Preventing People Problems Before They Pop Up

“The true friend is the one that’s coming in the door while everyone else is going out.”
Dr. Phil McGraw, psychologist

Happy Valentine’s Day!  Across the world, people are remembering the special ones in their lives.  And that’s wonderful. 

But Valentine’s Day should encompass a great deal more than a once-a-year REMEMBRANCE.  It should serve as a REMINDER that everyone needs to be doing those things that build better relationships at home and on the job … each and every day.  

And truth be told … many of the things that build great personal friendships are the same things that build great working relationships.  That’s why I’m asked to present my program on “The Partnership Payoff: 7 Keys To Better Relationships And Greater Teamwork” to so many organizations.  

But one caution. No matter how good your people skills might be, you’re always going to have some people difficulties.   As journalist Barbara Grizzuti Harrison (1934-2002) noted, “Kindness and intelligence don’t always deliver us from the pitfalls and traps:  There are always failures of love, of will, of imagination.  There is no way to take the danger out of human relationships.” 

Nonetheless, with thousands of clients and years of research, I’ve learned that you can prevent most people problems and resolve the rest of them … if you start with these keys. 

1.  Make time for people, even if you don’t have the time. 

Face it.  We’re all busy, and many of us overwhelmingly busy.  So it’s easy to see our customers as an interruption of our work rather than the reason we work.  It’s easy to see our coworkers as time suckers rather than team members. And it’s easy to see our family members as another demand we have to meet rather than a privilege we get to hold. 

If you’re laboring under the myth that you’ll get to all these people when you get all caught up in your work, get over it.  It’s never going to happen.  You’re never going to be all caught up, and you’re never going to have enough time to fit in everyone and everything. 

If someone is important to you, you simply have to MAKE time for them, even if you don’t have time.  

I had to learn that lesson the hard way.  When my daughter was small, I can remember her saying hundreds, maybe thousands of time, “Dad, Dad,” to which I would respond “Later … I’m busy … Not now … or … Wait.”  Then one day she stopped asking for my attention.  Our contact and conversations became few and far between, and it took me several years to repair the damage I had caused by not MAKING time for her. 

Interestingly enough, I can remember her saying “Dad, Dad” all those times, but I can’t remember one single thing I was working on that was supposedly so much more important than paying attention to her.  So make time for the people that are important to you on the job and at home.  It will pay off. 

A few weeks ago I had a chance to practice that very skill.  I was speaking in Edinburgh, Scotland, but made plane reservations to fly back to the States a day later than normal, even though I had a heavy speaking schedule waiting for me.  I decided to look up and spend some time with my first boss, Celia Jackson. 

When I was 18, I lived and worked in England, working as a waiter at a very upscale resort.  And coming from a poor blue collar family, I felt immediately lost when I was introduced to the glamorous dining room, filled with chandeliers, tapestries, and 12 pieces of flatware at every seating.  I had never seen such elegance.  But Celia took me under her wing, teaching me how to serve our customers, and she took me under her counsel, showing me how to cope when I felt insecure or homesick.  In a sense, she was a great deal more than a boss.  She was a coach, mentor, teacher, leader, and friend who impacted the rest of my life. 

Over the decades since our work together, Celia and I have kept a correspondence.  I’ve gone to see her 3 or 4 times when I’ve been speaking in the United Kingdom, but now that she is in her late 80’s, I knew I had to MAKE the time to see her again.  We had a wonderful visit, and as I left, I was reminded of how critically important relationships are.  But they can only happen if you MAKE time for them. 

And when you do that… 

2.  Speak words of encouragement. 

As John Milne says, “The language of encouragement … makes schools and workplaces, families and businesses hum.”  After all, encouragement gives the other person a sense of wellbeing, because it says, “I believe in you, your potential, your ability, and your accomplishments.”  As Milne says, “It makes their spirits sing.” 

The good news is … there is almost always a way to give someone some genuine, heartfelt encouragement. 

Try these techniques.   

