The Issue:

How do you or don’t you pay attention to the relationships in your life? Does what you pay attention to and the way you pay attention to these relationships support what you are committed to accomplishing? Does it support you in sustaining yRelationshipsourself and your capacity, those you work with and those you care about, more generally?

In my last post, I invited you into the first installment of this inquiry about "action follows attention". This will be the theme for my next several posts. (You might want to read the first two sections of my November 23 post below to help you make sense of this post, if you haven’t already read it.)  Last time, I focused on the body, asking: How are you paying attention to your body? Does the way you are paying attention to your body support what you are committed to accomplishing and sustaining yourself in the process?

This week I invite you look in a similar way at a very different area – relationships.

Why does this matter?  For many reasons. From a purely pragmatic perspective, all work happens through relationship. You can only achieve the social impact you are committed to through relationships with others.  The substantial buzz and activity in the social change world around the role of networks is evidence for this.  But the point here is not about having lots of relationships, or even about having relationships with the “right” people or organizations.  Rather, it’s about what you are paying attention to and how you are paying attention in your relationships.  Perhaps there is something new you can pay attention to in your relationships that will improve your performance and the performance of your venture. And, perhaps there is also something new you can pay attention to in your relationships that will support your experience of being nourished and well in the process.  There are endless ways to consider this. Here’s one example:

Paying attention to something new:  A different kind of conversation                           Judy, a client of mine, shared with me that her division of her organization has just received additional grant funding for a project running successfully in a single country. The new funding would allow her division to expand their model for use in other countries. She was very excited about this, but also concerned, as she did not manage the project directly. Angela, who reported to Judy, ran the project, and Judy was nervous about speaking to Angela.  Judy wanted to support Angela in “owning” the expanded project, but also had some ideas of her own and, as the division manager, wanted to make sure the project aligned with larger organizational priorities.  Judy also knew that the experience of “ownership” was important to Angela.  There was some history of difficulty between them around this issue.

When Judy and Angela meet, they generally pay attention to and focus on the content of Angela’s project work.  This is the case, as it should be, in most work relationships. Given their current situation, however, I had a sense that Judy’s paying attention to something different in her next conversation with Angela could make a positive difference in their work together.  I asked Judy, “What do you think Angela means when she talks about “owning” the project?” Judy realized that while she had some assumptions about this based on their past work, she and Angela had never actually talked about this explicitly.  I asked Judy, “What kind of conversation do you think would be most useful here?”  She paused and then shared, “Well, we could have a conversation about how we want the relationship to work. What Angela envisions and then, what I envision. We can see where we are aligned and work on those places where we are not. And, we can get clear about what Angela needs from me and what I need from her to have the project be successful.”

I suggested to Judy that she and Angela have exactly that conversation, rather than getting pulled quickly into the project content. Here are some questions Judy plans to ask Angela in this conversation:

  • What is your vision of “ownership” for this project?  What would that include?
  • How do you see you’d want me to relate to you?
  • What would support from me look like? What do you need from me to have the project be successful?
  • What way of my relating to you would drive you crazy or would you find not useful?

And then Judy plans to share and discuss with Angela:

  • What she, as the senior director, needs from Angela
  • Aligning their expectations
  • Agreeing on practices for moving forward.


You may be asking, "What does this story have to do with this "paying attention" business?" Here’s what:  Judy now sees that she (like most of us!) tends to get quickly pulled into conversations for action.  Said another way, Judy sees that she automatically pays attention to conversations for action, conversations about the content of project, about the substance of the work. Judy sees that she doesn’t pay attention to conversations for relationship,  conversations that focus on how the relationship is structured and will work, including aligning on the expectations and conditions that will increase the likelihood of a project’s success. This includes, for example, what kind of support helps and what gets in the way.  This is a very different kind of conversation. Having this kind of conversation produces something very different than not having it. Conversations for relationship provide the foundation for taking action together more effectively over time. And, we often don’t think to have them, or we have them once (maybe at the beginning of a project), but don’t attend to the working relationship itself over time.

What you can do:  Paying attention to paying attention in relationships  
I encourage you to reflect on both your professional relationships and personal relationships. Try to do this in a non-judgmental way. You can imagine being an anthropologist trying to understand the situation as a way of creating a bit of perspective for yourself.

Ask yourself these questions about your professional relationships and then for your personal relationships; (Reverse the order if that is more compelling for you. Or, you may find that these relationships are more overlapping and not so distinct. Something useful to pay attention to, in and of itself!)

  • Who is currently in your network of relationships? (You can actually create a visual map of these relationships, something many people find useful.)
  • Which relationships are most important? What makes them important?
  • What do you pay attention to in those relationships?  What has you pay attention to that? (For example: To what extent do you pay attention to what is important to you? What you are "getting out of" the relationship? To what extent do you pay attention to what is important to the other person?  To what extent do you pay attention to what you say? What the other person says? How you feel? How they feel?   To what extent do you pay attention to your common purpose or goals? To what extent do you pay attention to what exists for others and is important to them outside of your common projects? To what extent do you pay attention to the way you affect others? How they affect you?)  What do you find you mostly pay attention to in an automatic way?
  • What is the effect of what you tend to pay attention to in your relationships on you? On the other person? On the relationship?
  • What don’t you pay attention to in those relationships?  What is the effect of that on you? On the other person? On the relationship?

Now, pick one or two relationships that you’d like to improve:

  • In these relationships, what might you pay attention to that you currently don’t pay attention to?
  • What effect do you think that would have? What difference would it make? To you? To the other person? To the relationship?
  • In these relationships: What new actions might you take (for example: What new conversations might you have? What invitations might you make? What offers might you make? What else might you do differently?) based on paying attention in a new way?
  • And next: Are there certain professional or personal domains in which you don’t have relationships?  What is the effect of that on you? On your ability to sustain yourself and your effectiveness?
  • What actions can you take to establish relationships in these domain, if that would make a positive difference? What would support you in doing that?

And, finally:  What have you learned by doing this reflection? What action can you take based on what you’ve learned?

Doing this kind of focused reflection helps identify those areas where you are doing what works, as well as revealing your “blindspots.”  Often, it is through addressing “blindspots” that you can generate breakthroughs in effectiveness and your experience of satisfaction, as well.

If you are interested in further exploring new ways of paying attention to relationships(Each of the following resources provides many new ways of paying attention to relationships.)

Social Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman (Bantam Books, 2006)

“The Work of Leadership” by Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie, Harvard Business Review, December 2001.

A General Theory of Love, by Thomas Lewis, M.D., Fari Amini, M.D., Richard Lannon, M.D. (Vintage Books, 2001)