The Alchemy of Successful Relationships

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

This month it was my Mum and Dad’s 59th Wedding Anniversary. I am hugely proud of them both and the way in which their relationship has stood the test of time and the challenges that life throws at us all.

As I looked through their wedding album with them at those young, smiling faces, I reflected on how much we can learn from thinking about what it takes to build strong personal relationships over time and apply this in our working lives too.

And why alchemy? Alchemy aimed to purify, mature, and perfect certain objects (most famously converting substances to gold) and was sometimes connected to magic. What’s the magic that enables two people to form a relationship that endures as they change and grow both individually and together?

I would suggest the following 5 ingredients are all important:

  1. Self-knowledge.

    We have to start with ourselves. As indicated by theories of emotional intelligence, it is important that we understand ourselves so that we can manage ourselves in terms of how we react and interact with others. We also need to recognise that we are able to change. If we know that certain situations can trigger us to get emotional in some way – frustrated, angry, forceful, passive, withdrawn – it’s not enough to say ‘that’s just the way I am’. We need to consider how best to be aware of the trigger and to control our emotions so that they can be supportive to driving productive behaviours.

    Where to start?

    Could you be better at understanding yourself? Ask others what they notice about how you react and interact with others – both positive and what could be better. Be open to seeing a wider perspective to build your self-knowledge.

  2. Knowledge of others.

    Similarly to self-knowledge, taking time to know how someone else ticks –what’s important to them, how they react in different situations, the best way to support them to be successful – is time well spent. In a personal relationship, we understand whether our loved one is a morning person or evening person, when teasing can be seen as something light-hearted and fun and when it might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, or even the best way to show that we care (Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages is a great starting point for this). In business relationships, we may not know someone in so much depth but a little understanding can go a long way.

    Where to start?

    Could you be better at understanding others? Take time over a coffee to ask someone to share with you what works for them about the way you work together and what could make it better. If they are giving you suggestions for something you could change, see if you can get them to explain why that is important to them so that you can understand  from their point of view.

  3. Equality.

    Here it is about seeing each other as equals. One is not better than the other. Each will have strengths and each will have areas that are opportunities for development. In a personal relationship, this means recognising what each brings to the relationship and valuing these things equally as part of your partnership. In a business relationship, even if hierarchy is a factor, treating another as an equal enables open dialogue, quality thinking, and the likelihood that better decisions are made.

    Where to start?

    Do you really see each person that you work with as an equal? If you want to improve a particular relationship, how would you need to behave to show that? Fully listening to someone giving you their opinion without interruption and without contesting their position but instead trying to understand it more deeply can be one way.

  4. Magnanimity.

    Magnanimity means to be noble and generous in spirit. Being magnanimous in a relationship (whether personal or business) is about assuming positive intent to avoid jumping to unhelpful conclusions when you find yourself judging another’s behaviour. It is about focusing on the facts rather than creating a story from the facts that you then react to. It’s about considering what you might have done differently to ensure a better outcome, not just considering what the other person might have done. It does not mean, however, avoiding conversations that need to be had, always putting the other person first (see Equality above, and Courage below).

    Where to start?

    If you find yourself thinking adversely about someone else, take a minute to ask yourself what different reasons there might be for this situation, how they might be feeling, what the most positive response might be that you could have. Imagine a positive outcome to whatever next step you take, and then take the step that will most likely get you that outcome.

  5. Courage

    The root of the word courage is cor – the Latin word for heart. Brene Brown said: In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Strong relationships face into difficult conversations. They recognise the elephant in the room and bring it out of the shadows doing so in a way which aims to avoid conflict and raised emotions. This requires a tentative testing of ideas, a sharing of thoughts and feelings, and importantly, fully listening to the other person, suspending judgement. Courage is required to step away from the fears that you have about how the other person may react and to see what could be gained in strength of relationship from candour balanced with sensitivity.

    Where to start?

    If the thought of voicing your concerns raises apprehension in you, first take the fear away by exploring what you are assuming, writing this down which makes it seem less daunting. Consider what the impact could be on the relationship of not speaking up and balance this with what could be gained by ‘telling all of one’s heart’. Practice your opening sentences being clear to lay out why you are raising the issue (in relation to what you hope it will achieve for the relationship .. not for you personally).

Having taken the time to read my thoughts, what one thing might you take away to try as the magic ingredient for strong relationships at work?

Finally, I would love to hear what your tips are for building strong, enduring relationships for mutual success – please do share.

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