Working relationships can affect your work performance, happiness and general quality of life. Getting those relationships right is a skill you must work to develop, however. In this helpful guide, Michael Bungay Stanier offers you the solution to building the best possible relationships: the Keystone Conversation. Learn to ask the right questions, and navigate difficult discussions with empathy and grace. Whatever your role, this transformative approach to strengthening connections and resolving conflicts will allow you to unlock the full potential of your work relationships and achieve greater success.
- Build better relationships at work based on safety, vitality and resiliency using the “Keystone Conversation.”
- Question One: What are your strengths and when have you used them most effectively?
- Question Two: What is your style of working and what keeps you steady?
- Question Three: What has worked in the past?
- Question Four: What hasn’t worked in the past?
- Question Five: How can you repair and grow from conflict?
- Structure your keystone conversation by creating a safe space, checking in and staying positive.
- Maintain your BPR to keep it alive.
Build better relationships at work based on safety, vitality and resiliency using the “Keystone Conversation.”
Most people leave a job because they don’t get along with their co-workers or manager. If you’re someone who doesn’t get along well with others, this could mean a lot of job changes in your life. Skip the constant moving and learn the vital professional skill of working with others in healthier, more sustainable ways.
“People join an organization but leave a manager. You don’t want to be that manager. You don’t want to have that manager.”
Understanding how to build a “Best Possible Relationship” (BPR) is a crucial aspect of your professional development. This approach allows you to maintain brilliant connections, contain dysfunction in challenging ones and quickly get back on track when solid relationships waver.
Every BPR has certain foundational qualities. First, it requires psychological safety: trust that you will not face negative consequences for voicing your thoughts or questions or admitting worries or mistakes. Second, the relationship needs to feel “vital” and motivating: It must build on a balance of support and challenge, enable meaningful work, and promote continuous learning and growth. Finally, your BPR must be “repairable”: You must have the commitment and capacity to repair the relationship when it suffers damage and move forward, preventing harm from escalating. Safe, vital and repairable relationships result in improved individual well-being, better work performance, higher retention rates, increased engagement and reduced need for HR interventions.
At the center of creating any BPR is the “Keystone Conversation” and its five questions that establish a shared responsibility for building a healthy sustainable relationship. The conversation occurs in two phases: First, you ask yourself the questions, and reflect on your responses; next, you have the conversation with your co-worker. While it may feel a bit awkward, initially, the conversation creates a safe space to discuss the relationship, even during challenging times, allowing for adjustments, repairs and revitalization. Additionally, the conversation promotes a deeper understanding of the other person, bridging the gap between incomplete assumptions and the truth.
Question One: What are your strengths and when have you used them most effectively?
Ask yourself the “amplify question”: When and how have you performed at your best? For example, climber Alex Honnold might answer that his “best” was the time he free solo climbed El Capitan in Yosemite. That experience played to his physical strengths, mental preparedness, and his creativity in bringing all his years of skill and accumulated know-how together at that moment in time.
As you think about your own skills and highlight moments, remember that just because you do something very well does not necessarily mean it’s a core strength. Your strengths give you energy and a sense of fulfillment. If something you do well leaves you feeling depleted, it’s not a strength. Rather than trying to “fix” the aspects of your professional life that don’t play to your strengths, work to boost the parts that do.
“The curse of competence traps you doing what you’re good at but not fulfilled by.”
Try plotting out your “good at” activities and “fulfilled by” activities in a matrix chart. Along the horizontal axis, list “good at” activities, low to high. Along the vertical one, chart “fulfilled by” activities, low to high. This will give you a visual picture of your strengths: the things you do well and find fulfilling. You may also see, over time, some new strengths emerge: things you find fulfilling which you get better at doing over months or years. By using the amplify question, you can uncover and leverage existing strengths, talents and successes to foster growth, engagement and better working relationships. The more you play to your strengths, the more fulfilled you will feel over time.
Question Two: What is your style of working and what keeps you steady?
Much as the moon keeps Earth from wobbling too erratically on its axis, provides a consistent cycle of seasons and maintains ocean tides, you also have a series of “practices and preferences” that keep you on a steady path. These steadying influences allow you to find common ground with others at work and can help you with building BPRs.
“You travel your own ruts and grooves.”
You likely developed your work style over time. Some of your core practices are conscious and familiar to you, while others remain unconscious and unexplored. While a co-worker’s style may not align perfectly with all your preferences, by acknowledging and sharing what you like and don’t like, you can identify areas of commonality and head off potential conflicts. This awareness allows you to find ways to accommodate others’ unique work styles and foster harmonious collaboration.
Start with understanding what makes you, you. List your pet peeves, the times of day you’re most productive, how you think about projects, how you like to run meetings and any communication quirks you might have, such as avoiding eye contact. When you know yourself better, it’s easier to establish boundaries, say no to things that don’t work for you and say yes to good opportunities.
Question Three: What has worked in the past?
When author Michael Bungay Stanier worked on a movie set with “lighting maestro” Mark Bowden, he stated that when you work with the right people, it can feel like magic. Think about a past working relationship that stood out as exceptional, where you experienced strong understanding and support, and collaboration felt easy. The connection and synergy made the work flow effortlessly, and even when challenges arose, you resolved them without causing significant harm to the relationship. Reflect on this successful relationship, learn from it and uncover the factors that contributed to its positive outcome. You can apply these valuable insights to future interactions with co-workers.
“We often underestimate the setting of success.”
