Building Relationships: Connections are Different than Relationships

I used to use the words connection and relationship interchangeably. Let me explain why I don’t anymore because I think it sheds some light on how building relationships works over time.

Connection is the point of contact in a relationship.

A connection, or point of contact, in a relationship can take many forms. It might be your voice in my ear, my words before you on screen, or a simple pat on the back from a loved one just when you need it the most. Compelling speeches, amusing emails, and irritating phone calls are all forms of connection; contact between you and someone who has – or wants to have – a relationship with you.

Secret Handshake

One way you might think about the difference between a connection and a relationship is to picture it like network mappers do. In a typical network graph you’ll see lots of dots (or “nodes”), and these dots will be connected to each other by lots of lines. The lines represent the relationships between the dots, that is to say, the relationship between the things or people in the network. So, for example, in Figure 1. below you’ll see a line connecting person “A” and person “B.” That line is their relationship.

Figure 1. Traditional view of a relationship

When I say “connection is the point of contact in a relationship” what I’m really doing is modifying that picture a bit to look like this:

Figure 2. Relationship with the connection exposed

That red square in the middle is the point of contact, the connection between person “A” and person “B.” Think of Figure 2. as a snapshot in time of a zoomed in version of Figure 1. It’s a zoomed-in picture because it’s not meant to replace the simplicity or truth of seeing relationships as pictured in Figure 1. It’s just a closer look at what’s really going on here. The connection represented by the red square moves us a half step from the fuzzy world of relationships to the more concrete world of connections and what that contact between A and B actually looks like.

It’s hard to visualize a relationship, but it’s easy to see connections. Connections look like action – action that puts people in contact with each other. It might be you answering the door when I knock, your boss texting you to come in on the weekend, or me talking with my son about his PE class before bedtime.

One way to think of connections is as a kind of handshake between two parties. Both parties must extend a hand in order to make contact. The connection has a beginning and an end and these are usually pretty close to each other in time. In the early stages of a relationship, the connection can frequently involve some sort of exchange, even if it may take a little creativity to see what’s being swapped. In this sense, connections can be said to be transactional. I might connect briefly with a bank teller to deposit a check, but we don’t really need a relationship to get that done. Swapping my check for a deposit receipt is obviously a transaction, but you can also see how your reading this post has that transactional feel too; I write and post it, you click and read it and in the process we’ve exchanged my writing for your attention. Figure 2 even looks like two nodes reaching out to each other with a handshake. That’s intentional.

Connections are really important, and very ancient, tools that biological life of all types uses to stay connected with its surrounding environment in a productive and safe way. We’ll get into this idea some more in future posts because it’s one of my favorite topics. For now, let’s just say that each of us (and even the organizations we work in) have boundaries that define who and what we are and that they enable us to interact with other autonomous entities without merging with them. That’s what a connection does.

While connections are about doing and action and are usually time-constrained, relationships are about being and the experience of connecting with someone over an extended period of time. I say that Figure 2. represents a slice in time because it shows the exact moment when a particular connection happens between two people; whether that’s making a phone call, whispering goodnight or shouting someone’s name to their window from the street below. All those actions are little flashes of connection that happen over time. Imagine seeing them in time-lapsed photography so that they blur together in a way that looks like the simple relationship line from Figure 1.

This is another way of saying that relationships emerge over time with repeated connections between people. The first few times I go in for my haircut, it’s all about my hair. Eventually, the barber and I may form a relationship though, and begin to actually care about the answers we give each other about our lives. Our connection matures; it becomes less transactional and more relational.

Not all connections lead to relationships.

It takes two to tango and two for a relationship. Not every attempt to connect results in a relationship – just ask any telemarketer who makes cold calls for a living. You can connect with someone without them necessarily wanting it, but it’s hard to do that with a relationship. I might be able to get you to pick up the phone, answer the door or open my email but I can’t force you to have a relationship with me. In fact, there’s a word for having a relationship with someone who doesn’t have one with you; it’s called stalking.

Connections can dead-end and fail to blossom into relationships for a number of reasons. One of the main flame retardants to kindling a relationship happens early on when connections are still transactional and one party simply isn’t providing much value in the exchange. Send me a bunch of boring email newsletters full of stuff I don’t care about and I’ll cut you off by clicking the “unsubscribe link.” When I dominate the conversation so you don’t feel heard or important, you probably won’t be seeking me out at the next get-together.

Turning connections into relationships is an essential part of “engagement” and we’ll be covering that (a lot) in future posts. In the end, what it really comes down to is practicing much of what we’ve been taught since we were kids. Engagement and building relationships are about “meeting people halfway” – and that’s exactly what Figure 2 shows as well. Both sides have to reach out in order to meet each other. It’s a given-and-get world and the sooner we center ourselves in this relating, the happier and more effective we are – both as individuals and as organizations.

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