Breaking Bread to Build Relationships

Is building relationships as hard for you as it has been for me? I’ve always thought it was easier to just relax in the corner without having a conversation, than trying to find the courage to talk to someone and then work really hard to carry a conversation.

In this article, I want to share a little glimpse of my childhood, which accommodated my introversion, tell you about when my decision to be Extroverted happened, and then tell you a little bit more about what I did, and what you can do to help build relationships.

Relationships in my childhood

Building relationships is something that for the majority of my life has been really challenging for me. I am the youngest of 3, having two older sisters, and I was homeschooled from Kindergarten through 8th grade. Side-note, this is not an anti-homeschool post, I’m just building context for you so you understand a little bit more about me.

I was homeschooled before it was legal in Michigan, back in the ’80s, which might make you think I’m a rebel, but I’m not sure a homeschool kid in the ’80’s quite fits that description. My dad was (and still is) a Pastor of a church in West Michigan, and my circle of friends, at least through 8th grade, was roughly 4, give or take 2.

Since this is about breaking bread (aka eating together) and I’m hungry, it’s only natural that I tell you what I ate – a lot of sandwiches (tuna fish, egg salad, bologna), meatloaf, burgers and hotdogs, homemade pizza, macaroni and tomatoes, and something called goulash. Still not entirely sure what was in that goulash, but it was good with bread and butter.

I remember a few occasions when I had a friend over, and my mom would stack a big Corelle plate with 3 or 4 different types of sandwiches all cut in half diagonally. That was the life. You could eat 4 different types of sandwiches in a single meal. And whether I was staying over at a friend’s house, or they were staying at mine, one of the main topics of conversation before, during and after lunch, was lunch itself.

Well In 9th grade I entered the public school system and jumped right into playing football. My homeschool education was way ahead of public education, and I remember sitting in 9th grade classes thinking, “I learned this stuff 2 or 3 years ago”.

I wasn’t really great at team-based activities, which required building relationships, so football didn’t work out for me. I went through all 4 grades of High School with about 3 or 4 friends, and by 12th grade I had become a B student. I did happen to meet a girl my senior year, at the lunch table of all places. Her mom packed water bottles that were too hard for her to open, so I was happy to lend a hand. After a few months I’d be disappointed if she wasn’t there for some reason, and I looked for ways to talk to her on the way back to her class.

All that said, I really enjoyed my childhood and my small circle of friends. I wouldn’t trade it, or them, for the world. The introvert in me was very comfortable. I don’t want to leave you hanging, though, so I’ll tell you. Shortly after graduation I started dating the girl I met at the lunch table. We both went to college and got married 4 years later. The best breaking bread relationship ever, and we’re still going steady.

Relationships in College

I went to Pensacola Christian College (PCC) and studied Computer Science. If you don’t see the introvert in that, I’m not sure you’re paying attention. It was a challenging program, to say the least, and dorm life was, interesting.

Most of the students in the program were more introverted than I was, and the coursework required me to be working in the VAX lab or in the library most of my time. By the way, the VAX lab had nothing to do with vaccines. It was a mainframe system we had to use to write, compile and run our Pascal, Objective C, COBOL, and other code.

I had 14 or 15 roommates over the course of the 4 years I was there, and I can remember the names of 2 or 3. How do you live with someone for 9 months of your life and not remember their names? I don’t know, but I can do it. I did.

My wife attended the same college, and she was a year behind me. So from my Sophomore year on, I was with her for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Great times! The rules were tough. If you didn’t attend a Christian College like Bob Jones, or PCC, or maybe a private college, you’ll have a hard time relating. While we were there, and engaged, we weren’t allowed to have any physical contact. What I mean by that is we weren’t even allowed to shake hands.

I guess to sum up my college years, I really didn’t build many relationships. I can think of 2 or 3 people that I’d be truly interested in catching up with, 20 years later, and even those 2-3 I haven’t talked to in a decade. But I did get married right after college, and had to move to Pensacola, FL for my wife to finish her final year.

You didn’t realize this was going to be an autobiography, did you? Hopefully you are still with me.

