Practice management – Chemistry set

Relationship is one of those words – like “natural” or “significant” – which is used for so many purposes that its meaning gets blurred.

At a personal level, as in “I don’t have a relationship now”, it means romantic or sexual partnership. To a statistician, it means a link, possibly a causal one, between two or more phenomena. In a business context, it can refer to people you like to deal with, or to the process of selling to people you know, as in “relationship marketing”.

But, despite general agreement that relationships are a good thing, there seems little clarity about what they’re made of or how you get them.

Similarly, it’s widely agreed that all good relationships depend on something called chemistry, but nobody’s very sure what that is either – or how you get it. You just know it when it’s there.

Various more or less authoritative folk peddle a range of tips that are supposed to help. Sales manuals stress first-impression devices such as a firm handshake, a conservative suit, and lots of eye contact. Influencing-skills manuals tend to emphasise NLP-type devices such as watching body language, mirroring the other person’s posture, and littering your conversation with words to do with seeing, hearing or feeling, depending on whether you think the other person has a visual, auditory or kinaesthetic sort of mind.

I feel uncomfortable about all these devices for two reasons.

First, they seem explicitly or implicitly manipulative and thus morally questionable.

Second, they don’t quite match my own experience of chemistry on those occasions when I have succeeded in building a good relationship with a client – or failed to.

A straw poll of other professionals suggests that such techniques do have value – but only as hygiene factors. In other words, if you turn up in jeans to meet a banker, or stare at the floor throughout a meeting, or hang your leg over the arm of the chair while the other person is sitting bolt upright behind a desk with lined-up pencils, you’re unlikely to build any relationship worth the name.

The heartland of how to create personal chemistry between yourself and someone else seems to be both harder and simpler.

I’m not at all sure that the following list is exhaustive – and I would welcome (and publicise in this column) other ideas from readers. Even so, it may serve to start reflection on a process which is central to successful consulting and managing.

My guess is that if you reflect on people you’ve decided to like, or people with whom you felt there was a chemistry, they’re likely to have observed – consciously or unconsciously – some or all of seven principles in their dealings with you. If that’s so, then by practising the seven principles ourselves, we can extend the range of colleagues and clients we get along with.

All the principles, curiously, suggest that we can achieve better results in this area by doing less, not more:

1. Be willing to suspend or abandon your agenda. Go with the other person’s agenda instead. If he (or she) has things on his mind, he won’t be able to listen to your things anyway, until he’s free of his.

2. Let go of the need to display your knowledge, skills or charm. Let the other person do the talking while you listen. Adlai Stevenson, the US politician, once said of his profession: “A politician is one who approaches every question with an open mouth.” It’s not an attractive habit in other professions either.

3. Ask questions whenever you feel tempted to offer an opinion. Providing you don’t interrogate like Rumpole dealing with a hostile witness, but rather use questions to explore the ramifications of the other person’s views (not yours), questions are usually seen as evidence of knowledge, insight and helpfulness.

4. Learn to be still, physically. Fiddling with a pen, tapping a foot, or any other repeated mannerism, can easily be perceived as inattention or, worse, impoliteness. Physical stillness, by contrast, particularly when combined with emotional calm, is reassuring and attractive. Since we often don’t see our own mannerisms, especially in times of stress, it’s worth asking a friend to help you notice any you may have.

5. Slow down your thinking. Otherwise your thoughts are likely to race ahead of what the other person is saying – to what you want to say next, or into an intellectual side road. That risks distancing you from him – because you’ll be seen to be out of step, not listening, even hostile.

6. Suspend judgment. That doesn’t mean ducking the effort of trying to assess what the other person does or says. It does mean not extending that assessment into a judgment of his or her value as a human being.

Personal judgments, particularly negative ones, have a habit of leaking on to the face – and of being seen and recoiled from.

7. Let go of the need to win the other person’s approval or business.

By all means, want both. But needing them, and thereby hanging your self-esteem on the results of the meeting, is a recipe only for stress: yours and his. Recognising that you remain the same person with the same talents – whether you win or not – will help you to stay relaxed. That’ll help the other person to relax and feel closer – and thus improve your chance of winning anyway.

Tony Scott, an independent consultant, specialises in business communication issues.

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