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Learn how to build relationships because the relationships you have with coworkers, the community, and your adversaries are ideal for achieving your goals.


What is relationship building all about?

Relationships are the building blocks for all community organizing activities. Whether you want to organize a volleyball game or get rid of unfair housing practices in your town, you will need lots of good relationships. Why? Because the relationships we have with our coworkers, the communities we serve, and even our adversaries are the means for achieving our goals. People don't work in isolation: we need to be working together! It is our relationships all added together that are the foundation of an organized effort for change. We need lots of people to contribute their ideas, take a stand, and get the work done.

It is also the people who motivate us to reach our goals. As community builders, we care deeply about people and caring is part of our work. It is our caring for others that motivates us to work as hard as we do. It is often the health and happiness of our children, neighbors, and coworkers that we hold fixed in our minds as we push ourselves to overcome obstacles and take on challenges that can feel overwhelming.

If you are the official leader, or an active citizen without an official title, you will be most effective if you establish many strong relationships around yourself in the community.

In this section, we will talk about building and sustaining relationships and give you some practical tips and general guidelines.

And remember: ordinary people learn the skills of establishing and maintaining relationships all the time. You don't need to be particularly charming, witty, or talented. However, if you are charming, witty, or talented, these guidelines may help you, too!

Why do we need to build and sustain relationships?

Let's look at this example:

Organizing a block party

Suppose you want to organize a block party. What kind of relationships do you need to make it happen?

Who will help you plan the block party?

You don't want to do all the planning and legwork by yourself, do you? It would be much more fun, not to mention easier, to work with a few neighbors to make this block party happen.

How do you get local approval and cooperation?

In many towns, you need the city council or government groups to approve block party permits. Having a friend or two in local government might help you figure out how to work your way through the bureaucratic hoops to get your permit. If you don't know anyone, you can build some relationships along the way.

Who else might lend a hand?

If you already have a relationship with your corner grocery store owner, she might donate some watermelon or drinks for the block party. If you know your neighborhood firefighters, they may be willing to bring over a fire engine for the children to climb on. Do you have a friend who is a clown?

Who will come to the block party?

Last, but not least, in order to have a successful block party, you want as many people from your block to come as you can get. If your neighbors know you or anyone else on the planning committee, they will be much more willing to overcome their shyness and show up.

Overall, the more people you know, the easier it will be to organize a block party and the more fun it will be for everyone.

Fundamental reasons to build relationships:

  • Community building occurs one-to-one. You need to build relationships with people one-to-one if you want them to become involved in your group or organization. Some people become involved in organizations because they believe in the cause. However, many people become involved in a community group or organization, just because they have a relationship with another person who is already involved.
  • We need relationships in order to win allies to our cause. In order to get support from people outside our organizations, we need to build relationships in which people know and trust us.
  • Our relationships give meaning and richness to our work and to our lives. We all need a community of people to share the joys and the struggles of organizing and making community change. A little bit of camaraderie goes a long way.

What kinds of relationships are we talking about?

Every relationship is different, but they all matter. If you smile and say hello to the school crossing guard on your way to work every day, you have formed a relationship. That crossing guard may be the one who will be watching out for your kids or grandchildren when they are old enough to walk to school by themselves. The guard will remember you and your warm smile when escorting your child across the street. And maybe the crossing guard will be the one you eventually recruit to head up the citizens' traffic safety committee.

Your relationship with the crossing guard may be quite different from the relationships you have with people involved in your neighborhood park-cleaning committee. The relationships you have with the mayor's aide, with your staff, with members of your board of directors, and with your spouse will all be different but they all play an important role in community organizing.

The more relationships you have, the better. You never know when they will come in handy. A local gang member might be just the person you need to help you organize a group to build a new playground in your neighborhood. Whether they are government officials, school teachers, business people, elders, gardeners, children, people with disabilities, homeless people or whoever else--building friendships will pay off in ways you may never have anticipated.