Becoming an Extrovert to build Relationships

I started working for a company called The SSI Group as a developer building out EDI transfer jobs between healthcare organizations and insurance companies (payers). I learned how to cold-call someone – not for sales, but just reaching out to someone I’d never met, to collaborate on work that needed to get done. And I learned out to build relationships, sort-of, to engage thoughtfully and practically with my team members.

About 2-3 years into working at the SSI Group, I realized

I didn’t want to spend my life writing code for a living

I would say I’m a high-quality code writer, or at least that I was. Dr. Howell from PCC really drilled that into me. I knew there would always be someone who could code faster than I could, probably at a cheaper rate, and that there would always be a compensation ceiling of what I could make.

I knew I needed another degree to help bridge the gap between the computer science nerd in me, and the business, so I pursued a Masters in Computer Information Systems (MSCIS). If you aren’t familiar with technology degree programs, think of the MSCIS as sort of a Computer Science version of an MBA. While Computer Science teaches you about computers, MSCIS teaches you why information technology is important for organizations and how to leverage it for better outcomes.

Shortly before graduating, one of my professors contacted me and asked me if I was looking for new opportunities. I really wasn’t, but when someone asks you that out of the blue… you are. Cause you never know what they will say. That’s when I heard about Costflex Systems Inc.

It was at Costflex, that I really started to learn how to build relationships. I won’t go deep into the work I was doing for them, now, but part of my role was to go on-site for a week at a time, to one of their clients, and work 1-on-1 with a finance analyst, controller, or in some cases, their CFO. In addition, I’d have to meet with department heads from all across the healthcare organization.

Carry a Conversation with Sports

Before going on-site with a client, I remember thinking, “man, I wish I was better at holding a conversation”. So I started working on it. Before I would go on-site, I’d look up weather, news, sports, and any current events that were local to that region. I’m not a big sports person, so I’d look up sports rivalries in the area, and watch highlights of the latest game or two.

Then when I’d arrive, after small talk, I’d have something to talk to them about. After asking them if they were a sports fan for a team, and they said yes, I’d ask them if they had seen the game last week. If they had I’d say, “did you see that catch from [some football receiver]? Unbelievable, wasn’t it? 3rd and 15 at the end of the 4th quarter and they still managed to get a first down and win the game.” I knew what I was talking about, but I knew nothing else about the game. The highlights are all they would remember too, so it wasn’t like I was making stuff up or lost when they mentioned another one.

I’d also look up a couple of the top players in whatever sport was currently being played in the region. That way I could talk about So-and-so’s record, how they might be up for MVP, or how they compare to a hall-of-famer. I didn’t memorize stats, but if there was one that stuck out to me, I’d remember it and be ready to mention it.

Carry a Conversation with News and Weather

If I knew they weren’t a sports fan, I’d ask them about the new Walmart that was being built, the warehouse fire from the week before, or the major storms that went through over the weekend. Depending on the season, and the part of the country I was in I’d talk about seasonal events or trends in their area.

California would be fires in the summer. New England would be fall leaves, apple cider, and pumpkins. Florida would be hurricanes in the fall, and Chicago would be snow in the winter.

Carry a Conversation with Politics and Religion

I’d usually stay clear of politics and religion, or at least only talk about major events from as much of an unbiased standpoint as possible. A new Pope is pretty easy to talk about – how they are selected, I think the color of smoke at the Vatican, etc… I think that’s a thing.

A Presidential Election is a bit more difficult, although talking about battle-ground states can get interesting. If you can’t be unbiased in conversation, I wouldn’t talk about either of those things unless it’s really clear that the person you are talking to shares your opinions.

Carry a Conversation by Asking Questions

While sports, news and weather are great topics, even those can get stale or shallow pretty quickly. So the other thing I typically will do is ask questions about the other person. “How long have you been with the company?” “My daughter just learned how to walk the other day… do you have any kids?” “Did you take a vacation this summer?” “This is my first time in town, any top recommendations for places to see or restaurants to eat at?” “You have an accent, where did you grow up?”.

