How To Strengthen a Business Relationship

Persuade book

Turning an acquaintance into a business associate is hard. Making them a friend is even harder. There are an endless number of reasons why people fail to connect. And just like a marriage can break down, so too can the relationship between colleagues at work and, of course, between a client and a supplier. But how do you prevent it from happening? 

Well, we tend to like those people who disclose intimate secrets more than those who don't. It's a trust thing. After all, if someone's open enough about their penchant for cross-dressing, surely they wouldn't lie about their business plans? However, when someone you've only just met starts pouring out their heart to you, it's a different story. Rather than lend a sympathetic ear, you're more likely to want to change seats on the train or join another supermarket checkout queue. I mean, you only went out for a pint of milk, right?

However, it's also true that people disclose more to those they like. And people tend to prefer those to whom they have made personal disclosures. So again, stick with it. The trick seems to be not to disclose too much, too soon, or too often. 

Take Internet dating. 

Research suggests that the way Internet daters reveal information about themselves provides clues to developing good relationships. Apparently, self-disclosure in terms of earnest conversations about your deepest hopes and fears is to be avoided. So no initial chat about global warming, quantitative easing, or social unrest. Stick to your favorite music, food, and books and a relationship will be formed more quickly.

A study by Gibbs, Ellison, and Heino concluded that successful online daters tended to use large amounts of positive self-disclosure, along with openness about their intent -- the very opposite of many people's actual practice in online dating.

The idea that self-disclosure is important in relationships is no big surprise. But while it may be easy to understand in principle, the complexity of the process means it's much harder to do in practice. Generally speaking, it seems best to be open about yourself and honest and clear about your intentions. So don't be afraid to give of yourself if you want to build a good relationship with someone. But remember that the art of self-disclosure is about giving information to others in the right way and at the right time. 

But just how "familiar" should you be? Does familiarity breed liking or contempt? 

Imagine you were put in a house for a week with people you didn't know. Not a group of outrageous show-offs but ordinary people from all walks of life. A real cross-section with nobody weirder than perhaps a man with an unhealthy interest in steam trains who insists on sleeping with the lights on. How do you think you would get on with your housemates (A bit like an office environment really where people from all walks of life are thrown together and expected to get on.)

Psychologists have long since assumed that familiarity actually breeds liking rather than contempt. The theory goes that the more people are exposed to each other, the more they discover the things they have in common, and the more they like each other.

But a recent study by Michael Norton of Harvard Business School turned this theory on its head. His work concluded that the more you get to know someone, the more you discover the dissimilarities between you and the less you like them. 

Think courtship, marriage, divorce. 
Or best friends, holiday, nightmare.

When we meet someone for the first time we look for similarities, and we typically find them. It may be a mutual interest in a sport, foreign travel, the arts, or stodgy desserts. Okay, so maybe that last one isn't a basis for a long-lasting relationship but it works for some. Unfortunately, after a while -- say 250 servings -- the assumption that this person is not only like us, but also likes us, starts to fade. And when this awful truth dawns, we like them less and begin to resent them eating so much of our cake. 

So who's right? Well, in the studies where people interacted face to face, the more they interacted, the more they liked each other. Whereas in Norton's studies based solely on people's views on other people's preferences, the degree of liking was less. And perhaps, more crucially, whether familiarity leads to liking or contempt seems to depend on our motivation. So, is it in your interests to get to know work colleagues really well and generate liking or should you keep your distance? 

Well, as is often the case with these conclusions it all comes down to balance. If you hang around with people for long enough, you'll eventually generate some mutual respect and discover common interests, even if they're not your type. 

So get close, but not too close.

Philip Heskethis a multiple award-winning professional speaker on the psychology of persuasion and influence. He helps people improve their relationships and increase their sales. This excerpt comes from his new book Persuade: Using the Seven Drivers of Motivation to Master Influence and Persuasion, now available.