The Power of Good Relationships and Thoughts on Building and Maintaining Them

A few months ago, a friend of mine was reflecting about finishing up his masters degree in social work. He wasn’t so much worried about finding a job, but more concerned that he was really considering all of the opportunities available to him. Should he try to get a doctorate? Should he work in the field? He was even thinking about things like seminary.

I happened to know three people off the top of my head who had masters degrees in social work, so I contacted all of them and passed along a bunch of general information about my friend. All three of them took the time to give me a really thoughtful response about opportunities they thought might be of interest to him. I just collected all of those responses and passed them back to him, along with the contact information for those who actually suggested that he could follow up with them.

This simple gesture has seemingly opened some doors in his life and put him on a rather interesting path forward, one that was seemingly strongly influenced by the connection I made. I think it’s a good fit for him and his life is going in a great direction.

Here’s another, similar story. A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with an old friend who told me that his contract was ending and he was about to be out of a job. I asked him if he had anything lined up and he said he didn’t, but he did tell me to look out for any opportunities that might fit and that he really wanted to stay in his career path.

So, I spent about half an hour getting ahold of several people that I knew that might be in a position to hire someone with his skill set. Did they have any openings that they knew of that would match up with this guy?

It turned out that one person did know of an opening. I then spoke of my friend’s virtues and passed along that job opportunity. As of right now, he’s in the final interview group and I’d say that his prospects are really strong.

Let me flip that script a bit. A while back, my wife and I decided that we wanted to try using a bread machine. We make our own bread without a machine sometimes, but we wanted to try out a machine for comparison’s sake. We looked in a few secondhand shops and couldn’t find one, so I put out a request to some friends and family members for a bread machine at low cost. We had three offers to be given one within an hour.

In all three of those cases, lives moved in a positive direction – sometimes small, sometimes big – simply because of that person’s social network. Here, I’m simply saying ‘social network’ as shorthand for the set of positive relationships with others that you have in your life, whether strong relationships or weak ones.

Those relationships come in handy almost constantly and in every sphere of life – professionally, personally, socially, financially, and so on. Having good relationships can save you money. They can open career doors. They can provide companionship. They can directly save you money.

For example, imagine that you’re a person who is in charge of a hiring committee. You have two great candidates in front of you, but a friend gave you a glowing verbal recommendation about one of the candidates and asked for a bit of extra consideration for that candidate. That might just be enough to tip the scales in favor of that candidate.

Imagine that you’re new in town. If you have a large social network, there’s a chance that you already know a few people in this town to meet up with and get the lay of the land, or at least you know people who are familiar with the area and can point you to things of interest. This can make all the difference when moving to a new place.

Imagine that you need to use a piece of equipment that you’ll probably use once or twice ever. If you have a large social network, you can likely just ask around and borrow that item from someone. If not, you’re probably buying (or, if you’re lucky) renting it.

These types of situations pop up constantly, and they’re all steered by human relationships. All of these things boil down to two key elements.

One, relationships are built by freely giving to each other. This is because the most valuable way to build a relationship is to help a person with something they need. Maybe it’s just companionship or a social connection. Maybe it’s something that can save that person money. Maybe it can help a career. Maybe it’s a shoulder to cry on at a key moment. Whatever it is, you’re giving something at a moment of need, and reciprocity is not what you’re looking for here. Your goal is to lift their boat. Maybe someday, they’ll be able to lift yours, but if not, is it a big loss?

Two, the best gifts to give in a relationship are ones where it’s low effort for one person but high value for the other. This is really where it’s at. If you can do something easily, in just a few moments or with a small amount of resources, that really helps someone else out and provides them with far more value than that, then that’s the absolute best way to give. (This isn’t to say that high-effort gifts are a bad thing, but they don’t provide quite the same multiplication of value in the world.)

If you want a strong set of personal and professional relationships in your life, learn to give without expecting reciprocation and particularly look for opportunities to give in ways where the value of what they receive is very high.

An Introvert in an Extrovert’s World

This is easier said than done, particularly if you’re an introvert as I am. The ability to build relationships and have strong social connections doesn’t always come naturally, and it took me many, many years to figure out how to make it work for myself.

Along this journey, I found two books to be particularly helpful.

The first book is Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz, which I covered extensively in a multi-part series a while back.

