The Difference Between Communication Skills and Relationship Skills
“It’s not about the f**king umbrella!” he screamed, slamming the heel of his hand against his open palm for emphasis. Sean Hill was leading an early rehearsal for the second improv troupe I’d ever been in. I was still in college and was excited to be in a theatrical rehearsal in a converted downtown loft space with distressed brick walls and big light-filled windows. Sean was trying to teach us what all improv scenes are really about: the relationship.
We were new to improv and we kept getting caught up in the details, the activities, and the jokes of the scene. And we were losing sight of what was really important. So when someone kept harping on their lost umbrella in the scene and trying to find it, Sean hopped to his feet, chopped one hand into his open palm, jumped on one foot and yelled “It’s not about the f**king umbrella! It’s about the relationship!” He went on to ask questions like: “How do you feel about her? What do you want from her?” and encouraged the improvisers to take actions that showed their answers.
For years, I sold workshops under the bill of “Communication Skills” or “Persuasion Skills.” Over the years I realized that meant that people were often showing up with one thing in mind: What can I say to make this person do what I want? How do I make my team member pull their weight? How do I make my kid clean their room? How do I make my partner propose to me? And I also realized in my workshops I wasn’t really giving people the answer to that question.
But then Alan Alda’s book came out: If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating. I was struck by why such an eloquent speaker and writer would have such a lengthy and bloated title; why was the word “Relating” in there? I hadn’t heard that word often in corporate training. Then I realized: Alda knew something I didn’t. These improv activities aren’t really about communicating clearly and concisely.
Communicating is a one-way activity: the speaker talking to the listener. In reality, the whole focus of my work is on relating, which is a two-way activity. It’s about building relationships. It’s about Theory of Mind—how can we both be thinking the same thing at the same time, and know it! I wasn’t really teaching communication in my communication workshops; I was teaching relating.
Nobody is looking for “relation training,” so I still mostly keep that to myself. But now, at the beginning of the workshops, I give a spoiler alert: If you are looking for what to say to get someone to do what you want, it doesn’t work that way. You first have to build a relationship, then ask questions and listen to understand their point-of-view and motivations. Only then might you be able to persuade…or you might be persuaded yourself!
Either way, it won’t really feel like persuasive communication; once you get the hang of it, it will feel more like a conversation.