The Foundation of Great Relationships: Get to Know People

The Foundation of Great Relationships

An Act of Astonishing Leadership

In a sermon on the meaning of work, Nancy Ortberg of the Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, recalled an astonishing leadership act from when she worked as an emergency room nurse earlier in her career.

“It was about 10:30 p.m. The room was a mess. I was finishing up some work on the chart before going home. The doctor with whom I loved working was debriefing a new doctor, who had done a very respectable, competent job, telling him what he’d done well and what he could have done differently.”

“Then he put his hand on the young doctor’s shoulder and said, ‘When you finished, did you notice the young man from housekeeping who came in to clean the room?’ There was a completely blank look on the young doctor’s face.”

“The older doctor said, ‘His name is Carlos. He’s been here for three years. He does a fabulous job. When he comes in he gets the room turned around so fast that you and I can get our next patients in quickly. His wife’s name is Maria. They have four children.’ Then he named each of the four children and gave each child’s age.”

“The older doctor went on to say, ‘He lives in a rented house about three blocks from here, in Santa Ana. They’ve been up from Mexico for about five years. His name is Carlos,’ he repeated. Then he said, ‘Next week I would like you to tell me something about Carlos that I don’t already know. Okay? Now, let’s go check on the rest of the patients.'”

“I remember standing there writing my nursing notes–stunned–and thinking, I have just witnessed breathtaking leadership.”

Call for Action: Get to Know People

Getting to know and caring for people is the foundation of great relationships, both in our personal and professional lives. We know little about the people we interact with on a daily basis — often, we know nothing beyond their first and last names, and their functional responsibilities.

Here are seven fundamental steps to help know people.

  • Connecting with People and Building Relationships Most people are enthusiastic about sharing their stories — of where they grew up, their life-experiences, travels, hobbies, interests, or children. Depending on the level of acquaintance, gauge whether a specific person would be comfortable with talking about himself/herself.
  • Consider asking open-ended questions. Initial questions can focus on a favourite sport, travel or school/career history.
  • A person’s desk may provide clues for conversation starters. Some people have pictures of kids, pets or their hometown. Others have memorabilia from a sports team they support or their school. Some others have plaques from the awards and recognitions they won. People are keen to talk about these interests — they are great topics to start conversations on.
  • Connecting with and Caring for People Listen carefully. Make a mental note of the details the person provides.
  • Relate to the other person’s stories and share your experiences. This helps the other person to get to know you too.
  • After your conversation, jot down a few details to facilitate a follow-up conversation later. For instance, if your project manager talked about her children, write down the kids’ names, their school, etc.
  • Be careful not to pry too deep. Steer away from conversations on social or economic status, health, faith, and other personal details. Watch for gestures of discomfort when you ask questions.

Listening to people and getting to know them transforms your relationships: it helps you connect with people positively and discover shared values/interests. At a higher level, it demonstrates your caring for your people and helps you influence them or facilitate change, depending on the nature of your relationship with them.

Notes: Reference to Nancy Ortberg’s sermon via Guy Kawasaki of Garage Ventures and Rich Karlgaard of Forbes Magazine.


  1. says

    Powerful story, and powerful lessons you shared as well. I especially like your reminder on the last point: don’t pry too deep. Some people are okay oversharing, but many are not. There’s a delicate line, and you have to be very careful not to cross it.

    These tips are also helpful if you’re interviewing for a job. Paying attention to the clues around you can let you know if this is really a fit for you or not, and also will give you some potential conversation starters if you notice a book sitting on a desk or end table.

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