The core premise of the book is that building a large network of social relationships is incredibly valuable, and being in frequent service of those relationships is the best way to keep that network large and strong. The reciprocal effect of that network will be a huge benefit to your life – you won’t necessarily get out of each relationship what you put into it, but you’ll get more value out of your network as a whole than what you put into it over the long run.

Ferrazzi’s tactics center around using your downtime to keep in touch with all of the people you have relationships with, making sure that you take advantage of your time to either have true solitary downtime as needed or else that you’re building relationships (hence the titular advice of never eating alone), and always being of service to the people in your life in that you should always be willing to give of yourself freely when needed.

The second book is How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, which I also covered extensively in the past.

While Never Eat Alone took more of a “big picture” approach to building relationships, How to Win Friends and Influence People is much more focused on the nuts and bolts of actually connecting with people and building relationships.

Carnegie’s advice centers around actively listening and sympathizing with others rather than just coming up with the next thing you want to say. He encourages people to be pleasant in conversation, to encourage others to talk about themselves, and to generally avoid conflict. The book is loaded with specific strategies for these things.

In a way, both books offer advice that can be perceived as “mechanical” in the sense that they tear down human interaction to a list of things you should be doing or tactics you should be trying. For some, that can be a bit… much. For me, as an introverted person who doesn’t feel that socializing comes naturally, the tone is incredibly useful because it doesn’t make assumptions of the reader. Some elements may seem obvious, but it is only through not assuming everything that the advice can be practical for everyone.

How I Maintain Relationships and Build New Ones

Here’s the routine I follow when it comes to maintaining the relationships I have and building new ones. This routine isn’t a big time commitment and the time I spend on it is deeply personally meaningful. While this routine might seem a bit mechanical to some, the purpose behind it is straightforward: it’s meant to ensure that I keep the relationships in my life healthy and still keep myself open to new ones.

Make a giant list of all people, personal and professional, whose relationship you value and that you want to keep in contact with. Just sit down and make this list somewhere where you can easily reference it. I used Evernote to do this.

To make sure I was making a full list, I went through things like the contact list on my phone, my friends on Facebook, my family tree, and the lists of people who were in various groups and organizations I was a part of. I organized people by last name in order to keep them straight.

The goal here is to simply make a master list of all of the personal relationships you care about and that you genuinely want to maintain. It is so easy to let relationships fall through the cracks, not because you want them to, but because you simply overlook them in your busy life. Part of this whole strategy is to make sure that no longer happens.

Add an item to your to-do list each day to keep in contact with a few people on that list. My goal is to have some sort of meaningful contact with everyone on that list on at least a monthly basis. So, what I’ve done is divide that long list up into 30 separate batches, each one with 4 or 5 people in it, and each day I go to the next batch on that list and ask myself whether I’ve kept in touch with that person in the last month. If I haven’t, I do so.

Let’s stop for a minute and visualize this. I have a long list of relationships that I’ve split up into thirty largely random groups. Let’s say I have five in each of those groups – a total of 150 relationships.

I have on my to-do list each day to “Maintain relationships,” so I go check that list for that day. I see five people there that I should check up on. I go through each one and ask myself if I’ve had meaningful contact with this person in the last month. If not, then I contact that person in some way. Is that person doing okay?

It’s straightforward and takes just a couple of minutes. Some days, I’m really feeling social, so I contact people who are coming up or who I am thinking a lot about lately. When their “turn” comes up, I skip them.

Mostly, this whole thing is just a way to make sure that relationships that are important to me don’t fall through the cracks of a busy life. I don’t want to forget to stay in touch with an old friend or a family member or a really great professional peer or a mentor or a mentee just because my life got busy.

For most of the people on my list, I have a few notes about them that I want to remember. Is there some sort of particular concern I want to follow up on with them? Are they in the midst of a job hunt? Are they dating someone seriously? Maybe they’re struggling with an ongoing illness.

Whatever it is, if I have a particular concern about a person or a good reason to follow up, I make note of that in that long list. The truth is that I usually remember those things, but my memory isn’t perfect and, again, I don’t want people I care about to fall through the cracks of forgetfulness.