You are at the center

Imagine a wheel in which you are at the hub or center and each spoke represents a relationship with another person. Does that sound egotistical? It doesn't need to be. It takes a lot of spokes to hold the wheel together and the wheel is what helps move the initiative along. There is enough room in the group for everyone to create their own wheel of strong relationships.

The point is that you have to take the time to set up and sustain relationships. If you wait for others to establish relationships with you first, you may spend a lot of time waiting.

One reminder: It doesn't make sense to form relationships just to get people to do work for you. That won't work because people will feel used. Community builders approach relationships with integrity. We form relationships because we genuinely like someone, because we have something to offer that person, or because we share some common goal.

When do you build and sustain relationships?

You do it all the time. If you take an extra five minutes to ask the person who is stuffing envelopes how they think the baseball team is doing this year, you will have built a stronger relationship.

Some relationships require more time than others. You may want to meet for lunch once a month with all the other directors of youth organizations in your town. You may need to meet twice this week with a staff member who has some built up resentment about the job. You may want to call your school committee representative every now and then to check in about issues of common concern.

As community organizers with few resources, we are often under enormous pressures that distract us from paying attention to relationships. We feel the urgency of achieving important goals. We mistakenly feel that spending time on relationships is the fluffy stuff that makes a person feel good, but doesn't get the job done. Often, however, relationships are the key to solving a problem or getting the job done. Building and sustaining many solid, strong relationships is central to our work as community leaders.

Relationships are the groundwork

Often building relationships is the groundwork that must be laid before anything else gets done on a project. The bigger the project, the more relationships you will usually need as a foundation.

For example, if you are organizing a coalition of community groups that will work to create a multicultural arts center, it would be a good idea to get to know people in each organization before trying to get them together to work on the project.

Ask yourself: "Would you be more persuaded by someone you know, or by a complete stranger?" Then be guided by your own answer.

When you plan a project, you need to include the time it takes to build relationships into your plan. People need time to build trust. Whenever people work together, they need to have trusting relationships. When trust is missing, people usually have a difficult time functioning cooperatively. They worry about risking too much. Disagreements seem to erupt over no important reason. Investing time, resources, and one's organizational reputation can be risky. At the least people want some return for their investment. They have to feel like you know them as a person, understand their interests, and will not let them down.

Back to the multicultural arts center example--if creating one will involve several community groups, and if you don't know them well (and they don't know each other), start working together on a smaller project first. For example, you can jointly sponsor an evening of cultural sharing. If the evening is successful, you will have gained some shared trust and confidence on which to build. You can plan several similar events that will build trust over a period of time.

If things are not going well, back up and try an easier challenge. If you begin to hold discussions on the multicultural arts center and people show signs of apprehension rather than excitement, slow down the process. Take on an easier challenge until strong relationships are better established.

Establish relationships before you need them

It's always better to build relationships before you need them or before a conflict arises. If you already have a good relationship with the grocery store owner in your neighborhood, you will be in a better position to help solve a dicey conflict between him and some neighborhood teens. If you have already established a relationship with your school committee representative, she might be more willing to respond to your opinions about special education funding.

Establishing relationships in a crisis

It is not impossible to establish relationships during a crisis, and often a crisis can bring people together. While it may seem unusual, make the most of your organization's crises. Call for help and people will rise to the call. You can build relationships when you are in need, because people often want to help.

How do you build relationships? An 11-step program

Here are some tips for getting your relationships off the ground. Some of these ideas we learned in the first grade but, as adults, we sometimes forget.

