How to Build Relationships Despite Differences
Four people are sitting on the shore, forming hearts with their hands.
Source: Photo by Noorulabdeen Ahmad/Unsplash
If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that we’re more different than we’re the same.
For a country that has “United” in its name, it feels like we have never been so divided, and the path forward to a sense of common ground or unity seems, to many, more uncertain that she never was.
Indeed, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center study, 59% of American adults say they find the conversations across these differences “stressful and frustrating,” up from 50% in May 2019. talk ?
I’m often asked what someone should do if they’re in a mentoring relationship with someone who looks like them or has different beliefs, values, or life experiences. The easy answer, and sometimes the best answer, is to help that person find someone else with whom they have more in common.
It’s always easier to connect with people who are like us, after all. But it’s important that this doesn’t become the default response. Indeed, leaning into those sometimes difficult connections and conversations is exactly what we need most right now.
Finding ways to connect across differences is how we learn and grow. And the good news is that the skills needed to get there are ones we can all develop through intentional practice.
From shared values to challenge networks
Effective relationships are often based on commonalities or affinities. We are attracted to people who remind us of ourselves. We are attracted to like-minded people who affirm our worldview and beliefs.
Sometimes there is a great advantage to these connection points. It’s much easier to be in a relationship with someone who shares your values and goals and who will be a tireless supporter and champion of your choices. When connecting with someone on LinkedIn or another platform, it helps to identify a shared connection point (“We both graduated from the same school!”).
And these kinds of affinity-based relationships can create blind spots about our deficits or weak points. Affinity bias creeps into hiring and promotion decisions in the workplace, limiting access for those who would otherwise deserve it. Choosing a life partner who shares your beliefs and values is probably a good decision. Surrounding yourself with people who never question your assumptions or decisions will lead to limited personal and professional growth, opportunity, and learning.
Today’s research and best practices suggest that we should all think in terms of building strong networks of people who can help us grow and learn. These networks strengthen access to opportunities, broaden perspectives, and decrease the likelihood of one person having too much control over our choices and decisions. A network mentality reduces the likelihood of affinity bias because it increases the diversity and amount of input.
A challenge network is intentionally constructed to increase the number of voices challenging its assumptions and perspectives. In his book, Think again, Adam Grant notes, “We learn more from people who question our thought process than from those who confirm our conclusions. But to build an effective network, you must first know how to develop effective individual relationships.
Mentoring Strategies for Connecting Across Difference
Whether in a formal mentoring relationship or simply trying to talk to someone with a different perspective, effective mentoring strategies provide proven tools for making connections. And ultimately, no matter how strong our differences are, we can form real and meaningful connections with other human beings if we choose to.
Next time you’re chatting with someone you don’t have much in common with, try using the strategies below.
- Before making assumptions, get to know them as a unique individual. We each bring a long list of assumptions into every interaction. We assume how someone will act or react. We assume we know everything there is to know about a situation because of our own experience. We assume we know who that other person is, based on appearances, hearsay, or superficial interactions. Before jumping to conclusions based on unsubstantiated assumptions, consider the person standing before you as a unique person with valuable experiences and knowledge of their own. And then let them tell you their story.
- To ask questions. One of the ways to overcome assumptions and get to know someone is to ask questions. Many, many questions. Not in the “you’re here to defend your thesis” sense, but in the “I’m really interested and curious about you as a human being and I just want to know more” sense. Use those old-school open-ended who, what, where, when, why, and how questions you learned when you were young. Before you jump in to prove a point or explain their situation, think: is there another question I could ask first? Prioritize learning over knowledge.
- Listen to learn, grow and build caring relationships. I firmly believe and will die on this hill that you can learn from everyone you meet, regardless of political affiliation, religious tradition, level of education, race, ethnicity or any other thing, because learning is about openness, curiosity and attitude. It has absolutely nothing to do with what the other person wants or can give you. So when you ask these questions, really listen to what the other person has to say. Don’t listen to win or to find the next best answer or even the next best question. Listen. Give the other person your full attention. Because their story, whatever they’re willing to give you, is worthy of it.
- Offer and accept feedback with grace and humility. Feedback is a gift. It is one of the best tools we have for learning and growing because it allows us to see ourselves through someone else’s eyes if we are open to it. Comments challenge our deeply held assumptions and challenge us to think about things differently. And as we all know, feedback can be painful and can destroy relationships if not conveyed well. So when you offer feedback to another person or accept feedback from another person, always do so with the relationship in mind. Before reacting, ask yourself: How important is this relationship to me?
- Set and stick to clear boundaries. Finally, although it may seem counterintuitive, we build effective relationships when we set, communicate, and maintain clear boundaries. Building a relationship beyond differences doesn’t mean letting someone walk all over you. It doesn’t mean diminishing yourself so that another person can feel powerful. It doesn’t mean giving up your beliefs, values, and moral center just to make someone else feel better. An effective relationship is always built on trust, and trust begins with clearly communicated and respected boundaries. If the other person is unwilling to respect your boundaries, or if you are unwilling to do the same for them, this relationship is doomed.
In short, connecting with people who are different from us – politically, socially, in terms of background or experience, or a host of other things you could add to this list – is hard work. It is always easier to take the path of least resistance. It’s easier to surround yourself with people who always agree with you. And while everything in life doesn’t have to be hard, no one ever said it wouldn’t take work.
Building effective relationships is no different. But the good news is that, like any other skill you want to develop, it will get easier with intentional practice. Will he resolve our great political divide? Maybe not. But just maybe, one person at a time, with a little more listening and a little more openness to learning, we can come a little closer to this idea of unity that is so dear to us.