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By: Jessica Beckendorf

It seems that no matter what kind of work we are engaged in as Extension and helping professionals, at the heart of it is connectivity. Without strong ties to our partners, our clients, our residents, colleagues, businesses, and communities, achieving lasting impacts and community-altering change would be impossible.

If at the heart of our work is a foundation of connectivity, then what is the foundation of connectivity? Where does connectivity begin? How do we strengthen ties in our network? In his book Community Conversations, Paul Born offers a simple starting point: the conversation. Conversation between two people, or within groups and communities, is where to begin building strong relationships.

Conversation is more than an exchange of words between people. It is where agreement is reached, meaning is constructed, and innovation can thrive.

”Conversation is not just what is said; it is also what happens between people. Conversation is not always about an event or a time; it is part of a much larger process of change. It leads to more conversation and is part of a journey to understand.” (P20)

Often, a conversation will begin around an issue, concern, topic, or movement. Even with this connecting point, it takes time, patience, and some give and take.

Here are 5 simple guidelines that can help you kick-start a relationship – online or off.

  1. Establish trust – Are you trustworthy? Most people would answer an emphatic “YES!” But, as Charles Feltman, author of The Thin Book of Trust, has found, most people rate the trustworthiness of others lower than their own. That means that others likely believe that you are less trustworthy than you believe yourself to be. Both perceptions are correct – you operate in a way that you judge to be trustworthy, but as Feltman describes, “the fact is that people act on their assessments of your trustworthiness, not yours. Your best intentions can’t change their opinion.” (P6) Understanding the trust threshold – when and how you trust, as well as when and how others trust – can go a long way toward building personal and professional relationships. Begin exploring trust by reflecting on the following questions: 
    1. Do you tend to over-share? Under-share? What makes your guard go up and how can you adjust when this happens? What assumptions do you tend to make about yourself, others, and how others see you?
    2. Do you tend to expect a close relationship after only one or two conversations? Do you tend to expect it to take years to develop a close relationship? Understanding that not everyone operates under the same assumptions, what adjustments can you make?
  2. Replace assumptions with “curiosities.” Reaching understanding and achieving dialogue is easier when you know someone as a person, not just another cog in the wheel. In Feltman’s The Thin Book of Trust, he posits that a person’s assessment of how much you care about their interests as well as your own is possibly the most important element of creating lasting trust. One of the best ways to show someone you care is to be genuinely interested in and curious about what is important to them – and share with them what is important to you. Ask people questions. Ask follow up questions. Point out connections and commonalities where they exist.
  3. Be an active listener. You’ve probably heard this before. That’s because it’s so important. And so difficult for many. You don’t have to follow a formula, but if it would help, you can practice reflecting back by following up with “what I hear you saying is…” or use some of the follow up questions listed below.
    1. Tell me more about _______.
    2. Why is that important to you?
    3. How did that affect you?
    4. Why does that make you feel that way?
    5. What were the surprises? What lessons did you learn?
  4. Be inclusive. Especially when cultivating group relationships and culture, ask “Who isn’t at the table that should be?” Or even “who isn’t part of this conversation that should be?” Who are the ‘UNusual’ suspects and how can we fully engage them?
  5. Commit completely. Commit to the vision. Commit to muddling through the tough times.

Connecting with our partners, clients, colleagues, businesses, and communities is something we do on a daily basis, and building these relationships are important to building resilience to change. Imagine what we could accomplish together if we were just a little more intentional with our conversations and turned them into super-charged relationship-building moments. Later this month, there is an opportunity to connect during the eXtension ‘Learning Through Change’ Virtual Conference, September 26-29. Let’s make the most of it by establishing trust, being curious, intently listening, being inclusive, and committing completely.

What strategies have you used to establish stronger ties with your colleagues, clients and partners? Please share your experience in the comments.


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