  1. Build relationships one at a time. Fortunately or unfortunately, there are no short cuts. Sending out a newsletter helps you keep in touch with lots of folks, but it's no substitute for getting to know a real person.
  2. Be friendly and make a connection. This may seem self-evident, but a friendly word or smile can make someone's day. Try to find something in common: all of us want to have close connections with our fellow humans.
  3. Ask people questions. People love to talk about themselves and about what they think. If you ask people about themselves and then take the time to listen attentively, they can become your fast friend.
  4. Tell people about yourself. People won't trust you unless you are willing to trust them. Tell them what you genuinely care about and what you think.
  5. Go places and do things. When asked why he robbed banks, the robber replied, "Because that's where the money is." If you want to make friends, you have to go where the people are: picnics, conferences, events, fundraisers, parties, playgrounds, bowling alleys, little league games, bake sales, etc..
  6. Accept people the way they are. You don't have to agree with them all the time in order to form a relationship with them. No one likes to be judged.
  7. Assume other people want to form relationships, too. Underneath the crabbiest looking person is often a lonely soul hoping someone will make a crack in their shell.
  8. Overcome your fear of rejection. Most of us suffer from a fear of rejection, and there's only one thing to do about that: get over it. If you want to form relationships, plan on being rejected some of the time. You will be richly rewarded the rest of the time with the new relationships you have made.
  9. Be persistent. People are often shy and suspicious. It takes a while to win trust. You can almost always form a relationship if you stick with it.
  10. Invite people to get involved. People want to become part of something bigger than themselves. Many people are looking for an opportunity to meet other people who share common goals. At the worst, people will be flattered that you invited them to join.
  11. Enjoy people. If you genuinely enjoy people, others will be attracted to your attitude. People will more likely want to be around you.

How do you build relationships with people of different cultural backgrounds than your own?

Here are some common-sense guidelines:

  • Learn about the person's culture. Any effort will go a long way in showing that you care enough to find out about the reality of another person's life.
  • Put yourself at the center of another person's culture. Especially if you are getting to know someone who is not a part of majority culture, try going to their cultural events where you are the minority. If you are willing to take risks and put yourself in a situation in which you might feel uncomfortable, people will be more inclined to want to get to know you.
  • Take a stand against the person's oppression. Actions speak louder than words. People who experience oppression need allies to speak out against injustice. Strong relationships are forged when people act courageously on behalf of each other.
  • It's okay to make mistakes. You may have to make mistakes as you build relationships with people who have different cultural backgrounds than your own, but people are generally forgiving, especially if your intentions are good. Remember, hang in there even if you feel rejected.

How do you build relationships with people who hold positions of political power?

Here are some guidelines for forming relationships with elected officials, business leaders, and heads of large organizations.

  • Don't be intimidated. People who hold titles or positions of political power are humans, too. They like to form relationships just like everyone else does.
  • Listen and withhold judgment. People with titles rarely get a chance to be listened to. They rarely get a chance to think through an issue without someone pressuring them to vote one way or another. One way to befriend such a person is to take the time to listen to them. See what you can offer them, not just in a political context but as a sympathetic human being.

How do you sustain relationships?

Okay, now you've built some relationships. Relationships, like any other living thing, need care to keep them alive and healthy. So what do you do with them to keep them going?

  • Pay attention to people. Check in with people when you need to. This may take only a few minutes a week, but those few minutes can make the difference in helping your friend or co-worker remember the importance of the work you are doing together.
  • Communicate openly. People need to communicate. It's a good idea to set aside some time just to talk about the way things are going. When people don't have a chance to talk about important issues, misunderstandings can occur and tensions often build up. Communication is a discipline that has to be practiced regularly; it's like taking vitamins or doing push-ups.
  • Appreciate each other. Everyone needs to be appreciated in order to keep relationships going. If you notice that someone did a stellar job of collecting the necessary data for the committee, say so. If you enjoy working with someone, let them know. We are all human beings and appreciation helps us thrive.
  • Extend yourself. Go a little out of your way, at least once in a while. If your co-worker needs to spend some extra time with his daughter, you might tell him go home early and you'll finish up the grant proposal.
  • Volunteer to do some work for their organization (if they are not already in yours). If you lend them a hand, they are likely to think well of you and give something back in return.
  • Challenge each other to do better. We all need a buddy to help us stretch ourselves beyond what we think we can do. We can also build stronger relationships by challenging our work partners to take on bigger challenges.
  • Back each other when things get tough. Loyalty is essential to keeping relationships healthy. We may not agree with a co-worker or friend, but we can stand by him or her when they are in a jam.

