This book is about a special type of relationship we call exceptional. You may have one or two exceptional relationships already—maybe even more. In these relationships, you feel seen, known, and appreciated for who you really are, not an edited version of yourself. Your hundreds of Instagram friends might know what you ordered for dinner at that fancy restaurant last week, but the person you have an exceptional relationship with knows that you’ve actually been struggling with food issues for years, or that this was the dinner when you and your partner talked about starting a family, or that the impetus for the evening was to discuss the pros and cons of leaving your job. Those subjects are off-limits to the friend you haven’t seen since high school who follows your feed. They rarely come up with the person you carpool with. They are not germane to the aunt you check in on every so often. But someone you’re in an exceptional relationship with knows what’s really going on for you because that someone really knows you.
Relationships exist on a continuum. At one end you experience contact without real connection, while at the other end you feel known, supported, affirmed, and fully accepted. In the middle of the continuum, you feel attached to people in your life, but with many, you want closer connection. The question is, How? How do you move along this continuum? We have dedicated our lives to answering this question for thousands of students and clients, and now, for you.
Exceptional relationships can be developed. They have six hallmarks:
1. You can be more fully yourself, and so can the other person.
2. Both of you are willing to be vulnerable.
3. You trust that self-disclosures will not be used against you.
4. You can be honest with each other.
5. You deal with conflict productively.
6. Both of you are committed to each other’s growth and development.
Let’s unpack these a bit.
The first three center around self-disclosure. Why are we still talking about this, when many would say we’ve become a culture of oversharers? Because there is a difference between a presented image and sharing who you really are. Oscar Wilde, among others, wryly commented, “Be yourself, everybody else is taken.” Too often, we edit what we disclose out of fear of being poorly judged.
Social media has created a world where we’re pressured to spin everything into a positive. Your Facebook posts might show you smiling in front of the Eiffel Tower, but in reality, the trip was a disaster. Silicon Valley CEOs we know talk about the incessant need to describe everything in terms of how much they are “crushing it,” but fatigue, fear, and burnout are very real in the Valley. It’s exhausting to keep up these false fronts. Editing and spinning who you are not only costs you your ability to be authentic but leads others to create their own spin. We’re not suggesting you have to reveal everything to one single person. But you do have to share the parts of yourself that are important to that specific relationship. And what you share needs to be the real, wholly authentic you, not one obscured by a smiling vacation picture or cheery holiday greetings.
The last three hallmarks have to do with feedback and conflict. Challenging someone can actually be a powerful way of supporting them, and yet few people feel confident they can do it well. Someone with whom you have an exceptional relationship calls you on behaviors that really bother them, and when they do, you know it’s a chance for learning, not something against which you have to put up your guard. They know that in helping you understand the impact of your behavior, they are showing commitment to your relationship and helping you grow.
Fights happen, even in the best of relationships (as you’ll see, the two of us are proof of that!). But a fear of conflict can lead you to bury irritants that, if raised and successfully dealt with, could actually deepen the relationship. Conflicts left unspoken can still cause harm. In an exceptional relationship, it’s easier to raise and resolve issues so that they don’t lurk and result in long-term damage. You see such challenges as opportunities to learn, which decreases the chance that these same difficulties will appear again.
We have spent our careers showing people what it takes to build and maintain strong, functional, and robust relationships in both personal and professional settings. We invite you to join the thousands of students and clients who have learned that, and more, from us. Our passion comes from results we’ve observed in our coaching, teaching, and consulting careers. We don’t just study and teach the concepts in this book—we live them. Sometimes imperfectly; David’s wife of over fifty-five years has told him, “You teach this stuff—why aren’t you doing it!” Carole’s husband, Andy, has expressed similar sentiments to her. But we have always sought to live what we teach, and it has shaped our lives for the better.
Even so, we almost lost our exceptional relationship with each other. There was something that David did (or, more accurately, didn’t do) that caused Carole to get to the point where she wanted to write him off and have nothing more to do with him. We’ll go into the details in chapter 17, but the critical point is that even though we were at the brink of a total collapse of our relationship, we were able to come back and repair it. This allowed us to write this book together and, in the process, to develop an even more exceptional relationship. We are living proof that mistakes and misunderstandings happen, and repair and recovery are possible.
The two of us are teachers but will be the first to tell you that some lessons have to be experienced; that’s why the focus of this book is on application. We worked in the business school of one of the world’s most prestigious universities, but what we have to say has even more relevance outside the business sphere. And while the course we devoted decades of our lives to, Interpersonal Dynamics, is affectionately called “Touchy-Feely,” there’s nothing squishy about it. Soft skills require a lot of hard work.
The conceptual material in this book is based on social science research, especially interpersonal psychology, as well as decades of our own experience. David came to Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business over fifty years ago to develop the Interpersonal Dynamics course and today is known as the “Father of Touchy-Feely.” Carole joined twenty years ago, became known as the “Queen of Touchy-Feely,” and helped expand the program, doubling its size.
Touchy-Feely remains, far and away, the most famous and popular course offered in the MBA program. Over 85 percent of students enroll, and they often have to place it high on their class ranking to get in. Students frequently report the experience as “transformational,” and alumni regularly say that it was the most impactful course they took and one that they continue to use in their personal and professional lives. Lifelong friendships and even marriages have been forged among the students. It’s been written about in bestselling books like Creative Confidence by David Kelley, featured on the Today show, written about in The New York Times, and featured in The Wall Street Journal—all of which noted the importance of these skills in today’s organizational life.
As students quickly learn, just because the class is affectionately known as “Touchy-Feely” that does not mean it is easy. When they sign up for the course, they are placed in a twelve-person group known as a T-group, which meets for about sixty hours over the ten-week term. The “T” in T-group stands for “training,” not “therapy,” and its purpose is to provide a learning laboratory in which students can practice class concepts—such as the importance of self-disclosure, how to give and receive feedback, how to connect across differences, and how to influence one another—by interacting with one another and learning from the reactions of their peers. We firmly believe that the best way to learn to be more interpersonally effective is to engage with others in real situations and in real time rather than through lectures, readings, case studies, or, yes, even a book. While Connect covers everything that we teach during class, you will need to use the relationships in your life as your laboratory to get the maximum benefit. Throughout the book, we provide specific suggestions to show you how.
For students who are used to crunching numbers and muddling through problem sets, it can be initially jarring to sit in a group exploring who feels more connected to whom and why. But over the years, countless students who didn’t initially grasp what all the hype was about have left the class as true believers. (And no, it’s not a cult!) The class’s impact doesn’t come from brilliant comments from the faculty, as good as we might be. Our function is simply to build conditions in which students learn how the way they behave impacts others—and what that might mean to their success as future leaders.
Copyright © 2021 by David Bradford, Ph.D.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.