This post is part of our Weekly Tips series.

You know you need to do a better job with some aspect of relationship-building—like be more proactive with your client reach-outs—but you don’t do it. Repeatedly. Why is that? Keep reading to find out the (likely) real reason, and the best remedy.

Here are the common reasons we cite—to ourselves or others or both—when we’re up against our own ineffectiveness:

  • “I just don’t have time.”
  • “Clients send mixed messages. They say they want ______, but then don’t _____.”
  • “Well, I’m _______ (proactive/prepared/etc.). My colleagues aren’t.”

The real reason is likely … drumroll … fear. All the other stuff is in the category of excuses, if we’re really honest with ourselves. Think about it:

  • “I just don’t have time” → We make time for the things that matter to us.
  • “Clients send mixed messages” → Then talk about that with your client.
  • “Well, I’m _______” → If we’re leaders, it’s not enough for us to do well; it’s our job to help everyone else raise their game, too.

Relationship-building taps into our primal fears; it’s as simple as that. Sometimes the fear we experience is subtle, and sometimes it’s obvious. More often it’s subtle. Left untended, fear hinders us in a big way.

A few years ago, my co-author and business partner Charlie Green wrote a game-changing article defining four types of fear to attend to in our relationships (he referred to them as “sharks”). The fears get more and more personal as the list progresses:

  • Execution fear: I might not do it right. (So you find ways to avoid it, whatever “it” is.)
  • Competence fear: I might not know enough. (So you bluster. Or bumble.)
  • Outcome fear: I might not get the result I want or need. (So you over-control, or under-engage.)
  • Shame-based: They might not like or respect me. (So you check out, or work it way too hard.) Note: if you think this one is reserved for the truly dysfunctional, consider the last time you felt a little embarrassed or self-conscious, which are forms of shame.

[Tweet “Not quite as effective with your work #relationships as you’d like? Here’s how to manage what’s at the source. #getreal”]

Having since developed a workshop module based on the four sharks of fear concept (which is interestingly always readily embraced, even by the most reserved groups), I’ve gleaned four strategies you can apply as shark repellent:

  1. Redirect your focus from you to them. Fear is the ultimate high self-orientation; we’re all about us when we’re gripped by it. One of the fastest ways to shift this is to get your attention back on them. Retrain your brain to think about what it’s like to be on their side of the table. Trade self-obsession for curiosity.
  2. Speak it out loud. The sharks of fear somehow magically swim in the other direction when we have the courage to say our fears out loud. Imagine yourself saying things like, “I must confess to feeling a little intimidated by this conversation” or “I don’t know the answer to that.” It’s key to speak with the right balance of confidence and humility, of course. Too much bravado and the phrases sound false; too much modesty and we come across, well, lame.
  3. Get—and stay—grounded. I know too many professionals who are tired and stressed a lot of the time, which leads to reactivity and the loss of perspective. Make it a priority to manage yourself well by maintaining your big picture view, life balance, well-being.
  4. Ask for help. Another great way to get perspective is to involve someone else. Turn to your own trusted advisor for his or her take on the situation. Ask a teammate to step in. Seek counsel and guidance.

The question isn’t whether we’ll experience some or all of these fears, it’s when. And then, of course, what we’ll have the courage to do about it.

Make It Real

This week, notice when fear is present for you, and which one(s)—a critical first step. What’s your knee-jerk reaction in the face of fear?

Learn More


Read Charlie’s take on shark-proofing strategies, or brush up on S-lowering practices in Chapter 21 of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook.

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Andrea Howe

As the founder of The Get Real Project, I am the steward of our vision and our service offerings, as well as a workshop leader and keynote speaker. Above all else, I am an entrepreneur on a mission: to kick conventional business wisdom to the curb and transform how people work together as a result. I am also the co-author, with Charles H. Green, of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook (Wiley, 2012).