If you want to imagine what that looks like, imagine that today I go to my list of relationships and I find five entries:

Alan Abernathy – moving to Boston for new programming job in Jan.
Brenda Boxer – dealing with fibromyalgia; caring for mom with Alzheimer’s
Chloe Carson – trying to get paper published on rice genomics
David Dennis – training to break 3 hour marathon time next spring
Elizabeth Eccleston – having a faith crisis and possibly leaving her church

Right there, I have five people I need to contact and a reminder of the big thing going on in their life. I remember all but one of those things anyway, but it’s good to have them there. I just talked to David a few days ago, so I skip him (I move him to another day, actually). I send a text to two of them, a long email to Elizabeth that I’ve already been thinking about, and I call Brenda because I know she’s going to need to vent a little and prefers talking to typing.

That’s it. It takes just a few minutes, but I’ve checked in on five relationships that are important to me.

If you hear that someone you have a connection with needs help and particularly if it’s something you can provide with relative ease, provide it as quickly and efficiently as possible. Most of my friends don’t need much most of the time – they just want to chat or hang out or maybe borrow a book or something. Usually, though, there are a few friends that find themselves struggling, and that’s when it’s good to jump in and offer help, especially if you can do so in a way that really multiplies value.

For example, recently a friend of mine had a heart attack, so I immediately told them that their children could come to our house after school for as long as needed. I took them to a few activities, too. It wasn’t a big deal to me, but it took a giant load off of their plate.

Another close friend of mine collapsed at work about a month ago with mysterious abdominal pain and was taken to the ER. He had me down as his emergency contact at work, so as soon as I heard, I grabbed my “portable office” and went to the hospital. I couldn’t see him for a while, so I just worked in the waiting room for a couple of hours. He was dismissed later in the day and I drove him home and took care of a few small tasks for him. It actually didn’t interrupt my work day that much, but I was able to really come through for a friend.

I mention both of those recent cases because they illustrate two points. One, I didn’t – and still don’t – expect anything in return from those friends, other than a vague sense that my social network as a whole will probably help me in some ways if something difficult ever happens to me.

Two, what value I had to personally give up was substantially less than the value they received from my effort. It wasn’t a big deal for me to just work in a hospital waiting room instead of my desk at home for a few hours, and it was definitely not a big deal to have a few extra kids at home for a few hours each evening for a few days. On the other hand, having someone jump in to take care of you and help you get home and take care of a few surrounding issues when you’re sick is tremendously valuable, and having someone watch your kids without even having to lift a finger or worry about it right after you just had a heart attack is also tremendously valuable.

Taken together, those two points strongly nudge me toward helping friends and relatives and mentors and mentees and professional peers whenever I can and whenever they need it.

Try to do something once a week to add someone new to your list. In other words, go to some sort of social event or community event where you’re likely to meet new people or have an opportunity to build upon your connection to someone you don’t know well. Make it your goal at that event to really connect with one other person or build a weak connection into a stronger one. Don’t worry about anything else at that event. Try to end your interaction with that new person with some contact information and a genuine reason to follow up, whether it’s to pass along information or to invite that person to another event or something else.

When you get home, follow up with that person. Use the contact information to send some sort of follow-up message pertaining to the event, then add that person to your big list of regular contacts. I usually stick them in about a week down the road so that I’m not waiting too long to follow up again.

Don’t be afraid to prune. You may find that some relationships go into decline. Perhaps that person has intentionally cut you out of their life or maybe your efforts at keeping in touch have been met with little or no response for a while. If that’s the case, it may just be that the other person doesn’t want to maintain a relationship. It’s okay – it happens. When it happens to me, I usually slice that person out of my contact list unless I know there’s an extenuating circumstance.

Final Thoughts

The thing to remember about this whole strategy is this: it’s a “safety net” to make sure that relationships and connections that are important to me don’t fall through the cracks or die on the vine due to my forgetfulness or lack of effort. I’ve kept a lot of relationships alive due to this effort and it’s made my social network far stronger than it ever has been before and, as was discussed earlier, a strong social network has countless personal, financial, and professional benefits.

This whole system might seem like a chore, but the truth is that I deeply enjoy knowing that there aren’t important relationships in my life withering due to neglect or due to my own forgetfulness, and I actually enjoy keeping up with all of these people in my life.

I hope this system helps you keep your relationships healthy! Good luck!

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