People generally like to talk about themselves, and it’s conversation that comes easy for them. Just be sure to pay attention to their responses instead of just thinking of the next question to ask. What will often happen, is they will respond with the same question back, and again, it’s easy to talk about yourself. Just be careful you don’t droll on and on about yourself.

Go Build Relationships

Hopefully some of the tips I’ve provided help you carry a conversation a little bit better than you already do – especially if you are an introvert, but when will you ever practice?

This is what I did. For work, at CostFlex, I sort of had to build relationships. Anyone in the working world knows that relationships are required to get things done. Your work probably requires you to work with other people on your team, and other employees on teams that are close to you. If you are in Sales, this isn’t a problem. You are already extroverted and should have stopped reading this long ago.

There are three things I’d recommend you consider as you try to build relationships and lean further into the Extroverted operating model of human behavior.

Building Relationships with people you don’t get along with

For people who don’t like you, or who you don’t like – find ways to help them. If it’s a toxic relationship, perhaps not, but if it’s just someone that seems to not like you – maybe they avoid you in the hallway, or keep to short, to-the-point conversations, be the bigger person and find ways to help them. It’s hard to not like someone that helps you.

I remember in one position I was in, me and a colleague didn’t really see eye to eye in the work we were doing. We were both kind to each other, but the things he wanted to do, didn’t make sense to me, and the things I thought we should do didn’t make sense to him. We both knew it, and we both knew for mutual success we had to get over it. So we scheduled time to go on a bike-ride.

He had a leaky roof, and I had just spent 4 years doing construction, mostly as a roofing foreman to pay for college tuition. So I spent a Saturday helping him with his roof.

While we still didn’t see exactly eye-to-eye on the work we were doing, we were friends still, and set an example for our team of mutual respect and collaboration.

Building Relationships with people who work for you

This is challenging. You don’t want to hang out with the people who work for you, just because they want a leg up. And they don’t want to hang-out with you just because you are the boss. Those are shallow reasons and probably why the TV show The Office is so funny.

Here are some rules of engagement:

  1. Don’t let your relationships with team members get in the way of your job and the decisions you have to make.
  2. Don’t play favorites, ever. Your team will notice, and they will despise you and whoever your favorites are.
  3. Spend time with everyone. If you don’t some people will feel left out or assume #2 above.
  4. Never make personal time, like lunch, or 1:1 time that is unrelated to work, mandatory.
  5. Buy their lunch. If you are in leadership, you probably get a healthy bonus that they probably don’t. With a $10k bonus you can still buy a jet-ski and take 20 people out to lunch over the course of the year. Don’t make it awkward, and don’t force them. If they don’t say “thanks” and instead say something like, “no I got it”, let them.
  6. Let them buy lunch. If they ask to pay for lunch, or purposefully are quick to get their card and ask to pay for it, just say “thanks”. Sometimes they need opportunities to show you their personal support.
  7. Talk about your family to them – you are human and they need to know that. Don’t talk about things too personal, but family achievements, milestones, pets, and recent activities are all great talking points.
  8. Ask them about their family – not too personal. Just let them know you want to know about their lives outside of work. Just a note, be careful about personal boundaries and the creep-factor. Don’t ask a member of the opposite sex about something inappropriate.
  9. Recognize that your conversation boundaries may be different then theirs – specifically as it relates to culture, age gaps, gender differences, etc..
  10. Don’t say something to one employee that you wouldn’t say to others. People talk, and it’s likely that what you share with one team member will be the topic of conversation between them and another.
  11. Don’t date a team member. This is just bad and whether it goes somewhere or not, one of you will likely lose your job or be required to find another one.
  12. Do activities in small groups. For me, I typically don’t want to have lunch one-on-one with a member of the opposite sex. There are very few exceptions. So if I want to build a better working relationship with a woman on my team, I’ll go to lunch with her and a one or two others. You may think I’m off-kilter here, but I want to protect my marriage and if they are married, I want to protect theirs.
  13. Always tell the truth. Always. Anything you lie about will come back and bite you.
  14. Err on the side of transparency. I know so many leaders who hold information tight to the vest thinking their team can’t handle ideas or possibilities. That’s nonsense. Withholding information leads to rumors and speculation, and typically in a significantly negative way. If something might happen, but a decision hasn’t been made, it’s okay to say, “hey, leadership is thinking about changing this. They haven’t decided, but wanted you to know so you can be thinking about how it will impact our team”.
  15. Don’t talk about or compare one team member to another when meeting with someone.
  16. Always think about the best interest of the team member over your own – that’s servant leadership.
  17. If you have a hard conversation, before having it, think about how you can communicate from a heart that wants the very best for the other person. A corrective conversation is not about telling them what they did wrong. It’s about telling them how they can do better and more importantly, why.
  18. Don’t talk bad about anyone, to anyone. I’ve done this and had it done to me. It hurts both ways.
  19. Keep your emotions in check and stay positive. Your team will follow you. See one of my last blog posts about Powering through Chaos with Stability.
  20. Recognize their emotions and interact accordingly. If they are sad, help elevate their mood without them knowing you are doing it. If they are angry, give them space. If they are tired, find ways to give them rest. If they are hungry, order food.
  21. Learn about their culture. In the global world we live in, you never know where someone is from, and what their background is. Find out their culture, look up nuances and cultural norms for that culture, and then engage them in ways that are acceptable by them.