Ask yourself how the other person’s personality, words and actions helped create such a harmonious collaboration. Then, ask yourself what was it about your personality, the words you said or the actions you took that contributed to the success of the interaction. Next, consider the context of the relationship: Did a positive work environment or sharing a common background contribute to the success of the collaboration? Finally, write out the challenges you faced with this other person and how you resolved those conflicts together. In the end, you should emerge with a picture of what type of collaboration works best for you. You can build upon these insights for future BPRs.
Question Four: What hasn’t worked in the past?
Just as some relationships come easily, other working relationships can start on the wrong foot and become increasingly challenging and frustrating over time. These experiences hold valuable lessons about what helps you thrive and how your behaviors can harm relationships.
“There’s ‘wisdom in the wound’.”
One of the most valuable things to share in a Keystone Conversation at the start of a new working relationship is information about past challenges in working with others. While you may view these experiences as unique to the people involved or the circumstances in which they took place, these challenges will likely reveal recurring patterns that can help you avoid or better manage similar situations in the future.
You can’t access those valuable insights if you hide from or blame the other person for the problem. Instead, recognize your role in the dynamic. Explore the details, how you behaved, how they behaved and the context of the situation. Look for things that you learned about yourself or the other person that contributed to the conflict. Identifying these triggers can help you avoid this dynamic in the future, and, more importantly, give you the keys to repairing the damage.
Question Five: How can you repair and grow from conflict?
This question can be uncomfortable to answer, but you must acknowledge that things will inevitably go wrong in a working relationship. You must practice speaking up when things are not going smoothly, even when you fear the other person will not admit or see there is an issue. Remember that acknowledging and discussing challenges allows for better awareness and the opportunity to repair the relationship.
“Something will go wrong somewhere.”
Repairing and resolving conflict is all about finding a bridge to connect and level with the other person. Take the European Union. When the EU formed, the member states faced the challenge of combining currencies. How will the money represent each country fairly? This led the “Inner Six” countries to decide on a design for the new euro banknotes that used bridges as a symbol of connection. Similarly, repairing damaged work relationships requires courage, skill, and a willingness to bridge the gap and reconnect. It takes generosity, flexibility, and a commitment to the larger goal of repairing the relationship.
Start with these steps:
- Name and acknowledge the unspoken issues and emotions affecting the relationship.
- Stay open and curious, avoiding defensiveness and self-righteousness.
- Listen actively and seek understanding by separating facts from opinions.
- Deescalate tensions with lightness and grace, taking ownership of your statements.
- Take the initiative to rebuild and reconnect, reframing the situation and offering apologies when necessary.
Sharing these strategies for building bridges helps others recognize positive ways to repair relationships.
Structure your keystone conversation by creating a safe space, checking in and staying positive.
Humans constantly scan their surroundings to make sure things are safe. Tapping into this unconscious biological response is the key to starting your keystone conversation off on the right foot. When you invite someone to have this type of conversation, begin by setting a shared goal. Discuss the topics the conversation will cover, ensure mutual sharing, and give the other person autonomy in choosing the time and place for the conversation. Actively managing group and hierarchical dynamics, setting clear expectations, and supporting individual autonomy keep others feeling secure and comfortable.
“Nothing needs to be solved, decided or fixed.”
Remember the goal of the keystone conversation: a strong relationship. You don’t need to solve anything. Therefore, don’t be afraid to ask tough questions. Avoiding certain topics will only make them more difficult to discuss in the future. Bringing up negative aspects or worst-case scenarios gives you the wisdom and resilience needed during tough times.
Understand that your keystone conversation isn’t solely about providing answers either. It’s also about listening, learning, and making space for ongoing discussions about progress and difficult topics.
End your conversations with a learning moment: Ask the other person what aspect of the conversation they found most useful. Provide your own reply to this question, too. Answering this question not only reinforces the value of what just occurred but also provides feedback: allowing you, and the other person, to reflect on what worked well in the discussion and what may need to change in future conversations. Acknowledging what was useful confirms that the conversation was helpful and sets the stage for other valuable exchanges.
Appreciate the significance of the conversation itself. Recognize that both parties took a risk by engaging in it and demonstrating a commitment to fostering a BPR. Building a working relationship that is safe, vital and repairable is no small feat, and it deserves celebration and appreciation. By expressing gratitude for this milestone, you establish a positive foundation for future interactions.
Maintain your BPR to keep it alive.
Despite all the work you put into building a BPR, it will disintegrate over time if you don’t maintain it. Follow these six principles to keep a BPR thriving:
- Come to every conversation with an open and curious mind, remembering that you don’t know everything.
- Share your emotions and vulnerabilities to keep things transparent and honest.
- Be kind, act with understanding and be patient.
- Adjust your behavior if it isn’t benefiting the relationship.
- Heal things when they break.
- Take time to reset or recharge the relationship to keep it fresh.
Relationships are living things and need tending. However, you can’t show up expecting good communication, open-mindedness and meaningful interactions if you don’t check in with yourself first. Keeping yourself happy is crucial for maintaining any healthy relationship.
“Not every relationship is going to be fantastic. But every one could be better.”
Remember that you are in a relationship with yourself as well. Take time to get to know yourself and how you like to operate. Be gracious and kind to yourself. Take time to heal, understand your emotions and adjust to become a better version of yourself. That way you can show up as your best self in your next BPR.
About the Author
Best-selling author and speaker Michael Bungay Stanier’s previous titles include The Coaching Habit and How to Begin.
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1 week agoThis was very intresting. There are some valuable tips to address conversations.
1 week agoGood summary, very helpful.
2 weeks agoThis the best book.
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