers, and potential service or delivery partners. Loosely, we can describe them all as stakeholders.

As we grow in mastering our craft, communication and facilitation with and between our stakeholders become increasingly important. We need to understand clearly what their needs are and to be able to communicate and influence for those outcomes.

So, knowing who to deal with, and how to talk to them is really important – and achieving our outcomes is highly dependent on the right people contributing at the right time, and for those slow, disinterested, or antagonist stakeholders, we still need to bring them on the journey, just in a way that stops them from slowing progress.

How do we do that? Here are six steps to how we can ensure that our relationships are effective.

1. Nurturing relationships

We know when our garden has been left untended for a long time; it can have all kinds of plants growing in it. Some were there before we moved in, some we planted, and some have been dropped in by passing birds. Some plants are right where we want them, while some are in the wrong place (the definition of weeds).

We also know that if we tend the garden, we can spot weeds before they’re trouble and treat them, we can also look after the plants we want, to feed and water them, even to transplant them to better locations.

Like our gardens, our relationships can sometimes be left to develop by themselves, so we often don’t know the right people on whom to concentrate, or how to get things to them in a way that will meet their expectations and gain their support.

So we need to be mindful in identifying what involvement we should have from our stakeholders, what our approach to them should be, and how we communicate with them.

2. Who to involve

For those of us involved in projects or change initiatives, we usually have a clearly defined product owner or sponsor, a steering group, and a project team. If not, then that should be our first action, as we have a lower chance of success without those.

Outside of these obvious areas, we need to look at the wider community at roles that will contribute in some way without being directly a part of the project . It’s all too easy to focus just on the core functional area that sponsors the project; however what we deliver will often have reverberations in many other areas too, so it’s also vital that we understand all those areas.

The best tool I’ve found is some form of value-chain model. While the precise form of this will depend on the organisation and sector within which you work, two that I have found useful are the supply-chain operations reference (or SCOR) model and the enhanced telecom operating model (or eTOM). Whichever you start with, you can quickly adapt this to use terms that are appropriate for your organisation, then this can be reused on every project. My preference is to use a model based on customer experience touch points, and expand out from there.

3. Level of participation

Once we know likely candidates for involvement, we need to determine the right level of involvement for them.

A common tool for this is the responsibility assignment matrix, which plots the various roles involved in a process or project against the key activities or deliverables, and for each says what level of participation (or responsibility) each role has. This is often better known as the RACI matrix (pronounced ray-see), after the codes used to denote the level of involvement.

4. Rules of engagement

Once we know who should be consulted, responsible, accountable, and informed, we need to focus in on the how deeply we should involve them.

There’s a common 2×2 grid (every article needs at least one of those) on which you can plot people according to their level of influence and support (see below).

Stakeholder Engagement Map

Sun-Tzu, author of the ‘Art of War’, said “keep your friends close and your enemies closer“. In this context: those with high influence and support are the your champions, keep them close, informed, and actively engaged. Those with high influence and low support have the potential to undermine your project. One technique is to understand their needs or pain points and find ways that your project will help address those.

5. Rapport

If all that sounded way too analytical, then remember that in all our dealings with others, ensure first that we establish rapport. Rapport literally means to hand something back to someone (from the French). In the context of relationships, this really means that we feel comfortable with each other, that we see or feel something in each other that we feel is like ourselves.

While there are many techniques for doing this, the simplest and most appropriate for the workplace, is simply to engage people briefly in a form of natural conversation before you get down to the business at hand. At one level this shows that you are interested in them as individuals, and it can provide you with an opportunity to show that you have similar interests.

6. Style of communication

Now we know who to involve, doing what, and at what intensity — now, how do we engage with them?

To be effective in our communication, it helps to be aware that we all have differing thinking, communication, and behavioural styles. I wrote an earlier post on a straight forward tool for determining our preferred communication style. Using that for our key stakeholders, we can then tailor our approach to them to ensure more success.

Being brief and direct works well for some, whereas some prefer to look at all the options, or they’re driven by how something affects people, or others want you to paint them a picture and take them on a journey. In your interactions, try to adapt your communication style to suit those you are working with, rather than just what is most natural or easiest for you.

When you are dealing collectively with a group with more than one style, ensure you are providing information in a range of formats, perhaps with handouts with detail for those that need it.

Wrapping up on relationships

So we’ve seen ways of identifying who to involve, what their role should be, our level of engagement with them, how we should establish rapport, and tailor our communication with them.

Remember, though, that we are dealing with real people, and real people are way more complex than any of these simple tools allow for, so above all if we ensure that we maintain respect and our ethics (which means we say when we don’t know the answer or if we’ve done something wrong), then most people will treat us in the same way.


This series is based on the material I developed for a half-day masterclass delivered in May 2012, as part of the third BA Masterclass conference. For the purposes of publishing this as a series, I have tried to broaden it out to be applicable to anything we might do. There will be an ebook to follow that brings this all together.

Walk with me

In this series of masterclass posts, I invite you to share my journey of the steps I have taken to be the best I can be. I too am still learning and exploring, and I invite your feedback and discussion so that we can learn from one another.

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