  • Give a compliment.
    It could be as easy as telling somebody, “You look … are … give … or … make” and fill in your own sincere and positive words.  Retired Navy Lieutenant Commander Chip Lutz even gives out a list of compliments you can use, including such statements as, “You’re the best … You’re fantastic … You rock …You are spectacular … You are incredible … You are terrific … You are a team player … You make me look good … You are fun to work with … You’re doing a super job … You’re a pro … You made my day … You’re a joy to work with … You’re right on target … You’re a real trooper … Way to go … I couldn’t have done it without you … I’m impressed … Superb … Magnificent … and … Marvelous.” 
  • Say thanks.
    As Dr. William James, the father of American psychology, observed, “The deepest craving in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.”  So don’t ever forget to express your thanks and appreciation.  You could say something as simple as “Thanks” or “I appreciate you!” and “I appreciate your work!”  And if you really want to make your encouragement unforgettable, send a handwritten note, signed by you, in a handwritten envelope, with a real stamp (instead of a metered one).  Don’t worry about your crummy handwriting; it’s the personal touch that counts.  You might visit to learn how you can put your picture on a stamp to make your note of thanks even more memorable. 
  • Praise an action.
    Tell the other person what you admired in his action.  Tell him why his action was so helpful.  Start out by describing exactly what he did that has earned your praise, and then finish your comments by saying something a bit more general like, “Remarkable job … You are so creative … Great job … or … Exceptional performance!” 
  • Express your belief in the other person.
    Your coworkers and your family members want and need to know that you believe in them.  So don’t ever fall for the stupid notion that says, “If I don’t say anything, you can assume everything is okay.”  No, no, no!  People do not interpret your silence or lack of feedback as encouragement.  They see it as disinterest.  You’ve got to tell your people, if it’s true, such things as, “I have faith in you … I believe in you … I think you’re the best one to handle this situation … I know you can do it … You’re on top of things … or … No one holds a candle to you!” 
  • Let the other person know his work is valued. 
    Everybody wants to feel like a somebody.  And if another person is ever going to feel that way, she’s got to know that her work is valued.  So tell the other person what her work means to your company, your organization, your department, your school, or your family.  Say things like, “Your contribution is critical … You are an important member of the team … and … Outstanding!”  
  • Solicit the other person’s ideas.
    When you seek out the other person’s ideas and opinions, you’re saying she has things to say that are worthy of consideration.  It’s very encouraging.  And it’s highly validating.  So ask her what she thinks and tell her “That’s a great idea … or … Good thinking!”
  • Recognize the other person’s challenges. 
    Nobody wants to feel like that old gospel song that cries out, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.”  Nobody wants to feel alone and misunderstood.  Just the opposite.  People need to know that you understand the difficulties they’re facing.  And when you verbalize your understanding of their challenges, they feel relieved as well as encouraged.
  • Of course, one of the best ways to learn about building stronger, more effective relationships is to attend my …Journey to the Extraordinary” program, coming to Denver on June 21-22 and coming to Chicago on October 25-26.  After Rosemary Larry, a Senior Staff Consultant from Verizon, attended, she wrote:  “Without a doubt, I got three major benefits from attending the Journey: 
  1. I now know how to get other people to do what I want without manipulation,
  2. I changed my attitude toward certain working relationships that I have, 
  3. and I learned how to project a positive attitude in my work environment.” 

3.  Create a sense of safety, security and trust. 

In other words, whatever you do, personally or professionally, the other person knows that you always have his or her best interests in mind.  That point was driven home to me last week when I keynoted a conference for the Sales Stars at American Federal Bank.  I spoke about the Purpose, Passion, and Process that turns ordinary people into extraordinary Stars and what they have to do to maintain their Star status. 

Then Lon Gulberg, a financial advisor and personal banker in the group, pulled me aside to share his story … to tell me how he began working with a couple about 10 years who had recently retired.  They wanted help in managing their finances so they could truly enjoy their retirement, which included lots of travel to their many children and grandchildren across the country.  So Lon spoke to the couple on many occasions, talking about a wide range of topics, many of which did not include financial planning.  He just plain liked the couple and wanted to be their friend as well as their advisor. 

Some time later, the husband was diagnosed with cancer, and the couple’s retirement plans changed quickly.  The husband went through months of treatments, some that worked and some that didn’t, until he eventually lost his battle with cancer.  A few days after the funeral, Lon met with the wife to discuss the financial status of their accounts, and in his words, “The conversation I had with her was one that I will never forget.” 

The wife explained that a few days before her husband passed away, she told him she was scared.  She had never involved herself in the financial matters of the family and didn’t know if she could handle those things. Her ailing husband took her by the hand and said, “Everything is in place for you.  You don’t have to worry about the finances. The only thing you need to do is call Lon; he’ll take care of everything.  And it will be done in the best interest of you and our family.” 

Obviously, Lon had given that couple a Valentine’s gift that lasted a lifetime … a relationship they could trust … a relationship that gave them a sense of safety and security.  And they gave him a Valentine’s gift in return. 

As Lon told me, “That husband’s comment and that wife’s sense of peace have deeply impacted my life.  Their feedback continues to fuel my positive attitude and drive my passion to help people everyday.” 

Finally, in the process of building quality relationships on and off the job, 

4.  Stick with the other person. 

It’s one of the surest signs of a quality relationship.  As Dr. Phil McGraw puts it, “The true friend is the one that’s coming in the door while everyone else is going out.” 

You see … everybody faces challenges, and it means a great deal if somebody else is there to help you go through those challenges.  That’s why “I’ll go with you” or “You are not alone” are amongst the most powerful sentences you can ever speak.  Or at work, you might tell somebody “I’d like to partner with you on that.”  It almost always gives the other person an instant energy boost.  

One of my clients, Tastefully Simple, has been extremely effective in “sticking with” their consultants as they build their businesses.  That’s because it’s a value that is practiced and preached by their President, Jill Blashack Strahan. 

Jill wrote me, saying, “Alan, I want to share with you this letter that I emailed to eight of my best friends: ‘Zach (my 16-year-old son) was watching a movie in the great room a few minutes ago, and I heard something that made me nearly sob out loud.  A young woman was told she had an infection and only had 24 hours to live. When the doctor asked her if she had any friends he could call for her, she said, I wouldn’t call my friends to help me move. I sure wouldn’t call them to watch me die.'” 

Jill continued her letter to eight of her best friends by writing, “I’m always grateful to have all of you as friends. I needed a good heart jolt, though, to remind me of how few people are blessed with the intense depth of our love and friendship. We would not only be by one another’s death bed, we would nearly follow each other all the way to heaven.” 

Jill finished by writing, “Thank you, God, for my friends. I would call them to be by my side to help me die. I love you all.” 

That’s what I call a “wow-kind-of-relationship.”  And if you’re willing to stick with people, you’re likely to have them in your life at home and on the job.  As Milne notes, “Being there for a colleague, friend or family member in their time of need, is the language of encouragement without words.” 

Action:  What are you doing to maintain and/or build the trust in your relationships? What else do you need to do?