Working at a big investor communications agency, I gained a reputation as a person who could resuscitate troubled accounts. But there was one time I really failed.

The CEO was looking for someone to rubberstamp his ideas. I tended to question him. This was due in part to my wish to make sure we were taking the best path—and in part to my belief I had more experience with what worked well in reaching investors (which I’m sure came across as ego to him).

I knew if this continued, we’d likely lose the account. So I went to the chairman and asked him to move the client to someone else.

When I met with the partner who was going to take over the client, he looked at me and said, “So, Franklin, tell me what you did to screw up this account.”

That peeved me. I looked him in the eye and replied, “I’ll tell you something even better: what to do not to screw up this account.”

What Communication Is Not and What It Should Be

This man was doing what we all do: acting as if communication is a transaction. He was there to get the data that would allow him to be successful where I had messed up. And he’d say that was all he wanted.

What he didn’t understand is that communication is a relationship. It’s true: I gave him the most important information about the company and the CEO—and his need to be right. But what I took away from the conversation was the superior tone the partner used with me.

As a result, I never went out of my way to help him again. And I often found ways to laugh about his actions to myself—and sometimes with others. That was my way of feeling superior to him.

Neither one of us could look beyond our noses.

What It Means to See Communication as a Relationship

Do you have daily or weekly to-do lists? Me too. How many times do we have “Call Paul” or “Email Annette” on there? Then we treat these communications as a one-off transaction: looking for the thing we want and moving on to the next item when we get it.

How short-sighted is that?

The implications are far-reaching. A Fierce, Inc. survey of 1,500 leaders, employees and educators indicated 86% of people blame lack of collaboration and ineffective communication for workplace failures.

We can do two simple things to change this:

  1. Create goals for your communications. This takes maybe a minute before you reach out or walk into that meeting. Include what kind of experience you want the other person to have as one of your goals. People can tell when your focus expands beyond what you want—and genuinely appreciate it.
  2. Be a good listener. You have two choices: listen to respond or listen to understand. (Here’s an article with an active listening checklist.) People notice when you’re just thinking about what you want to say next and waiting for them to shut up so you can speak. Remember the last time you felt truly heard and understood by someone and give that gift to others.

It’s true: some relationships will last longer than others—such as those with your employees and clients. Others may be a one and done—like the flight attendant on your next trip.

When you shift communication from a transaction to a relationship, you treat those around you as people rather than another “to do.” You help them want to be pleasant in return (it’s called the Rule of Reciprocity). What situation couldn’t benefit from more of that?