Building new Relationships

I titled this blog post Breaking Bread to Build Relationships. Surprise, surprise! Schedule lunch with someone you need to get to know better. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve scheduled lunch with someone I barely know just to get to know them better, and it works every time. There is something about candid, away-from-work conversations that builds comraderie and friendship.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Send them an e-mail or mention to them that you’d like to have lunch with them sometime.
  2. Depending on their response, and you may have to wait a day or two, schedule it for a couple of weeks out. You don’t want to be over-eager, unless there is an urgent need.
  3. Schedule it on a convenient day for them, and build in a little time for travel. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for a virtual lunch with cameras on. It’s not as good, but it’s better than nothing. If you do, be mindful of microphones, camera angles, and your own eating habits.
  4. If you are in the office, on the day of, stop in and ask if they want to ride together.
  5. Go to lunch. Eat. Drink. Talk.
  6. Feel free to talk about one or two things from work, but that shouldn’t be your main conversation. This is their free time, talk about things that are enjoyable to them and easy in the conversation. Work experiences, family milestones, pets, favorite restaurants and weekend plans are all good topics.
  7. When you are done, thank them for spending time with you – literally, say, “hey, thanks for spending time with me. I really enjoyed lunch and would love to do it again sometime.”
  8. Rinse and repeat.

Who to do lunch with:

  1. New team members
  2. A new boss – do this in a group, not 1-on-1 – otherwise this will look like brown-nosing.
  3. A new colleague – someone in a different department that you will be working with.
  4. Someone you don’t get along with – be careful to avoid toxic relationships, and don’t be a martyr.
  5. A new employee – do this in a group – you don’t want to play favorites
  6. A client or business colleague from a different organization
  7. A potential mentor – and feel free to talk about your interest in them mentoring you
  8. Someone you think needs encouragement or a friend
  9. The group of people you work with – you’ll be surprised how much fun work can be if you are friends with the people you work with.

Finishing Lunch

I’m not actually going to talk about finishing lunch. I just thought it would be a funny way to conclude this post. It is what it is though.

I wouldn’t say I’m an extrovert at this point, but I’m much more comfortable around people than I ever have been before in my life. I don’t think it will ever be easy to walk up to someone I haven’t met and start a conversation, but I do it regularly, and I would encourage you to do it as well.

About 9 months ago I started my own business. I never would have had the confidence to do that, if I hadn’t started building relationships skills early on in my career – 15-20 years ago. If relationships are hard for you, start working on it now, and I think you’ll be glad you did.

Thanks for spending time with me today. I hope the content I’ve shared is insightful, and I would love to do lunch sometime with you to talk more about it.