When relationships get messy

Many relationships get messy sooner or later and that's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, sometimes people need a good fight or a clearing of the air in order to get a relationship back on track. A conflict doesn't mean the relationship has to come to an end. Remember: we often fight with the people we care about the most and with whom we share our greatest hopes.

Here are some ideas that might come in handy when things get hard:

  • Take time to listen to each other. This is not always easy. Each person should take time some time to listen without interrupting, while the other person talks.
  • Put yourself in the other person's shoes. Everyone in a conflict has distinctly different views of a situation. In the thick of a fight, people are usually convinced they are absolutely right. Try to see why the other person sees things the way they do. Just your attempt to do so will help the other person see that you are trying.
  • Look at what is true about what the other person is saying. See if you can correct the situation. If you need to apologize, go ahead. It may feel horrible, but an apology can often help a relationship get back on the right track.
  • Separate emotions from reality. Everyone has emotions that surface intermittently. People often say things they don't mean when they are in the middle of an emotional upset. Allow time and space for people to feel their emotions before you try to work things out.
  • Continue to appreciate and respect each other. Even though it may be difficult, focus on the positive aspects of the relationship. If you model appreciation, the other person will often follow.
  • Speak from your heart. As you try to unravel the difficulty, keep focused on what you and the other person care about most: the goals of the project, each other, the community, etc.
  • Don't give up your principles. Don't sacrifice what you believe in just to make a relationship work. If you give up on your principles, you won't be effective and the relationship won't work anyway.
  • Hang in there when things get hard. You can take some breathing room, but try not to give up on the relationship altogether. When things are the toughest, there are important lessons to be learned. It's best to keep a relationship that you've invested your time and caring into?
  • You can act independently to improve any relationship. Even if the other person or group of people is acting rotten, you can act in a way that is positive, respectful, constructive, and thoughtful. This may surprise people, and they may follow your lead.

Is all this easier said than done? Yes. Managing relationships may be hard, but it is not impossible. Think of yourself as an explorer, charting your course through the mysterious and murky waters of relationships. Treasure lies ahead!

Relationships with adversaries

Yes, you can even have relationships with the people who disagree with you and who may even be working against you and the goals of your organization. You can use the same guidelines listed in the "When relationships get messy" section above, with these additions:

  • You can disagree and still build relationships with individuals who are working against your goals. If you do so, members of the other camp will begin to see you as human rather than viewing you as the enemy. In turn you will get a picture of their humanity as well. You might try inviting someone from the "other" camp to lunch and find out what you have in common.
  • You can set up a dialogue group to hear why adversaries view the issues the way they do. You can hire a neutral facilitator to come in and lead a discussion about the areas of disagreement. With a skilled facilitator, people may start to understand the values and caring that others bring to their opinions, and find areas of common interest.

In Summary

Building and sustaining relationships are at the heart of organizing communities. The strength of community lies in the strength of the connections that we have with each other. With strong connections, people have the power to make real change. Building these connections takes time; but it is worth it.

Relationships are the often the source of our greatest joys and greatest challenges. Understanding relationships is no simple task. People are so unique and complex that there is no easy formula.

Central to almost every religion is the idea that we should treat our neighbors the way we would like to be treated. If you keep that in mind, you will most likely succeed in building relationships that you can depend on.

Whether you are a "leader" or a follower, you have the ability to build a community of friends, colleagues, associates, allies, partners, and buddies around you. Together, there is no telling what you can do.

Marya Axner

Print Resources

Axner, M. (1993). The community leadership project curriculum. Pomfret: CT. The Topsfield Foundation.

Bennis, W. (1989). On becoming a leader. Reading, MA. Addison Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.

Brown, C. (1984). The art of coalition building: A guide for community leaders. New York, NY. The American Jewish Committee.

Fisher, R., & Brown, S. (1988). Getting together: Building relationships as we negotiate. New York, NY. Penguin Books.

Gardner, J. (1990). On leadership. New York, NY. The Free Press.

Jackins, H. (1987). The enjoyment of leadership. Seattle, WA. Rational Island Publishers.