Why Building Relationships in Your Organisation Can Mean Less Conflict*

I stood at the front of the classroom, and felt my face go red and my ears fill with static.

It was the end of a day-long conflict resolution workshop for an organisation, and my co-trainer and I had just asked the participants what they were taking away from the training. The first person to respond said, “It was so nice to go to lunch with some of my colleagues and talk about non-work things. It made me realize we never take the time to do that at work.”

My first thought was, “Oh, that’s just great: the best thing about the training was the break.”

But then, as my wounded pride faded, I realized that, actually, she had just summarized the entire message of the training:

Building relationships and feeling a sense of connection with people we work with allows us to face disagreement with empathy and commitment.

Whether you are in a work situation, or in a volunteer- or member-based group, building relationships between co-workers or members is essential.

Relationships at work:

Many people spend the majority of their waking hours at work, interact with colleagues more than anyone else in their life, and have more stress with people at work than in their personal life. And yet very few organisations encourage people to get to know each other. Those employers who do see relationship building as important usually point to evidence that work friendships increase productivity and creativity. While that is true, productivity and creativity are enhanced because healthy work relationships are essential for people’s wellbeing, feeling of belonging and shared vision, and ability to disagree and challenge people without assuming the worst outcome.

Relationships in volunteer- or member-based groups:

When people are motivated to participate in a group due to shared passions or interests, relationship building is even more important for healthy organisations. Many groups have a core of people who have been involved for a long time, and may know each other well. These connections are a very important motivation for many people, and often what keeps everyone involved through difficult times. At the same time, these close core groups can deter people from joining, or create challenges for new members to fully participate. In these situations, it is especially important to find ways to reach out and get to know new people, or those who might not fit in to the group culture as easily.

Relationships as a means to navigate conflict

Getting to know people helps us navigate disagreement and transform conflict, in that we are more able to:

  • Understand their motivations, ways of being, values, hopes, experiences, and expectations;

  • Appreciate and honour the ways people are different;

  • Raise issues that need to be addressed, mention things that are upsetting, or raise situations of oppression or exclusion;

  • Empathize with the other person’s reality and experience;

  • Trust they have positive intentions, even when they do something hurtful;

  • Feel more optimistic that whatever change comes out of a difficult moment has the potential to be better rather than worse;

  • Commit to the work of transforming challenging or unequal relationships.

The key is to support people to interact in ways that help them appreciate each other as whole beings with complex experiences, values, and ways of looking at the world. It means getting to know what is important to them. This means prioritizing social time, and making it safe for people to be honest about what is going on in their lives.

Here are some small ways you can build stronger connections, whether you are an employer, leader, or member:

Promote social time

Make time to connect, even in small ways. Take breaks at the same time to go for lunch. Schedule a daily coffee and snack time, and encourage everyone to take that time as a chance to relax and chat. Find a few minutes to share what you enjoy, or what is important to you. When people are aware of common interests, or know about each other’s children or families or outside lives, they are much more likely to be able to find something to appreciate about each other when disagreement arises.

Integrate relationship-building activities into meetings, either as warm-up activities or in the middle to renew energy. These can be games, icebreakers, or simply a few minutes to take a break from the agenda to relax.

Plan social time. Fun is a great way to help people get to know each other. At the same time, be careful that these social events aren’t unintentionally excluding people. If some people in the group don’t drink, make sure gatherings don’t always happen in a bar. If there are lots of introverts in the group, facilitate smaller and quieter ways to connect that allow for deeper conversation, and don’t require a lot of small talk.

Honour people’s lives out of work

If you are a leader in an organisation, honour the fact that people have lives out of work, and encourage them to feel safe to share details about their lives if they choose to. Model treating people as whole beings by talking about your life out of work, and creating space for others to do the same.

Promote real dialogue about power and social location

For many people, it may not feel safe to be open about their lives, or get to know their colleagues. Sometimes people who don't fit into the dominant group culture or who experience oppression, may fear being judged, stigmatized, or punished if they share information about their lives. While social time is very important, it often needs to go hand in hand with deeper work to address the ways that power, oppression, and social location play out in the organisation. This aspect of relationship building can be difficult, and often requires outside support. While these kinds of conversations are challenging, when done with a spirit of openness and appreciation for difference, they can go a long way toward improving relationships. (More about this in a few months)

A few final notes:

It’s important to be aware that not everyone will like increased social interaction in the workplace or group. Some people prefer to be alone in their cubicle. It’s important to find creative ways to make sure people aren’t left out if they don’t want to, or don't feel safe to socialize, because they run the risk of being scapegoated when conflict arises. Ask people what would help them get to know their colleagues in a way that doesn’t feel like pressure. What are they willing to have people know about them, and what would they prefer to keep private? What feels like the best way to get to know each other? While it’s important to build better relationships, it also has to be voluntary.

And finally, it’s actually the person you get along with least that is the most important to make an effort to get to know. Try to find one aspect of their life that is interesting to you, or that you can identify with. When people feel a connection they are more likely to take difficult feedback well, and to respect boundaries that you set.

*This post is the second in a series on building healthier organisations and groups. To read the first post, go to Five Tips to Help Your Organisation or Group Get Along Better in the Long Run.

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Brook Thorndycraft Conflict Resolution Services
Brook Thorndycraft
Mediation, coaching, and training for families, workplaces, and individuals.

65 Wellesley St East, Suite 402

Toronto, Ontario, M4Y 1G7





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