How to manage inevitable dips in relationships

Dennis Sparks

There’s never been a relationship that didn’t start off strongly and that didn’t then run off the rails at some stage. This is actually not the problem. This is just life. Success for you lies in managing these dips when they occur… It’s about laying foundations for resilient relationships from the very start. – Michael Bungay Stanier

In “Building Resilient Relationships,” a chapter in Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career, Michael Bungay Stanier recommends “social contracting” as a means for managing these inevitable relationship dips.

Stanier is describing a problem that is common and vexing for school-based teams or Professional Learning Communities. Things start out strong, with everyone seemingly committed and energized, only to have that commitment and energy fall off over time.

“At the heart of social contracting,” Stanier says, “is spending time upfront talking about the How – the relationship and how we’ll work together – rather than being seduced by the What, the excitement and urgency of the content…. Just understanding that you should talk about the How will immediately make a difference in your working relationships.”

Stanier proposes five fundamental questions that such teams should ask and answer:

1. What do you want? (Here’s what I want.) “This is a question that almost always stops people in their tracks,” Stanier writes. “It’s deceptively difficult to answer and incredibly powerful when you can clearly define what exactly it is you want from this relationship.”

2. Where might you need help? (Here’s where I’ll need help.) “This turns the ‘What do you want?’ question over and comes out it from a different angle,” Stanier says.

3. When you had a really good working relationship in the past, what happened? (Here’s what happened for me.) “Tell a story,” Stanier recommends, “of a time when you were in a working relationship similar to this one, and it was good, really good. What did they do? What did you do? What else happened?”

4. When things go wrong, what does that look like on your end? How do you behave? (Here’s how I behave.) Stanier again recommends telling a story, “this time of when a working relationship like this one failed to soar.”

He also recommends articulating missed opportunities, unilateral actions you are likely to take when things start going wrong, and your own “hot buttons” that get you going.

5. When things go wrong – as they inevitably will – how shall we manage that? “Things will go wrong,” Stanier says. “Honeymoons end. Promises get broken, expectations don’t get met. By putting that on the table, you’re able now to discuss what the plan will be when it goes wrong.”

Stanier  concludes: ”[B]y asking these questions you now have permission to acknowledge the situation between you both when things get off track (as they inevitably will…). If you’re just beginning a new working relationship, then you’re in the perfect place to build and resilience through social contracting right now.”

About relationships that have already begun, Stanier says, “… you’re also in the perfect place to build in resilience. Step back for a moment from the What you’re absorbed with, and invite them to have a conversation with you about the How.”

What has been your experience in addressing early in the life of a team the common relationship issues that are likely to arise? And what challenges have you faced in making explicit those understandings by establishing “meeting agreements” or other processes that establish group norms?


7 Responses to “How to manage inevitable dips in relationships”

  1. 1 Jamie February 26, 2014 at 6:45 am

    I love these suggestions for co-creating clear expectations at the outset. Wish I had thought to include this in my upcoming book! Thanks for passing this along. I will too.

    • 2 Dennis Sparks February 26, 2014 at 6:57 am

      Having seen an advanced copy of your book, Jamie, I want to recommend it to readers. Although it is not directed at educators, its contents offer many practical ideas and strategies for teachers and administrators. Please tell readers the name of your book and when it will be published…

      • 3 Jamie February 26, 2014 at 7:30 am

        Thanks, for this opportunity, Dennis! My book: Less Stress Business: A Guide for Hiring, Coaching, and Leading Great Employees will be available on Amazon in approximately 6 weeks. I have developed 7 practices that transform leaders’ and business owners’ mindset and skill-set while reducing their stress by up to 75%. As a former school principal and now a business coach I have helped my clients do just that!

  2. 4 cm9384Carol February 26, 2014 at 10:56 am

    An insightful post for readers-with excellent “multi-purpose” tools!

  3. 6 eeisenberg1 February 27, 2014 at 10:33 am

    The process of communicating is so critical for establishing and maintaining any relationship. With instructional coaching, it’s like having an arranged marriage and trying to learn about each other while building trust. Think about your own personal partnerships… they are not always smooth sailing! Being clear about the expectations, focusing on the “right” issues, and collectively problem solving help move teams in the right direction. And, knowing that the team shares a vision for success really helps.

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